Every year for the past several years, I have made it my practice to write out my gratitudes at year’s end: those events and situations and other things and people in life, during the year just passing for which I am deeply grateful. (I am not alone in this practice.
I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, as I believe those are usually unreasonable expectations that people use to set themselves up for almost masochistic displays of self-recrimination later on. Instead, I believe in and practice the writing of gratitudes. This practice is rooted in the saying of the great Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer you ever said was ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.
Indeed, that is often the only prayer of which I am capable—as I do not believe in praying for Things, nor in intercessory prayer—and I am glad and grateful that one of the greatest of all spiritual teachers affirms that it is sufficient.
This year I have found a lot more than usual to write about. And I do not feel done with it, either. The process continues. I am struggling with parts of what I want to write about, It’s been a very hard year for me, personally, and there are still some feelings I’m trying to work out. Some things happened that really I'm finding it hard to be easy-going about, and find gratitude for—little things, like, you know, almost dying. I want to find some gratitude in all that, and I’m really having a hard time doing so, just yet.
So, this is part one; there will be more later, I hope.
This past year, I lost the entire summer to serious illness. My chronic illness had flared up the previous autumn, and had worsened over time, till it became dangerously life-threatening this past summer. In fact, I did almost die, last June. Thus I didn’t spend as much time outdoors as I normally do, and I didn’t get in much exercise, or travel, or camping. I didn’t get to enjoy the warm weather, as I was mostly trapped indoors, struggling to live. I spent more than one glorious June and July day in the hospital, with a needle
in my arm, receiving a blood transfusion or IV drug therapy. On some other beautiful summer afternoons, I was too weak and sick to do more than sit on my porch, exhausted and nauseous, and envy the neighborhood children at their play. On more than one day, I had to cancel all plans I had made, and just stay home. I watched far too much toxic TV, not having even the cognitive fortitude to read, or think clearly, or write much worth the effort of having written. I’m not out of the woods yet, and I am not well yet, and I am not cured yet of this illness; there could be months, or years, to go, before this crucifixion is finally past.
During this time, I learned some very important lessons, all of which I am grateful for, even the harsh ones, even the ones I would have avoided given a choice. Life can be a harsh realm, and leave you gasping for air, sometimes.
A serious illness puts many things into perspective, sorting what really matters from what doesn’t. I have greatly simplified my life, out of necessity. I have been strongly supported by my innermost circle of friends, and I have let many other relationships fall away. Particularly those that were draining or otherwise not life-affirming.
I have mostly withdrawn from the online communities, such as poetry workshops, to which I once gave much time. I have removed myself from the social whirlwind of trying to keep up with most popular culture, with current literature, with the media, with the online world. I’ve chosen to remain detached and uninvolved with social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, which to me seem mostly an incredible waste of time, and which promote shallow connectivity over soul-deep contemplation and community. As if life wasn’t already moving too fast and too shallowly for most people. The only thing I can imagine that Twitter might be good for is exchanging haiku or other short-form poems. Do we really need things like Facebook? No; they’re nice, in many ways, but they’re also unnecessary. Living a full life means stepping away from the screen every so often.
During this period I also, on the other hand, remained creatively productive. I wrote a series of new poems,
in part as a self-defensive response to my illness and its circumstances. I began to write some new piano music,
and reignited a standing project to make another album’s worth of spacemusic.
I made a lot of digital art, a lot of new photographs, and I wrote several essays, journal entries that expanded into essays, poems, and rants. Some days I was physically unable to go out, or work in the garden, but I could sit on the porch and go through photos, and write. I wrote about my illness, my nearly dying, from several angles, in several media. Being creative, continuously creative, literally gave me something to do every day, a reason to live, the strength to go on when I didn’t want to go on, when it was too much effort to go on, when it hurt to much to care if I went on or didn’t. For this apparently bottomless well of creative inspiration and resources, I am infinitely grateful. Sometimes it was the only reason I got through the day, or the night, and the only reason I wanted to.
I am particularly grateful for the 4 or 5 best poems that came out of this summer and autumn, which seem to me to be good poems, at least as good or better than anything else written this past year. Other than the usual spray of haiku falling off the back of the wagon, I wrote very few poems the first half of the year, and the best ones of the year were written this past summer, when everything else was falling apart. Now I’m back to writing fewer poems again, and satisfied that it should be so; I always seem to write fewer poems when I’m musically active.
