Sometimes thankfulness is barely noticeable, like the lightest of breezes on a hot summer’s day. It’s there, still making my heart beat, still flowing through the me-ness of me. But I don’t notice. I go about my day, taking life and gratitude for granted: picking up a small child, talking with that child – now grown – kissing my husband goodbye or hello, talking with friends in person or on the phone. Feeling gratitude all the while, but not noticing. Stroking a cat, and feeling it again, but it’s so woven into the cloth of daily life that it goes unobserved. Making soup with organic vegetables, and gratitude is in every chop of the knife, in every stir of the spoon. Yet somehow it seems so small, so not worth noting.
So sometimes, thankfulness – which is life after all – brings us hurricanes. Gratitude blasts us with moments we remember for the rest of our days. The sound of my second daughter crying as she was born is a hurricane that still blasts through me every now and then. I am washing dishes and for no apparent reason, it comes into my mind. In that first moment after her birth, hearing her cry meant I knew she was alive, had survived the birth that came far too early. I knew she had a chance. Just remembering that moment is enough to bring tears to my eyes even now, and stirs wonder at the miracle of life, of our existence.
Here’s another – standing looking out the kitchen window of my parents’ home, my father at my side. My girls are outside playing, cycling the bikes he fixed up for them every year. We are watching them and he is talking about that wonder, at the miracle of my daughter surviving. I sense his awe and feel my own, now multiplied several times over because of this shared understanding.
There was something about that moment, about hearing my father’s expression of gratitude, his innocent, open thankfulness for life, that stayed with me from that moment on, and yet that truly defies words. Have you ever stood with your face to the wind, while it whirls around you? It’s exhilarating, makes every part of the body tingle, makes every cell feel so vividly alive. Yes, gratitude can be a hurricane.
Wind is blowing through an open window as I type, and the sun is sneaking in between gaps in the blinds. There’s a patch on the keyboard, warming my hand. Snow Patrol is playing on iTunes, chosen by my daughter, that same daughter who flew into life in far too much of a hurry. She’s lying on the sofa at the other side of the room, soaking up the sun and the music, a smile on her face. Does she notice how much gratitude she’s feeling right now? Or does it flow through her, invisible like the wind?
I ask how she’s feeling. She smiles wider, and shrugs. “Why do you want to know?”
“I’m curious,” I say. It’s true, partially at least. Then I add, “I’m writing about gratitude just now and you look so peaceful, so I wondered if you were aware of it?”
She shrugs again. And smiles. Then she finds me a quote. “The strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion.” It’s from Captain America, in case you wonder. He was once weak and asthmatic. So was she.
She does that, this daughter – watches what seem to be mindless programs and movies and finds mindfulness in them. She writes out her favourite quotes, and tapes them to her wardrobe doors. Here’s one from Castle, which to most of us is a television detective show, but to her is a source of wisdom:
“Even on the worst days, there’s the possibility for joy.”
It’s true. Moments of joy, those grateful full moments of life, can come even on the darkest days, even in bleakest moments.
This practice of my daughter’s is similar to what some Buddhist monks do – and some Christian monks . They find God in the ordinary things in life, they make chopping wood an act of meditation or praise. This is how my life is beginning to flow – so much more often now those simple, ordinary things where once I didn’t notice gratitude are becoming more vivid, more – just more.
So how do you separate those moments out and say – this one I am grateful for, this one I am not? As I type that, a feeling of fear grips around my stomach, and I notice images flow through my mind: hospitals, illness. My father’s death.
The really odd thing is that with hindsight, many of the times that feel so dark and bleak are the moments that later become those shining lights of gratitude. My daughter crying. Mingled among the relief and gratitude at her birth were also fear, guilt, and a muddle of other emotions. Those emotions were there because I was imagining bleak futures for her, just as fear again stirred in me a few moments ago because I imagined futures for myself or for others and because I remembered pasts. But in this moment, when my thoughts return to the fingers moving over the keyboard, when my ears listen again to with wind, when my eyes notice the sunlight, now creating a slice across the desk, when my arms feel the whisper of a breeze that has sneaked in through the window – what’s here now?
When we stop trying to change the past, or to control the future, all that remains is the gratitude. And to quote Emily Dickinson: “Forever is composed of nows.”