Kristi Nelson, Ambassador for Grateful Living
On Living a Grateful Life
I first met Kristi Nelson decades ago when we were both on the cusp of middle age. She had just met my friend, Linda Hannum (who is now her wife). I had just ended what I thought would be a forever-relationship and was searching for solace in a series of short-lived connections. I was teaching yoga then but not yet practicing yoga. I used the poses as exercise to temporarily escape discomfort. I self-medicated with food, distracted myself with projects and drama, and routinely beat myself senseless with criticism and self-judgment. I should know better. I do know better. Once in a while I sat for a few minutes in meditation - waiting for enlightenment to rain down on me and erase all emotional pain. There were tidbits of pleasure, fingers in the dam of overwhelming feeling, but the whole banquet of life remained out of reach. I proclaimed loudly that I wanted to be fully alive in every moment without realizing that it means being awake to both pain and joy, laughter and tears, compassion and fear, that a full life means being open to the whole spectrum of human emotion and experience.
Much later and several years into a daily practice that includes meditation, asana, breathwork, and journaling, I now receive the full-body expression of love from my three-year-old grandchild and walk through the daily wonder that is a forest without pushing away the brutality of war. The miracle of my body astonishes me AND accompanies my fears of aging, disability, cancer and death. I remember (and receive) my sister’s love and support AND I miss her terribly.
Kristi’s life’s work is about moving us toward this great fullness of heart. Her book, Wake Up Grateful, The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted (now available in paperback), points us in this direction. Instead of a gratitude journal written at the end of the day with a list of all the good things that happened (not a bad habit to cultivate), we start the day with acknowledging that we have another day, that breath moves and in and out of this body, that we have the opportunity to experience love and loss, beauty and pain. That the world is wondrous place, and we get to be a part of it for short time
Read on for excerpts from Kristi’s book, information about her Grateful Living Workshop at Kripalu (where I get to assist) December 8-10, 2023, and an interview about her creative process. Hers is a wise voice of hope in our hurting world.
Wishing you well,
P.S. I am writing 30 poems in November, and there is still time to support my campaign for the Center for New Americans. Learn more here.
About Kristi Nelson
Kristi Nelson is the author of Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted. She is currently the ambassador for Grateful Living and served as the organization’s executive director from 2014 –2022. Kristi's life’s work in the nonprofit 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.
In 2001 — after five years leading a regional Women’s Fund — Kristi founded a values-based fundraising consulting/coaching company, and in this capacity worked with organizations such as Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Spirit in Action, Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Wisdom 2.0, and The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, among others. Since then she has been founding Director of Soul of Money Institute with Lynne Twist, Director of Development at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and Director of Development and Community Relations for the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.
Kristi received her BA from UMass/Amherst, a graduate certificate in Business and Sociology from Boston College, and her Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) with a concentration in Leadership Studies, from Harvard University. She cherishes living among beloved friends and family in western Massachusetts.
Friday - Sunday, December 8-10, 2023
Next month Kristi will lead an in-person, weekend workshop at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. The Wake Up Grateful Workshop is a meaningful immersive experience for individuals, couples, siblings and friends who sometimes opt to come together.
The workshop focuses on developing the spiritual musculature to bring our most tender, grateful, and robust YES to life in the midst of all its abiding uncertainty. Togther, we learn to strengthen our capacity for perspective and resilience in the face of challenges. The whole weekend experience will be a great source of nourishment and an enlivening reset. Learn more here.
Excerpts from Wake Up Grateful by Kristi Nelson
From the Introduction
Not dying changed everything. Not only did I not die, I actually got to live. And living offered me the chance to bring the most meaningful lessons I learned from facing death into my life and the lives of many others. What I have come to understand about
seeing each day as an unpromised gift and taking nothing for granted has transformed my life. My hope is that it will transform yours too.
At 33 years old, I was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had metastasized to my spine. After going through 18 months of hospitalizations, surgeries, chemotherapy, and treatments, I asked my oncologist, “When will I be out of the woods?” He answered, “You will never be out of the woods.” Having worked so hard to stay alive, I had not grasped the degree of uncertainty and struggle that would come with being a survivor. Understanding that my life would only ever be lived with the caveat of “for now” was sobering. I wondered so many things: How do I continue to live this way? What am I able to count on? How can I possibly plan for the future? How do I live while expecting to die?
The first few years of uncertainty and remission put the blessings of my life in sharp relief. I was in super-soak mode — every experience was saturated with new meaning, and I was absorbing it all fully. I did not know any other way to live the moments I had than to greet each one as gratefully as I could. Not sure how much more time was mine, I was awestruck by every moment, every person, and every thing. Being grateful the first few years was relatively easy and revelatory. I would wake up in a room bathed in light, hear birds singing, and notice I was still breathing. Sometimes I would have to touch my face to make sure it was not a dream. I could put both feet on the floor and walk freely to a kitchen where I could make a cup of tea. It was enough to make me start each day with tears of joy. Being alive was enough.