Because I faced death this past summer, because I came very close to dying, because I almost did die, I have felt deep changes happen in my life, in my attitude towards life. I am grateful for each of these lessons, even the ones that were harsh personally, hard to learn, and hard to grasp at first. Each experience of near-death has been life-changing. I have been through several life-changing experiences in the past six years, some of them personally life-threatening, many others changes coming into my life because of the death of both of my parents, and everything I personally sacrificed to be their live-in caregiver as they were dying. I don’t regret any of that, and I am well aware that I made more sacrifices than I had intended, such as giving up my own career and life-path for awhile; and I am aware that most people who know me don’t really know about, or understand how deep those sacrifices went. I will carry some scars through to the end of this lifetime. I am bitter about none of it. Neither do I really expect most people to understand, or for that matter give a damn.
I have written in some detail in The Anemia Diaries
about the experience of nearly dying itself, and its causes. Yet I have still to fully work through the emotions, largely put on hold or set aside in the moment—in fact there was no strength to waste on them—that this near-death experience awoke in me. I am still sorting through how I feel about it all. Just recently I discovered levels of weeping anxiety, of sudden screaming night terror, of fears I didn’t have time for when I was fighting to live, that caused me to curl up late one night on my carpet in a weeping, wailing, screaming fetal ball. I wailed like a child, I made funny noises, I messed up my face with red tears and snot, and I used up a lot of tissues. When it was all done for the night, I was completely wiped out, drained and exhausted; that event must have been wanting to happen for some time, and I felt released afterwards. That it all flooded out now is a good sign, a sign that I am stronger enough now, that I could afford to release it, and let it happen. Some months ago, I literally would not have had the physical strength to sustain the physical effort of weeping and wailing. So I guess I am indeed getting better. For all of this, I am infinitely grateful.
I was lucky to have a friend whom I love with me when this clearing and releasing too place, whose presence in my life I am grateful for beyond what I can put into words, both in general, and also for that night. He held me as I wept, as I have only rarely been held. For my entire life, people mostly cry on my shoulder, then vanish when I need to cry on theirs. There have only been a few friends who I could rely on for the kind of emotional support that I seem fated to give to everyone else. I have spent most of my life feeling touch-deprived, a tactile person who never gets enough physical touch, hugs, skin on skin, lovemaking, or massage. I have railed to the gods at the unfairness of this lifelong imbalance before; and this night some of that was healed, for indeed, my good friend was actually there for me, when I most needed it. For this, infinite gratitudes.
I am grateful for my garden around my house, at both the front entrance and out back behind the porch. The past few years I have planted and designed and added to my garden, so that it contains a range of flowers and flowering shrubs that bloom in sequence from early spring through All Hallow’s.
My original plan was that, since I take regular roadtrips, and might be gone for weeks at a time, the garden could mostly take care of itself while I was gone, and restart itself each new spring. The success of my garden’s intention was proven this summer, when I was too weak to do hardly anything. I got only a little new planting done, and often went a couple of weeks between weedings. Yet my garden was beautiful, rich with color, luxurious with fragrance, explosive with green growth and bright flower, a visual, sensual feast.
I have many planted low-maintenance perennials, which largely take care of themselves, and return year after year. This year I was pleasantly surprised at the return of my chrysanthemum bushes, which I had thought would be annual only, but by this past autumn were profligate and brilliant with color.
My garden this year was continuously full of happy bees, which makes me happy, too. That I was too sick to do much in the garden didn’t matter. For my garden, and that it has lived up to my hopes and plans, I am infinitely grateful.
When you survive a life-threatening event, if you’re smart you stop and think about it. You put things into perspective. You realize what really matters in life, and what doesn’t. You begin to weed out those parts of life that do not serve life. You make choices about the situations you willingly put yourself into, sorting out the life-affirming ones to pursue, and discarding the situations, and people, that are life-denying, even life-destroying. You learn to avoid certain people and situations, because you come to realize they suck you dry.
I met a former friend I hadn’t seen for some years late this summer, and felt drained after our meeting, literally tired out and needing to sit down; so I know there’s nothing there for me anymore. On the other hand, I met another former friend at another time that I equally had not seen for some time, and felt energized afterwards. It’s obvious which person I would be willing to see again soon. Let’s be blunt: When you come near to dying, you realize your limits, you encounter your personal boundaries, and you must sort out those which help you return to life, and those which drag you down, and must be avoided.
I am grateful for my impatience. Often in my life, I have suffered from feeling impatient, as though it were a vice, cured best by equanimity, meditation, and tranquil tolerance. I have worked hard to be tolerant, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to be tranquil.
