Buttercup the groundhog lived on the hill between us and our neighbors. She ate the weeds in the yard, probably the sheep sorrel and dandelions that are flourishing under our custodianship. She was never seen coming out of the tall grass. She would always appear on the lawn, already dining. When she was full, she would waddle into the thick brush around her den, which was somewhere under a large juniper bush.
“Groundhog” is the right name. Groundhogs have a furry bag for a body. When they run, they look like someone in a potato-sack race. When they sit still to have a look around, they appear attached to the earth, and their solid profile might remind you of a carving of an animal in which the carver has declined to whittle legs out of the block. Where we live in New Hampshire, groundhogs hibernate for five months, losing half their body weight. So when they come out, they eat nonstop. They look like brown backpacks, stretched out, bellying from place to place on a blanket of food.
In the spring of 2020, Buttercup was sighted for the year in late March, around the time schools sent kids home because of COVID. I remember when it was, because on the first day that we started schoolwork at home, I proposed to my son Ben that he and I each name one “blessing.” And the first thing that he named as a blessing was Buttercup, whom he had just spotted the day before. Later we saw Buttercup’s new babies. There were five of them poking and pushing through the lawn with their noses, leaving tracks of turned grass that caught the sun. This was another one: “I feel blessed by Buttercup’s babies.”
We are not religious. I did not have anything special in mind with this word “blessing.” In fact I didn’t think of it at all. When we realized we were going to have to come up with a structured school day, my wife happened upon a blog that mentioned naming a few blessings before starting school each morning. We tried it and liked it, and the word stuck. The point, I figured, was to appreciate what we had. Before we started spelling or whatever it was, something that Ben probably wouldn’t want to do, and that might make one or both of us think that life was terrible, we could let a little light into the room by each naming something we were glad about. I had so often heard of how healthy it was to make a practice of “gratitude”—I assumed it would be like that.
Ben was in second grade. He was seven. We set up to work in the basement, to get some space from his brother, who was four. The basement was kind of dark, and usually cold. The first morning, we sat in these two old little wobbly wooden thumb-back chairs, rejects from the dining room. We briefly turned them toward each other, and I said it was time to name a blessing. Ben said, “I feel blessed by Buttercup.” I said something like “I feel blessed by our house.”
It turned out that this was the beginning of an activity that went on for a lot longer than I thought it would. We ended up homeschooling the boys for a year and a half. We said blessings most mornings, and named quite a few of these things.
My reason for writing this essay is that what emerged out of this activity was not what I expected. In fact something strange asserted itself over time. Once I got the hang of it, naming a blessing was not the same as appreciation. And it was not the same as gladness.
Now that the boys are back in school, I am back to not really using the word “blessing” anymore, which is just as well. That was an awful time, and for the most part I didn’t learn anything at all from it, other than the horrors of isolation. But this act of naming a blessing is something I desire to fish out and understand if I can.
Let me start with what I incorrectly assumed about naming a blessing. I once saw a picture of an American family standing outside their house with everything they owned laid out on the lawn. The picture looked like the photographer had probably climbed up on the neighbor’s roof across the street. It was a sunny day. In the center of the picture was the family, two parents and a little girl, arm in arm, craning their necks and squinting up at the camera. Behind them in the driveway you could see their car and some bicycles. On the front lawn there were toys and a computer, a set of dishes, two twin beds and a queen with the bedding still on them, and so on. The one-story house had brick steps going up to the front door, on which they had piled books and CDs. The part of the image that sticks specifically in my memory, for whatever reason, was that in the lower right-hand corner you could see the game Simon propped up against a stack of black inner tubes. Maybe because we take the material conditions of our lives so seriously, the image, with everything bared on the grass, felt a little like nakedness. Which might be why I remember it. On the facing page there was a rough list of the prices of the items, and a chart outlining what the family spent annually on things like health care and so forth. I think it may have been in an economics textbook.
I am reminded of this image because it has something in common with what, at first, I assumed the point of naming would be. Not that I necessarily expected blessings to be things you could buy. Most of the things I named, from the beginning, were not possessions at all. I often said something like “I feel blessed that it’s been sunny all week”; or I named people. Rather, what the photograph reminds me of is this: when I sat down with Ben before school to name a blessing, I thought that I would be adding to a picture of the things that made my life happy. I assumed that I was surveying, seeing, a good life, part by part.
