Finding reasons to be grateful for simple things... like pizza rolls

A River Of Gratitude

author: Dan Augustine

Written by: Dan Augustine

Creative Director

12.16.2020

  • Culture

How a dead fish, running water, and French impressionists taught me the significance of being thankful

“You can be miserable,” she says. “And when you’re miserable you drag everyone down with you.”

This, from the closest thing I’ve ever had to a writing partner, a former coworker, and my textbook definition of best friend?!

It’s also the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a physical punch in the gut. C’mon … We’re camping! Sitting by a fire out in the woods! This is no place to beat a fella up unless, you know, you’re Joe Pesci pulling someone outta the trunk of a car.

Gathered around the fire are a marketing director, a web developer, an art director, a creative director (me), and my hurtful FORMER best friend—the senior copywriter. It’s winter. The snow that fell the night before is ground down into compacted ice. Any attempt at movement will undoubtedly end in a slip and fall and my pride is already hurt—no reason to complicate that with physical pain. So I just sit there and stew.

Truth is, I’m still stewing. This little gathering took place in February of 2020, no one around the fire has any concept of what is waiting for us—for the world—in approximately three short weeks. And here’s my former coworker digging up the past. Stuff that happened when we worked together ten years ago! Ten! And…Fine. She’s right. 2010-Dan was…how to put this…?

No one around the fire had any concept of what was waiting for us—for the world—in approximately three short weeks. And here’s my former coworker digging up the past.

These days I’m providing an hourly Slack update to my team concerning my Totino’s Pizza Roll consumption as a thinly-veiled attempt at levity during a challenging time. (Aside: I’m eating a troubling amount of pizza rolls—like in quantities you’d serve to an entire child’s slumber party). The point is, at the very least, I’m trying to be affable.

But 10 years back? Past-Dan? Senior-Designer-Dan? I’m not gonna mince words: He was an asshole.

The clients were the worst, their projects were the worst, their budgets were the worst-worst. The work was boring. The people I worked with were boring, or talentless, or whatever. Just…whatever. It was all terrible.

Except for me.

I was awesome.

And I was anxious to let everyone know it. Frequently. And loudly.

These days? I’m grateful. Constantly, unceasingly grateful.

So what changed?

At the time, I moved within a couple of blocks of the Milwaukee River. I was single (What?! Gasp! How!? What with such a charming disposition?) So I fished a lot—a hobby and sport better enjoyed in solitude.

Mornings. Nights. Weekends. Chasing smallies in the summer, in my waders with ultralight tackle. Targeting steelhead in the spring and fall with an Orvis setup I couldn’t afford and bought anyways. Sun-up to sundown. I was happy in the river.

Now, no one with dreams of old age is eating fish out of the Milwaukee River … certainly not me. I’m a catch and release guy. And because I wasn’t keeping what I caught, I developed—I dunno—it’s not a prayer but … before I detach my little 1/6oz Mepps, I repeat these words to the Universe:

“Please don’t let me harm anything while I’m here; nothing should suffer just so I can have fun.”

I recite this every time I go fishing. It’s cheesy. Superstitious, maybe. But I have forgotten to say these words exactly once in my life, and it was the first time a fish (a four-inch smallmouth that had no business attacking the lure I was using) swallowed the bait. I tried for the better part of 20 minutes to save that bass but, in the end, he wound up upside down, floating downriver until being scooped up by a watchful gull. I stood there hurt for a while, feeling responsible and guilty and empty for taking a life needlessly. I’ve never forgotten to say the words since.

And taking that time, saying those words, and begging that one indulgence? Among other things, it’s a moment of thanks. It’s gratitude. For a gorgeous day, for living so close to the river, and for having the time to go fishing.

And taking that time, saying those words, and begging that one indulgence? Among other things, it’s a moment of thanks. It’s gratitude. For a gorgeous day, for living so close to the river, and for having the time to go fishing.

And that’s the change. Taking a beat, a pause, a moment to clear your head and think about what you have. The river made that moment possible—especially with the benefit of solitude.

And when you simply pause, well, you start to notice things … simple things. The light on the water. The shaking-a-fresh-shirt-out-of-the-laundry sound of a low flying owl’s wings. Landing a steelhead and realizing just how incredibly silver they are, like a brightly polished coin. And it happens gradually and quietly. You see and hear and smell … and you notice all of these things that maybe you didn’t before. And you find yourself being grateful—sincerely grateful that you were there in that moment to experience them. And then the incredible thing that happens is that it starts to go beyond that moment. It seeps into other moments in your life until you’re no longer pausing for a moment of gratitude; it just happens naturally. You’re suddenly aware of every miraculous thing.

That you turn a faucet knob in your kitchen and fresh, clean, cold, drinkable water comes out of it. That you open your refrigerator and there are actually things—edible, real things—to nourish yourself with (like pizza rolls). That refrigeration even exists! That fresh-ground coffee smells amazing! And that A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is made up of millions and millions of little dots and someone actually painted that! And my 20-month-old can count to seven and can run and jump, when it feels like just yesterday that he was incapable of holding his head up! That—yes, Annie—the sun will come out tomorrow! And I cannot believe that I get to be a creative director! With cool people! TALENTED PEOPLE! With amazing clients! And every awful thing that ever happened to me led me to every good thing that I have! And … I dunno. I just don’t know.

Gratitude doesn’t need a holiday. It doesn’t need a special occasion or turkey or ham, or even family or friends. It certainly doesn’t need a river. It just needs the appreciation of one little moment.

It’s a lot to take in. But feeling that overwhelmed with gratitude constantly? Well, there are worse things. And look—I know I’m excitable. I know I’m an amped-up person and it doesn’t take much to wind me up and get me going. But—all of my hyperbole and exaggeration aside—this is real. It is. You don’t have to fly-fish or meditate or have kids or walk through a museum. It just takes less than a minute. Right now: name one thing. Think of one thing that happened to you today—one thing that you have or saw or tasted. It was good, right? So, no matter what, you have that for yourself. And it probably wouldn’t take much to think of a second thing, and a third thing, and suddenly you’ve strung a whole list of incredible things together, and…! Well, you get the picture. Gratitude doesn’t need a holiday. It doesn’t need a special occasion or turkey or ham, or even family or friends. It certainly doesn’t need a river. It just needs the appreciation of one little moment.

That’s it. One thing.

And … yeah …

… so who’s miserable now, Bethany?!

Work Hard and Be Nice to People

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