Finding gratitude before breakfast

Sandia Mountain close to my home in Placitas, NM. It's easy to offer gratitude for beauty like this.

Sandia Mountain close to my new home in Placitas, NM. It’s easy to offer gratitude for beauty like this.

The Earth has completed a full turn around the sun since, inspired by the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, I set the intention to offer gratitude to everyone in the natural world every day, first thing in the morning, for a year.

So how did it go? Pretty good, all told. I rarely skipped a day, though far too often thanking other creatures got put off until after breakfast. Even now I procrastinate, even though I know from experience that being grateful to them first thing out of bed helps the day wear a different face—more gentle, more good—and helps me see that goodness with wider-open eyes.

It’s those benefits that keep me coming back, morning after morning, to stand gazing at trees, at birds and clouds, at rain or sun or snow, and now at Sandia Mountain—the mountain I recently left Santa Fe to live next to—and open my heart to everyone I see.

Really open it.

Open it so wide I can feel gratitude gushing through it toward all my neighbors—rocks and trees and animals and microorganisms, all of them kin, looking after us like aunties and uncles, providing everything we need to live. I thank them for being generous—for their gifts of color and light, of blood and sinew, of flowing breeze and the awe of flight, gifts of medicine and companionship, and of course gifts of the ground we walk on and the air we breathe. We are “utterly dependent on the lives of others,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer, “the inherently generous, more-than-human persons with whom we share the planet.”

I thank them also for being dependable—for remembering how to do in every moment, 24/7, the thing they were meant to do. Unlike us humans, who forget how to be ourselves—how to release our gifts into the world and especially how to live in balance with our neighbors—other creatures never forget their purpose. Trees always photosynthesize; hawks never shrink from diving through the air after songbirds; worms always burrow; flowers always wear their particular shade of red or gold. Ecologists call it filling a niche, a job that every shrub and creeping thing accomplishes with what looks to me like great ease compared to all the mindfulness humans must conjure if we are to remember how to be ourselves—how to take what we need without excess, how to give back in equal measure, how to be happy with each day.

Yet there are other gifts, deeper ones, harder to articulate, that come from finding gratitude before breakfast. So early this morning, as I watched the dependable spin of this generous earth bring about the daily miracle of sunrise, I pondered how to talk about those subtler gifts. The light was diffusing slowly upward from the horizon, the stars and then the bright planets fading out, one by one, in the swelling dawn. These early morning hours—and their counterparts at twilight—have always brought me closer to the deep stillness at the heart of things, especially during winter. On December mornings no birds are rushing to sing in the day; only the furnace whirring through the house penetrates the silence.

This morning my mind was distracted by reading in the local paper yesterday about a new oil well about to be fracked some miles away. How unfathomable that we humans can repeat this evil in an age of poisoned waters and superheated climate! Today, reaching gratitude seemed impossible.

But I tried anyway, sticking to my usual pattern, beginning at the center of the Earth and moving outward, thanking each part of the family for whatever occurs to me in the moment to thank them for.

Thank you, unbelievably dense core of the Earth, for holding us together. For keeping our atmosphere in place and the moon dancing around us.

Thank you, fiery seas of magma on which we ride, for moving continents and creating change. For providing heat and fire to those who live above.

Thank you, waters below the earth, for your eons-long drip, drip, drip, gathering liquid life in aquifers, bursting out in springs.

Thank you, surface waters, for life. Thank you, rivers, for being the arteries and bloodstream of a living Earth. Thank you, seas, for nourishing life, all life.

Thank you, microorganisms, archaea, bacteria, and fungi, for making the soil. For digesting all that drops to earth. For being the intelligent highways of deep nutrients. For stimulating seeds to pop and plants to grow.

Thank you, rocks and minerals, for building the foundations of this Earth. For being the oldest ones. For giving us beauty and deep music.

Thank you, creepy crawly ones, for your marvelous weirdness. For keeping us on our toes. For being so different from us, and so ancient.

Thank you, plants, for providing food and medicines. Thank you for the joy bursting out of each seed into the visible world. Thank you for your colors.

Thank you, animals of the seas and animals of land, for being. We’re glad you’re here, and we hope you always will be. Thank you for your varied intelligences. For providing food. For your companionship. For your variegated beauty. For working out the problems of survival in such hugely different and creative ways.

Thank you, trees, for your shade. For providing shelter for birds. For making oxygen so that we can breathe. For making it possible for us to be here.

Thank you, birds, for lifting our hearts with your twitterings. Thank you for the magic of flying. Thank you for singing.

Thank you, winds and clouds, for bringing change. For moving in harmony with what is. For rain and snow. For bringing surprises.

Thank you, moon, for your pearl-lit beauty. For guiding us in the night. For pulling the tides of Earth.

Thank you, sun—dear sun!—for life. For providing all the energy we need to live on Earth. For not forgetting how to burn.

Thank you, planets and stars, for the dance of the cosmos. For moving continually throughout time. For inspiring us with grandeur.

Thank you, Creator, great mystery, Life and Death, for flowing within and behind all things.

By the end, a magic had stolen over me. I was thinking a lot more about how magnificent each of these companions are than I was about the mere evil of a new oil well. To be sure, each new well, each act of poisoning air and water and land, increases the threat that we will destroy life on Earth as we know it, including ourselves.

But the life that brought us into existence is far greater than the destruction humans can do. We may be able to blast the tops off mountains, but we can’t touch the Earth-deep fire that explodes upward to create new mountains. We can harness the power of the atom, but we can’t even comprehend the intricacies of the nucleus, much less bring it into being. We can measure light-years to distant galaxies, but we can’t direct the cosmic dance whirling every day and night across our sky. We can destroy life on Earth as we know it, including ourselves—and we are speeding toward that end by burning dinosaur-aged fossil beds—but we can’t stop Life from trying new experiments and evolving different delights on an Earth as far removed from ours as the modern Earth is from the Jurassic.

The power of nature lies beyond anything we can touch. And this is the deeper magic of finding gratitude before breakfast—it keeps me focused on what humans can’t do instead of what we can. Like gazing at the boundless ocean, saying thank-you shrinks human power down to size. It helps me remember that the forces of Life and Death are infinitely larger than anything humans can accomplish. This knowledge is a comfort; it brings joy.

So, as I sit at dawn giving thanks to each of my kin, it occurs to me that at a moment like this, when humans are destroying the world that gave us birth, the best possible way to respond is to stay rooted in the awe-inspiring beauty and mystery of nature’s power. To absorb the world’s joy. To revel in the quirks and genius of every life form, including ours. To dwell in the goodness of the dance, performed fresh every morning, between the whirling Earth and the rising sun. To keep the awareness this big.

For only in this way will we have the juice that we need to address the current crisis. Being mesmerized by evil will sap our attention from the very power we need to meet it in the most effective possible way. To address a warming climate and poisoned waters and lands, we need first to dwell in the joy of birds flying and trees photosynthesizing and babies being born and yes, even the mystery of a Cooper’s hawk snatching a junco from my feeder at sunrise. For only by staying rooted in these unfathomable mysteries can we begin to absorb their power, can we begin to share their joy. And a spirit of joy is essential for finding truly creative solutions at this time.

I think I’ll keep on saying thank-you to all my relations every morning—as often as I can, before breakfast.

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