Getting a Head Start on Gratitude

My last post delved into the scientifical findings on why the blog is going nowhere and I conceded that the complaints about a lack of gratitude on my part were legit. To mend this error I declared that a greater focus on gratitude would be a hallmark of 2018.

But why wait?

As I’ve noted before, we only live in the present moment, so why wait for an arbitrary turning of a calendar page?  My greater emphasis on gratitude begins now in the waning moments of 2017.

In truth, I am sincerely grateful for the many good fortunes that have befallen me but I haven’t spoken to that gratitude as much as I might and I think that’s primarily due to the way gratitude visits me. It tends to come in small moments disguised as every day events and as a result hardly seems worth writing about.

I bumped into a few of these small moments on a recent solo trip up to the cabin and  decided that maybe it is worth recounting a couple of those experiences here.

Happiness -> Gratitude -> Happiness

On that same trip to the cabin I think I may have also learned something about the connection between gratitude and happiness and how it seems to work for me. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I find that practicing skills that I’ve worked on for years brings me happiness and from that happiness comes a feeling of gratitude.

It’s well documented that cultivating a sense of gratitude can boost one’s happiness, but in my own life I’ve found that the relationship between gratitude and happiness is not a one-way street. It’s more of a feedback loop. Happiness leads me to gratitude, which leads me back to happiness and so on. Does that happen to you?

Being up at our cabin helps me kick this feedback loop into high gear because it gives me the opportunity to practice two skills I’ve worked on for a long time: playing bluegrass music and fly fishing.

I’m not world-class at either, far from it, but over the years I’ve become pretty decent at both, and engaging in these pursuits brings me happiness. For that I am grateful.

To further illustrate these points, here’s the story of that recent trip to the cabin.

The Friday Night Jam

Almost invariably the first thing newcomers to the cabin say upon arrival is, “how did you ever find this place?” The honest answer is simply through a rare blend of blind luck and ignorance. On our one and only trip to search for land in the mountains we practically trespassed to look at a parcel we weren’t even sure was for sale.

Turns out it was for sale (we didn’t know because it was out of our price range) and we later found a way to get up to it that didn’t require trespassing.

What we also didn’t know was that roughly 2 miles from our mountain property was an old general store/school house/post office that was now home to a bluegrass and old time music jam every Friday night.

Being near a place to gather with other pickers wasn’t really a consideration when we were looking for mountain property – a site to serve as our home base for outdoor recreation was our primary goal – but over the years the Friday night jam has become a central feature of our trips to the mountains.

Sampling the Shine

I’ve become a familiar face at the jam and on this recent Friday night there was the usual shake and howdy session as I walked in.  Included in this session was the now standard greeting from one of the audience regulars – we’ll call him Delmore, which may or may not be his real name.

For some reason Delmore has developed an affinity for me and likes to let me and everyone around know that he and I have been friends for a “real real long time.” At least that’s what I think he’s saying. Typically I can only make out about every third or fourth word depending on how much corn liquor Delmore has taken on that evening.

The jam is a strictly no alcohol zone, but anyone who’s awake can tell you that on any given Friday night Delmore has had enough to provide a contact drunk to those in his immediate vicinity.

Yet despite our apparently long and abiding friendship Delmore had never offered me a nip of his locally sourced elixir until this recent Friday when he leaned in close and mumbled something in my ear, which, after a clarifying “what?” and a “huh?”, I understood to be an offer to sample his ‘shine.

“Ok, why not?” I said, not really thinking about what I had just agreed to. I guess I assumed we’d just step outside and he’d either produce a flask from his jacket or pull a mason jar out from a dark corner of the building.  But very quickly it was apparent that what I had agreed to was a trip out to Delmore’s car.

Entering a car parked in the darkness of a rather desolate two-lane road running through Appalachia with a man I hardly know brought a much different thought to mind than “ok, why not.” As the car doors closed around me and I assessed my surroundings I thought, “hmm . . . I hope I don’t die here.”

Delmore reassured me that his shine was the good stuff. He substantiated that claim by noting that it was the kind that didn’t make you sick. Not sure I’ve ever heard a more ringing endorsement. If he ever wanted to commercialize his product he had a tag line at the ready:

“Delmore’s shine – the kind that doesn’t make you sick!”

I took two quick tugs from a repurposed pint bottle and was grateful to discover that I’d retained consciousness and wasn’t instantaneously blinded.

Having been in the mountains only a couple hours there was already much to be thankful for.

All Warmed Up

Sufficiently lubricated and warmed from the inside out, I was ready to get back inside the store and do a little picking.

The crowd at the store on Friday nights is usually a healthy mix of locals and out-of-town visitors. The locals come to socialize and visit with neighbors, to hear songs they likely grew up with, and simply  take part in the mountain tradition of people gathering informally to play and listen to string music.

The out-of-town visitors come from far and wide. Most don’t end up at the store by accident. They’ve heard about it and come to see what it’s like. Maybe they want to take a step back in time for an evening. In this regard the store doesn’t disappoint. It’s the real deal. Put simply, folks come looking for an authentic experience.

I’m not originally from this area but with the aid of Delmore’s shine I was feeling pretty authentic so I took a seat in the pickers circle and was asked to start one off.

I’m not a flashy picker, but I can usually pull my own weight. My real contribution to the circle is singing. For whatever reason my voice is suited to these songs and when I start to sing people seem to respond.

I started into an old Flatt & Scruggs tune and a woman from the audience left her seat to get in a better position to take some pictures and maybe record a little video.

