Let Your Life Speak Interview: You Carry On Until It Carries You
An interview with artist Martha Randy
For those of you who’ve come to the newsletter more recently, you may not know that I intended to do regular interviews with various people about their integrity practice. I did six great interviews in the first few months (find them in the archive! They’re really inspiring.). Then my life imploded and I didn’t have the energy to issue invitations and chase people down. But I recently realized that I missed the conversations, the exchange of wisdom. So, I issued an invitation for any subscriber who wanted to be interviewed to contact me.
This is the first of those interviews. Getting to know Martha was pure delight. I trust you will agree. I’d also like to get to know you, so if you would like to be interviewed, please subscribe and leave a note in the comments. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Talking With Artist Martha Randy
Martha is a lover of words and languages, creatures and trees, fresh bread and birdsong—and a chaser of beauty. She lives outside Montreal, Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River, a body of water she counts as a close friend. The daily gratitude practice she took on nearly four years ago has immeasurably enriched and transformed her life and, in the process, revealed her deep affinity for photography. Martha now posts her glimpses of beauty on Instagram (@photogratitudes) and loves it when they can prove useful to other grateful people and organizations.
Who are you, Martha? Tell us about your journey.
I was born in New York State, near Chautauqua Lake, spent most of my growing up years in Olean and then went to French-speaking Switzerland for a year as an exchange student. My family moved while I was away and I graduated from high school just down the road from Niagara Falls, on Grand Island. I was a French and Spanish major at the University of Rochester, studied in Spain and France, met my husband, lived in Germany and France for over a decade, and then immigrated here.
Before I had kids [Martha has three children— ages 21, 19, and 15.], I thought for sure I was going to go on to do a Master’s and Ph.D. Everyone told me to do it, and then I didn’t. I’ve reflected on that a lot over the years—what was that all about? I certainly don’t regret having the children—they are treasures, each of them. I am sort of surprised, though, in retrospect, that I stayed at home as long as I did. I got married young, at 24, had my third child when I was 33, struggled with depression, but oh, God. I couldn’t name it! That is part of what this recent practice has helped me to uncover, all of this stuff that I just didn’t see back then.
I have a friend who came to Rochester from Cologne, Germany to get her Master’s. It was the year that I was going to be a Spanish teaching assistant and she was going to be teaching German— we hit it off immediately and ended up as roommates in Cologne a year later. After we’d both had our kids, she reached out and said, “I did a translation. Would you like to edit it for me?” I remember going, “Oh! That idiosyncrasy that I have? Of being really, really precise about my writing? People pay people to do that?” So, that started my editing career and we’ve been working together for German clients ever since. French translation projects started falling into my lap around then, too, and that’s another thing I still do. I’ve continued with that all these years as well.
I am also the Family and Youth Ministries Coordinator at a local congregation of the United Church of Canada—it’s a beautiful, progressive and life-affirming community. Before we left France, I remember being in my kitchen at my computer, scanning the internet for a church in Montreal that, among other things, had done its work around LGBTQ inclusivity and then I came upon this wonderful little place.
When we arrived from France with our young children, we experienced that wide-open, no-strings-attached welcome first-hand— and I am so grateful I get to extend that welcome to others now, too. I love the work I’ve been able to do over the years— organizing community dinners and all kinds of good ways of being together with people of all sorts. And I recognize just how precious this all is— “church” as an experience and an institution can just as easily be judgmental, exclusive and soul-destroying. I’ve sure seen that a lot; we probably all have.
What is a core belief that fuels your integrity practice? How did you come to believe it?
Starting in 2017, it felt like being smacked awake. The election of Trump had been the first smack. I think a lot of people might say that. At first, it destroyed me— my belief in any kind of logic in the world, right? And then from there, it felt like all sorts of surprising things started happening in my life.
