This is How Gratitude in a Broken World Looks

 

Tragedy Strikes

A few weeks ago, on Monday, November 14, I woke up to the news that three students at the University of Virginia, where I teach–Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr., and D’Sean Perry–had been murdered and two others wounded the night before by another UVa student who opened fire inside a charter bus returning to campus from a field trip.

As police searched for the killer from 10 pm Sunday evening until 11 am that Monday, everyone on campus had been ordered to shelter in place in dorm rooms, libraries, gyms, cafes, wherever they happened to be.

Schools around the county were cancelled. All morning the buzzing of helicopters was punctuated by the blaring of police sirens on and around campus. Crime scene tape was wrapped around the street by the parking garage where the shootings took place, and where I often park. It was just surreal.

When I saw my students in class three days later, they were shell-shocked. Distracted, exhausted, confused, crying, numb. The hideous national scourge of gun violence was no longer a segment on the daily news to them—or me. It had touched all of us in a deeply personal way, and our lives would never quite be the same.

“When our lives feel out of control,” I opened class that day, “there are two certainties we can always rely on: our body and our breath.” And so, I invited my students to close their eyes and meditate with me.

For fifteen minutes we paid rapt attention to the beating of our hearts, the ground beneath our feet, the cool, dry air filling our nostrils and the warm, moist air leaving our mouths. In silent solitude, we sat together and observed the simple miracle of life teeming inside us and all around us.

Sometimes, when the world seems like it’s falling apart, that’s all we can do. But it’s enough.

It’s The Little Things

I’ve been spending long stretches of time on my porch in recent days, reclining in my anti-gravity chair bundled up against the crisp fall air filled with earthy odors of grass and mulch and damp leaves. I listen to the chirping, tweeting, whistling, hooting, squawking birds, to the gusts of wind that rush through the naked tree branches and gently nip my exposed neck.

I could swear the neighbor’s dog, whose incessant yowling once annoyed me, is now trying to tell me something important. My own well-mannered Ginger Lynn settles down next to me with crossed paws; as I reach down to pet her, her fur has never felt so soft. The familiar herd of deer scurrying across the lawn in search of yet another garden plant to uproot, seems like family to me in this moment.

Then there’s my more immediate family: my wife Corinne whose countless daily expressions of love are extraordinary in their ordinariness; my seven-year-old Evan and ten-year-old Ian whose compassion, curiosity, and wonder reconnect me with what is best in the world.

When I watch Evan making pottery or high-fiving a soccer teammate who just made a goal, or when Ian giddily recounts how he almost cantered bareback today on his favorite horse, Roddy–these are the little big moments that mean everything to me right now.

Remembering Gratitude

They remind me of something Tolstoy said at the turn of the twentieth century, a dark time in Russian history: “In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you. Life could be limitless joy, if we would only take it for what it is, in the way it is given to us.”

I’ve come to recognize that, no matter what else may be happening in the world, the miracle of life is always available to me right here, right now. Gratitude for that simple miracle is what has helped keep me sane amid the violent insanity.

I’m starting to appreciate those country songs I used to make fun of urging us to live each moment like it could be our last. Because, as we all were reminded ten days ago, it well could be.

***

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