Counting your blessings, line by line

by Scribble Monboddo

"In these difficult times", it says at the start of every second email I have received for the last fortnight, "we would like to reassure you that...". It's well-intentioned, of course it is, but knowing that staff of a firm you do business with once or twice a year are now washing their hands isn't always all that reassuring. So how do we keep it together when the outside world does look genuinely more than a bit scary all of a sudden?

Perhaps, if I dare make so bold, by retreating to the scriptorium once each day and making a virtue of enforced isolation, as an opportunity to write a diary. I don't call this journalling, mainly because journal (from the French jour) literally means 'daily' and I obstinately refuse to recognise that as a verb, but this is no time for such pedantry. Call it whatever you like. But here's why you should try it.

Counting your blessings, as an exercise, forms a key plank of the modern concept of 'mindfulness', but it goes back waaaaaay longer than that. The phrase itself sounds biblical, and indeed many sources in Testaments Old and New are cited, although the first use I can find is from a hymn of 1897:

When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you...

This is actually pretty good advice, albeit made more palatable by not being performed by me (what IS it about nineteenth-century hymns being unsingable by anyone apart from whales and castrati?). It's essentially what I've been doing for the last twenty years, taking my example from Queen Victoria no less - an uncomfortable admission there but, hey, credit where it's due.

Taking a moment to scribble out a few of the good things experienced each day really does make a difference, because there is always, always something that made life worth living, even on the darkest days. Right now, for instance, travel is severely restricted, so much so that road traffic has largely dried up and aircraft noise disappeared altogether, so the birds and bees are expressing themselves to the full (no, this is not a euphemism - they really are loud). A back garden full of nature's spring-time racket is a great place to read and, as it happens, to write, but if I hadn't taken a moment to record that on a page or two of my diary, I'd probably have forgotten it, and maybe even fallen prey to the widespread notion that I ought to be miserable. Which I'm jolly well not, as it happens.

Now, there is more than one way into this if you haven't tried it before. I'm old-school and free text does it for me, so a nice lined A5 notebook and a good fountain pen is all I need. The book pictured isn't one sold on this site, which I hope Nero will forgive me for, but then I have been at it for a couple of decades as I mentioned above, so I'm kind of locked in a groove. If I was starting today I'd probably go for something classier like the Dingbats journal.

After a long day of (usually) too much tech, taking out a cool nib, reaching for a carefully selected ink and jotting a few lines off the top of my head is relaxing and still, even after doing it thousands of times, allows me to reflect on what's good and how outrageously lucky I am in so many ways. That doesn't mean I have no obstacles to overcome, of course, but counting your blessings is all about recalling how you overcome them. Spoiler; it's friends, every time, albeit some of them quadrupeds.

Of course, free text isn't for everyone, like nineteenth-century dirges (thankfully), but the inclusion of this sort of exercise in mindfulness mantras has made for lots of other ways to codify the exercise. There are plenty of downloadable templates for bullet journal devotees, for instance, like this weekly 'gratitude practice'. Closer to home, a fellow stationer at William Hannah (c'mon Nero, it would just be mean to call Dave a competitor) has made a mindfulness-based downloadable A5 two-side 'intention page' which would make a for a great primer; head over to his site and subscribe if you'd find that useful.

There are lots of ways to do this, but if you've never tried it, now's a great opportunity. If you're holed up at home, like so many of us, you have time to spare, and you probably have some notebooks lying around just waiting for an excuse to use them. That's two blessings right away...