In the fall of 2017, I got to help with our church’s Thanksgiving planning, and we ended up doing the kind of typical thing: focusing on gratitude. It’s Thanksgiving, let’s encourage people to do a gratitude practice, right? And then I, personally, fell head-first into exactly what we were encouraging everyone in our community to do! I remember, from one day to the next, I said, “Oh! You know what? On Facebook, I’m just going to write something I’m grateful for every day. I’ll do a gratitude bridge between Canadian and American Thanksgiving, why not? That’s 40-50 days.”
So I started doing it and it turned out to be the beginning of this super surprising thing because, come on— we’re forever talking about gratitude in a church setting and I wasn’t expecting it to be any different that year. But for me, it turned into this incredibly powerful life experience. This fall, it’ll be four years that I’ve been doing it. It’s amazing how it’s affected my whole life, my circle, my Facebook universe.
That first year, I numbered them. At gratitude #365, I’d made it to a year and I figured I ought to stop, call it finished. So, for a while I just posted the pictures I was taking. I had been taking more and more pictures, you know; I’d see something during my day and it would be a little visual nugget to include with the gratitude post. But for those few weeks, I didn’t include any words. Then there was this one night, this sunset, and I pulled over to the side of the road to catch it— and it welled up inside me, and I thought I have to share this gratitude. I can’t not do this anymore.
The second year I realized I was the boss. If I wanted to post gratitude six times a day and put it out into my Facebook world or anywhere else, I could do that. I started realizing that every morning, I would find something beautiful. I thought, huh. I’m going to add that to my daily practice now, too. I’m still going to publicly say what I’m grateful for every day, but I’m also going to go out every morning until I find a piece of beauty and I’m going to share that piece of beauty, too. I did that the whole second year, and it ended up being so true— there was always, always something beautiful waiting to be discovered and shared. So, I still do that.
The pictures kept coming, and they started surprising me because they got more and more beautiful. I would keep having these transcendent moments of beauty standing barefoot in my backyard, or perched on the ice by the St. Lawrence, and I also had really, really beautiful experiences sharing the images with other people.
Gratitude disarms people. My son found a lizard in a pineapple box at the grocery store where he works and we took it to a pet store and they saved it! I told the pet store guy about my gratitude practice. His name was Sean. I asked if he’d be okay with me taking his picture and sharing how grateful I was for what he did. He’s this 20-year-old kid, but he smiled and said, okay, so I did. And when we went back a week later, the sweet thing had its own cage—it could have just as well have been dead in that pineapple box, and yet Sean saved it! I’ve never met anyone who hates the idea or is awful with me when I ask them if I can publicly share about something kind they’ve done. They’re more like, “You’re grateful for me?”
The photographs have also become so beautiful that people have started asking to use them for other things. Can I use this one for my newsletter? Can I use one for this or that? And this makes me so happy. I know they’re beautiful, but I also feel they’re coming through me and not from me. I mean, it may sound odd to a lot of people, but I truly believe that. Because I’ll come back inside, look at all the photos I’ve just taken and think, that’s impossible! The animals cooperate with me. They do! I get pictures that make no sense. I mean, I just wander around in the world with my iPhone. So, the photography leaves me with this feeling of wondering what it’s all for; I realize I don’t have to know, but it’s clearly for something.
My husband gave me a book for Christmas a couple of years ago. It’s called Eyes of the Heart and is all about photography as a contemplative practice. I love it so much. Christine Valters Paintner, the author, says that we can choose to receive photos, instead of “taking” or “shooting” them. And the more time goes on, the more I see that it’s exactly what is going on. I am receiving photos like gifts. It took my breath away when I realized that.
Can you say more about how this gratitude practice connects to your integrity practice?
Reading your essays around integrity was part of what made me realize how the two go hand-in-hand. The thing is, I was never going to write a gratitude post just to write something for show; I was never going to pretend. I was never going to say something that I wasn’t truly grateful for.
