Essay: The Littleness of Gratitude

Writer Hailey Gates talks about little acts of gratitude and what they mean to her.

On Sept. 30, I was walking to Trader Joe’s with Deputy Arts Editor Xavier Barrios when he informed me — in an absurdly nonchalant way — it was his birthday. 

Xavier — who has been a friend, mentor and cheerleader to me as I navigate writing for The Phoenix — is someone who I feel immensely thankful for. Upon learning it was his birthday, I immediately started scouring the Trader Joe’s shelves in search of the perfect gift in an attempt to demonstrate this appreciation. 

I decided on Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spiced Joe Joe’s Sandwich Cookies and a Fall Edition Synergy raw kombucha which had “living with gratitude” written across the bottle. Xavier, looking doubtfully at the kombucha, asked me what flavor it was supposed to be. 

“Gratitude, obviously,” I said cheekily. 

As we went to check out, the cashier complimented us on our kombucha selection, explaining it was supposed to be apple pie flavored. 

“Gratitude must taste like apple pie,” Xavier said, smiling. 

We were both performatively skeptical, but really I think we were grateful for the experience of trying it and for having someone to try it with. He appreciated the birthday gift, and I was thankful he was born. The kombucha could have tasted like anything, and it still would have tasted like gratitude. 

But then again, maybe gratitude does taste like pie. 

Every year my grandma and I bake pies together for Thanksgiving — two pumpkins and two pecans. We always fall into the same routine. She prepares the dough, prints out the recipes and measures out all the ingredients while I robotically do exactly as she commands. 

There is a clear experience-based hierarchy in my grandma and I’s pie kitchen. It’s clear to everyone who the real baking genius is — and it definitely isn’t me. 

Yet every year without fail, when her pies are praised by our extended family, she gives me all the credit, insisting I did the brunt of the work. 

The more I reflect on it, the more I see this tradition as one rooted in gratitude. I bake the pies with my grandma every year to show her how much she means to me, to thank her for teaching me so much. She gives me the credit as a way to project that gratitude back. 

The pie tradition is derived from love and custom, but it’s also a meaningful way to say thank you for being active participants in each other’s lives. Nothing quite encapsulates the depth of our mutual gratitude more than the triumphant look we give each other over our first bites of pumpkin pie. 

Showing appreciation in these seemingly small ways, in actions, in consistency, will always mean more than a holiday-motivated hallmark card. The substance of gratitude resides in intentional gestures and unprompted generosity. 

I try to make an effort to let these small yet deliberate measures motivate my understanding of gratitude. It’s important to strive to create these moments for others, and subsequently important to recognize when others create them for you. 

If we treat the conscious actions of those around us as small signifiers of thanks, we are left with a greater, mutually acknowledged appreciation for the impact we have on each other. 

Gratitude is in a TikTok sent to me by a friend from back home, or in one of my roommates cleaning the dishes I left in the sink. When a friend takes a candid photo of me, or remembers my coffee order, or texts me “happy birthday” — all of these are small but conscious expressions of gratitude. 

My dad and I give each other song recommendations, my brother and I send each other pug memes and my mom frequently reposts my latest articles. Minute interactions such as these are really us saying, “Thank you for being who you are, and for letting me be a part of it.” 

Situating these small gestures in a larger light has helped me acknowledge the omnipresent nature of gratitude — there is thankfulness in everything. Pairing action with appreciation has made me more aware of — and more actively thankful for — the people I’m surrounded by. 

Whether it’s an impromptu birthday gift or commitment to a time-honored tradition, gratitude is present in every gesture made with someone else in mind. After taking our first sips of kombucha, Xavier and I agreed — gratitude does kind of taste like apple pie. But mostly, it just tastes like a beverage bought with love. 

Feature image by Aidan Cahill / The Phoenix

Hailey Gates

Hailey Gates