Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gratitude, our high-wire act

So, cliche as it may be, November is the month for giving thanks. In this generally dismal month, it seems a fitting exercise to list what we are grateful for in our lives, from the smallest detail to the fact that we have lives at all. To that end, I'd developed a daily ritual for Blueberry and myself. We made a calendar, sort of like an advent calendar, called "30 Days of Gratitude." It has little construction paper flaps and underneath we write something every day that we are (well, she is) grateful for. It was going wonderfully well. "I am grateful for my food." "I am grateful for my family." "I am grateful for my toys." Ok, ok. Excellent. Expected, but good. And today, day 9, we had one of those days. I was feeling edgy, over-tired, sarcastic. Blueberry and I clashed a little bit in the morning over getting dressed, chores, etc. I did not allow her to turn on the television when she asked so she declared that I was "not being a good mommy!" and stormed off to the school room. Attempting to breathe deeply, I followed her and tried to derail her mood by engaging in the gratitude activity. Well, day #9's post, as dictated by Blueberry, would have been, "I am grateful for my mommy only when she lets me turn on the tv." (Hear me sigh heavily.)

This got me to thinking, though. Gratitude isn't really just saying, "I am thankful for ....", it isn't just making a list, saying a prayer over a meal, being happy in an excess of material possessions; it's a place of being. It's a hard place to be. It's a high wire. I get this feeling that gratitude is a skill too. You have to practice it, like piano playing or yoga or driving. There are days when I am home with my girls and it feels like the day stretches into monotonous eternity. Don't get me wrong; I love what I do, but there are days when I feel like I've been swallowed by a whale. I suppose these days come to us all. On these days remembering gratitude is hard. It's tricky to find, tough to practice and I fall off the wire. My response to Blueberry today was, "Well, thanks for that, Blue." (Sarcasm is sometimes my refuge when I'm driven crazy by these little beings.) And then I stopped and realized what she was doing. She was falling off the wire too. Maybe this was a stupid idea, I thought. Maybe writing down what we are thankful for is the exact wrong approach. Like saying, "I'm awesome" instead of just being awesome. We just have to be it. We have to live in gratitude; to practice balancing until we get it. And once you get it, you can just run.

I suppose even writing about gratitude like this fails the gratitude test. I should be less aware of it. I should just see it and live it and breathe it. It's such an open place to be. My sweet Buttercup is excellent at it. She just turns toward things that please her - nursing, silly songs, kisses, toys with bells, mama playing peekaboo, love of any kind - and her whole being lights up with gratitude. It comes before words. It's instinct. As John Berger, the art critic, notes, "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak." Babies see and respond in an utter attitude of thankfulness. Not the type of bowing lip-service we adults are so quick to espouse. Not Emily Post or Miss Manners type thankfulness. Nothing humble or modest or meek about it. It's a lightness in response to what is given them. My baby glows with gratitude.

There is a way to be grateful that includes everything.

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to the store
to buy breakfast and the paper, on a

stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have

your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman

down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,

is this a message, finally, or just another day?
from "Starfish" by Eleanor Lerman

My Blueberry's rebellion against our gratitude "exercise" was the jolt I needed. Telling someone, yourself even, you're going to walk a high-wire and walking a high-wire are completely different things. You have to get out and step on, stiff knee and all.

It's sort of like that old mantra, "It's better to give than to get." So lame, the teenager in me thinks. But you are getting something. If you give out, you get the gratitude of others. Spark and light. It's electric. It's a refuge for the life-weary. It's the hardest place to get to but the simplest place to be. Flint and stone. Glint and fire in the dark. We gravitate to those who give it off; even in our deep wells of sarcasm, cynicism, negativity, stoicism, it is the grateful people, the people who glow with it, that attract us. I want that for my children. Heck, I want that for myself. Lerman's poem goes on:

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life's way of letting you know that

you are lucky. (It won't give you smart or brave,
so you'll have to settle for lucky.) Because you

were born at a good time. Because you were
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your

late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And

then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,

with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

And so, I will keep things about me that remind me to be grateful -- things that fulfill the criteria of usefulness, beauty, and simplicity. They will be my cues. The simple white sheets and cloth diapers on the line. The wooden spoons in the kitchen. The richly-hued watercolor paint and thick creamy paper in the schoolroom. The photo of us on our wedding day. The box of matches near the stove. The brilliant blue silk scarf Blueberry plays with all day. The golden honey in a jar catching sun on the windowsill.

If my girls are going to learn to run on the wire, I must learn to first.

(picture from

No comments:

Post a Comment