Focus and the Art of Living Thankfully

Focus and the Art of Living Thankfully

living thankfully
Melissa Dalton-Bradford and family, Pont des Arts. Photo courtesy of author.

If I shared with you the secret to joy, would you believe me?

(Hint: it’s not yoga. But the secret begins with a yoga class in Paris a few years ago.)

I was trying to hold an especially tough pose – teeth gritting, sweat drizzling, shoulders quivering, a guttural groan emerging from my spleen – when a thought came: “That which we focus on grows larger with the gazing.”

“Foooocus,” I heard. So I did. I foooocused on the painful distention of my joints, the wobbliness of my supporting leg, the general agony.


living thankfully

Then straight ahead of me I saw, at eye level, a candle flickering on the far side of the room. I fixed my stare, focusing. And slowly, that fleck of light seemed to hum, expanding a bit, crowding out my concerns. My jaw unclenched, breath loosened, and energy rose through my body. I even felt something akin to … was it sweetness?

Shaking out my limbs, I rolled up that strange, wonderful moment in my mind like I rolled up my yoga mat under my arm, and pranced off into the dappled sunshine along the Seine. It was Paris, after all. And it was May.

In June, our firstborn, Parker, graduated high school. My husband and I snapped shots of him with his suitcases packed for summer college. “We’ve launched him! What a gorgeous kid,” I sighed as we proud parents wiped tears, beaming.

living thankfully

And in July, Parker, died. While trying to save a drowning classmate, he was knocked unconscious. He lay 38 hours in coma. Circling him, our family held together in half-collapse as a technician flipped off life support. I watched my child draw his last gasp of mortal air.

That, dear friends, is how reality hits. A paragraph break, and the life story you’d plotted out, built up and counted on, is transformed. Left, is a massive bombed-through crater encrusted in black ash. With our three living children we staggered, disoriented, through that bleak landscape, sometimes barely surviving. For ages, absence was all I could see, all I could ever imagine speaking of, writing about, feeling, focusing on. We lost him. He is gone. That unrelenting feral yowl shivering its arc across the cosmos.

Until … until something shifted. Not early, not easily. After months. Gradually. Arduously. Deliberately. Like exhuming oneself from underneath an avalanche, something shifted. And seismically.  It deserves a book full of clarification, but I’ll compress to two words: Change focus.

That’s it? you’re thinking. A cliché? Stay with me, because it’s nothing glib. It was like performing eye surgery on myself, that retraining of focus. Not focus from Parker or from the life I felt I’d lost with him. But on Parker, and all that had been and all that could yet be of life. Wasn’t it true I could have lost him at any moment? That I could lose anyone at any moment?  Then his life, it followed– like all our lives—was all gift. Every minute “extra.” Unearned. Sheer miracle. Not to be squandered. Focusing with gratitude – seeing, enumerating, and verbalizing continually all that I had loved and still loved – actually changed the things themselves, magnifying them, making them hum, expand, flash full of flame. Like the candle’s expanded flicker, I saw there was more in the room than engulfing emptiness, than pain. Instead, there was expanding presence everywhere. That presence included Parker.

the art of living thankfullyThe force of gratitude has surpassed all rational understanding. It’s sent me maybe not all-out prancing, but striding back
out into life where I know how easily dappled sunshine can be eclipsed by suffocating shadows.

It’s there where I choose to grab life, (and on occasion, people), by the shoulders, awed by the simple thereness of it all. “Gratitude,” writes Ann Lamott, “not understanding, is the secret to joy and equanimity.” Et voilà: your key.

the Pilgrims, living thankfully
“Embarkation of the Pilgrims (William Bradford is depicted at centre, kneeling in the background) ” by Robert Walter WeirOnline Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 75.188_SL1.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.


This is Paris, and this is November. Some celebrate Thanksgiving, when we formally reflect on those who, after months on the Mayflower, dropped anchor, dropped to their knees, and uttered prayers of thanks. They thanked not out of politesse or some pilgrim protocol, but out of gratitude, the kind grievers know. Parker’s tenth generation grandfather, William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth colony, led them. A griever himself – orphaned, separated from homeland, bereaved of half his fellow passengers, including his wife who drowned – Bradford hosted that first feast, trusting that gratitude magnified everything, propelling life forward and upward.

Consider all the light that emanates still from their darkest days. As Bradford wrote of those stark but auspicious beginnings, “One small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many…”

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Melissa Dalton-Bradford is an award-winning author, (Global Mom: A Memoir, named AML’s Best Memoir of 2013, and On Loss & Living Onward), poet, essayist, blogger, polyglot, soprano, popular public speaker, and mother of four. Former long-time residents of Paris, Melissa and her husband have built their family in Vienna, Hong Kong, the greater New York City area, Oslo, Munich, Singapore, Geneva, and Frankfurt. Her work explores the globally mobile life, and delves into the role of community in providing stabilizing strength when “globility” and major loss collide, as occurred with the death of her eldest, Parker, which inspired her involvement as a founding member of Their Story is Our Story: Giving Voice to Refugees, a non profit organization bringing artists and writers together to transmit stories, create connections, and inspire compassion.


  1. I was thrilled to have the chance to meet and talk with Melissa at the recent Inspirelle evening in Paris. She is beyond inspiring and just glows! So looking forward to reading her book over the holidays. Thanks Melissa!

  2. Hello Melissa! So happy that I linked over hear to read your beautiful, inspiring article. My mother and I were just discussing yesterday how so many times all that is needed for peace and joy is a slight shift of focus, you have articulated it here so beautifully. Truth is out there and truth is beautiful and healing, if we can hold onto that perspective of things, of being grateful for what we have, for what we have had, then gratitude and happiness really can conquer all. I believe it, now just to always remember and keep implementing that sometimes elusive, flickering focus. Thank you, dear soul sister.

  3. I have always loved the concept of perspective. Mortality has a way of teaching us in ways we could rarely comprehend on our own. I love the analogy of light and of focusing on that light. So grateful to KNOW that the Light and Life of this world loves us in divine ways, that He descended below all things, and that His ultimate goal for us is JOY found by becoming like Him and Choosing to follow Him and to receive immortality and Eternal life. Parker is among many cheering for your family to one day experience that sweet day of reunion “in Heaven’s spring.” And so are we!

  4. Beautiful but also very real. And helpful. Such a long process but gratitude sure does help. Thank you and a happy Thanksgiving to all.

  5. Wow. Let me take a second to wipe away my tears. Melissa is a very lucky woman to have “seen the light” albeit following such a tragedy. Her words should be a lesson for us all as we sit down at the Thanksgiving table. I always found it difficult to explain to the frenchies at my thanksgiving table the true meaning of “gratitude”. Hard to translate with just one word. I think this year I will use Melissa’s story to illustrate the true meaning of this holiday. Thank you for sharing such a powerful message.

  6. Thank you, this is excellent. Thank you for letting your intimate thoughts be motivating for so many others. Thankfulness truly brings happiness to the mundane, peace to the fear, light to the depression, and joy to the anguish. It’s so simple! “Choose to focus,” I like it. Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.


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