My 17,000th Day of Life

Today is my 17,000th day of life. Each time the life odometer rolls over I allocate a little extra energy for reflection and gratitude.

Over the past 1,000 days of life I have:

1. Married an amazing woman at the best wedding and reception ever!
2. Welcomed my first grandchild into the world. She will call me Papa Steve.
3. Relocated from our condo in the heart of Dallas to West Michigan.
4. Backpacked through Europe for 10 weeks, visiting more than a dozen countries.
5. Began attending TEDGlobal in the UK.
6. Attended the inaugural Conscious Capitalism Conference.
7. Found myself hosting the TEDxGrandRapids 2011 event with my new friend, Nick.
8. Brought life to a new Thanksgiving tradition with old friends in Texas.
9. Started writing two books, a business book and a children’s book.

Those are the highlights, the big “needle movers” that occurred during the past thousand days of my life, but in truth, my gratitude list is infinitely long.

“Infinite?” you ask.

Let me explain.

In 2001, while the United States was mourning the loss of lives in the 9/11 tragedy, I was also mourning the involuntary conclusion of my first marriage. It was a difficult time filled with emotional turmoil and, like Steve Martin in the Jerk, I began itemizing the things in life that had real meaning for me. That’s when I started keeping a gratitude list.

My first entries were the big, chunky items. Item #1: The ability to breathe. Always start with that one. Next, I added my daughter and my supportive friends to the list, followed by the various material blessings of my life, including my new little apartment and my payment-free car. But a divorce has a side effect of immediately and drastically reducing one’s material possessions. I quickly ran out of items to add to my list. That’s when I started listing good memories.

What exactly is a memory? How is it contained? We casually talk about our memories as being bounded by time. Your friend might recall to you her “amazing week in Rome”, or “that time she met George Clooney”. We typically measure our lives and relationships in years. I was 38 when my relationship of 20 years ended. But when we examine our memories, we find that they actually are only referenced, but not contained, in time.

The end of my first marriage was accompanied by revelations that caused large swaths of my past to feel confusing and/or painful. Out of necessity I started to perceive my memories outside of a particular time continuum and from the perspective of experience.

There was “the time” my daughter and I cuddled in a lawn chair while watching a big Texas lightning storm. She was a little thing, maybe five or so, and very afraid of the big booms and bright flashes. That night we covered ourselves with a beach towel while warm marble-sized raindrops sporadically pelted us from the dark sky above.

“First you’ll see it,” I told her, “then you’ll hear it. Count it out. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand ….”

We voted on which bolts were prettiest, the spidery ones or the streaks, and gave names to the shapes that briefly came into view among clouds. “That looked like a puppy. Did you see it?” She sat up and pointed excitedly to a point just above our rooftop.

Do I remember exactly what happened that night two decades ago? No. But in the theater of my mind, I can recreate the experience in glorious detail. I can feel the weight of her little body crouching against my chest, and how she jumped just a little, with each thunderclap. I feel the strong wind on my face and that very specific musty smell that heralds a north Texas storm. The more I focus on the memory the more detail that arises. I realize the memory is no longer bounded by time, but that in my mind it is happening now, in this present moment. I could spend an hour or a day itemizing the glorious details of what was actually about fifteen minutes of “real” time.

Every moment of life is an opportunity to find gratitude in the material world that surrounds us and in the infinite landscape of our minds. Gratitude is for us to seek, find, and create. It is not something that we should wait for; rather it should be actively pursued and invented.

I count my life in days, but I measure my life in gratitude.

Today is my 17,000th day of life and is another day to be infinitely grateful for being alive.