A few years back I decided to begin a gratitude journal, thinking that the act of writing down what I was grateful for daily would be a wonderful, even life-changing thing to do. I had a bunch of notebooks hanging around so one day I began. Three and a half years later I have several notebooks filled with all the things I’m grateful for. I write two sentences a day, noting two different things I’m thankful for. I can’t swear I’ve never repeated some of these but every day I try to come up with something specific and different than what I’ve noted before. This means, even with possible repeats, that so far I’ve been thankful for about 2,000 things, events, people, animals, feelings, and well, all the things that make up my life.
Honestly, I never have to think very hard about what to make a note of, even when the big messy world or my own small messy world seem to be suffering from one thing or another. There’s always something to be grateful for, even if only the fact that the ancient cat missed my bare foot when he threw up.
Starting such a journal as we come up to Thanksgiving seems like a good idea. Even with all the mixed feelings and knowledge we now have about that first Thanksgiving that has clouded the origin of the holiday for some of us, I still like the idea of a day where we express our gratitude out loud with the people we love.
This past week I played hooky for a day and headed down Cape to sketch and daydream a bit. The weather was warm, the streets were fairly empty, and the beaches were, too. There were enough colorful leaves still on the trees to make walks in the woods feel sublime and magical and the rustling of squirrels and chipmunks in the fallen leaves reminded me how gathering and saving food for the winter days ahead is a long tradition both in the wild and in our homes.
There’s something about this time of year that forces me to stop and take stock for a bit. It’s the change of light and weather, I suppose, but some days I have to just go stand in the woods or stand by the sea. That’s all, just stand there and take it all in.
The other day I watched the waves come in and go out, come in and go out for about an hour. The water turned from deep blue to green to yellow green to white as it came in shallow over the sand and ended with a frothy flourish. Some waves were big rollers and came at an angle while others were more straightforward and more subdued. With the sun so low in the sky even at midday the sand sparkled with the dampness left behind by each wave.
Out over the water various birds flew and dove, flew and landed, to float for a while. Seals bobbed beyond the point where the waves broke, and they disappeared and reappeared without any particular reason or rhythm that I could detect.
Later I stood in the middle of a woods surrounded by golden and yellow leaves against pale gray trunks and a bright cerulean blue sky. The ground was covered with rust-colored leaves that crunched as people approached and passed by. I had a lovely time just standing there watching leaves let go of their home branches and float like dancers before landing on the ground to join their former branch mates. A flock of kinglets worked high in the treetops as a red-bellied woodpecker called out from far away.
The longer I stood the more I saw and heard. Nuthatches were calling, acorns were falling, and I discovered faces in the bark of trees and the mossy embankments. Some days I realize it doesn’t take much to imagine fairies and magical creatures living in the woods alongside us. As I watched the lunar eclipse early last Tuesday I thought about how early peoples must have found such events a little scary, a lot humbling, and something to tell stories about for generations. Even though science has cleared up many of those early beliefs and fears, I have to say these events still seem pretty amazing and awesome in the truest definitions of those words.
Some days begin with sunny clear skies and end in powerful storms that rattle our windows and our sense of security. Some begin with fog so thick we imagine shadows taking the forms of ghosts and end as days full of fun and frolic building sand castles and splashing in the water as if we hadn’t a care in the world.
However they begin and end, I can’t help thinking of them as a metaphor for a life. We pass through so many different places and phases in our lives. Some friends and neighbors come and go, children grow up and leave home, people we love pass away, pets we love die far too soon, and our bodies change with the passage of years. It often feels like goodbye is the only word we know.
It's not, of course. We grieve because we have loved. We feel nostalgic for the things we miss because they filled our hearts for a time. If we stand in nature, even for a few minutes or an hour or two, we can begin to feel the wholeness of it all. We can feel small and large at the same time. We can feel peaceful and in harmony with the life going on around us.
There is always something to be grateful for, whether it is the golden light slanting through the falling leaves or the way the ocean remains constant every day of our lives. Even the darkest nights end with a sunrise. Nature constantly reminds us to be grateful, if we take the time to listen.