I spent a deliberate amount of time this holiday season thinking about how to be grateful. I was trying to get beyond, “We’re so lucky to have heat and jobs and three kinds of cheese and cable TV.” We are incredibly lucky to have all those things this year, but I was hoping to get below that, to dig underneath the stuff and find something less (and thus, I suppose, more) tangible.
I didn’t completely succeed. I succeeded enough to conclude that I am a Hard Nut to Crack. Earlier this year I was fortunate to spent some time up at the White Lotus. I talked and laughed and did yoga and jumped into a pool of freezing-cold water and then fell into the hot tub with all my clothes on. I sang and I was silent and I breathed and I wept and when I was done I had sudden, unexpected, overwhelming sense of how lucky I am simply to be who I am. I felt like my whole being was a throat, like I was a strange but uniquely shaped instrument that words flowed through, and I wasn’t the origin of the words, but my shape shaped the words and I was so lucky to have this particular shape so that these particular words could come out in this particular way.
I imagine there’s probably a drug you could take that would lead to a similar realization, but instead I chose to let moving and breathing and whatnot do their hammering at me and voilà! They cracked me open, but now, only a couple of months later, I’ve simply grown a brand-new candy-coated shell to protect my insides from the outside world. I feel like a snail or a hermit crab or a small animal with bad eyes that hates the sun.
So it wasn’t gratitude that swelled up and flopped over my belt this holiday season. (Yes, I may have eaten seven pounds of Christmas cookies last week. What are you implying?)
Instead, having missed the gratitude train, I hopped on the bus to feeling disgustingly overprivileged. Vilely comfortable. People the world over are living on beans and covering themselves with tarps, yet we have not just warmth but firelight, and not just cable but Netflix, and my son has a radio-controlled helicopter that it took a small group of neighbors to rescue from the roof of a nearby garage. We have stuff and friendly people who help us recover our stuff! And we’re all alive and riotously healthy. Except for the hamster, who’s still in the freezer. (Poor Wheelie, waiting for the ground to dry out before he can R.I.P.)
A friend who volunteers at a shelter told me a terrible story about a man who came to Christmas dinner there last Saturday. There was no bus service on Christmas Day in Santa Barbara. As a result, people who don’t have cars had to hitch a ride or hoof it, as did one particular man who walked from Highway 154 to the Unitarian Church so he could have dinner. It’s about 4 miles, or a ten-minute drive. A healthy person could walk it in less than an hour. On crutches (the man was on crutches because of his foot cancer), it did not take ten minutes, it took roughly eight hours.
After doing all that work for a delicious meal and a warm bed, he could probably teach a doctoral-level course in gratitude.
I don’t know what you’re supposed to conclude from all this. I was feeling pretty rotten because on Christmas Eve I discovered that a good friend had died in 2009 without me hearing about it, someone I’d lost touch with but had fond feelings for all the same. I’m suddenly feeling like everyone’s dying and it’s all happening before I’ve finished loving them. Goddamnit!
Here are two beings who love each other with all their hearts.