So, I typically got into the practice, at the end of the day, by getting in that headspace of “what am I grateful for?” In the beginning, it was pretty straightforward stuff, but the way it landed in my Facebook world still surprised me, and the response would really blow me away sometimes. That being grateful out loud could resonate with people in all of these unexpected ways. Then when I hit American Thanksgiving, it was done! And yet so much had happened— in me, in my whole Facebook world, and I was like, this has now started to change how I show up in this world and I can’t stop now. So, I kept going.
The gratitude became a centering moment at the end of my evenings, a kind of integrity practice space, where I scanned over my day looking for whatever stood out, whatever kind of sparkled out at me. And every time, before I pushed send, I realized I was saying to myself, “Is this true? Can I stand by this? Is this just a cute thing I’m doing, or can I stand by this?” The more I did it— every day, every day— the more I kept saying, for this gratitude piece, can I stand by this?
This has become my question for everything now: is it true? It’s not just on Facebook with my gratitude practice— it’s when I go out into the world and when I’m in conversations. In a sense, it’s led me in a kind of circuitous way to things that other people may have intentionally gone straight into, like working on setting boundaries and deciding what to do next in life. Suddenly, the integrity of the practice made it so that I realized, if it’s not true, I just can’t do it anymore. It transformed me from the inside out.
I’m only a sample size of one, but I will say that living this practice has felt like peeling back an onion— one layer, another layer, another layer— until I found my voice, a voice of gratitude. I found that it’s a way to speak that has strength and power to it, and yet doesn’t shame people, doesn’t attack people, but is also very clear. I discovered that there’s a way of being truly grateful even in the midst of all kinds of really awful stuff.
I’d always been perplexed about how to do that— how do you speak up without just adding to the divisiveness and the noise? How do you use your voice for good? For me, the daily nature of the practice— no matter the headlines— has helped me find out how, and it’s helped me hone my voice because it’s something I’m committed to doing each and every day.
I had tended to worry about what people would think if I spoke up about X, Y, or Z, but then I just naturally started shifting, finding myself posting, and becoming involved in, social justice far more than I ever had in the past. Because it’s true— in every seemingly terrible situation, there’s always someone being courageous or saying something wise and helpful, something else happening if you look closely enough— and I can choose to shine a light on that by being grateful for it.
Throughout my life, I certainly had heard gratitude mentioned in all kinds of traditional settings, but I can’t say it ever felt like expressing it was something that liberated. It felt more like an extra layer of guilt, like it was tinged with heaviness. What I’ve discovered for myself is that when you feel gratitude— recognize it and name it— it’s a pure thing that you can pick up and set there like a jewel. But if you add that second part of, “I’m grateful I have this but oh, the world is such a horrible place!” it feels constricted and comparative and fearful.
I’ve come to understand that I can feel gratitude on one hand, and I can feel sorrow right next to it— but that even when the sorrow is huge and nearly overwhelming, I can still find some jewel of gratitude somewhere, and that it is a good thing to do. Brother David Steindl-Rast, this guru of grateful living that I love, says that we can be grateful in every moment, even if we’re not grateful for every thing. That’s been such a huge learning for me.
So, what gets in the way of your practice now? What are the sticky places? Are there still sticky places?
There have been a few times when the “Who do you think you are?” voice has come back. I’d sit there before pressing send and I would feel that little whisper of, “It’s too silly to be grateful for. Why are you doing this?” One time I wrote that I was grateful for a vacuum cleaner piece that finally got replaced—I was truly so grateful to have my vacuum cleaner working again. Because it had been broken for so long! And so this whole piece wrote itself, and I hit send, because…it was true!
This idea of letting your life speak because you feel it. It’s trusting that it serves some purpose for you to speak it, that there’s a purpose to living out loud. And so I just sort of remind myself, you know… Does it feel true? And then I wait until I feel the answer.
To do that publicly requires a certain willingness to be vulnerable. There’s a certain earnestness to it that’s not “cool”.
