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.

Decomposition

When I first walked into this house, I didn’t see clean or dirty. I saw fixable or unfixable.

I saw how all the kitchen appliances leaned in, doors waiting to fall open.

I saw where the owner, in a fit of drunkenness, painted the stairwell, some parts whitish, other parts a greenish brown, like the Mississippi at its weakest, dam water running over.

Where the moulding was missing from the frame around the basement door, I saw the jaggedly cut drywall. I knew the feel of the score, the fold, the snap, and the final cut with the dull blade of a utility knife.

I knew the dry rot. It was outside, under the patio door, hidden behind a 1×4, and sealed over with bathroom caulk.

It is natural, this dry rot. It is expected. It is the persistence of water. 

There are the slippery Spring rains, soft and bitter. There are the raucous thunderstorms of Summer. In the Autumn, when our rain coats shield us from having to look at ourselves, the rains bring unexpected sounds, drips of golden leaves.  Soon the snow, water in white camouflage, will press up against us. Decomposition is not fixable.

We hang on in our sponginess, thinking our skin is breaking down because of too much coffee, too many cigarettes, that we give up on occasion. We think that, like the kitchen appliances, we lean in to listen and see, freely open our doors, because we’ve become more welcoming, more interested in others besides ourselves. We think that the way our veins pop out on our hands, like the screws on the kick plate under the patio door, is because we’re so good at laboring, consistently busy and being helpful.   

The only reason any of this matters– the appliances leaning in, the jagged skin of drywall, the kick plate under the patio door popping screws– is if the plan is to make this house your permanent home. I’ve got other ideas.

Pook at 10

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Pook had his 10th birthday 3 days ago. I took him to the veterinarian. I’m sure he would have chosen to do something else, like go swimming in the river in his shorts and t-shirt or wander the neighborhood “Building streets”, imagining a new little city, fitting and layering his own roads and highways upon what already exists.

But we went to the vet. He happily listened to MPR with me because that’s the kind of boy he is, curious and easily engaged.

He is the kind of boy who makes up jokes like this:

          “Why does time fly faster as you grow older?”

          “Because Earth’s rotation speeds up.”

 He is the kind of boy with quickly shifting passions. He can move from zero to frustrated fury in less than a second. It’s like a frozen, forgotten can of pop warming in the back seat of the car. BOOM!.

He’s the kind of boy who is continually surprised by his sensitivities.

          “Mama, when you told Betty we’d get her poor little body fixed up, it made me cry. Look.”

Betty has Heartworm and, for the last 10 days, mostly what I’ve been thinking about is her, imagining a hand full of cooked long spaghetti wriggling in her heart. Evil worms and their spawn.

And he’s also the kind of boy who keeps reminding me that everything will be fine, that I have to trust.

Now I’m reminding you.

Waiting

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I noticed that you keep checking your email. What kind of message are you waiting on? Nothing in particular? Just something to interrupt the waiting? Waiting is a bitch, isn’t it? And I know it’s hard to pass the time now that you’ve quit smoking or whatever it was you gave up.

I know, too, that you have to engage the mind, become your smallest self and create something even if it’s only a drawing of a person with no arms and no legs or a poem where every other word is a unique expletive.

Forget about physical work, unless the plan is to fold the laundry into Origami shapes. Vacuuming is out, unless you name each strand of fur, each spider you suck up. Mowing the lawn is out, too, unless you begin at the peak of the day’s heat, set a timer, say, for 15 minutes, to mow the whole yard, front and back.

It is imperative that you don’t embark on any big tasks, like reading a whole book. If you do choose to read, read only a couple sentences. Read them out loud. Read them slowly. Think about each word and how it connects to the next. If you read any other way, it’s certain you will be thrown back to where you began and you’ll only add to your frustration, having retained nothing, having accomplished nothing.

That’s the irony, the challenge. You want the time to pass but you don’t want to waste your time.

Well, go ahead and check your email. There might be a message. There’s certain to be a message if you compose it yourself.

Love,

Shannon