I don’t think I’ve ever written about gratitude.
I even type the word “gratitude” hastily, almost looking over my shoulder in case someone catches me doing it, because I think I was raised (socially/culturally/familially) to see this concept as a bit granola-y, you know?
Like, if I talk about feeling grateful (ecch), it’s a slippery slope to aura cleansing and essential oils and crystal therapy. From there, of course, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to having a man bun and drinking kombucha.
Worse than that, I was scared that if I ever wrote about feeling grateful for what I have, I would lose it. It sounds superstitious to write this, and is probably a chunky insight into my shattered-glass psyche, but even now as I write this, I am scared that when I hit “publish”, the universe or God (or the therapy crystals, those malevolent fuckers!) will turn on me and take away everything good in my life.
I wasn’t raised to talk about the good things, because that’s showing off and attention seeking, and I grew up learning that pride comes before a fall. No pride, no fall, right?
However, I also wasn’t raised to talk about the bad things, because that’s dwelling on the negative and navel gazing and also, somehow, attention seeking. You just get on with it.
Sidebar: when I look at these two statements, I can only conclude that I was essentially raised not to talk.
But talk I do, now.
In any case, I think I’ve learned over the past few years – through writing my blog posts, through being more open on social media, and of course through my writing of novels and short stories – to talk about the hard stuff, the darker side, the bad shit. It’s been cathartic and revelatory and a constant undulation of learning that it’s okay, and survivable, to feel the full spectrum of human emotion.
But I don’t know if I’ve ever learned how to write about feeling good.
I realised this recently when a wave of the much-maligned gratitude smacked me in the face with the force of a tsunami, and I could barely hold it together.
It happened, of all places, at Disneyland.
This was over a month ago, when I was on my honeymoon in Europe, and we arrived in Paris for the final week of our holiday. I mentioned something to my husband about following him around France to various pop concerts of his choosing, and he suggested I should choose an activity for us while we were in Paris.
The first thing out of my mouth was, “I wanna go to Disneyland.”
This was unexpected, because Disneyland has never been on my radar. I’ve been to Paris twice before and never had any intention to visit it. In fact, in 2013 I was at the train station that takes people from Paris to the theme parks, and I remember seeing the parents with their prams and kids hanging off them like saddle bags and thinking, “That seems like actual hell on Earth.”
And to be honest, I’ve always been fairly critical of the commercial apparatus behind the Disney machine: I don’t like how that studio has taken over so much of Hollywood, how its influence and control sweeps over so many franchises. My first thought of Disneyland was the No Doubt song “Tragic Kingdom”, taken from their hit 1995 album of the same name:
Once was a magical place
Over time it was lost
Price increased the cost
…Now the drawbridge
Has been lifted as the millions
They drop to their kneesThey pay homage to a king
Whose dreams are buried in their minds
His tears are frozen stiff
Icicles drip from his eyes
The king being Walt Disney; his frozen tears a reference to the urban legend that he was cryogenically frozen upon his death in 1966. (Which, holy crap, I only just discovered was not actually true(!?!), but that’s a discussion for another day.)
The point was: I was a bit cynical about the Disney corporation and yet, when I was given carte blanche to choose anywhere I wanted to go in Paris, I chose Disneyland.
Because, being on my honeymoon, I was in a five-week long permanent good mood, and honestly, fuck the cynicism and shit, I just wanted to go have some fun.
So, the husband and I finally arrived at Disneyland Paris on a cool June day. As soon as we got off the RER train and walked out into the open air, I could feel the sense of excitement building in my limbs.
“I want to explore the village first, before we go into the theme park,” I said, like an absolute geek, but I just needed to know that I had walked around every square inch I was allowed to.
So we did: briefly exploring the retro restaurants and cafes and sports bars of the Disney Village like the kid who keeps his shiny collectible in the box and presses his nose to the plastic, scared to ruin the anticipation of finally opening the new toy.
And while we were still in the village, in one of the giant shops filled with Disney merchandise, the wave hit me.
It was partly the nostalgia factor of seeing so much Aladdin and The Lion King merch on display in the shop. They were the defining Disney animated films of my childhood; Aladdin was the first movie I ever saw at a cinema when I was 4 or 5. I remembered the first time I’d heard of Disneyland. Back in the days of VHS tapes, they used to have advertisements for Disneyland before and/or after the film, so in that moment in the World of Disney shop, it came flooding back.
