The Ecology of Gratitude

I’m clearing the decks. Here’s another essay nobody will publish. JimS.

Ah, gratitude: a simple way to honor the place in which you find yourself, an emotion that encompasses the breadth of a life and lights the sometimes stony path ahead.

I am grateful for the friendships that grace my life, the most profound of which is my friendship with the amazing woman who decided to spend her life with me. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by without my contemplative boundless appreciation. My blushing bride probably hasn’t blushed in quite some time—after all, she has seen everything, pretty much, there is to see during the lifetime she’s chosen to put up with me. Maybe part of it is her pioneer stoicism, or maybe she’s just waiting for me to surprise her again, like the time we stayed up all night and wound up on the beach at sunrise digging clams with our hands.[1] Still, she embraces our union with steadfast humor and understanding, making me the luckiest man in the history of men.

I am grateful for the realization that we humans are not the crown of creation. We are but one jewel of many in that fancy headgear. Is our spatial recognition any better than a spider’s? Does our hearing translate at all to that of a bat? Or a dolphin? Even a dog? Our eyesight is hopelessly nearsighted compared to a sharp-shinned hawk. What we call stink is a rich encyclopedia for dogs. And animals feel much like we do. They know joy, grief, anger, and fear. We are just learning how to quantify this. Part of the reason understanding has taken so long is our arrogance and unwillingness to recognize that animals have a right equal to ours when it comes abiding on this shared waterlogged oblate spheroid. Yes, Nature is uncomprehendingly brutal, but are we the only creatures capable of kindness? What about killer whales gently leading small wayward boats to a safe shore in dense fog? This has been documented more than once. And when a dog tried to follow his person’s boat out into Puget Sound and exhausted himself, resident orcas nudged him several miles back to the beach, not letting him drown.[2] Kindness. What else could it be? What about a mother allowing a different species to suckle and survive? Happens on every continent in every age. There is immense power in the natural world. We would do well to recognize it, brutality and all. In the big picture, it will save us if we are to be saved. Do animals feel gratitude? I would not be the slightest bit surprised.

I am grateful for the gift of music. I’ve known I am a musician since the age of four when I would haul a kitchen chair to the living room, drag it between the big speakers my dad built, clamber up, and emotionally conduct the 1812 Overture; the recording with the cannons. Stereo was a new thing, and I instinctively became part of the music. It washed over me and through me and held me in its vast gnarled hand to give me my first inklings of grace. I knew every nuance and was endlessly fascinated by how all that sound could have come out of Tchaikovsky’s head and heart. I was deeply amazed. Still am. As I grew into my gift, I was captivated by the never-endingness of practice and performance, the cosmic bonding with other musicians and audiences of all kinds. I remember coming out of an extended guitar solo to discover the other people onstage and in the audience were all balls of light, glowing like stars, pulsing and thriving. Scared me briefly until I was infused with a warmth I can only explain as the breath of God. There are really no words for how it was and is. I tell this story and people smile knowingly and ask: “What were you on?” I just smile back and say, “Music.”

What kind of father would I be if I didn’t express gratitude for my children? Recalcitrant at best. Those independent caring funny blindingly smart offspring units are nearly the only people on this planet I’ve met in person who are biologically related to me.[3] That adds a powerful aspect to the gratitude I feel for the woman who mothered them and brought them forth into this crazy world. I’ve probably learned more from them than they have ever learned from me. My amazing daughter has taught me about honoring commitments and forthright attention to detail, among many other things. My amazing son has taught me much about staying calm when I want to fly off the handle and bludgeon stupidity in its many forms. We also share dialog about patience that makes the women in our lives roll their eyes. In addition to nurturing the family unit, we all have become fast friends with stories to tell and more stories to catch. I would be lost without them. My dad hat is proudly worn. A tad battered, perhaps, but I will have it at hand for as long as I am of corporeal form and maybe after. Who knows?

