By Cindy Milstein
There are many methods offered for reminding oneself to be grateful, such as the daily practice of penning a tidbit of appreciation on a slip of paper and depositing it into a glass jar, until the jar is half full, or noticing a single thing each day that makes one feel gratitude in and for this world. No matter the mechanism, all rely on being wholly present with simplicity, like being utterly aware of a solitary, deep, slow breath. In honing in so purely, so closely and innocently, with an unadulterated instant, we will recall that even at its worst, the human condition affords so many experiences and phenomena to be grateful for — to live for.
Following the close-up mystery of watching two deaths in a row recently, I’ve needed such existential post-its notes, and on my return to San Francisco a little over a week ago, I decided to remember to practice everyday-gratitude sightings as fortress against pain.
That led me to sudden gratefulness last week on coming around a corner and seeing a perfect line of little cherry trees fully in bloom. A simple rush of aesthetic joy came over me, gazing at the pale white-pink-rose flowers in buoyant abundance on the pale tan-brown branches. Breathe in, breathe out, take in the moment without anything but thankfulness.
That same evening, around the lengthy table that serves as a public living room in my collective home, the conversation touched on the drought in California. Before this past several days, it hadn’t rained for one of the longest spells in the region’s history. I wondered aloud how there could be so many blossoming trees around the city without the needed rainwater, and someone responded that often in periods of drought or other such stresses, plants rally one last time before heading into their death throes, putting all they have left into gayly adorning themselves. Those flowers could be their last gasp, the person explained, as another person added that regardless of imminent death or not, the cherry trees were blooming way too early because of climate change.
The next day, I happened on that pretty row of flowering cherry trees again, and now saw not only the simple aesthetic pleasure but also ecological calamity. Bad socioeconomic choices. No future. I added all that to my gratitude: breathe in, breathe out, at least we’re still here for another day to savor such trees.
A few minutes later, from the window of a nearby cafe, I could see those trees from a distance, through giant plate-glass windows, and they now looked like upside-down cotton candy treats, or wisps of fog that had settled down to rest before rushing off again to rejoin the mass. The simplicity started to leisurely display its intricacy, like undoing a single origami creation to reveal the depths of its folds. Those trees became flights of fancy, playful and perhaps not trees at all.
I tried to tear my eyes away from the forms outside and return to my freelance editing work, with my notebook computer serving as my boss — a homogeneous boss, save for two political stickers on its cover. All the weary sameness of individual workspaces around me, flanked by individual cups of espresso or lattes, brought me back to those cheery trees, yet I now realized that they were flanked by warehouses retrofitted so simply, so lavishly, by the high-tech workspaces turning this neighborhood into a playground for the rich. The trees were surrounded on all sides by enemy forces, as if making their last stand in a battle they are guaranteed to loss. Billions of green dollars are flowing into San Francisco like the much-needed rain, lured in by the beauty, for one, of the natural environment. In cruel parody, however, this flood of funds is ravaging the very city it’s attracted to, reshaping SF into a homogeneous terrain replaceable with that of similarly gentrifying global enclaves for the wealthy. Soon these little cherry trees might just as well be in Manhattan or Berlin, Vancouver or London, if they aren’t uprooted along with many of these metropolises’ marginalized residents. The origami of gratefulness unfolded even more. Breathe in, breathe out, the precious fragility of our homes and histories, our neighborhoods and cities.
On leaving the cafe after hours of semi-distracted work, I glanced again at that merry little row, pausing for deep breathes. Without warning, other lines of cherry trees strode into my mind, stepping out of my memory banks — the ones that had lined the road outside my dad’s factory-prison-like nursing home in an anonymous mid-Michigan town (an hour from where he’d lived with my mom for decades) just before I signed the papers to bring him to a hospice (five minutes from his longtime home), an idyllic setting to die that, too, included numerous blooming cherry trees. I had walked amid the cherry trees by the nursing home, sobbing softly by myself, my tears like little flower buds, so I could walk back in to be strong and comforting for him, facing the existential sorrow of knowing his own death was within days. At the hospice, when he hung on to life for some eights days instead of the predicted one day, looking more peaceful than he had in years — himself a blossom that heralded the temporary wonder of life — I used strolls among cherry trees as embrace and comfort, calm and relief. As gratitude for his extra time. My dad seemed to want that extra time, in this extra-gorgeous hospice, nestled on 22 acres of fairy-tale woods and ponds bustling with birds, deer, and wild turkeys. All the many cherry trees, more than I’d ever seen, were spectacular bursts of gratefulness that I was getting to experience my dad’s time of death with him, so well, with so much dignity, and in such a caring community. The whole time he lay in the hospice, letting life flow out of him gently, a single brilliant-pink flowering tree stood witness right outside the huge glass door of his room, often left open to let the flowery fragrance waft in, as embrace and comfort for my dad.
Here in San Francisco, I’ve biked by those cherry trees almost daily, and last night, they seemed to bring forth a dream. I rarely dream, or if I do, rarely recall my dreams. This one was populated with my parents, healthy, smiling, alive. Curious about and grateful for the world — defining traits of these two way-too-childlike people, who constantly wandered toward anything that seemed to offer “a sense of wonder,” as my dad used to put it. I don’t know quite what they were doing, but in my misty dreamworld, they were plainly who they were before all the cancer and chemo, before severe West Nile and intensive care units. The dream felt bright and rosy pink around the edges. I awoke with the sensation that my dad and mom were still here, still embodied. As that faded, like the blossoms shortly will on my SF trees, I thought of how cherry petals end up as colorful confetti on the ground below, extending their simple aesthetic beyond their own lifetimes. Scattering gratefulness into far wider, deeper circles.
Gratitude isn’t simplicity, or the erasure of the fullness of the human condition. The present-day form of social organization labors hard at dumbing us down, so that we “willingly” accept simple crumbs instead of desiring and even expecting wholeness for ourselves and our communities. So that we stop seeing the forest of suffering and injustice around us, not to mention all the compassion that struggles to thrive in this harsh ecosystem, and only stare at our individual tree, hoping against hope that we can avoid any glitches in our lives, as if they could somehow simply and forever be a stagnant snapshot of a cherry tree in peak flowering.
Yet gratitude is discovered when we let down our guard and completely notice the world around us. When we challenge ourselves daily to trust in the the complexity of life and all that it throws at us. Gratefulness is found when we follow the music of life’s messy honesty and enlightened tensions, its touching surprises and startling paradoxes, its bittersweet preciousness, which like an accordian, we draw out for ourselves, unfolding through daily moments of thankfulness, approached with full presence of mind and open heart.
This story was first published on Outside the Circle.