My renewed impatience is grounded in a new, deep sense of my own mortality. When confronted with your own mortality, you find that it’s okay to be impatient with some things, because they are anti-life. Therefore I have become increasingly impatient with narcissistic drama junkies whose personal lives are a total mess, who have nothing really wrong with their lives, yet just to feel that adrenaline kick, they must manufacture personal drama in order to feel alive. To feel their juices flowing, they create drama in their relationships, in their workplaces, in their encounters with strangers. I have no more patience for people who really have nothing in life to complain about, and who live in a constant state of self-delusion. I have no patience left for those who reject the idea that bullying is a serious problem in our culture: that those who are different remain at personal risk, throughout their childhoods, and well into adulthood. People need to wake up and take some adult personal responsibility for how their actions affect others.
Most drama junkies and denialsits would deny my analysis; or if they accept it as true, only for others, not for themselves. I have no more patience for mindgames and headtrips, for gameplaying in relationships in whatever arena, or for people whose only joy in life is to stir up suffering in others. Life’s too short to play those kinds of anti-life, entropy-saturated games. Move along.
So I am grateful for my renewed intolerance for certain brands of stupidity and irrationality. I am able to appreciate the person, still, as an avatar of the All, yet still have no use for what they say or do. Basically my intolerance comes down to certain kinds of situations in which it seems fair to ask: Why are wasting my time with this, and yours?
I have encountered numerous gay men recently who demand that people love them for who they are. It’s a common plaint. They demand that others accept them just as they are, for who they are. Yet these same men, in their very next sentence, turn around and say some hugely judgmental sweeping generalizations about some other person or group. This makes my head spin. I feel compelled to ask: Don’t you get it? Don’t you comprehend that you can’t demand that people treat you with honor and respect if you don’t act the same in return? Don’t you understand that demanding that you be respected, just as you are, means that you must show the same respect towards others? Are you so personally wounded that you can no longer feel any empathy for others? Have your wounds made you into narcissists? It’s a strange disconnect. Whatever happened to people learning The Golden Rule in elementary school? In the current social and political climate, more and more people seem to want to get and keep all that they regard as theirs, even on the level of civil rights, while denying the same to others. I can only categorize this as narcissism gone wild.
I am grateful for my increasing impatience with the utter illogic of this kind of self-centered thinking. I am grateful that nearly dying has stripped away my ability to waste time rationalizing and justifying this particular brand of illogic, and instead has granted me the grace of intolerance for its pretzel-like self-contradictions.
Now when I encounter this attitude, I mostly ignore it. When you have no energy left over, past surviving the day, you learn to ration your strength, and pick the battles that are worth fighting, and let the rest fall by the wayside. They are either irrelevant, or unwinnable. Most efforts to point out irrational illogic fall on deaf ears. So you learn to save your breath, and not waste your limited energy on anything so pointless as trying to get through to someone whose mind is made up, and is quite sure they’re right, and won’t even listen to or tolerate dissent or contradiction.
I am infinitely grateful for my new (used) piano.
It came into my life so effortlessly, the experience seemed almost magical, and I was transported from purchase project start to finish seemingly before I knew what had happened. I had begun looking for a piano during the summer, knowing that I would need one again, to play, to write music with, to have in my life as a source of musical solace, that I could sit down and play whenever I wanted to. I really wanted a piano. I had missed having one. Nothing happened for the illness months of summer. Then, in autumn, I found an ad for what became my piano, went to go examine it, realized I had found a good, serviceable model, and within four days it had been moved to my home and tuned a week after that. Everything fell together as though it had been fated to happen that way. As I said, the experience seemed almost magical.
And now I have my piano, which still needs more tuning, since it hadn’t been tuned in years, but which I can play anytime I wish to, day or night. On more than one recent evening, I’ve laid down for a nap, when suddenly notes came into my head, and, knowing I wasn’t going to fall asleep, I got up and went over to the piano, played them through, and wrote them down. This joy of composing new music keeps happening, facilitated by the presence of my piano. For this, I am deeply grateful.
I’ve learned to be grateful for my anger, even though its intensity sometimes frightens even me. It’s obvious that it’s not about what’s going in the present moment, whatever triggered the emotion that ranges from annoyance or irritability through to towering rage. It’s obvious some of this anger is delayed emotion, that goes back a long ways. It’s also rooted in frustration and impatience. Frustration with my own situation, and impatience with it; and also impatience about people I see wasting their lives on unimportant drama, when life’s too short, too sweet for that.
I am angry at being sick all the time. I am angry at those people who, it feels like, abandon their associations with me, because they can’t cope with my chronic illness and what it has done to me. These people would make poor nurses, as they flee from depression, doubt, and difficulty. Other friends, perhaps more true, have stayed with me all through this—and I am grateful beyond words for their presence. I know it’s hard to be around sick people, and that you can burn out—but it’s worse being the sick person, when people go away. Think about it.