Mostly I hit the big things. Like, “I feel blessed that we’re all healthy.” Or sometimes I named things that were helping us while we were all holed up at home: “I feel blessed that this happened in the spring, when it’s easy to get outside.” I assumed that when it was time to name a blessing it was time to add another pillar of our life to the picture.
This activity—it was, I guess, a sort of audit—felt very natural to me at that moment, when COVID first struck. Sometimes when things are shaken up, it awakens a dormant ability to see what you’ve been given. Someone who survives cancer or a car accident recounts how, even in the midst of the action, their consciousness is flooded with an awareness of how good they’ve had it. This is partly an awareness of fact, and partly a hot sensation that washes over the mind, as distinct and unmistakable as embarrassment or envy. The beginning of COVID set off a little upwelling of that sort of thankfulness in me. And this seemed to me to be the case, to some degree, with most people I talked to at that time.
The word “appreciation” does a good job of summing up what I assumed the point of naming a blessing was going to be. “Appreciation”—from the Latin word for establishing a price. When we appreciate, we come closer to grasping the value that things have. As I remember it, there was a sort of flash commensurability to the first few weeks of the “lockdown,” wherein everyone, every single human, was caught in the same storm all at once. There was this surprise bloom of perspective. So one took stock. Just as one took stock of one’s toilet paper, one took stock of one’s life circumstances. I remember whenever I spoke to one of my friends on the phone, they would invariably say something like “I’m just glad I’m not in so-and-so’s situation.”
The person who fails to appreciate has always been a bit repulsive. I remember the first time I went to buy a cell phone, I went to the mall. As I waited in line at the Verizon store I couldn’t, of course, look at my phone (and it would have been a flip phone anyway). So I noticed the guy ahead of me, talking with a sales rep. He looked like he was in his early thirties. He was getting more and more agitated because he was discovering that he had recently purchased a phone that couldn’t do something or other. He was locked into a contract, and so on. Finally as he stormed out he shouted “Fucking piece of shit” and, mid-stride, spiked the poor little Motorola as hard as he could on the floor. To my and, I really think, his surprise, it burst into tiny pieces that scattered and slid over the glossy mall tiles, many of them traveling together like a cluster of stars all the way to the other side of the gallery. Everyone stared. A big chunk skittered to a stop just before taking a ride down an escalator. The guy then had no choice but to continue striding off in a ridiculous frown. What I remember is how you could feel everyone having the same thought. The words “spoiled baby” may as well have flashed in the air. I don’t know anything about this person, but he comes to mind when I think of what is at stake in appreciation. And he comes to mind when I think of how the threat of being spoiled—or perhaps it is the fact of it—is just under the surface of our collective consciousness.
That was twenty years ago. Today appreciation in one form or another is really an obsession of our time, even if we don’t call it that. Thus the “gratitude” trend. And its twin: the call to acknowledge privilege. “Privilege,” which refers not just to having advantages relative to others but also to being blind to those advantages. The question “Who has it good, and how good?” hangs in the air between us all the time now. So it hangs between the individual and his own experiences. Perhaps this is for the best.
Anyway, this, I think, was what I assumed the point of naming a blessing before school would be: to work on appreciation. Who hasn’t had the thought that with a little practice he could overcome the oblivion of the mundane, or the blindness that comes from constantly chasing after the things that he doesn’t have yet, trying to get the outer edge of the available goods? “Want what you have,” we say. To weigh in one’s hands for a moment the full heft of having a nice place to live, having a good friend, enough food, not being ill—isn’t it, in a sense, everything? Who hasn’t had the thought that he might escape the emptiness of materialism (by means, we must admit, of what is in some ways a more definitive materialism) in this way?
So here is what I had in mind when we sat down to name a blessing: we were appreciating. I would have been glad for that to have been the case. But, as I have said, it did not turn out this way. Not right away, but gradually, something else emerged.
I will give an imperfect example. I remember one morning, early on, maybe one month into the lockdown, I was tired. At that time Ethan, our four-year-old, was in a phase where he would burst into our bedroom at five in the morning while it was still dark. This was an entirely different kind of tiredness from the tiredness that came later. In the end we had the boys, with no in-person school or camp, for 479 days straight. Here I am only talking about something like day thirty.
Anyway, on day thirty or whatever it was, I was tired. A lot had changed in those first few weeks. As I cooked breakfast, the boys had to say something two or three times, and perhaps actually shout or hop up and down in front of me and wave their hands in my face before I admitted them to my attention.
