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It's Nelly's World

Thanks for the Gratitudes

alec vanderboom

Gratitude--the meanest and most
sniveling attribute in the world.
Dorothy Parker

If I had a nickel for every time in the past week I’ve overheard someone saying that Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday, because it’s solely about being with others and not about buying things (though I’m waiting for the American inevitable), then I could buy my cranberry sauce with the accumulated change.. We are wired, as primates, to cooperate, to gather together, to aid and assist. At least as much as we are wired to stab each other in the back, literally and figuratively. Go on—count the wars and tribal hostilities that are currently occurring worldwide. (Here's help: Twenty-seven military conflicts at present count.)

It is difficult to pause and mentally list all the things we might feel grateful for in our present moment—as hard as it is to practice any Buddhistic mindfulness, and as mystically rewarding—but it suddenly feels necessary. A psychotherapist explained to me this week something about how it closes a circle, or maybe it was something else that did; I am not grateful to have a waning memory, though I am grateful to still be around and able to bemoan its deficits. See, nothing is perfect.

As I clambered up a rocky trail with Nelly earlier in the departing light of the day, to stop and turn, greeting the sight of the mountains wearing the diaphanous silk of mist in what others might find a depressing gray-and-dead portent of heavy winter, I organized my gratitudes. They fall into three categories: the immediate world in which I live; the people who walk alongside with me in it; the fears that I am privileged to spar with, as challenges that will either kill me (they haven’t yet, yay!) or will propel me to an as-yet unknown new spot on this weird trajectory called life. At some point I know I will fall into the ocean at the horizon, like a rocket trailing sparks. The sizzle as the fire is extinguished will be heard for a moment, then gone.

I might have been born in Afghanistan, and I would wear a burqa. It would never occur to me then, or even be possible, to engage in a small struggle with creating things out of words, because I would be busy with a great struggle to create something out of beige sand and rocks. I would be struggling to stay alive.

Instead, I live in a place that offers multitudinous possibilities every day. Which of several internal-combustion machines I will take down which road. Which sight I will see among the mountains and the small towns. Which meal I will put together out of the endless variety that spills from the cupboards and the grocery store bins. Which trail I will walk, to be alone with thoughts and leaves.

I am grateful for any opportunity, never in equal measure to what I receive, to give back to the friends who have, inexplicably, stayed with me as I walk the rocky trails I have chosen to walk. By all rights, they should have stayed at the parking lot, waving as I stumbled upward into some lonely wilderness of my own choosing. But they did not: they have remained at the end of the phone line, the email message, the opposite side of the table at bar or café, while I laid out the dilemma, the worry, the tearful expose. I am filled with gratitude for every moment in their company, and every evening they have closed with laughter that began in despair. I am grateful for every cocktail, every peanut and olive, in their sunny company.

I am grateful for the complex riches I live among—at this moment, the laptop on the floor in front of the fireplace, the glass of wine and the radio giving out the sound of music, an infusion of pure emotion mysteriously crafted from a sensual mathematics—but what they all do at base is simple. They deliver connectedness: to others, and to the temporal pleasures of living in this body, in this moment.

Luck this big is stunning. I try to grasp it, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: it shivers, alive.

That is perhaps where gratitude to strange, unnamed fears comes in. Odd as it is, from this remove, I sense I should thank those long-ago hours spent trembling on the sofa at the front of the apartment in Brooklyn, awake in the middle of the endless night, a black dog asleep but still watchful at my feet. They brought me to the very edges of life, sharp, unyielding. They gave me the chance to come out the other side, back into momentary joy, the only kind there is. The wondering, the whys, the decisions. The ephemerality of everything, tears and a brilliant taste of something delicious. None of it lasts. I have it for a moment, it all goes, and in looking back, I feel this smooth ecstasy that is being enclosed by this skin, which feels everything—the warm touch of others, the cold of aloneness too. I will be thankful for all of it, and all of you, and for smashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.

It seems strange to think of Dorothy Parker and Josef Stalin as bunkmates in the same camp, but here they are: “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs,” said Stalin. I consider the source, and would feel grateful to be a dog, so long as I was not a Russian dog in 1932.