I am tired of being the Good Patient, stoic and undemanding and uncomplaining or quietly positive. I’m tired of being told to “Think positive!” as though that were a sufficient cure. In truth, while some days you can think positive, other days the most you can do is endure. Other days are better, and some are worse. You just have to get through each day. Some days I still bleed, if I have overexerted myself, or tried to do too much. I am slowly regaining some strength and endurance, and I still have a long ways to go, before I approach anything like what most people call “normal” health. I may go down again before I go up. It’s not a smooth ride, and it’s not a predictable, chartable curve. Setbacks happen, and they take a toll on me, emotionally as well as physically.
People tell me to save up my energy to be used on those days when I need it. But this illness doesn’t work that way: each day is different, and each day is unpredictable. You can’t save your strength for a rainy day, because it might still not be there. That’s endemic to the illness, that unpredictability. You can’t manage it by trying to force it to be what it’s not; and you can’t predict what it will be, on any given day. The only sure thing is that if you do over-exert yourself for too long, you’ll relapse. There will be blood.
I get really angry at all this. I have a vast well of anger that’s there, not far below the surface. It’s always nearby. Most of the time nobody sees it, or needs to. But sometimes my anger at my situation is all that sustains me through the day; it might be an expenditure of energy I cannot afford, but it also gives me determination to survive. I find that most people don’t understand this.
Actually what it is, is a vast well of complex, genuine emotion. It’s not just anger. I break into tears much more easily than I used to, and often for sweet joy as much as for frustration. Actually I tend to cry more for joy than anything else. Actually I have infinite gratitude for this. I’m tired of being stoic, of being a Real Man who holds in his feelings—hot that I ever did that very well, anyway—and pretends to be tough and solitary and strong. I might be laconic some days, but I’m not going to pretend to be stoic.
Sometimes you just have to live your life, and pay the consequences. Even when you know what they will be. I can’t spend any more time sitting on my hands and not doing anything for fear of the bleeding. Some days I simply have to live my life, and pay the price, if I overdo it. I could still die from this, and I refuse to live a crippled life, I refuse to live in fear of this illness, or of dying. I refuse to live in fear, which means not ever having really lived at all. I choose to live. I have to cope with everything, endure the illness, and I have to stop when I hit the wall of exhaustion. And I must also live, so that I can feel like each day was not wasted. I choose to live. Eventually, I will pass through this crucifixion, and come out into another garden. From the garden of death, the place of the skull, through to the garden of rebirth.
So I’m grateful for my anger, which is a double-edged sword. If I overdo it, if I have a real meltdown, I will probably bleed, and be exhausted for a few days. But anger is also fuel: fuel for survival, for overcoming, for pushing through the suffering to find a place of joy.
I am grateful for being able to cry easily. Actually I’ve always been able to cry easily. It’s just easier now. Now, when I read a transcendently beautiful passage in a novel, or a deeply moving poem, or see some part of a movie that is passionately full of genuine love, I often weep. I weep for our strangeness. I weep for our amazing ability to overcome our darkest selves and step into the light.
And I rage against those who continue to choose to stay in the shadows, who reject the light, who give themselves over to downward entropy, who often try to drag others down with them. Evil is a black hole of willful gravitation, which speeds up the death of the universe, rather than slowing it down by bringing more life into it.
And I welcome that. I am grateful for it. I am grateful for being passionate, for feeling life at its fullest, for feeling things to the hilt. One myth of hell is that it’s a dead place where nothing passionate happens, or ever can: a place of ennui, of deadness of heart, of stasis. The dead cannot feel as strongly as we do, even if they get caught up in the take-loops they created for themselves in life.
I am grateful for being a passionate person. It helps me know that I’m still alive, that I haven’t succumbed yet. It helps me stay alive, for that matter. So I’m grateful.
I'm grateful for my winter road trip early in 2010. I was able to spend a month in the Rocky Mountains in winter, and also by the ocean. I made the best photographs I’ve ever made of those subjects, even though I was sick and tired a lot of the time. The travel was tiring but fulfilling. I had a lot of insomnia at times, but I also made it through the long drives okay.
I also made a lot of good new artwork and writing during the roadtrip. I gave a paper at a poetry conference, the first time I’ve done that in over 20 years. I saw the Pacific Ocean in winter, which is dramatic, full of stormy skies and dramatic lighting. I visited my favorite mountains, the Grand Tetons, covered with winter snows, and with blizzards coming through. It was some of the most beautiful of sights and times.
Every time I’ve taken a roadtrip out West these past few years, I feel like my photography has improved radically. It gets better in part because of my practice, and in part because I have such good subject matter. I plan another winter roadtrip soon, if at all possible. I’ll capture what I can. Plans for the near future might make other trips difficult for awhile. So you take your chances when you can, and are grateful for them.
Labels: gratitudes, personal essay, photography