Those two -- thanks and praise -- are inextricably bound, and at no time more evident than between Thanksgiving and the new year, when we look around and try to tune in to the good. It can seem tough, especially during a time of war, human suffering and political controversy, but it's really as simple and elemental as breathing.
How extraordinary that we actually have a holiday to remind us of the need for gratitude in our lives.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, "When a person doesn't have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude." That sounds right, especially if we can allow ourselves to think of sour times, black times, the hardest times in our lives. Inevitably, when the urge toward gratitude goes, so does all appreciation of life, leaking out of us like sand through an hourglass.
In the past two months, following a couple years of thin, fitful sleep and regular insomnia, I've begun sleeping and dreaming again. It's not reliable; there are still nights when sleep doesn't come. But when it does, I wake up in a state of gratitude. The first thought that comes to mind is a whisper: Thank you for this life.
Could be I'm past 50 and reckoning subconsciously with the certainty of mortality, emerging from symbolic death every morning, grateful to still be alive. I can't even name the god I'm praying to. God of creation? God of love? I only know that having a spot in my heart open to giving thanks brightens the day.
Receiving thanks can be even better.
Yesterday, checking my mailbox at work, I found a folded, handwritten note in unfamiliar handwriting. It was a strange and extraordinary thank you note from a woman I run into on a regular basis, who I count as a friend though I don't even know her last name. Last summer, on a day when I was working in the garden in front of the Independent office, she rode by on her bicycle. I expressed my concern that she was riding her bike on Nevada Avenue without a helmet, when I knew she'd recently collided with a car.
Her note, delivered yesterday, read:
I will be careful riding my bike on Nevada. Thank you for your concern. I wish you and your family happy holidays ahead.
The smallest gesture and the heavens open. Far more powerful than my concern for her safety was her expression of gratitude, out of the blue. It set the tone for the rest of the day.
Thank you for the scent of ripening pears on the kitchen cabinet.
Thank you for the tree men showing up and turning the fallen limb in my back yard into a neat pile of mulch to feed next summer's garden.
Thank you for good mail.
Thank you for a senator, a military man, brave enough to admit that the government needs to reconsider its position on the war, based on his observations of the situation in Iraq and his regular visits with injured soldiers.
Thank you for that small breeze across the lake on the side of the highway as I zipped by, setting off an explosion of diamonds dancing in the air.
Thank you for my boy, returned from school with long, shaggy hair, looking happy and healthy.
Thank you for my other boy, returned from Iraq, working at a good job, enjoying his life again.
Thank you for enough blankets on the bed.
Thank you for the sound of a car door shutting, the gate opening and shutting, the heavy sound of my son's steps on the stairs.
The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, "If the only prayer you say in your life is 'Thank you,' that would suffice."
I remember my grandfather teaching me to pray, telling me not to ask for things or to ask God to make things work out the way I wanted them. He told me to pray for God's will and to give thanks, always thanks and praise.