I exited the cool train. And I have to say— the grounding of gratitude is a gift that I would never want to exchange for a seat back on that train!
Are there other things that are challenging in your practice?
That process of sinking into truth and integrity? If my mind and to-do list are too full, if people I love are going through rough patches, or if I’m particularly tired, it’s harder. But what I’ve also discovered is that it’s exactly then— when it’s hard— that I need my gratitude practice, for me, and that’s been really interesting. I fell off it a couple of times during this pandemic season, and I could just feel it… I became a bit unmoored, shaky. And so I said, take yourself back. Do it again.
I find you carry on with the practice until it carries you, and then you don’t let go.
And, you know, we talked about social media and it’s a weird thing. I am in there a lot, and you can easily get pulled into the performative nature of it all. The feeling that when something becomes more, becomes noticed, you need to market it, you need to make it bigger, you need to make it shinier. All this kind of stuff. That pull is a sneaky thing and I certainly feel it often. Which is why the “Is this true?” question is so important to me.
I’m curious, where is your practice now? What do you feel is the layer of the onion that you’re pulling at next?
It feels like the next layer is this photography thing, this artist thing. It’s to allow myself to also be an artist. A young woman who follows me on Instagram once told me, “I so appreciate your art.” And I responded, “Oh? You think of my photos as my art?” “Absolutely!” she said, “That’s art.”
The next layer is also to really pay attention to what this is all for, and how it can serve. It was given to me to serve somehow, so I feel that it’s about me being willing to jump into whatever comes next. Not to say, it’s not good enough, or I’m not good enough. You know it’s funny. I’m a translator, but I don’t have a translation degree. I’m a photographer, but I never took a course in photography. This used to make me feel so very less-than. So often, the world tells us we can only do something if we’re officially qualified to do it, and I’ve come to believe that it’s okay to just embrace what we can do, to say, no, actually, I can do it, because I can do it. And why would I not share a gift I have?
Isn’t that what’s magic about this particular time in history? This letting our lives speak? We get to choose right now. Do we, or don’t we, let our lives speak? Like, the deal with social media and what you’re doing here with your newsletters— it’s all a choice to show up or not to show up. We have these super-powered tools for connection at our fingertips and they’re just waiting for us to use them for good.
When I think about it now, everything that has happened, everything that has come out of me just living my little life out loud. I never expected any of it. I did an interview about this gratitude practice as part of our church’s Thanksgiving worship on Facebook Live last year during lockdown. I didn’t see that coming. Then I was also asked to do a series of online workshops on practicing gratitude and they ended up bringing together people from both Canada and the US over Zoom. Then a friend from Paris asked me if would be willing to speak about my gratitude practice on a radio show over there, and I did, and that was kind of amazing. And over the years, I’ve watched people in my Facebook world start their own gratitude practices. I have a friend in Switzerland who got all the way up to #80 and still posts about gratitude today! Other people have reached out to tell me they were inspired to start practicing gratitude in their families at home and I was like— wow!
I have a friend in Japan— we met in Rochester on the very first day of our freshman year and she’s actually the one who got me to join Facebook in the first place, back in 2009, so we could stay in touch. She’d been going through some really difficult times over the past few years and told me later that seeing my posts appear in her Facebook feed had meant the world to her. She’s in Japan! And I was just living my little life out loud over here in Montreal! The stories go on and on and on, and they humble me, seriously.
To that question of yours around what I believe in absolutely? It’s that everything matters. I don’t know how it matters, but I just feel now that everything does. That thing that you say to the bus driver matters, and the flower matters, and the tiny little insect matters— it all matters somehow.
Thank you, Martha! I can’t wait to talk again. If you, dear reader, want to see more of Martha’s amazing art, you can find her over at Instagram.
Do you want to be interviewed? Subscribe, leave me a note in the comments, and let’s get to know each other! XO, Asha