But over time, all those amazing reasons to feel grateful joined the ranks of the taken-for-granted. I got healthy and busy. I began chasing goals and the fulfillment they promised. I martyred myself to a job, complained about things like traffic, my weight, and colds. I ruthlessly compared myself to others, succumbed to retail therapy and debt, and suffered from stress. Each year that passed, I built up a kind of gratitude tolerance — what used to be enough got left in the dust in the pursuit of having more. Having cheated death, I began cheating life.
From the Epilogue
When I completed cancer treatments in 1993, I could not write. Anything. At all. For a long time. Chemotherapy had caused peripheral neuropathy, which kept me from being able to type or hold a pen with ease; and I suffered the residual blur of chemo brain. But none of that is what actually kept me from writing.
I could not write because I did not want to spend a single moment unavailable to my life as it was unfolding. I had been awakened to see each day as a blessing and my heart had been opened to the brevity of time. I did not want to squander any of my life with an absence of attention to my immediate experiences, loved ones, and the beauty around me. Even though many people encouraged me to pick up my old writing practice, or to document my survivor’s story for the benefit of others, I simply could not bring myself to sit and try to capture anything in words. Life itself wanted to keep me busy, calling me loudly at all hours to behold a canopy of stars, chase sunlight, tend
to my body and heart, or revel in the proximity of love in its many forms. For years, writing felt like it stole me from life, pulling me out of experiencing my moments in lieu of thinking and theorizing about them. And in many ways it still does.
When I wake up to each new day now, I am surely grateful. And, to be honest, urgency and intensity are awakened in me as well. I wonder how to act on the fact that life is so beautiful and also finite. What do I do with the gift of the moment? How do I invest in even the near future knowing that the future itself is unpromised? Aware that my life is precious, how do I make sense of spending countless hours each day sitting at a computer? It can be a recurring conundrum for me, and reconciling my choices is often a wildly inelegant dance. But being fully awake to conundrums is the price of admission to a conscious life. And it is worth everything it takes for me to fumble my way through figuring it out — because this is my perfectly imperfect practice of grateful living.
Interview with Kristi Nelson
LC: When did you start writing and what inspired you?
Kristi: I think I was always a “journaler” - almost from birth. I remember a spiral notebook with pink, lined paper that was my sanctuary when I was a young teenager, where I wrote voluminously of adolescent and family angst. It was probably the place where I first developed the capacity for self observation and reflection and discovered writing’s therapeutic effects. It was in journaling that I learned about the many layers of who we are, and that there was a private and essential part of me that would show up when equipped with solitude and silence, a pen and paper.
LC: How did you grow into your identity as a creative person?
Kristi: I kept my writing as a purely private expression until I was in college and took a few creative writing classes. I remember well how cathartic it was to first read aloud what had emerged on my page after a writing prompt was offered. It was both terrifying and transformative to share what had always been such a personal exercise and I also began to see and feel the profound effect that other people’s writing/reading had on me and the sense of intimacy that grew from it. I continued to dabble in writing groups throughout my 20’s and then again in my late 30’s, with Pat Schneider, Genie Zeiger and other wonderful guides, and also in workshop settings.
To be honest, I still struggle with calling myself a “creative” person, and I think that walking along that edge of discomfort is somehow important for me. What occurs to me in this moment about that discomfort is that it speaks to the gap between what is and what I know could be possible with a bigger commitment to cultivating the solitude, silence, and space that I know are core nourishment for my writing/creative process. Being honest about this gap compels me.
LC: How has your work changed over the years?
Kristi: In my early 30’s I went through a very significant cancer journey that changed everything for me. My illness, treatment, and recovery were all-consuming for most of five years, and I was not assured of being cured. Two big changes in my writing happened during this time - I started a practice of writing regular, reflective letters to my friends and family, updating them on my well-being (body, mind, and spirit) and I stopped journaling. I found that it became harder and harder to want to spend my precious and unpromised time writing when my direct experiences - with people, the natural world, life itself - were begging for my most full-blown, engaged presence. I stopped wanting to “capture” or preserve anything (even in photographs). Instead I wanted to make myself available to fully experience everything.
LC: Who are your favorite creatives? Who do you admire and why?