Through the first chorus no one jumped in to harmonize with me but when the chorus came around again I heard a woman’s voice behind me that was right on the tenor line. It made me smile and at the end of the tune I turned around to thank her for her help.

It’s incredibly gratifying to share an ability with people who appreciate it. I’m always so thankful to experience the wonderful feeling of providing a little musical enjoyment to others with no need or expectation of anything in return.

The Morning After

The next morning I woke up at the cabin and was pleased to find that Delmore’s shine had lived up to its billing and hadn’t made me sick.

A full day of fly fishing on one of my favorite streams was the only real agenda item for the day, but with the thermometer reading 24 degrees I wasn’t in a terribly big hurry to get on the water. For best results the trout and I could both stand for the sun to be on the stream a few more hours.

So I threw a few splits on top of the coals in the wood stove and prepared a leisurely breakfast.

After breakfast I recalled that my fly boxes were a little light on a few key players, so I got out my tying kit, poured myself another cup of coffee, put the Bluegrass Album Band on the bluetooth speaker, and sat down to tie up a dozen or so flies.

Tying a rubber-legged stimulator.


As I sat there tying and singing along I experienced one of those small, seemingly ordinary moments, that are actually anything but ordinary, when gratitude sometimes pays me a visit and I felt its tap on my shoulder.

I thought about the many different ways my life could’ve turned out and the many other places I could be and the other things I could be doing at this moment in time.

What were the odds that all the elements of this moment would come together at this point in time? They must’ve been infinitesimally small at best, but nonetheless here I was sitting in our cabin looking out over a frosty river valley, listening to pops and cracks from the wood stove, drinking just a little bit too much coffee, tying flies, breathing in and out at my own pace, and realizing how fortunate I am.

A Day on an Old Favorite

The stream I planned to fish that day is about an hour’s drive from the cabin. There are other streams that are closer and there are more famous streams not much further away. The latter ones are routinely written about in fly fishing magazines. I’ve fished all these places, and I’m sure I’ll fish them again, but I keep going back to the stream I was headed to on this day.

I think the draw is the possibility of catching large fish in relatively small water. That possibility excites me. There are no guarantees of course, but the possibility is very real, and that’s all I need.

I’ve fished this stream for more than 10 years. In the beginning it wasn’t so great, or more accurately, I wasn’t so great. But I knew the stream had potential and I kept going back.

Now, more than a decade since I first put a wading boot into this water, fishing it is gratifying because I’ve put in the time to learn it. When you put time into learning something you get better at it. Getting better at something is an accomplishment, and advancing at  something you’re passionate about is incredibly gratifying.

Satisfaction in a Fraction of a Second

When I arrived at the stream there were a couple other fisherman already fishing the stretch where I usually start so I decided to walk upstream to a reach that features classic riffle and pool structure. This area doesn’t seem to harbor quite as many large fish but it does have fairly consistent insect hatches.

A steady procession of dimpling rises beckoned me to the tail of a pool about 50 yards upstream from where I entered the water. As I eased into casting position the rises continued, but I could not see what the fish were taking.

Given the time of year, the dimpling rises, and the fact that I couldn’t actually see any bugs on the water I surmised that the fish were probably taking midges.

Midges are 2-winged aquatic insects that resemble mosquitoes. They tend to hatch throughout the winter and are typically minuscule, maybe twice the size of a speck of dust.

Artificial flies are sized by the number hook on which they are tied – the larger the number the smaller the hook. Something twice the size of a speck of dust would be about a size 40. The smallest hooks commercially available are size 32.

The midge flies I had were small but nowhere near that small. I tied on a size 20 midge, which is about half the size of a pencil eraser, and made a couple casts.

Compared to the real bugs my fly looked like an un-moored navigational buoy coming downstream. As it drifted in the current I could almost hear it hollering, “look out everyone, here I come!”

I wasn’t convinced that this fly was going to fool anyone and after a handful of unsuccessful drifts I decided to give it one more shot before trying something or somewhere else. On the final cast the fly was nearing the end of its drift at the tail of the pool when a 20 inch rainbow trout lifted its head fully out of the water to intercept it.

Not the fish I caught that day, but you get the idea.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details of the ensuing battle. Suffice it to say that I did land and release the fish. Were there exhilarating leaps, drag peeling runs, and moments of doubt about the outcome? Yes, yes, there was all of that and more.

But the moment from the entire experience that remains most clearly in mind is the take itself. The magic is in the instant when the offering is selected and the connection is made. For a fly fisherman, satisfaction lives in that fraction of a second. Fortunately my brain hit the record button in that instant and I can now replay that scene in my head to my heart’s content.

A Profoundly Good Day

I still had an hour’s drive back to the cabin and there were tentative plans to get together with a couple friends that evening to do some picking. With feelings of satisfaction and gratitude settling over me, and with more picking to look forward to, I reeled in and hiked back to the car.

The sky that greeted me on my return to the cabin.

When I got back to the cabin the day’s final chapter was playing out in the sky across the river valley. Another one of those small moments when gratitude will speak up if I’m listening.

I stepped out on to the cabin deck to take the picture above and was struck by the realization that I had just experienced a profoundly good day.

The picking that night further added to my enjoyment, happiness, and gratitude. No audience this time, just the three of us on banjo, mandolin, and guitar, and possibly a cameo appearance by vanilla-infused tequila. Fortunately it didn’t require a trip out to Delmore’s car.

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