The memory of being five years old, and seeing all these kids and families having an epic time at Disneyland, and knowing that would never be me.
It would be misleading to pretend that I grew up in some impoverished situation, because I didn’t. But I grew up in an isolated town and we weren’t the kind of family who could afford to fly overseas and go to Disneyland. So, I think I grew up learning that lots of things in life were out of reach for someone like me, and Disneyland and Europe were two of those things.
I had never realised it had imprinted on me in such a way until this moment.
So while my husband was blithely scoping out the merch, I felt a tidal wave of happiness splash over me, gently at first, almost like a fresh dew.
The wave said to me:
Sometimes, we do eventually get what we want. Isn’t it nice?
And then, suddenly, there I was, choking back tears in the Disney shop, surrounded in all directions by those stupid fucking overpriced mugs and Mickey Mouse-embossed glassware while A Whole New World played over the speakers.
Because the wave was right. It was really nice to, eventually, get something that you always wanted. It was a childlike, redemptive state to be in: that I had accessed some hitherto hidden pocket of joy that I had absolutely ruled myself out of experiencing when I was a young boy.
What a lucky doer.
I managed to contain myself, so when the husband decided he was done and we moved on to the next part of the village, I cracked jokes about how this place was so capitalist and how “moichandising” was “where the real money from the movies was made” (quoted in the voice of the character Yogurt from the 1986 parody flick Spaceballs).
But the wave wasn’t done with me yet.
As we walked, the gratitude just kept building inside me. The tidal wave was slushing through my body, a cleansing flood washing out all these other things in my life I had told myself I would never, ever have – except now, miraculously, I did have them.
I felt gratitude to be at Disneyland as a 30 year old man when I’d once believed I’d never have the chance.
I felt gratitude to be walking there, hand-in-hand with the man I love. The first time I came to Paris in 2006, I was with a man and later told myself this would be something I would never have again. I remember returning to Perth Airport after that backpacking holiday and squeezing myself back into my straight guy body, the spectral snakeskin of my old self that I would continue to wear for two years. I thought I would never get what I wanted – but now, here I was with my husband.
I felt gratitude that, after all the campaigning and trauma, I was now legally married to the bloke, something I grew up never even imagining as an option.
I felt gratitude to be in Paris, my favourite city in the world, a million miles from home.
I felt gratitude that my book had just won another award, that people were congratulating me and saying they wanted to read it, that it was actually finally getting published, when I’d been working on that dream since I was seven years old.
I felt gratitude that I was on my honeymoon and having the best five weeks of my goddamn life.
I felt so much gratitude I just wanted to get on my knees and thank God, or the universe, or the essential-oil-crystal-kombucha-auras, for letting anything this good happen to me. I didn’t feel like I deserved any of it, but I was so, so glad it was happening.
While all this was happening, my husband said he needed to pee. While he was in the toilet, I found a quiet corner at the side of a sports bar and let myself shake and cry tears of utter, unfettered joy. I had come to know pain and struggle intimately, but this feeling of being really, truly happy was brand new.
Crying finally let that tidal wave out of my body – and it swept away with it all the junk and detritus a man can build up in thirty years of hating himself, of being afraid, of thinking he will never get what he wants.
When my husband returned, I said I was ready to head into the theme park and enjoy our day at Disneyland. In fact, I decided I was ready to go on a real rollercoaster for the first time ever – something my anxiety had always held me back from until that point. But, in my freshly flooded state, I thought, “to hell with you, anxiety”.
No, more than that.
To hell with everything that ever held me back.
To hell with my own negative thoughts.
To hell with my fear that, if I’m grateful, and enjoy the moment, something will go wrong.
To hell with everything that ever stopped me just being a kid and having some fucking fun.
So I found the biggest, fastest, scariest rollercoaster there was – the famous Space Mountain, of course – and I went on it. We were seated right at the front and we hurtled through a pitch black tunnel at breakneck speed for two minutes, faster and faster, the force of the wind almost solid against our faces, the adrenaline giving me permission to shout and say the word “fuck” a lot.
And it was sick as, because with my arms strapped to my sides, there was nothing I could do but live in the moment and revel in it.
And man, it was so fucken awesome.