EVERY WEDNESDAY, rain or shine, they gather.
Sometimes it’s just two or three people, other days more than a dozen men and women and maybe a small child or two greet each other with nods and smiles on one of the city’s historic 22 squares.
A bit after the midday church bells ring, they join hands and form a circle amidst the chaos of ogling tourists and bustling locals, offering up a few words of thanks for...whatever matters most to them in the moment.
“Health,” “community,” and “sustenance” are common offerings, along with a general appreciation for life and all its attendant lessons.
Non-denominational, open to all and lasting about as long as it takes to eat a sandwich, these simple lunchtime assemblies are known as Gratitude Circles in the Squares. They’ve been rotating around the city since last November, much to the delight of creator Joanne Morton.
“It’s started as an experiment. I wanted to see if we could raise awareness of the power of gratitude by holding a circle in each square for 22 weeks,” explains the ebullient Morton, who lists each gathering place on a Facebook page and a newly-launched website powered by Google calendar.
“Now we’re on our third round.”
The small ceremonies commence at exactly 12:12 to celebrate the auspicious repetition of that hour-to-minute combination and to accommodate the typical lunch break, should anyone care to stop by on their way for a quick bite.
The last of the noontime chimes of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist could still be heard last Wednesday on Lafayette Square as the circle came together. There was a biting chill in the air, and the group quickly chose a sunny spot near a SCAD film crew clustered around a very cold-looking model.
Regulars Denise and Norman Flojo rode up on their bicycles, bundled in gloves and scarves.
“We’ll even come when it rains,” assured Norman, who has helped lead the group when Morton has been out of town or unable to attend. “This is part of our routine.”
The circle blossomed quickly with the arrival of others, including a young mother with her 4-month-old son swathed comfortably on her chest.
“It’s the highlight of our week,” enthused Pam Lloyd, who recently relocated to Savannah with her husband, Doug Rodenbeck, from an Iowa horse farm.
For Lloyd, the gratitude circles have been more than a way to maintain a positive attitude in the face of so much recent change—it’s also led her to Savannah’s vibrant social and cultural network.
“We’ve connected to so many other wonderful things through the circles, from Asbury Memorial Church to the First Friday Art March,” confirmed Lloyd.
According to Dr. Emma Seppala at Stanford University, a regular habit of expressing gratitude—either by writing down lists or speaking out loud—has tremendous benefits. Research shows it increases feelings of altruism and other scientific indicators of happiness and can alleviate psychological and physical suffering. It even helps tame insomnia.
“Gratitude decreases depression and improves optimism and positive emotions, which in turn increase well-being, boost creativity, benefit relationships, and impact longevity,” counseled Dr. Seppala in a recent TED talk.
She acknowledges that many of us have good reason to grumble, and that life’s challenges are real and poignant. But the renowned psychologist notes there is great power when we can pivot from despair to the recognition of all the things that are going right: “If we are alive, chances are a great many things are working in our favor.”
That’s the jubilant sentiment that settled over Lafayette Square as one by one, the participants recognized the importance of every small bit of praise, nourishing meal and opportunity to gather plays in how they experience life.
Morton believes Gratitude Circles in the Squares can maintain its momentum as it enters another year of quiet, joyous informality.
“This circle extends beyond us, to the hearts of everyone we interact with,” enjoined Morton, who is facing a new phase of her own as she steps down as the director of Anahata Healing Arts this month.
“This is a powerful practice, and it can transform the planet.”
The entire observance takes less than 15 minutes, and all the participants leave with a hug and thanks for their presence.
By 12:30, they’ve dispersed like dandelion spores in the breeze, spreading gladness as they go.