September 28, 2012

Screaming Gratitude Ensemble.

Photo: Ali Goodwin

Here are some gratitude axioms. Not.

This ain’t yo mama’s gratitude cultivation piece. No embroidered cushion boilerplate here, caballero.

Kate, elephant journal’s managing editor, just wrote an article about Pema Chodron’s teachings on finding gratitude for the crappy stuff. It’s challenging, but I know you’ve told yourself more than once:

Ninja capacity gratitude facility could be a real game changer here.

So let’s get under the hood and cross apply gratitude to the things that seriously suck. It might prove interesting. To do it, we will need to look at some things that seriously suck.

These are the days of lasers in the jungle. Lasers in the jungle somewhere.

~ Paul Simon

To outsmart poacher protection rangers, the Ugandan military is killing elephants from helicopters now. Harvesting the ivory to fund new weapons, they can then kill more people. Massive grey elephant bodies are relieved of their tusks and left to rot under trees. If they were using the money to buy false tusks for the elephants it would make more sense. What the hell is next, tanks?

Wait, wait, wait—we’re gonna find gratitude in this scenario, right? Bear with me.

It’s gonna take a lot more than a tambourine man‘s jingle to get beyond the twisted reach of this one.

Step one, know your enemy. Face that rogue penguin, and look: try to see it for what it is before calibrating your relationship to it. Simply running like a bat out of hell is too temporary a fix, and it is also a solution that begets its own problems. Take it from a former (metaphoric) marathoner.

So. Elephants.

When I heard this news, it cut me. Deeply. The compounded mercilessness of it had no mercy on me. I dreamed that I lost all interest in the dreams of those around me. It was freezing—like my life was a fake and I was meandering through it meaninglessly. Hope doesn’t make a sound when you let her go. For a few days, I let her go. What is more hopeless than being part of a people who would do that to freaking elephants?

I am a 46-year-old man and I live near the sea. I took to sleepwalking while wide awake. I couldn’t look anymore, so I slept. Is there a thought of joy that can stand up to this reality? I needed a hero, quick, fast, and in a hurry. Numb is not really my way, but it seemed the only soup for this menu.

Photo: Karl

I definitely did not cultivate gratitude and fix my brain. I had coffee with a friend, and told her I was blowing a gasket. Slowly over the coffee, the stories, the smiles and our quiet affection for each other drew me out of my sleep. The problem did not lessen, but my preoccupation with it diminished. I found the distraction effective, momentarily.

This is a long distance call.

~ Paul Simon

When an elephant has taken enough steel into the flesh, she loses her ability to stand. So she falls. The fall lasts for an hour and twenty minutes, even though it’s over in three seconds. The fall lasts for a season. In point of fact, sometimes no amount of waiting will bring the fall to an end.

Can I find a way to be grateful for that? How?

Honestly feeling this slaughter is like being on the shore at a summer regatta festival and watching all the people happy, busily making last-minute improvements to their boats and even lovingly wishing success for them but then noticing that all of the boats are made of paper and there’s no chance: sinking is the order of the day. You know?

So what do you do? Collect contrasting stories of hope?

There’s a cool elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, of all places. Impose the mental slide rule of relative suffering? One child dies of hunger every five seconds. So we should be grateful? Distract yourself with coffee and a pretty friend?

All of these things. None of these things.

Last month, a large, proud young bull elephant took eight bullets to the brainpan, and fell forever. You can reincarnate 117 times, and that bull will still be falling. He leaves behind a wife and two kids. No amount of anything will bring him back to life. Can I be grateful not to be that elephant? But I am him. We are. We’re driving this bus, and we are the bus. Emotionally distancing ourselves is fatuous.

Drinking in elephant slaughter without filters is a little like noticing there is inaudible piano music playing somewhere and your hand on the doorknob will never be enough to create a stop between you and the world. And the music is distilled uncertainty mixed with a keen desire for focus which only great distance can lend.

So what’s the payoff, already? It’s on the wing, stay with me, please.

Observers have noted that at present rates of slaughter, no elephant will live long enough to walk to an elephant graveyard and from there lay down her body to step into the sky. We are grave robbing before the fact. Mother Nature when asked of this probable outcome was reported to have said “It’s like having one of my nipples cut off.”

Bill Wilson wrote once that he was generally about as happy as he was able to release his “demands on life.” I love that, and it’s a start. The perspective humility offers. Take action, release the results, sound familiar? So how do we approach really ugly stuff with an inner knowing that our approval or disapproval of it need not be priority code red?

Sometimes, I make art in my desperate need to catch a clue.

What happens when the art gets hijacked?

 “Screaming Gratitude Ensemble” was an art installation I did for a show last winter. It was a huge pile of stones and steel—they were the too-long unassembled parts of a sculpture I was trying to make, which was quagmired in red tape and idiocy.

The project was held up in service to vanity. Talking with the people in charge was like listening when someone you know is lying but making believe they are telling the truth because you have an interest in maintaining your comfort level and what would be the point of confronting them anyway.

Familiar? Reminds me of elephants silently falling, only in this case, it was my life’s work, its ivory tusks being melted down to invisible oil for massaging egos. Way way less relevant as a problem, less weighty, but so visceral to me.

Screaming Gratitude Ensemble looked fantastic. Its scream fell silently on the intentionally wooden ears of the titular powers that held the project up, but by the time the opening happened, I had already processed my anger through creating the installation. Don’t get me wrong, I was still livid, but in making the piece, I re-learned that this situation had no power to hold me down, even if my piece never got built.

Iyengar said “We are all subject to impersonal forces. Like traffic.”

The people n charge of this project could delay it forever, but they had no say regarding how their actions would live in my mind. This was not apathy: I built it, in the end. Gotta take action, right? After stillness, activity.

We have to do what we can do.

Like signing a petition for the elephants.

By the time I built that sculpture, I was ready to let go completely. Why?

What worked for me was that walking those inert pieces of sculpture parts became a ritual. Making the installation turned into letting go of the larger piece. I think I need rituals. I think we all need rituals. Like fires and days of silence and throwing stones in the river. Like making love on top of a pyramid. Lighting incense, listening to the smoke.

Can finding something to be grateful for in everything become a ritual? Yes. In fact, repeating the rudimentary reminders of how any set of circumstances can add to the wholeness of what we are is a ritual we would all do well to carry out daily. Read this two or three times but not in one sitting.

I’m not an elephant, falling in slow motion in service to unspeakable cruelty.

Photo: Sarahemcc

I’m not a starving African, belly swelling, going-blind-kid headed headlong into the sky, serving profound neglect.

In a relative universe, the only thing that matters is the thing that we decide, at this moment, matters.

Because there are always more pressing matters.


The NFL referee strike is getting serious.

Whale meat is available at Walmart now.

What price per pound for the soul of the sea?

Photo: Karl soul of the sea?

My butt hurts, I’ve been writing this article since your father was a toddler.

Finding gratitude for all of it is an arduous and complex task, but what mindset could be more worth finding?

I do not have a magic wand to fix all the bad stuff, nor am I powerless or weak. If the great American philosopher Jewel was right when she said “Only kindness matters,” how better to source kindness than to traffic in ninja-level gratitude?

Kindness begins at home, we gotta love ourselves like we might love an innocent and well-meaning dog, and bring and re-bring a kind, forgiving heart to ourselves and then to the yucky stuff. I think. Not for anything, but gratitude is also just sexy as hell.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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