The Word Gratitude

Betty

Gratitude. I keep running across this word. Be grateful. Practice gratitude. It’s the only way to happiness and inner peace.

The problem I have is not with gratitude itself. The problem I have is that the word has become cliché, its power and meaning shrunk down to a nicety. Be nice. Be grateful.

Since I do not like to use clichés, words and phrases that have lost weight to the point of anorexia, I will talk about thankfulness.

In order to fully feel thankfulness, a dose of sorrow is required, sorrow that has lodged itself firmly in our bones, sorrow that stands in our minds like a tall clock with a quiet tick. With age, time seems to speed up. The ticking loudens. And, as our sorrows increase, so does thankfulness.

Often I tell my boys to say “Thank You.”  But thankfulness is not taught. Thankfulness is accumulated.

As always, I am thankful for my boys. If there was nothing else in my life, they would be enough. But, I’m always getting bonuses like these:

The other night, the sky was smooth and clear and the stars were near, plumped and glittering like Christmas lights above my head.

In the alley there is a stringy, leafless plant. The stem is lavender and bends over as if in prayer.

I walked my dog, Betty, to the Mississippi where hundreds of ducks had peacefully gathered until we showed up. Then they flew. They all flew. They rose up and scattered.

And then there’s Betty, the rescue dog from Kentucky, the rescue dog that saves me every  single day.

Costa Rica

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I brought them, my sons, to a place with a wild tropical ocean because I wanted them to feel the wheel of its waters softly rolling around their ankles. I wanted them to know the unsteadying of their sturdy bodies as the sand was pulled out from under their feet. I wanted them to know joy in the ocean’s unpredictability. I wanted them to be tossed around, their thoughts and perceptions jumbled. And I wanted them to learn that, even when we nurture a vigilance and a steadiness, there are waves that stalk the shore, that spring up suddenly and flatten us.

One cannot say to the ocean, Come this far but no further. One cannot say to the waves, Grow this tall but no taller.

And myself? What did I want? I wanted to see the rise of the mountains. I wanted to feel the rainy season rains that fall with purpose, stopping as suddenly as they began. I wanted to live the surprise of nature, presenting itself without pretense or order– a ceiling covered with geckos, watching an iguana watch a turkey vulture watching us.

The man said there were crocodiles in the river and if you lifted a stone to the steel frame of the bridge, you could summon them. I didn’t want to summon crocodiles. I wanted to see monkeys, the kind that bark like big dogs, that grunt like wild pigs.

  I wanted to see if there was possibility, the possibility of returning to a landscape I knew in my youth, one of exquisite color, one of sounds echoing, and one of thick fragrance trapped in the humid air.

Mostly, I wanted to know if I could return to a place like this, not as a daughter or a sister or a wife, but as a self who doesn’t find beauty in the blocks of the neighborhood houses and lawns, all sleek and square and even, an order that blunts the possibility of surprise. And my boys, I wanted them to know about fierce beauty.

I can’t say how this will set up in their memories. I can say that my youngest son was churned in the ocean waves, was beat up without the malice of fists or feet. My older son, with his all-seeing swim goggles bound tightly to his face, was pummeled and thrown to shore and his goggles were ripped off his head.

He went looking for them.

“You won’t find them,” I said.

And my boys looked at me as if I was the ocean, but we walked the beach anyway. I could not interest them in the tide pools, in the tree growing on top of the ocean rock.

“I need my goggles,” my son said, like once he needed his blanket in order to fall asleep.

“Go get the other pair,” I said, and they, my young sons, walked off while I distractedly climbed a rock.

Then they vanished.

Were they playing a trick? Had they unwittingly taken on the unpredictability of the ocean? No, the sun must’ve gotten to my brain because they didn’t play tricks like that. Would they have gone back into the ocean and gotten pulled out? Both of them? Oh God, I thought, then my life is over. And I walked and looked and I walked and looked. It occurred to me that I’ve been doing this my whole life.

I will not see a monkey, but a guacamaya will fly over my head and let fall a scarlet feather, which will spin in circles around my vision until I catch it. Any my boys will not be carried out to sea and my life will not be over. With hazy vision and the slow realization of distance, of shoreline walked, they, too, will return.

Winter

Photo: Minneapolis Institue of Arts

Photo: Minneapolis Institue of Arts

 

Maybe it’s the coming of  winter’s darkness and cold that is causing me to be jumpy in the head. My thoughts won’t settle and my body wants to do everything fast.

Yes, winter can be beautiful, the contrast of white snow against red berries or the diamond shimmer of ice crystals across a field, but its beauty is not enough.

Some people have said that one must dress for it. I’ve tried wearing two of everything and still the air bites. It’s the breathing part where I have trouble. The air is cold going in, warm coming out, where it wets and freezes the scarf wrapped twice around my face. And movement, even the smallest, opens up a space, a slit, like an ever expanding wound, sometimes at the wrists, where coat and gloves meet, sometimes at that delicate indentation at the base of the throat, where scarf and coat separate, an incompatible couple.

I hate the way winter spreads itself so wide, snaking across continents, charging north, sneaking south where it doesn’t belong.

No more pretending. No more searching for the defect, the weakness within myself that prevents me from liking it. I do not like winter and I do not want to be where it is.