To our surprise, Ben’s second-grade teacher, who was retiring that year, had never set up any kind of virtual-classroom component, with Zoom meetings and assignments to be submitted online and so forth. We were just given a math workbook and a packet of readings. Pretty much on our own, we settled into a routine where I would teach Ben reading and math, and maybe a little literature or history, for a couple of hours in the morning.
On the morning I am thinking of, when I went down the crackling oak stairs to start “school” with Ben, I brought one cup of black tea. I sat in my chair. I held my tea, with my elbows on my knees, and felt the steam drifting up. Then I held its curve to my closed eye, as though this would warm up my brain. When it was my turn to name a blessing, I said: “I feel blessed by this cup of tea.” It was what came to mind. And it really did feel like a blessing to me. This was the first time that something struck me as odd about what I actually meant by this.
What struck me was this: putting something small next to something big, naming our health one day and then saying, “I feel blessed by this cup of tea” the next, one would expect the minor items to offer a sense of scale. One would expect the cup of tea to throw the importance of the things that I named on the other days into relief. In fact I think this is what I half intended: saying “I feel blessed by this cup of tea” was like including the silhouette of a tiny man in a graphic of the world’s whales, for scale. What I noticed was that this was not the way it actually was. Instead, the “blessings” were all about the same size, or no size.
Over the next few months, this became more familiar. Whether I named something very important and close to me and the sort of thing that deserved my appreciation, or something small and not so significant, like a cup of tea, in some way blessings lacked size. Once I had begun the sentence “I feel blessed by…,” there seemed to be nowhere to register a sense of being blessed more by one thing than another. In fact, it was almost as if in nominating a “blessing,” I thereby shed a sense of scale. I don’t mean to say that naming a blessing flattened out importance. It wasn’t like I was having the thought: “Of what more value, really, is my mother”—who eventually began coming up once per week to help with the kids, whose importance was immense and who of course came to mind as a blessing—“than the pond lilies?” I mean that saying “I am blessed by…,” and its way of thinking, did not issue, in the normal way, in a sense of measure or muchness.
Or maybe the way to put it is that however important or negligible the thing was, the fact of being blessed was the same size. I couldn’t help myself: to say I was blessed by something, even something small, was to declare in a ludicrously general way, as a whole, “I am blessed.” Which made no sense. When I said, “I feel blessed by this cup of tea,” it sounded, for all the world, like I was saying, “I am blessed because of this.” Which implies: I would not be (as) blessed without it. And yet, once it was spoken out loud, being blessed felt like some same, total thing, regardless of what was named.
Over the next sixteen months, I named a lot of blessings. I was blessed by our car, by living not too far from the ocean, by carrots, by salt, by the boys, the library, TV, tree climbing. Often we would say something—two or three sentences—about why the thing was a blessing. What we were doing reminded me, a little bit, of giving a toast. When someone raises her glass and says, “Here’s to Maud, who…” and then enumerates Maud’s qualities, and how we would be lost without Maud, there are two moments. In the first moment, words of praise drive down to what is so good about a particular person or thing. The first moment is, in other words, appreciation. But if it is a really good toast, in the end, with the glass raised up a bit higher, the praise spills over into a less constricted conviviality and love of life. This second movement is not to the detriment of Maud—it is the highest testament to her worth that she makes us love life in this way.
I guess this sounds like it could be a pretty pedestrian experience. So the mind, being a weak and imperfect instrument, is sometimes bad at perspective. For Ben’s part, he named a smattering of things. One day he said, “I feel blessed by my new arrow,” and then he talked for ten minutes about his best bow, the one made from a dried, debarked, blond pine stick, and how far he had shot his arrow with it, and the exact way—holding out his forearm and flattened hand—that the arrow looked in the air. Another time he said, gazing into the corner of the basement, “I feel blessed by that long dowel you let me have.” And he meant it. That was where his mind was, completely. Seven-year-old boys are creatures of fixation, and famously bad at perspective. So what if sometimes adults are no different?
But for what it’s worth, I found that being blessed was the right mood at the right time, for me. In any case it was what was available. I don’t think I could have held on to perspective if I tried. At the very beginning of the lockdown there was, as I say, a sudden flash of perspective. But then, with the isolation, as we spent each day at home, just the four of us, it meant the complete loss of it. What I am trying to put into words here is that I had assumed that thankfulness—emotional thankfulness, a thankfulness we feel in the heart, one of the sweetest sensations of life and also one of the times when we feel most honest and like we have a hold on the truth—went hand in hand with perspective. I thought that in some sense it was perspective. But my experience was that there was a different kind of thankfulness, one that tolerated—maybe thrived on—a loss of perspective.
