I resist declarations of gratitude.
Though I understand, in everyone’s hearts, they are not, declarations of gratitude always seem a little boastful to me, each one a tiny little humblebrag. This isn’t about the declarations themselves. It’s about me.
I understand how much I have, and how many strangers’ backs the things I have were made upon, carried on. Still, I want things. When I was a kid and everyone else seemed to have things I couldn’t have, I learned this behavior fast. And not only because most of the kids I knew had more stable homes than I did; they also had more permissive and reasonable social lives than mine. By the end of high school, I wanted their grace, their ease in conversation, their freely-given laughter born of connection with other people, connection fostered by kindness in their own lives and lots of practice. It was this wanting, more than wishing for their toys when we were children or their clothes as we approached adulthood, that dug itself in.
Now, so much later, I have all the things I could ever have known to ask for: A house I love, beautiful clothes, an expensive haircut. Great shoes. But on most days, in most situations, I still lack social grace. I don’t know what to say when you give me a compliment, or tell me something meaningful about your life. I do know that, more often than not, what I say ends up being the wrong thing, too revealing or too impersonal, too detailed or weirdly off-topic. Classically, perfectly awkward. Most of the people I’ve been closest to in my life have been people who’ve pursued a friendship with me, even when I crawled inside my shell and hid from my own social ineptitude. Dogs learn best, I’m told, between the ages of five weeks and five months. My hands are aching as I type because the dog yanked me all over the place this morning on his leash, chafing my fingers as I tried to hold on: We didn’t get him soon enough, so teaching him good leash behavior is turning out to be kind of hellish. During what window of time should I have learned to connect fully with other people? How hard is it going to be now?
Tom Andrews’ achingly beautiful poem “Praying with George Herbert in Late Winter” contains some of my favorite lines, including one for which I named my little fiction press. And this: “I can say/there is a larger something/inside me. I can say,/’Gratitude is/a strange country.’ But what/would I give to live there?” I have been angry for a really long time about the obstacles placed in my path not by God or fate or any other such mysterious force, but by the people who should have been taking care of me, who should have been teaching me to take care of other people, and of myself. This self-pity is pointless. In the house where I live, Andrew and I have rescued every surface with our own hands. The work I do is entirely dependent upon a cultivated inventiveness and will to create that was, in turn, initiated by all that wanting–I taught myself to build the life I wanted, understanding early on that no one was planning to give it to me. But the ability to do so depended entirely on my being born in a place where that was possible, without disability or prohibitive illness. Still, there’s the anger, and gratitude is a strange country. What would I give?