Quiet Gratitude, by Carole Howard

I’ve never been a fan of expressing emotion on demand, as in, “Before we eat our turkey, let’s go around the table and everyone say three things he or she is grateful for.” If people choose  to speak of their gratitude, I’m all for it. It’s the “on demand” part at which I bridle.

Don’t get me wrong:  I do experience abundant gratitude and I do love Thanksgiving’s focus on it. I just don’t want to be told when and where to go public.  For me, spontaneous gratitude is more powerful, more meaningful, more uplifting.

One spontaneous-gratitude moment happened when my husband and I were living in the north of Senegal for two months, in one bedroom of a house we shared with four (sometimes six) others.  We gathered for breakfast every morning with Déyfatou, her husband Mamadou, and their two daughters, Ayisha (3) and Fatou (18 months).


Our housemates and breakfast buddies

Déyfatou, about 25, tall and thin, soft-voiced and shy-smiled, brought in the same breakfast fixings every day:  French bread, butter and jam; a tea kettle of boiled water made over a charcoal fire behind the house; plates, cups, utensils; plastic bags holding instant coffee, tea bags, sugar cubes, coffee-creamer.

The bags were the plain-vanilla kind of  bag, tied in a knot at the top.  Every morning, Déyfatou opened them and we took out what we needed.  (I was amazed that the instant Nescafe with dried milk, which I’d have scorned in my previous life, tasted so delicious.)  Then she closed them with a knot tight enough to protect against moisture and bugs.

A knot opened, a knot tied, every day for what must have been years, judging from the appearance and feel of the bags.  They were like ancient skin:  very wrinkled, thin and so soft you might mistake them for suede if your eyes were closed.  And likely to disintegrate.

One day, I was getting some aspirins from the personal pharmacy I’d schlepped from home.  I had Ziploc bags of aspirins, ibuprofen, and Tylenol.  (Yes, I had all three because I couldn’t know in advance what I’d need or want.)  There was Pepto Bismol, of course, and Immodium (ditto about never knowing), daytime cold medicine, night-time cold medicine, cough syrup, malaria preventive, canker sore medicine, nose spray, and many, many, more.   I was pharmaceutically prepared.  Perhaps overprepared but, as I said, you never know.

And as I looked at those bags upon bags, it occurred to me that Déyfatou might like to have a few to save her from the tying and untying.  And, perhaps, from one of those ancient bags dissolving in front of her very eyes.  So I combined the white aspirin, brownish ibuprofen, and multi-colored Tylenol in one bag and gave Déyfatou the two newly-emptied and cleaned ones.

My bags were not the kind where you push the strips from the two sides of the opening together to join them. Oh no, these were the ultra-spiffy and ultra-convenient ones with an actual zipper at the top.

They were a huge hit.  Déyfatou loved them in a way that lit her up from inside.  Loved them out of all proportion to their value.  Transformed her into a giggling girl as she unzipped and zipped them over and over.  It was the kind of reaction every gift-giver loves.

I went through everything I’d brought with me – meds, spare batteries for the radio and flashlights, wet laundry-storage bags – to produce some 15 bags in different sizes.  Enough for coffee, tea, sugar, and creamer for years to come.  Each one a series of knots not tied, not untied.  I was Santa Claus! I was the bag lady!

The thing is, Déyfatou wasn’t poor. Mamadou had a good job and she was his only wife.  The girls had toys and bookbags and hair ribbons, all bought in Dakar.  It’s even possible that if Déyfatou were in a supermarket in Dakar, she’d see the French equivalent of Ziplocs and could have bought them.  They just weren’t part of her life, and, besides, why spend money on something that’s not necessary?

If called upon to say something I’m grateful for at Thanksgiving, I would never think of Ziploc bags.  Yet, in that moment, I appreciated not just the bags, but also the other things in my life that I usually don’t even notice.  Too many to name here.


I was grateful for the mosquito net under which we slept. And I’m grateful we don’t need one here in the U.S.

The big things I’m supremely grateful for – my family, my health, my friends, my life in a stable democracy, my material comfort – are easy to think of and, for that reason, the gratitude sometimes is a bit knee-jerk, a bit glib.  But the little things that go unnoticed in the interstices bring it all home.  And that gratitude is nourishing.

Would anyone out there choose to mention one of the little things in life for which he/she is grateful? Of course, you don’t have to. No pressure.

*   *   *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio,  published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which parts of this post are excerpted.


Filed under musings, Travel, writing

15 responses to “Quiet Gratitude, by Carole Howard

  1. I’ll go first: I’m grateful, oh so grateful, for music.

  2. Carole, I’m grateful for your monthly posts here, and to read that you’re writing a travel memoir!

  3. Thank you so much, Nicole. I’m honored.

  4. I’m grateful for my sons.

  5. I know just what you mean, Sheila.

  6. Laura Breitman

    I too, am grateful for your monthly posts, and always look forward to them.
    And warm socks, especially now!

  7. Warm socks — now you’re talkin’! (And thank you.)

  8. Gini Hamilton

    I’m grateful for your phrasing, such as ” They were like ancient skin: ….” Yummy as apple pie! And I’m grateful for the parking angel (there is one) who secured a permit for me to park at my building (a 15-minute drive from home) starting tomorrow instead of having to drive to a park and ride and take a bus to work (40 minutes)!

  9. Thanks, Gini. Hooray for the parking angel! You now have 50 extra minutes of leisure. Every day! Hope you enjoy it.

  10. I am grateful to have run into you today, bringing your beautiful writing and warm heart into my afternoon! 💜

  11. Thank you, Deb. I feel the same way — about running into you and about your website/blog.

  12. I’m grateful for my senses and my acute awareness of them; seeing blue sky from my bed this morning, hearing the birds when I took out the garbage, smelling my dog, ( I know that may not sound appealing but if you have or had a dog you might appreciate how sweet it is), tasting dark chocolate after lunch (and again after dinner), belting out classic Christmas carols all the way to work today because I have a car with a radio and its that time of year again; so grateful for todays photo of my grandson teething on the side of his crib, watching Lisa’s kids dancing on facebook, the sweetness of it all. The absolute sweetness of it all; the opportunity to gush, thank you very much dear Carole with an “e”. xoxo

  13. Thank you, Diane, for your lovely reminder of the joy our senses can bring us and for detailing so many lovely moments. I particularly love the image of you belting out the Christmas carols!

  14. Lovely piece, Diane. I’m thankful for writers that can make me smile at their creations.

  15. Pingback: In Competence | carolejhoward

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