The first blessings in the Bible are God granting his creatures the power to propagate and expand. When God is done with Abraham, he is the father of nations. For the women of the Old Testament, being blessed pretty much means the ability to have children—as in the ninety-year-old Sarah, who, on hearing that she has been blessed by God and is going to be a mother after all, gives her famous silent snort of incredulity. God’s blessing is in the burgeoning flocks, the swelling grape on the vine. To be cursed is the opposite: it is to shrivel, and for one’s sustenance to come only with pain and difficulty.
So characterizing what the word “blessing” meant to Hebrew ears at the time scripture was written can seem pretty easy. To be blessed by God is to grow and have dominion. But a blessing always has another aspect in the Bible that must assert itself over the first. It is a mistake to think that, in the end, the aim of a blessing is man’s material abundance. A blessing is, pointedly, God’s attempt to awaken man to his (God’s) abundance and grandeur.
I have been an atheist all my life; and although I like to think that I am open-minded, I don’t anticipate that that is going to change. Most people I know are in the same boat. So there are certain things about any theocentric concept that I don’t expect to ever partake of. Whatever a “blessing” is to me, it is not going to have the warmth and richness of a relationship with a benevolent God. Although I can be thankful for a cup of tea, it will never be with the wholeness of gratitude, if by gratitude we mean a fundamentally interpersonal emotion. Be that as it may, I wanted to write about this because I was surprised to find how applicable and legitimate the word nonetheless felt to me. It certainly seems to name something I have no other word for.
I think, roughly, that the word “blessing,” used descriptively to say “such and such is a blessing,” in colloquial, not necessarily religious speech, draws on one of three connotations, all of which come from its biblical origins. We tend to call something a blessing when we want to emphasize that it was not gained through our own efforts. We also tend to call something a blessing when we want to acknowledge our own ignorance of the good (I think especially of the common construction wherein something “turns out to be a blessing”; as in “It turned out to be a blessing that Grampa was in the car, because he was the only one who knew how to change a flat”). Then there is a third connotation, in some ways the least obvious of the three. This, I think, was what Ben and I were taking up without realizing it. It is this: A blessing is a gift with two benefits. On the one hand, it makes such and such a material difference. (In the terms I am using, this is how it can be appreciated.) On the other hand, it is a blessing because through it we access a praise, and with the praise a sense of security, out of proportion to the gift itself.
This raises a hard question. For a religious person, this second, spiritual benefit consists in the presence of a loving God. What could it consist in for someone like me?
When I was in my early twenties, I read a lot of Thoreau and the Transcendentalists. It was the closest I ever came to a religious view of life. The Transcendentalists are, in my thinking, not quite Christians anymore. They stand at a moment in the nineteenth century when a certain kind of intellectual has just walked out the church doors into the cold air, but has so far retained a passion wherein worship is the highest end of life.
When Ben and I said blessings before school, it sometimes reminded me of Thoreau. Obviously a lot about our situation in lockdown was superficially like the life he describes in Walden; being, as we were, withdrawn from society, spending more time than usual outside, etc. I remember one day when Ben mentioned how we were seeing so much more wildlife now that we were at home all the time, I took down Walden to find the line “You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.”
Even more, our blessings, as an exercise, reminded me of Thoreau’s way of taking up a subject. There are any number of interesting things to say about this. What I have in mind is how it relates to what Thoreau calls “trust.” When Thoreau describes the kind of life his neighbors are living, one of the words he uses is “anxious.” One of the main virtues that he claims to embody is trust. On one level, Thoreau enjoys trust because of the simplicity of his life. A simple life dispenses with most of the material conditions people spend their lives chasing, the source of so much distress. But trust is also in Thoreau’s way of experiencing the world. Thoreau’s method is to lovingly describe a medium-size pond in Massachusetts, and all the flora and fauna that are encountered around it, and the way the surface of the water reacts to the seasons, the history of the few people who had lived there previously and a seemingly interminable train of other observations; taking something up in a paragraph or a few lines, sequentially—whatever it is: a sumac branch, a brood of partridges—and yet somehow at the same time keeping his hand very open. He takes joy in a thing, but in a way that declines to draw the conclusion “this thing is what joy hangs on,” using the potency in it to flow in the other direction, wholly focused in on his subject, and yet, somehow, relishing, through and in it, the absurd abundance of the good.
