Gratefulness is a way for me to honor my African ancestors; the source; the lives well-lived, the struggles, joys, rhythms, faith, and rich Yoruba tradition. The intimate knowing that generations have gone before you and lived in a way that gives you the ability to say, I am here, I can do it, I can make it because the way has been paved. Live gratefully–do not be afraid, always do your best, stand in your power and be proud of who you are. ~ Adetola

In the summer of 2020, while all of us around the globe were isolated in some way from those we love, award-winning photographer and filmmaker Doug Menuez found a way for us to gather safely, outdoors, to listen closely to the stories of seven individuals for whom grateful living is a way of life. The result of Doug’s beautiful work is a new video series, Grateful Voices.  In the short film and narrative below Adetola, who generously participated in the project, shares her story.

Adetola’s Story

“I was born in the U.S and didn’t grow up with my extended family, so when I was young I’d listen to my parents’ stories, songs and memories about life in West Africa. Then one day I was surprised with a present — a plane ticket to Nigeria by friends who got to know my story and wanted me to meet my grandmothers on both my mom and dad’s side. I was forever changed, being surrounded by a diaspora of people who looked like me, touring the cities and countrysides, and appreciating the beauty and complexities of Africa.

What I took away from that journey was a deep respect for the resilience ingrained in the Nigerian people, and in spite of the visible hardships there is grit, wisdom, and appreciation for life as a gift. It’s a feeling I compare to the sensation of an African drum that moves you to get up, dance, and give praise. A voice in your head says, “You already won, you woke up today by the grace of God!” and in that mindset you start the day in humble appreciation to make the most of each minute and day afforded to you. The balancing of hardship and abundance teaches you what it means to have enough. So when I tap into the essence of what it means to be grateful and how I embody it as a practice, it is deeply rooted and shaped by my lived experience as a Nigerian American woman and child of immigrants who live with humility, dignity, and faith. And so when I think of my ancestors and the generational legacies that shape who I am, I think about the brave and quiet sacrifice of my own parents who gave up a lot, and I appreciate what has been afforded to me, my sisters, and their grandchildren by their relocation to America.

In these times there is so much pain, racial/social justice disharmony, and uncertainty in the world, and getting to a place of gratefulness is not always easy and a hard place to get to sometimes, to be honest. The pandemic has laid bare so much inequity, and many people wake up hungry, on the brink of homelessness, with lack of work, sickness, loss, and not knowing what the next moment will bring. Shifting into a mindset of gratefulness in conjunction with all of that requires perspective, remembering to be present and thankful for simple moments of joy, laughter, connectedness, and blessings even when the suffering of the world creeps in. The gift of health, a smile, a thank you, helping someone, or using our voices for good helps anchor us in what it means to be alive.

As young as 3 years old I can remember being enamored with music and singing any song that my tiny ears could latch on to from Stevie Wonder to King Sunny Ade, or Aretha Franklin. I didn’t know then that singing would become not only one of my greatest loves and talents, but my ultimate and most sacred gratitude practice. In a nutshell singing is the essence of life because it’s a universal language that breaks down all barriers and truly unites. We are all born with a gift, or something that we are called to do — for me, gratefulness is being able to use my voice to sing out joy, pain, love, marriages into unions, to sing souls into their burial places, or to sing as my private form of prayer. It is a practice that I use as meditation, and I welcome wherever it takes me. 

As we grow older, you become more grounded in knowing that you are enough. It’s a life lesson and truth that is hard for anyone to master and easy to forget with so many competing priorities in life. But I think when you are grounded in living gratefully, you anchor your belief system in: I matter and my life is valuable. And your value is amplified when you connect that with the value in someone else and how we treat each other as human beings. For me, my affirmations come through inspirational songs, and one that I love by India Arie is called “Worthy.” Singing that song is what it means to be comfortable in my own skin, in Black Girl Magic. It always comes back to the music for me — a soundtrack for a grateful life.

One of the lyrics in “Worthy” goes, “Listen up to this truth, you are me and I am you, every one of us is worthy, baby girl, worthy woman, every one of us is worthy.”  It’s like the perfect anthem because we are always learning, growing, evolving and on a journey of writing the masterpiece that is ourselves in harmony with others. Sometimes the story we write for ourselves doesn’t always go the way we intend it to, and that’s okay. It’s all a beautiful tapestry as it is and you’ve gotta keep turning a page with each new day. And when I do I am grateful to count one more day looking forward to what can and will be, grateful for my past, present, and tomorrows with intention.”

We invite you to share comments in the space below the video transcript which follows.

Video Transcript

So when I say, it’s a gift to wake up every day, God has given me a gift, one more day because my work isn’t done, and I don’t know what that work is, but my work is not done. So, I will make something of the day. If it’s helping someone, opening a door, calling someone who’s in need. Whatever that is. Taking care of myself, or spending time with my nieces. Whatever that is. Or singing a song. One more day is enough for me.

I am most grateful for my family because I am a child of immigrants from Africa, from Nigeria, and I know, um, my mom and my dad, what they sacrificed to come to the United States, to, um, make a life for themselves, to go to school, go to college and get an education. And then, uh, four daughters came along, and they ended up staying here in this country. And, leaving their family behind in Africa. And the sacrifice that they’ve made to be able to give me the life that I have, and that my sisters have, and to allow us to become the women, the strong black women that we are today, does not go unrecognized for one moment, one minute, one second in my day. And it, it shapes everything in who I am. Everything of who I am. 

And for me, family is the thing, that’s, that’s why I’m here, and that’s why I exist. And without that beginning, I, I have nothing.

The thing that grounded them the most was their faith in God. And so when I think about what it means to be grateful from the source, it’s using faith and a belief in God, and spirit, and prayer as the foundation, and the anchor for welcoming what comes, whatever may come. And it’s not all fairytales, it’s not all greatness, it’s not all goodness. It’s not perfect. So what I appreciate is that gratefulness doesn’t mean perfection. Gratefulness is a 50/50. It’s hard, it’s good, it’s loving, it’s sad, it’s messy.

When I need to tap into, um, gratitude and grateful living in these times, I go to a place where I tap into fearlessness. Because it’s very easy to be afraid. And there are often so many moments when–and so many messages that teach us to be afraid. How can you not, given what we’re living in?

It’s so amazingly powerful to know that trusting in life means that you’re open to surprise in that unknown. You’re tapping into fear, to get into fearlessness, and saying, I surrender.

And it’s in the surrender that gratefulness, and grateful living is activated. Because then you realize, huh, this is possible. Something small, something medium, something large, but it’s just this awakening. It’s just so powerful.

My vision for the world, if it were to be inspired by gratefulness, is for, um, for, for individuals, for humans to see each other. To be seen by one, one another, is something that is not happening for real. Like, because if we saw each other, we would see value in life. Think about that. All the isms, it’s because we’re not really seeing the value that someone else’s life brings. When you can see each other, that’s when you find love. That’s when you tap into love.

That’s why falling in love is so powerful, because I see you, you see me. So, my wish for the world, when we think of the context of grateful living, see me.

Thank you, Doug Menuez and team, including Executive Producer Pear Urushima, Director of Photography Luke Carquillat, and Sound Technician/Gaffer Dino Davaros, for the grace and heart you bring to your work in making it possible for the diverse stories of grateful living to be shared.

To watch more films in this series, visit Grateful Voices.

Grateful Voices