Give us, Lord, a bit o’ sun,
A bit o’ work and a bit o’ fun:
Give us all in the struggle and Sputter
Our daily bread and a bit o’ butter.
— On the wall of an old inn in Lancaster, England
Don’t ask where I found that. I may tell you.
If there is a name for the confusion of dates and/or the inability to project what day will fall upon what date — the opposite of certain savants who, when given a date in the far past or future, will, within seconds, be able tell you if it is a Wednesday or a Monday — I don’t know what it is. Possibly I am the opposite of a savant; I can barely count, as my son will tell you. I am assuming this column will run close enough to Thanksgiving (may, in fact, land directly upon it) that I may at least mention it.
Gratitude is what I’m really after here rather than the holiday involving Pilgrims, fowl, and injuns; and without breaking down in an excess of public piety, I feel some thanks are in order. I am one lucky bastard, a designation placed upon me more than once by my own mother, who should know, and usually voiced at high volume in regard to having escaped death at her hands. No exaggeration. Nor is it any bid for sympathy. You could not ask for a more fascinating case when it comes to mothers, and she was hardly all homicidal. As my brother Andrew once pointed out, “Not all of us made it over the fence, you know? But she popped out as many as are missing by my count.” She could be quite pleasant, and often, just as long as you did not have the bad joss to be born unto her. Children were “slave labor and a cross to bear: mightily convenient, wholly unfair.” Many of you may be familiar with this syndrome. No, I’m glad she was who she was in most ways. And it seems as if I’m off in the right direction here.
She’s dead and I’m hardly grateful for that. But let me count the ways.
At the risk of sounding a complete fool (which is historically undaunting to me), I had an odd and pleasant sensation upon waking one recent October morning. That alone is cause for gratitude, but that’s not it. I woke up, probably finishing some seamy dream, but the feeling was not; there was no leer of the lascivious about it. I merely woke up with what I thought was a half phrase in the midst of being formed. That phrase was, “I love.…” Naturally I waited for the other metaphorical shoe to drop, certain the end of that phrase would be supplied in the form of some image or word like “donuts” or “my son” or “that woman across the street.” It was during the course of my constitutional, fiber-rich movement that I realized that was it: I love.
The epiphany (if that’s what it was) should not have been as surprising as it had left me feeling. Very nice of course, but love what? It didn’t matter, and that alone seemed curious. Not that I feel I’ve been so emotionally brutalized that I’m beyond it — no more so than anyone else is my guess; but I was quite pleased with myself, much in the way I felt physically relieved moments later.
It had to do with whatever it was Shakespeare (aka “Willy the Shake,” as my late and beloved friend Gerry Bowes would say, the Brooklyn bartender and author of The Park Slope Book of Skells) was going on about in, I think, his 116th sonnet. It was this, the thing that
…alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
— From The Young Reader’s Digest Golden Guide to Happy Thoughts, Golden Digest Books, 1959. Excerpted in “Our Weekly Message”: The Bishop Buddy Diocesan Ministry of Dogma Fun.
Novelists, if not writers per se, are issued an unwritten license for such things as smoking pipes, quitting drinking (even if they must force themselves to begin in the first place), wearing ascots and/or monocles, and writing in convoluted ways (as above), as well as using words such as “alas!” or phrases such as “spatulate fingers.” Rarely are they allowed to use source material such as Family Word Finder, published by Reader’s Digest, and yet that is what I have in my hotel room.
Under “Gratitude,” this illustrious tome reads, “acknowledgement, recognition, obligation, beholdenness, giving thanks, thanksgiving.…” And so I do.
Unsure that I am permitted to quote Graham Greene as much as I am wont, I nonetheless quote again from A Burnt-Out Case, about lepers in the sense that War and Peace is about Russia, Moby Dick is about a whale, and Lawrence of Arabia is about sand. “Suffering is always provided when it is needed,” a cleric character points out, and when the truth of it becomes clear, gratitude is likely to follow, suggesting either spiritual advancement or masochistic optimism. In my case it may be both; I’m fairly certain about the latter.
Another volume I have in my hotel room is what is called “The Big Book,” the bible more or less of Alcoholics Anonymous. On page 193, among the stories that range from awful to brilliant, is “Gratitude in Action,” a title I found so off-putting I delayed its reading longer than was clever. As it is, I’m rather glad in a way. It meant far more to me a year or two later (2001, I think) after a complete stranger brought me three pairs of perfectly fitting pants, carrying them down his stairs to where I had spent the night seeking shelter from the hideous blinding of a January full moon. You may surmise why I needed them. You may or may not be right, but you’ll be close enough if you assume it was necessary. It was within moments after some half-muttered/slurred prayer of gratitude that, one increment at a time, my life unmistakably if by no means grandly improved. It was not of the William James sudden variety, and unlike Paul I was not stricken from my horse (I forgot where I had parked it), nor was I on my way to Damascus, though, oddly enough, that was where my car was later located.