How are we supposed to praise life? How do we actually get the grandeur of life into view? Thoreau is one of our great poets of praise. Praise is perhaps not as straightforward as it sounds, particularly when we praise what we have. To praise a thing that one has, to talk about how it helps us, always also threatens to become a sort of holding tight. The paradox is that, in the end, that kind of praise can leave a person poorer and more fragile than before he uttered it.
I think that was one reason why it took me several weeks to hear what a “blessing” was, or could be, and how it differed from appreciation. That was how long it took for the true context of blessings to arise, with its faint sensation of letting go. It was only after several weeks that the things we named on any given day as a “blessing” began to prove that each thing was not essential, and thus began to say: look at the ability of the human heart to love what is given to it.
One evening toward the end of May, my wife, whose seat at the table gives her the best vantage for looking out at the hill, spotted a fox standing at the edge of the tall grass gazing in the direction of Buttercup’s den. Ben and Ethan immediately started shrieking. They burst out of the house, slamming open the screen door. Still running, Ben snagged a stick off the ground and winged it at the fox. As the stick spun and slowed in the air, the fox collectedly loped out of range and into the trees. The boys spent much of that evening guarding Buttercup’s den and disseminating threats.
I thought that Buttercup and her kits would probably be okay. She was a veteran. Many predators, including foxes, had come and gone on the hill. We, and pale-cheeked Buttercup, had watched them have their season. I thought that when the fox learned what he was getting into, he would leave Buttercup alone.
But a couple of days later Erica saw the fox emerge from the grass and carry the limp body of Buttercup away.
Ben was despondent. He cried, and I felt his wet tears through my shirt. He looked up at me, his moon face trembling, the skin around his eyebrows dimpled in anguish, his mouth pulled down at the corners. He kept sobbing, “Mama said she saw Buttercup’s foot hanging doooown” (Erica had made out the dead matriarch’s silvery paw wagging as the fox jogged), in his exclamatory way, as though this were something we might eventually contradict.
Over the next few days we kept seeing the fox. We saw him trotting up and down along the vagaries of the old stone wall out the kitchen window. Another time he was only about fifteen feet from the house, sniffing up a spruce tree that held a nest of baby chipping sparrows (the next morning we found the two halves of the torn nest on the ground). Most of all, he hung around near the tall grass. Eventually we realized that he was making return trips for Buttercup’s kits one by one.
It was not easy for Ben. Ben’s nickname in school was “Little Tank.” He was Little Tank, I think, not just because he is small and stout, but because of his personality. Ben is a driven and passionate person. He is ardent. Ben has burnt red hair and almost black eyes, the same combination as my wife. It matches their dispositions.
A week or two after the death of Buttercup, on a warm morning in June, the boys and I were standing in the backyard just before a thunderstorm. The damp wind was upside down, turning the new leaves over. It smelled sweet and fecund, like ozone and dirt. We were holding out our arms as the wind ballooned our t-shirts. Then we saw the fox and his calm, humping trot crossing the big field behind our house in a straight line. He had large, black-capped ears. At the tip of his tail, a mocking white flag of permission. I could see the impulse in Ben to drive him away. I saw Ben’s fists clench, and his upper lip raise up the littlest bit in what would become bared teeth if he let it grow, as though he couldn’t quite accept that there was nothing to protect. Paused at the wall, the fox looked at us, standing on his dainty-deadly black-stocking legs. Illustrations and even photographs like to emphasize a fox’s flared face. But this fox, perhaps because he was young, was skullish. He had black-ink eyes that seemed to have leaked a little blackness onto the fur around them. Then, just as it started to rain, he ducked into the tall grass by the juniper bush. He had, we concluded, moved into Buttercup’s den.
I sat down in my chair on the porch. I needed to get off my feet. A week or so before, my eyes had begun to ache. It was uveitis—inflammation of the irises—a sign that the autoimmune condition that I had had all through my twenties, but which had been in remission ever since Ben was born, was coming back. Then earlier that morning, with the storm’s low-pressure system, my arthritis had exploded in joints all over my body. That very same week, incredibly, my wife, who had never been injured in her life, tore a ligament in her right thumb. Then she used the left one so much that she strained that too. She couldn’t use her hands. We looked out and saw time at home with our ravenous boys—something seemingly so incompatible with injury—stretching out indefinitely into the future. Our lives were, it was easy to see, about to pitch over into hell.