Of course I must express gratitude for my parents, the people who raised me from a skinny orphan baby to a robust headlong emotional human whose occasional brilliance is punctuated by dumber-than-a-rock moments, but who loves life with an all-consuming passion. I would not have arrived at such a special place without them. My father never really understood my compulsively expressive character. He just didn’t get it. I might as well have been from Mars as far as he was concerned. But he stuck with me and did his best not to judge who I was. It must have been extraordinarily difficult for him, sometimes, to tolerate my mere presence. My mother thought I was a genius and was not shy about telling people, much to my chagrin. But she did convince me there was absolutely nothing I could think of that I couldn’t accomplish if I set my mind to it. They were married for seventy-two years. They blessed me as parents for sixty-two years; fifty-eight years for my little sister. They are still together on a green hillside where the breeze blows across an ornamental pond and curls the leaves on the trees standing sentinel. Without them, there is no telling where I might be. I have no concept of anything big enough with which to compare my gratitude. Well, perhaps the Universe. And maybe that’s the point I’m trying to make. You know?

Back to friendships for a bit. I am blessed with a large extended family of choice. Some of this astonishing family are musical, some are companions who love the outdoors and revel in every opportunity to experience the broad natural panoply our Oregon home provides, some are writerly, some are laughing partners who enjoy an adult refreshment and make my life an intricate tapestry of shared stories, bringing an appreciation of time and place home to roost. A few are all of these things. They know who they are. The beauty is that I can tell stories that don’t always have me in them, other than as narrator. Like my children, I would be lost without them, both the people and the stories.

Finally (yes, I am winding down), there are the animals with whom I’ve had the extreme pleasure of codependence. When I was young and still living with my parents, our dog Snap forgave me for everything. She camped by my bed in the night, at least until I fell asleep. After that, who knows? But if she needed to go out in the middle of the night, she would always come wake me up, trusting my opposable thumbs to work the mystery of the door. Most times, she’d do her business and be right back. Sometimes, though, she would take her own ineffably sweet time, knowing I would not abandon her. In winter, she’d come back covered in snow and grin at me as I toweled her off at three in the morning. I gave her my whole heart. When she passed, it was my first lesson in dealing with inexhaustible grief. There were also two cats, Gracie and Rama, who came through my life after I was grown and on my own. They blessed my marriage, both for close to twenty years each. Being cats, they still visit from time to time, their spirits passing through to say hello. Every once in a while, Rama sits on my chest and licks my nose as he always did. This almost wakes me as I feel him walk the length of the bed next to my leg as he leaves. Gracie and Rama never met, but they share a holy place in my heart. And I cannot leave out Toulouse, a mottled Catahoula Leopard Dog who’s become the model for one of the heroes in the novels I write. He is my daughter’s boy but is staying with us while she lives on the east coast. He’s curled up in the hallway as I write this, making sure I’m doing my best. I’m convinced he’s the best dog in the history of dogs.

Gratitude is prayer. Without it, we are just going through the motions and missing the whole point of what it means to be here, living inside our skin and feeling the world flow around us—through us. It provides a cornerstone for humility and calls more of what we’re grateful for into our lives. It gives us a path to tread when we are lost in the wilderness of self-importance and doubt where words fail and thought becomes the Ouroboros, leaving us to choke on our scaly selves. Gratitude does not need words—it only needs depth of heart. We are not rational beings with emotions; we are emotional beings with a gift of reason.

In the doorway, Toulouse just yawned and stretched, hoping this is the last sentence. And so it is.


[1] Sane people use clam shovels or clam guns.

[2] Chronicled in Carl Safina’s marvelous book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel; Henry Holt and Company  · ISBN: 978-0-8050-9888-4

[3] Recently, I’ve found brothers and a half-sister through DNA analysis.

(photo: huffingtonpost.com)

About Jim Stewart

Writer at Butt in Chair
This entry was posted in Dog, family, Friendship, Gratitude, Home, Hope, Humans, humor, Kids, laughing, Oregon, pals, parents, prayer, Wisdom and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Ecology of Gratitude

  1. Holly Donegan says:

    ❤️🙏.

  2. I loved this essay the first time I read it, and I love it now. We need this today.

  3. Ruth Langlois says:

    And I’m a grateful for you and your words. Cheers mate!!😘✌

  4. William Hedrick says:

    Jim I have enjoyed all of your posts but I think that this last one will be my favorite for a long time..b

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