Kristi: Poets, Ross Gay, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, James Crews, Mary Oliver, David Whyte, Danusha Lameris and many more. I truly admire Ross Gay because his joy and celebration of life are so detailed, generous, and contagious. As a black man carrying messages about joy, delight, and gratitude into the world, I find his impact especially profound. I also really admire Rosemerry WT. Her capacity for sharing her most poignant heart’s truths through her daily poetry practice is stunning and very inspiring to me. She has dealt with one of the greatest losses a person can endure and has done so in the most generous, uplifting way I can imagine.
LC: What are you reading / listening to these days?
Kristi: I am reading all of the poets above plus dabbling in fiction and nonfiction and trying not to get frustrated when I do not finish any of the books. I love falling asleep with a book in my hands. Sometimes it falls on my face when I doze off so lighter books are better for me! I listen to a variety of podcasts while I am cooking in the evening. On Being, We Can Do Hard Things, and The One You Feed are a few of my regulars.
LC: What inspires you? What do you do when you are ‘stuck?’
Kristi: I try to keep myself attuned to the things in life that counterbalance all the current headlines about politics, war, cruelty, and climate change - I try to add my own headlines to keep my brain and heart focused on what sustains me. Walking by the CT river in my hometown is a surefire source of inspiration. Organic farmers, kindness, weather, friends, trees, clouds, birds, generosity… oh my! The list is truly endless. When I am stuck, I get myself outside, no matter the weather. That always works to shift my energy.
LC: How often do you write? Do you have rituals or routines?
Kristi: I have a fairly simple morning writing practice that I adopted from Elizabeth Gilbert. I start with picking up a book of poetry and reading a selection or two. I then write this question/prompt at the top of a page and let loose: “Dear Universe, what would you have me know today?” Sometimes I substitute other words for “Universe” such as Wisdom, Soul, Higher Self, Higher Power, God, or even Death or Life. I suppose one could also use Creativity thusly. I find that this practice bypasses lots of mental machinations and cuts to the core for me. I am always interested in connecting with wise voices, and it is great to be able to cultivate a process where I can access and develop that from within myself.
LC: What is your process for creating/completing a new work?
Kristi: I do suffer greatly with deadlines but they work for me. I do not think I ever would have finished Wake Up Grateful if I did not have a hard-stop, accountability to a publisher, editor, etc. And a cash advance does a good job of holding one’s feet to the fire (you may dislike that term as much as I do, but it does give a felt-sense of the experience for me). I also need to schedule big chunks of time alone and out of the house if I want to be productive towards a particular end or a bigger project.
LC: Do you have a funny story or anecdote about being a writer?
Kristi: It was one night while I was writing Wake Up Grateful while on a 3-week retreat at a friend’s vacated house. I had just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and felt like her concept of a friendly muse that sat on her shoulder and was there all the time ready to brilliantly direct her creativity at a moment’s notice was absolutely lost on me. I had been literally praying and pining for my muse to show up as an illuminating, guiding presence that would deliver epiphanies like a benevolent lightning bolt into a particular part of the book. Well, watch what you ask for! As is all too typical, I had to pee in the middle of the night and while I was sitting on the toilet, I had this sudden blast of clarity about how all the pieces of a framework fit together and made sense of everything I was positing. In my haste to try to retain the details of this shock of clarity (elusive at the best of times!) I started to run towards the computer on the dining room table. But I had neglected to pull up my PJ bottoms and ended up tripping on them and found myself skidding across the bathroom floor. Luckily, unscathed, I took a moment to lie there and laugh at myself. It was clear that my muse was going to be as unpredictable and stubborn as I could be!
LC: What’s the best advice you’ve received about the creative process?
Kristi: Just start. Perfect is the enemy of the good.
LC: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Kristi: There are as many ways to be a writer as there are people on this planet. Identify and continually release the concepts you hold of what it “should” look like to be a writer. Get to know yourself and what brings you joy in the process. Be curious about what enlivens you. Notice where you get energized by writing and where you get drained. Do more of what brings you energy and joy and call all of it essential aspects of YOU being a writer. Know that you are a really important expression of Life. Keep exploring and inventing yourself.
LC: How has being creative influenced the way you see the world?
Kristi: If the world is as much a page in our notebooks, a canvas, or clay and we are all artists, then it makes me hopeful that we can each and all work with the world around us and offer it shape and color and words and bring forth what the world needs for healing and peace. It loosens the reins of my ideas that things are fixed and “just the way they are,” when really, they are alive and malleable and able to be made better through all of the ways we show up. There is so much hope that comes alive through seeing the world through creative eyes.
Are you a creative person? Writer, poet, artist, videographer, muscian, photographer? I’d love to feature you in a future issue of Starry Starry Kite?
Starry Starry Kite is reader-supported. To receive new posts and support this work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.