The reason I tell the story is that later that day, when it was time for blessings, Ben said, “I feel blessed by the fox.”
This was one more lesson to learn about blessings—or at least about what the word meant to us—different from what I have already mentioned. I said before that I had noticed that blessings lacked a sense of scale. A blessing is an inlet onto the fact of a more general goodness and buoyancy in life. Nonetheless I thought that a blessing, to be a blessing, needed to be something we deemed good all in all. To me, to nominate something as a “blessing” required, at a minimum, that all in all our lives wouldn’t be as good without it.
The fox, of course, was not like that. The arrival of the fox was not something Ben wanted. The fox was not what Ben would choose if he could choose.
Now that I have had time to reflect on it, however, I believe that Ben was in the right. Ben, maybe just because he was a child, was using the word very correctly. Earlier I said that there was a difference between being blessed and appreciation. There is, I think, also a difference between being blessed and being glad. Or in other words, there is a difference between being blessed and preferring that things be as they are. Ben was not glad that the fox had come to the hill. But what Ben was saying did not imply this.
On the same morning that Ben said he felt blessed by the fox, in fact, I said, “I feel blessed by the rain.” What I eventually learned about blessings is that if you were to say, “I feel blessed by the rain,” it would be no objection to this for someone who knows you to point out, “If there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, you would say you were blessed by the sun.” In fact it might, weirdly, support the mood with which we speak of being blessed. My point here isn’t that just anything could be a blessing. I don’t remember being blessed by a day that was forty degrees and drizzly. To call something a blessing is to praise it. The fox was beautiful and wild. Rather, my point is that the simplicity of being blessed means that nothing is thereby correspondingly condemned. “I feel blessed” does not express preference over an alternative, a reticence that, paradoxically, raises rather than lowers the solemnity of one’s thankfulness. Or to make things more exact: even when we do begin with gladness, once we speak of blessings our thoughts thereby leave off comparison. The blessings we name are ultimately not side by side in the world with anything at all, even each other, even their opposites, any more than a person portrayed in a painting on a wall is considered to stand in the same scene with the subjects of other paintings that happen to be on the same wall.
You might assume that Ben was compartmentalizing in the sense that, to Ben, the fox was good in one respect but bad in another. But what I am trying to describe is not compartmentalization. I know Ben. Ben is Little Tank because somehow everyone who takes care of him gets the irrational impression that if he ran into a wall he might burst through it. It would be more accurate to say that Ben was uttering “I feel blessed by” not to compartmentalize but to burst through something. In fact I saw him do this many times—until I realized that he was in some sense doing this every time.
When the boys went off to camp in the summer of 2021, homeschooling was over, and we stopped naming blessings. That was almost two years ago, and I have not found a substitute.
I have tried, many times, just thinking of things I’m thankful for as a sort of private reflection. But somehow saying these things to myself feels empty compared to sharing them out loud with my son. I have tried keeping a journal of things I’m thankful for, as the “gratitude” people recommend. This suffers from the same problem. And the journaling always ends up becoming an audit. Even though I don’t mean them to, the entries, bound between two covers, become parts of an inventory, the accumulated aspects of a happy life, and in this way also a compilation of its conditions. This is not the same kind of hope one finds in blessings.
We have tried, as a family, doing something similar to naming a blessing at dinner, each of us naming the best part of the day. This is fine; but somehow we always wind up exploring our preferences, which, as I have said, is not the spirit of blessings.
I even tried writing this essay—of no use whatsoever, of course, in the absence of the proper practice.
I am, in general, impressed by the ability of appreciation and a spirit of criticism to supplant being blessed, even when I’m trying hard not to let it. Theists have a way of holding open the logic of a blessing. The godless have to find new ways. I am reading the Transcendentalists again, and other poets, and this is the best lead I have so far.
The only time I taught Walden, my students seemed to assume that it would be a book about a settler, or a survivor. But it isn’t. They thought its author would be saying: “Here is the right way.” Or, “Here is a blueprint.” But Thoreau leaves the pond at the end of the book, an act that I read as an expression of the trust he had cultivated there. Being blessed has this advantage over appreciation. Appreciation is about valuing the things that you have. A feeling of being blessed is also about what you have, but being blessed has built into it a trust that there will be blessings even if you lose what you have.
Art credit: Kimberly Witham, Summer Fruit (2018) and The Pendulum (2017), from The Laid Table series. Pigment print on rag paper. Courtesy of the artist.