I  am knitting a blanket of sunshine yellow for my granddaughter.

She’ll be coming into the world in February. As I knit, I think about her and my daughter, about COVID-19, and what our future will look like.

And I imagine all the grandmothers in our family tree. What did they face in their lifetimes? Did they experience times like these—or similar things that made them feel as we do now? My mother saw World War II; her mother lived through World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, and the Great Depression; My great-grandmother was born in Minnesota and survived the deadly 1888 Children’s Blizzard. Billions of people over time—like my grandmothers—each have experienced disasters that shook their world.

Looking at history through the lives of my grandmothers puts flesh on the bones of historic events I’ve read about or learned in school, or, as in the case of the 1888 Children’s Blizzard, ones I’d never heard of. Like most people, even a fairly superficial look at my grandmothers’ lives through history will take me through the plagues and uncertainty and wars and natural disasters that they lived through and sometimes died from.

I also wonder about their sources of gratitude, hope, and joy. Especially when the winter holidays—and an ongoing pandemic—ask us to pause and reflect. I wonder about the moments that made my grandmothers’ hearts swell, stirred their souls, or made them imagine a future in which their own granddaughters could experience gratitude, hope, and joy. Often small and ordinary, these events do not readily show up in general accounts of history.

They may  be small or ordinary, but can be profound, as William Blake imagines in “Auguries of Innocence,”

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

There are tangible benefits to practicing gratitude. In their many research projects focused on gratitude, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of UC Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami have found evidence that regularly expressing gratitude not only makes you feel happier, but also makes you healthier.

Gratitude can also increase your empathy for others, as Izola White writes in this invocation,

Thank you for food in a world where many know only hunger;

for our faith in a world where many know fear;

for friends in a world where many know only loneliness.

Gratitude is a practice you can cultivate, as is noting joy in your daily life. This fall I started sharing my little moments of joy with my history professor every week. Now, it’s often not enough to send weekly moments of joy. As I notice joy in my life, like my daughter’s news of her imminent wee baby girl, I find and experience more joy in subtler things that pop up, like a single tiny rose blossom I found while working in my garden in late autumn, or tiny droplets of water lit up by the sun like tiny diamonds on blades of grass I saw as I walked my dog through the park.

Practicing gratitude and joy can even create hope. On a recent evening at twilight, I looked out of my office window and saw a cluster of bright yellow leaves across the street, lit from behind by a streetlight. As they shook in the wind, I saw them as little balls of yellow light, dancing in the darkness. This little joy gave me hope for my granddaughter as I imagined all of us humans as little balls of light, generation after generation, dancing our hearts out in the darkness of an uncertain world. Come what may, she too will shine.