Three Missoulians share what gratitude is to them

Home. Health. Family. These are the bedrock gifts to which we drill down this time of year. Whether we’re sharing food and conversation around our Thanksgiving table or struggling through some hard times, gratitude remains. So, how does that work exactly? Three Missoulians pry open their gratitude so we can see what it’s made of: 

Gratitude is Spiritual

Jeff Valentine, professional counselor and long-time pastor, has witnessed gratitude through his service and in the book that inspires his faith. 

“In Romans, Chapter 1, we see how God has a desire for us to thrive, to flourish like a flower in full bloom. Gratitude is part of that,” said Jeff. Jeff has watched those words do some heavy lifting, especially when things don’t look so flowery. 

“Everyone has a story, and there’s at least one or two chapters that are pretty rough. It’s easy to focus on what we’ve lost, but that can get us stuck.”

Jeff understands feeling stuck. In 1997, he underwent brain surgery. The procedure ended up paralyzing his vocal chords. 

“I sounded like Marlon Brando,” he joked. “Here I was: I felt called to be a preacher, and my voice was the very thing I needed. I thought, ‘Why God?’” Over time, though, those ironic circumstances matured into sage advice. 

“We need to see what we have and find a way to express it, to say ‘This is what I have, not just what I lost’…It’s important to recognize it and audibly express it, however we can.” Missoulians who’ve attended Missoula Alliance Church have witnessed that advice in action. 

“Now my voice is as clear as it’s been in 20 years,” said Jeff. “Gratitude has been a big part of that. And, there’s all kinds of science that shows that when people are grateful or thankful, then they’re healthier.”

As healthy as his voice sounds today, Jeff is careful not to sugar-coat the darker shades of struggle.

“The idea that we should just be happy, that’s not real,” he said. “It’s not a matter of being happy. It’s giving equal time to what we can be thankful for, as well as how we feel about our loss. We reckon with what we’ve lost and what God has given to us. We remember the idea that God has designed us to thrive. Gratitude is part of what makes that work.”


Gratitude is Practical

If gratitude helps us thrive, then Andy Smetanka has proven that principle during his 28 years in the Missoula arts scene. As a UM student, local writer, and film producer, Andy understands both the gifts and the grit that a Missoula lifestyle requires. 

“You have to orchestrate Missoula and make it play for you,” he said. “It’s tough to try to make a living with art, but at least you can do it here. You’re allowed to thrive here.” For anyone familiar with Andy’s entertaining personality and provocative work, it’s hard to discern whether Andy loves Missoula or Missoula loves Andy. 

Andy has always found a way to contribute to his community. Generosity, mixed with gratitude, has earned him some social capital among the locals. 

“I’ll take my kids to the farmers market and trade some cider for cheese or a sausage sandwich,” Andy said. “These connections feel like I’m plugged into a safety net. Although, I haven’t figured out a way to succeed at bartering for my mortgage payment yet.”

A keen sense of place makes Andy sympathetic to the trades Missoula has made as it grows from mountain town to regional mecca. From new construction to old buildings, he understands our collective strain to balance loss with gratitude. 

“When horrible architecture goes up, it’s hard not to take that like a knife to the gut,” he said. “But, then there’s The Wilma. It seemed headed for that rundown lair for the tribal crowd of raging metal fans. Now, it’s purpose-built to house rock shows. I couldn’t go in for a while. When I finally did, though, it was like walking into a cathedral.” 

So, what does Andy think about the loss of that historical pipe organ? 

“Ah! The pipe organ!” he said. “These are emblematic things that we haven’t thought of for years. Then, when someone wants to get rid of it, we’re like, ‘Wait!’

Andy’s current project magnifies that tension between nostalgia and progress. 

“It’s a short documentary featuring Missoula from the glacial lake days through the 20th century, told through vintage home movies,” Andy said. “I’m trying to capture those Missoula feelings and phenomena.” Reviewing thousands of feet of footage has given Andy a lens on how we tend to splice together a new reality from buttery memories. 

“You see those sun pots dripping across the film and it’s easy to think those were the golden years, but they had their challenges and frustrations, just like we do.”

So, how does Andy turn frustration into gratitude? 

“You have to learn to be nostalgic for the present,” he said “Even if you have to write a moment on your hand, just so you can know how amazing it is to be here. That can be cold comfort when you’re having a hard time, but we have to think of the future that we’re squirreling away for.”

For Andy, that future includes a big family bustling in a bungalow on Missoula’s Northside. 

“There’s kids coming and going all the time,” he said. “Someone’s always yelling from another room, ‘Dad, do we have any pickles?’ I have that big, loud family and that’s what I always wanted. My family is really where my life is at now. There’s those sublime moments and it seems to have all worked out.”

Gratitude is Medicinal

“Things just work better with gratitude,” said Arwen Kittelson-Aldred, a musician and sound bath instructor. Arwen understands the need for a daily dose of gratitude. “Why not set yourself up for success,” she asked, “instead of not having the emotional bandwidth to handle things that are out of your control?”

That’s hard-earned wisdom for Arwen. At age 19, she lost her sister, Eleanore. 

“It was unexpected and very traumatizing,” she said. “I was 26 before I could talk about her without shaking.” Through those difficult years, however, the music of her childhood helped anchor Arwen to her truth. She credits her parents for that strength. 

“I wouldn’t be the musician I am today if it wasn’t for my parents,” Arwen said. “When I was a kid, they said, ‘You are going to study music for seven years, but you get to choose which instrument.’” Arwen chose the piano and studied classical music.

That musical foundation gave Arwen a head start on her path to healing. 

“I took a meditation class, so I could learn some tools to keep from freaking out,” she said. “Then I found yoga. In 2015, I completed Kundalini Yoga training, which introduced me to a whole new style of music.” Not long afterward, Arwen discovered the sounds that would help her heal. 

“In 2016, there was a training for the Himalayan singing bowls,” she said. “I thought ‘Why not?’ I fell in love.” Then, Arwen stretched her talents even more to incorporate the gong. 

“I taught a six-month Kundalini series that required the sound of the gong for every session. It was possible to practice with a recording of gong music. But, I soundtrack my life, so I asked myself, ‘Am I the kind of person who uses a recording?’” Arwen chuckles at herself in answer. “No. I’m the person who learns the gong and buys my own.” 

Today, most Missoulians know her as a masterful conductor of gongs and singing bowls. 

“When I played classically, the high points were always the performances,” Arwen said. “I could bypass all my thinking and just let it come through me. The first time I played the bowls, it was like going to that place.” 

Now, Arwen draws others to that special place through her sound journeys, which she performs in area yoga and meditation studios. Sharing her talent has allowed Arwen’s gifts to reverberate back to her, helping to heal her loss. 

“I’m playing instruments that my deaf sister would’ve adored,” she said. “There’s nothing like watching a gong being played, especially for someone like her, whose eyes can pick up on every sound that’s vibrating through it.”

Those sounds fill the room when Arwen plays, just as gratitude fills her words when she talks of her own healing. 

“I volunteered for six weeks at an ashram,” she said. “Whenever we talked about really hard things, they’d always say, ‘Wahe Guru.’ It means, ‘The awesomeness of God, the universe, and the primal energy.’ It was a reminder to be grateful for everything.” 

Still, Arwen understands how tricky that can be. 

“It’s easy to go into spiritual bypass mode and just say, ‘I’m thankful.’ You don’t magically become grateful,” she said. “It’s that medicine, which can initially taste really bitter, but if you stay with it, after a while, you don’t notice the bitterness.”