I had the same feeling of wanting to take flight a couple weeks ago when Pook and I had an hour to wander the museum while waiting for Ian, who was in the building next door was dancing to Footloose.

It began pleasantly enough with us moving past the Chinese bowls and ewers and vases, me looking for the oldest item, Pook looking for the most recent.

We strolled past the silkscreens and, as we moved into the Americas area, I saw the chunky beaded stilettos next to the soft beaded moccasins. It seemed predictable and gimmicky and I was aware of moving from observation into judgement. Is it that life has gotten too easy that we seek to make it more difficult by, for example, wearing stilts for shoes?

And then we came to the squat wooden man. It was a poutokomanawa that had once graced the ridge pole of a Maori meeting house. It was no bigger than a five year old child with stout legs and a round belly. But its face was fierce and daring and the paua shell eyes, glinting green and blue, spooked me. I didn’t want to turn my back on it and I didn’t. I sidled out of the room.

As I understand it, the poutokomanawa was carved to represent a strong and spiritual ancestor, representative of the identity of the community.

If that was the custom in this country, what would our poutokomanawa look like? Would it be white like winter, with squinty, glinty, greenish-blue eyes? Would there be bags of money in its hands, maybe a gun on its shoulder? Maybe it’d be just a screen, all HD and everything.

That is not my identity.

 

 

Poor You

 

A thin woman with gray hair pulled back in a tight ponytail shouted across the street at me. I’d encountered her once before, last year, on the sidewalk by my house. She was examining the trees the City had planted on the boulevard.

“You killed them.” she said. There was fury in her eyes. She looked at me as if I was the drought, killing the baby trees, drying up the creek with my sucking, unquenchable thirst.

It hadn’t occurred to me to water them; I didn’t plant them. But I watered those trees that day and the next and the next.

So when I saw her on the other side of the street staring closely at someone else’s sapling, I was a little relieved. I noticed she was wearing tennis shoes and that her jeans fit her the same way jeans fit my mom, dangling almost, from the sharp hooks of her hips.

And then she shouted, “I suppose you’re going to let your dog shit on my lawn.”

Well, no, I hadn’t planned on it. But it’s possible, I guess, since I don’t know where you live. There wouldn’t be any malice in it. I mean dogs aren’t like that. And anyway, I’d clean it up.

I didn’t say anything. My dog, Betty, and I just watched her walk away, like we watched that coyote walk away last fall, after eating its warm squirrel breakfast.

Poor you, I thought and then I wondered what I could possibly have said to dissolve her meanness. I came up with nothing. But who am I to try and fix her, as if she’s the broken one, as if we all don’t have stuck gears and rusty springs and all sorts of missing pieces.

I am broken just like she is.

I’m the thief who breaks into your garage and I’m the thief in shiny, fancy clothes helping myself to your paycheck. I’m the fat guy that lies and the thin guy that lies. I’m a rapist, a torturer. I’m a murderer too. And I’m a notorious slut.

But I’m also Jimmy Carter and Mary Oliver and Jean Vanier. I’m all the writers and artists and music makers. I’m the people who raise their voices against war, who are willing to accept less, to give freely of what they have for peace. I am all of these people and they are all me.

I am the thin, angry woman, the protector of trees, who shows her brokenness so openly. I had better be kind.

 

 

Seeking Employment

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I am literate and write well. I am organized, efficient, and I easily retain information.

I don’t often use big words and I don’t usually swear.

Dogs like me.

I can’t fly a plane but I know how to book cargo or set a person up for a pleasant vacation.

I’ve taught people, children mostly, despite the fact that I don’t have a teaching license.

I’ve cared for the elderly and those with developmental disabilities (I hate that categorization), but I don’t have current certification to prove it.

Once I fit a square peg into a round hole, though the square was a couch and the round hole was a doorway.

I’ve hung sheetrock, laid tile, rewired, and fixed toilets. I’ve hung doors. Admittedly, getting them to hang straight with the latch gliding smoothly over the strike plate to click quietly was more luck than skill. I’ve mowed lawns, shoveled snow, hauled dirt, laid patio stones. And I’ve painted. I’ve done lots of painting.

I can’t drive a bus and I don’t want to.

I understand english and spanish and french. I would say that I speak those languages but I’m really not much of a talker. Sometimes I speak in different accents.

I know how to prioritize tasks. For example, in order to make pancakes for my hungry household, first I have to wake up, brush my teeth, and start the coffee. Since I’ve used most the distilled water in the coffee pot, I’ll have to refill the distiller. Before I can do that, I need to empty the dishwasher so I can load it with last night’s popcorn bowls and milk cups that are in the sink. I’ll start the quinoa for the pancakes while I’m doing that and by the time it boils and simmers for a while, I can turn off the stove, turn my attention to Betty, who has been gazing at me this whole time, wondering when it will be her turn for a walk.

I do have an MFA in creative writing and I won a prize for my thesis. That’s just a bit of extra information.

I’m 50.

I’m not naive and I like it when people are straightforward and honest. I’m not easily offended. If you maligned my kids in some way, that would offend me. Or if you gave me one cent as a raise, that would offend me.

So, if you or someone you know is looking for a person like me to fill a vacancy, send me a message. I will be like that machine that never breaks down, humming in the background.