The root of joy is gratefulness…It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful. – David Steindl-Rast
Before my husband retired, we developed a habit of emailing each other three things we were grateful for each day. Being the fairly competitive people that we are, we often listed more than three things, pushing each other to up the count. The days he was not working, we skipped the gratitude exchange. When he retired, it was easy to drop the practice.
I know that gratitude brings joy. At least I know it intellectually and from my less than faithful practice. It’s the practice that’s difficult for me. I’ve tried keeping gratitude journals, and that sometimes lasted a few months. Usually, I managed only weeks or days. My meditation practice is a lot like that too. But that at least has become more consistent during the pandemic.
The longer I live through this Covid-19 international pandemic, the more frustrated, angry, and cranky I become. For the first year of the pandemic there was a feeling of community, a desire to help each other get through this difficult time. We stayed home. We wore masks. We stayed six feet apart. Then the vaccine became available. I happily stood in the cold dark January morning the first day I was eligible. Waiting alongside others in a long line for the vaccine, I became cautiously optimistic. The vaccine could save lives. Who would not take a life-saving vaccine? I found out.
Summer brought a few weeks of visits with family and friends, a feeling that we were emerging from this pandemic. Then, as the vaccination rates decreased, the Delta variant began pushing those smooth graph lines up to the peak of isolation once again. The spirit of community shattered like spilled mercury. Many stopped wearing masks, refused to get the vaccine, and seemed to ignore the reality that we have a public health crisis. We did not have to be at this place. Masks, vaccines, social distancing are all proven ways of stopping the spread of this deadly virus. And yet…
I want to understand why we as individuals and as a community are not able to take care of each other, to help each other through this difficult time. At an outdoor reception in June, a woman almost burst into tears declaring, “I will not wear a mask again! I can’t take it anymore. I just won’t do it.” I understand the frustration and the discomfort of wearing a mask. But, doctors, surgeons, nurses, scientists have been wearing masks for years. I don’t like wearing the mask, but I do it because I believe it is the responsible thing to do, and because it is a small thing that can help stop the spread of this deadly virus.
As August comes to an end, I’m short on both gratitude and joy. I appreciate and envy the calm, Zen approach that I have not been able to find in myself. There are days I wish that I could be accepting and kind to everyone, welcome what is and look for lessons for living. But the truth is that I’m frustrated.
Recently I was venting my frustration to a wise friend who told me about her experience finding joy during the pandemic. Faced with a cancer diagnosis and a several-month wait for treatment because of the pandemic, she decided to celebrate something every day as a way of getting through the stress of waiting. She celebrated small things. Often, she celebrated people.
Finally, further testing revealed that she did not have cancer. But, she decided to continue her daily celebrations because they brought her joy.
A few years ago I chaired a committee charged with important, but difficult and (for me) heart-wrenching work made more excruciating by sabotage within the committee. We took vows of silence to not discuss our work. Months into the process, my beloved cat died unexpectedly. The cat was my confidant, always accepting and purring. As I grieved her loss, I also grieved my own inadequacies. I would come home from a committee meeting totally drained, empty.
After a few months, my husband found two half-dead kittens at a no-kill shelter. They were skinny, scruffy balls of fur. They were the only kittens at the shelter and my husband, savvy man that he is, knew that I needed kittens. We nicknamed the male “spare parts kitten” but gave him the name Tucker Matthias. I suggested we adopt a third because the female, Hannah Clare, was mostly dead. She barely weighed a pound, and Tucker weighed less than 2 pounds. We fed them, loved them, and watched them grow stronger. Those nights I came home with nothing left it was the kittens that could make me laugh. They became my daily celebration. They have grown into beautiful, loving and gentle cats. Yes, I’ve found other daily celebrations: butterflies surrounding me as I deadhead bushes, emailing in real time with a friend I have not seen in several years, a gift of coconut gelato.
But, Hannah and Tucker remain my daily celebration and joy, so, I leave you with a poem by Edward Hirsh that refers to another favorite poet (and cat lover), Christopher Smart.
by Edward Hirsh
Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat’s mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In every one of the splintered London streets,
And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke’s
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today—August 13, 1983—I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.
This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
“And all conveyancers of letters” for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard—the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,
And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn’t until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey’s waggling mouth
That I remembered how he’d called Jeoffry “the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,”
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn’t until I saw my own cat
Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, “a creature of great personal valour,”
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.
And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.
From Wild Gratitude, by Edward Hirsch, Knop, 2003