The children were making mud bricks with their cousins in the backyard. The red Georgia clay broke apart in satisfying chunks. A bigger child would dig, a younger child would scoop and smash the clay into cracked and faded sand toys. A number of crumbling bricks lined the boundary of their clay pit, a monument to childhood. Their hands, faces, clothes were all stained dusky red.
“This is the best way to use the shovel,” the philosopher child sagely instructed a younger cousin. “You go use the pickax.”
They worked industriously for an hour, their aunt and I had tea. I called out to them from the back door, the way I have for the last five years, “Guys, wrap it up, we have to get back home to do some more school and chores soon.”
I called out to them again, 10 minutes later. And again. And once more. A fourth time before, really, it was time to go this time.
They were spellbound in their play. And because the day allowed it, the work could wait a while, we lingered.
Lingering is an art. You have this little bit of space in yourself and in your time that can feel like treasure. You can put anything you want in it.
You can put worry or fear in it. Or bitterness. Or old fights that are on replay in your mind. You could put friendship or a really good conversation in it. Or prayer. Or you could pull a book out. Put on another cup of tea.
The space in the pause and what you fill it with can tell you a lot about what you value.
If you're practiced at it, intentional lingering becomes presence to the now, which can become savoring, which can transform into gratitude.
Gratitude, I'm convinced, is the heaviest and most vulnerable emotion we can feel. Deeper than joy or sadness. Foundational to both, in fact, gratitude will shatter your heart. It asks you to clean off your lenses and dares you to recognize and itemize all that is good and beautiful right in front of you. It demands you see clearly.
The older I get, the more I realize that gratitude is intertwined with grief. These things I'm grateful for, they will change. I will lose them. These little sacred, ordinary moments that comprise my life: they are ephemera, like flowers in early spring. They will fade. Gratitude is a laundry list of nouns—people, places, things, even ideas—I love and will lose.
The children won't be in the backyard making mud bricks forever. I won't be sipping tea with a sister on the back porch forever.
Gratitude, like breath, invites you to take it all in and then let it all go.
You cannot hold it forever. It's meant to roll in and out like the tide. It's meant to wash over you continuously.
Gratitude is weight and praise. The glory and splendor that I'm alive, the heaviness that it all changes and I control so very little of it. It anchors me to the givenness of the world, of my life.
After all, who gives me this breath and these eyes to see and glory in the children making mud bricks? Who gives the red Georgia clay?
So when Paul or the Psalms ask me to do things with thanksgiving: to pray, to petiton, to praise, to encourage, to correct, to work—with thanksgiving. So when all the positive psychology research says that a gratitude practice will transform most anyone into an optimist.
It is because gratitude simultaneously anchors you to your humble position in the universe, the givenness and goodness of it, and lifts you up to see beyond it, to ask what or who's behind it.
Gratitude invites you to be a participant in the process of building the world. When we fill the pauses of our lives with gratitude, when we intentionally linger and savor, we build the foundation of our identities. Like the children building mud bricks, we take the raw elements of our lives and tranform them into meaning, into the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about others, about God.
Gratitude invites us to embrace grief as a practice, and name it for what it is. Grief is a growing pain.
Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, writes, "While you can't control your experiences, you can control your explanations.”
Individual gratitudes are seeds sown in the soil of the soul. Explanations that build a mind.
Miss Charlotte, my gardener friend, said: "You know, I had this seminole pumpkin seed someone gave me. I put it in the ground and it grew into a beautiful little pumpkin. I cracked it open, inside were 500 more seminole pumpkin seeds. Seeds have to transform in the dark earth before they can grow into what they're meant to be. I watched a time lapse of a seed growing once: it was a slow explosion. That's how we grow and transform too: it starts with a death and then a slow explosion in the dark before new growth."
Gratitude is the seed, grief is the slow explosion, the new growth is the meaning and identity we yield from such a bold, repeated practice.
When we linger, when we pause, let's fill it with thanksgiving.