“This is really what grateful living is: returning to the noticing of all that is sufficient. All that is extraordinary. All that already is in our lives – enough to take our breaths away – and using that to help us get through life in a way, through difficulty, through challenge… uplifted, enamored.”

While together for this project, Doug also spent time with Kristi Nelson, Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living and author of the new book Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted. What emerged was Kristi’s compelling personal story of what it means to live gratefully in the world, embodying the lessons of being a Stage IV cancer survivor. As a preview to the Grateful Voices series and in celebration of the publication of Wake Up Grateful, we share Kristi’s story here. 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.

Video Transcript

Not taking things for granted – it sounds so easy. It is the deepest awareness practice that I could possibly have in my life, and it takes work, and over and over again returning to remembering.

I guess the biggest lesson from cancer for me was that we don’t get to control everything. And I was humbled by that, and empowered by that realization. So that I could befriend all of the not knowing in my life by saying, “What could I do? What can I do in this moment? There’s so many things I cannot do. I can’t walk. What can I do? I can’t sometimes speak or be out of pain. What can I do?”

So, I was diagnosed in March, 1993. It was a nine-month journey from the first fever to the diagnosis. So in that time, the cancer went from my mediastinum into my spine and completely took over part of my lumbar spine. So I ended up having a lumbar resection (and all that stuff) at Mass General Hospital in 1993 and came out of surgery and was told that I had stage 4 cancer, a lymphoma that they couldn’t diagnose at the time. We always just assumed it was an atypical Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In those circumstances, I wasn’t at all grateful. And yet it was critical for me to find…imagining all the time, what if this is all my life is? Am I going to go out kicking and screaming? Or am I going to notice that people are taking care of me? I was determined to find the cause for appreciation inside my circumstances, because this was my life. And there was no promise that this wasn’t always going to be my life. And I didn’t want to go out without love in my heart and appreciation in my heart.

So this fact of our own mortality being the truth, and holding that awareness – all of us being aware that nothing is promised us and no day is promised us and no continuum and length of time is promised us – was for me a release of the need to control and know everything. And yet it made everything more poignant and more precious. And there’s a way to dance with this mortality and this truth that can free us. Because it is the truth that nothing is promised us. And it’s liberating to actually accept that fact.

So in my life now, my aliveness is so connected to taking nothing for granted. I still have no idea how long I’m going to live. I still have no idea what’s going to happen. Every day is a total surprise. And every day that I wake up is an amazing gift. What we take for granted would knock our socks off. We could barely leave the house. We would be so in awe of how much there is that is a marvel about our bodies. Simply waking up, getting out of a bed, wherever we’re sleeping, and getting ourselves to the next place could render us awestruck by what the body is doing at all times. By our hearts, by our minds, and all that they can hold, literally the practice of taking nothing for granted is the radical practice of noticing every day, in every moment, and returning to that noticing. This is really what grateful living is: returning to the noticing of all that is sufficient. All that is extraordinary. All that already is in our lives – enough to take our breaths away – and using that to help us get through life in a way, through difficulty, through challenge…uplifted, enamored.

A Network for Grateful Living was founded 20 years ago by Brother David Steindl-Rast. It’s now a grateful living community all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of people who turn to gratefulness as a practice every day in all the ways that they can, who use our resources. A lot of people turn to gratefulness who are grieving and dealing with life’s difficulties and disappointments, and find that this ability to hold a grateful awareness at the same time, that life is really hard. Life is really hard right now for a lot of people in our society and around the world. Knowing that being able to cultivate a practice of remembering what’s also good and what’s going for us and what gives us hope helps us navigate the difficult times.

We serve people from a wide cross-section; all ages, all races, ethnicities, religious faith, secular people interested in the science of how powerful gratitude is to change our physiology, our thinking. The mission of our work as an organization is to support people for their own personal transformation in service of a social transformation. In many ways, that’s really what we believe. And this kind of transformative work does begin to become a movement when the ripples and the ripple effects are felt and permeate our world in such a way that we see whole systems start to change. We see families start to change. Constellations, behaviors. We really believe that the idea of living gratefully can have a profound impact on our world and on our society.

The first couple of years after I survived cancer, I was so acutely alive and aware and took nothing for granted. And then, I lost that fidelity to life and I started taking everything for granted again. And I realized that staying grateful was such a source of joy for me and for so many people if we could figure out how to return to it, but it took the ability to cultivate perspective. We have to remember in the middle of a moment how much privilege we have, or how precious and fleeting life is, or how big the world is, how much we belong, how much we make a difference.

The fact of being here another day opens us to surprise. Every single day we’re alive opens us to surprise. And every year opens us to zillions of surprises. And one of the biggest surprises of my life has been falling in love in my forties with someone I never expected to fall in love with. Someone who’s an answer to a dream I never imagined I had. And took a form I never imagined would be the form of the person I would love. And being available for the surprise of that has been one of the greatest blessings of my lifetime.

The problem with having our ideas so firmly in mind about what’s supposed to be ours, and what it’s supposed to look like, is that we walk right past the thing that’s meant to be ours, and we don’t recognize it and let it in.

My wish for the world is for love to be the dominating currency of all of our lives. It’s what we’re fed by. It’s what we give freely. It feeds and inspires everything about how we are with one another and how we are towards life. And that love for each other is grounded in love for the preciousness of life, the recognition of the preciousness of life, and that this gift is so fleeting. We are so fleetingly unto one another, unto each moment, and that really it is “carpe diem.” Seize this moment, seize the opportunity to love. Don’t let things pass us by. And love big. Love generously. Love hard. Love with your heart banging on its hinges. Because it matters, and this moment is all we have.

Grateful Voices
Kristi Nelson

Kristi Nelson

About the author

Kristi Nelson is Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living and the author of Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted. Her life’s work in the non-profit sector has focused on leading, inspiring, and strengthening organizations committed to progressive social and spiritual change. Being a long-time stage IV cancer survivor moves her every day to support others in living and loving with great fullness of heart. Learn more about Kristi here.