On a recent morning, looking out a kitchen window, I saw a cardinal in my winter-ravaged garden. The sight instantly filled me with a vitality of feeling that paused me, poised me, suspended over time. That red knot of energy, that rubied spot of gladness, that pulsing heart amid the purgatorial gloom, recalled for me the bloom and color that had been driven deep and dormant by the earth’s backward tilt, to await the summoning shout of spring. That cardinal was a rumor of redemption irrupting into the fallen present. It was the beauty of innuendo. It was a thing given me from beyond me, a stop-and-pause-to-reflect thing, an evocative moment to linger in and experience wonder at.
That wonder made me feel gratitude, and that gratitude made me feel reverence. Not gratitude to something but about something; not an owing or indebtedness, not an imposed obligation, but a state of being, a style of feeling a moment’s wholeness, an urgent tug of attunement, a succouring inspiration, a quickening and a homage, an impulsive heart-leap of nowness and thisness, an attentiveness so intense it transports the seer inside the seen. And not a reverence that is religious in a doctrinal sense, not a matter of practice and ritual, not a worship exactly, but, rather, an attitude or stance, a recognition and receptivity, a willingness to be beckoned by the sacramental in the everyday, to lift our heavy eyelids and see the mystery and magic the world discloses to us continually, to experience respect, deference, veneration.
We need gratitude, I think. Our lives too often seem immutably mutable, constitutionally vulnerable and subject to immanent wounding, to weariness and fault, to vagrant hope, to encumbrance. We too often feel potshotted and potholed, too often metered by the poetics of adversity, too often unmustered and unsettled, too often marionettes to motions not our own, too often homeless in our consciousness of ourselves, spectral presences in our own lives. We too often pound the kick-drum of self-rebuke. Our per capita output of regret seems astonishingly high. Like bubbles, we are always balancing inner and outer pressures, seeking an equipoise to preserve a membranous self that often feels sketched in outline, partial, waiting to be filled. We fear we are subplots whose connection to the governing theme of a larger story is disturbingly unclear. We yearn to pronounce ourselves, sound ourselves out, write our narrative in bold block letters, and yet, too often, language fails us, the words point elsewhere or otherwise.
And yet, and yet. The world to some extent echoes our thinking about it. We need gratitude, not to deny the sad existential truths, not to turn a blind eye to the shearing hurts that beleaguer us, not to slough off the dark otherness of our lives with thoughtlessness or the anesthetizing bright-sided optimism of Irving Berlin’s “I’ve got the sun in the mornin’ and the moon at night.” No, we need gratitude to see fully, to cultivate mindful notice, to avoid what Aldous Huxley called our “almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” We need to ask ourselves the questions Mary Oliver poses in her poem “Gratitude”: “What did you notice?” “What did you hear?” “What did you admire?” “What astonished you?” “What do you want to see again?” “What was most tender?” “What was happening?” Answering those questions, Oliver says, will “shake us from our sleep.”
We can catch our breath, catch a moment, catch ourselves. I believe we can be wise. We can balance the ledger’s debits with credit entries. I found one several mornings ago. A cardinal in my hiatused garden; a vermillion throb that, for as long as I bore witness to it, banished the drab and droop, the blighted and bedraggled, the parched and shriveled, the matted crust left by melted snow . I regarded it, as the physicists say, as a fine-structure constant. Indeed, I’d like to think a strange and wondrous physics was at work that morning. A tensile force bound the particles of cardinal and me into a tight nucleus of sensibility. It was hardly a fearful symmetry. It felt marrow-deep. It was a souvenir against forgetting. And I did the only thing that seemed appropriate. I said, “Thank you.”