542: In Gratitude

542: In Gratitude

542: In Gratitude


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

I used to hate it when someone would tell me to practice gratitude. It felt akin to someone telling me to smile. I also felt like it was implying that my suffering, however small, could be solved by a change of mindset. It sounded a little too easy. You’re upset? Be thankful for your home, your health. Your health isn’t great, be grateful that it’s not worse. It felt like a loop that could go on forever and never really get you any place better.

Of course there are studies that show that gratitude practices can change the brain and have lasting benefits. And maybe it’s age or maybe it’s that constant desire to feel good, or at least not bad, but now I think I practice gratitude in some way, shape, or form almost daily. And yes, it works. At least it does for me. But the way it started was not by being grateful for the huge things: the earth, the air, water, but by starting very small.

I sometimes tell my students to do a writing exercise that’s just something on their desk. An object they’ve had with them for a while, a photograph, a stone from the ocean, a shell. I tell them just to explore it, interrogate it, just turn it over in your head and see what might happen. And the most amazing thing happens: they really find they love those objects, and can write about them for a long time. That they carried that black stone home from a day with their father just weeks before he died, that the small elephant was a gift from a friend on a day of heartbreak. We start talking about those objects and soon it feels like our whole life is full of small stories to be grateful for. So many small things we pass all the time without holding them up to the light.

In today’s gorgeous poem, we see what happens when that practice of gratitude and interrogation is done with one of the smallest units of poetry, in this case the letter h. It’s the very definition of starting small.

In Gratitude
by Abigail Carroll

For h, tiny fire
     in the hollow of the throat,
          opener of every hey,

hi, how are you?,
     hello; chums with c,
          with t, shy lover of s;

there and not
     there—never seen,
          hardly heard, yet

real as air
     fluttering the oak,
          holding up the hawk;

the sound
     of a yawn, of sleep, of heat,
          a match, its quivering

orange flame
     turning wood into light,
          light into breath;

the sound
     of stars if stars
          could be heard, perhaps

the sound
     of space; life speaking life:
          warm air endowed

to hard clay—
     a heart, hurt,
          a desire to be healed—

the work
     of bees stuck in the nubs
          of hollyhocks

and columbine, time
     to the extent that time
          is light, is bright

as the match,
     the flame of the sun,
          real as the muffled hush

of sleep,
     the fluttering oak,
          a moth, the silent oh

in the throat
     when a hand is laid
          upon the shoulder;

     the body’s empty cry
          for filling, for loving,

for knowing
     the intimacy of breath,
          of half-breathed words

fragile as the stars:
     hollow, hush,

"In Gratitude" by Abigail Carroll, from HABITATION OF WONDER published by Wipf & Stock, copyright © 2018 by Abigail Carroll. Reprinted in HOW TO LOVE THE WORLD. Used by permission of the poet.