Nature Is Teaching Me Gratitude During This Pandemic
My partner and I went to Prospect Park in Brooklyn this past Saturday after being cooped up in our apartment for 36 days since we started following the stay-at-home order due to COVID-19. It wasn’t the first time we stepped outside, of course. We had been taking daily walks in our neighborhood and gone to the supermarket numerous times. But going to Prospect Park was our first venture “out into the world” since the pandemic started. I was craving some form of nature immersion and my partner had the brilliant idea to go to the park. We didn’t know what to expect. I was personally filled with anxiety, mostly because I always have anxiety.
We entered from a small, unremarkable entrance along Parkside Avenue on the south side of the park. We headed towards Prospect Park Lake and when we got to its edge, our bodies instinctively turned eastward and we started walking along the lake’s contour. All this happened without a word uttered between us. Our bodies were in sync. The path along the lake is frequently interrupted by groupings of large shrubs such that pedestrians continually have to adjust their path to walk around them. After several such diversions, we finally reached a wide opening that was specially constructed for people to stop, rest and admire the scenery. We decided to stop here, adhering unconsciously to the design intentions of this spot, and sat on the provided benches.
As we sat there looking out at the lake, my breath became slower and deeper. My body melted slightly into the bench. My monkey mind went quiet. Our surrounding also became quiet as though it were in sync with us. That’s not exactly true though, because my ears instantly perked up to the vociferous chirping and tweeting of birds. In all I was able to identify ten different calls made by probably that many different species of birds. My mouth formed a gleeful smile as I appreciated the sounds of spring for the first time this year. My eyes were feasting on the visual abundance unfolding before them. The sky, being cloudy, was an ambient white. The lake, deep and dark green-gray, produced thousands of tiny ripples on its surface that glistened softly. The trees encircling the lake exploded in all shades of pinks and reds. My face and hands were caressed by the light, cold breeze of April in New York.
In this moment of sensory feast, gratitude filled me up in a deluge. I was not expressing gratitude as some mental activity that I had any control over. Gratitude was rather a feeling that was happening to me. It was a religious experience. It was a somatic experience. It was a new experience.
I always struggled with expressing gratitude. I grew up in a family that hammered in me the message that we never had enough. We were an immigrant, working-class family so we really did not have enough in many material ways. But rather than focus on how we actually had all that we needed, my parents focused on how we were always falling short. My partner cogently called it a poverty mentality. I also battled chronic depression and anxiety. Between my parents’ poverty mentality and my mental health struggles, I never developed the facility for gratitude. It wasn’t that I refused to be grateful when reminded to do so. It was that gratitude was not a default lens by which I lived my life and so, growing up it always felt fake and awkward whenever I expressed gratitude because I had no practice. I didn’t know what gratitude felt like.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of this though. Witnessing the global disruption of social and economic systems in the wake of the coronavirus has awakened something inside me. My proximity to the disruption has radically altered my outlook on life. For the first time in a long time, I shed the narrative of scarcity that I had internalized from my parents. The grip of depression and anxiety was loosening up and I started to appreciate everything in my life as gifts.
Sitting by Prospect Park Lake, however, was not my first experience of gratitude, although it was certainly my most vivid one so far. Gratitude had been germinating in my psyche actually a month earlier when spring rolled around and the trees started blossoming. I live in an interesting pocket of Brooklyn where a precious collection of colorful, 19th-century Victorian homes stand steadfast surrounded by pre-war and modern apartment buildings. Every spring, beautiful flowering trees and bushes adorn the front yards and adjacent sidewalks of these architectural rarities. To preserve our sanity and physical health, my partner and I had taken to daily walks on the blocks lined by Victorian houses on either side. On these walks, my eyes would take in all the flowers unfurling around us. The pink-and-white saucer magnolias. The honeysuckles whose yellow is so rich it looks fake. The effervescent light pinks of cherry blossoms.
Time stopped in those moments. The world became quiet and all I could hear were the whispers of wind gently pushing the tree limbs and the flowers they bore back and forth. I remember this one particular day when I came upon two flowering cherries that were neatly planted in a rectangular patch of grass so radiantly verdant that it amplified the pinks of the cherry blossoms floating above them. I stood between the two trees and stared up. I became entranced as my eyes followed the clusters of tiny, delicate flowers swinging left and right in the gentle breeze. My mind was transported elsewhere. I don’t know how long I had been standing there, but when my consciousness returned to my surrounding, I noticed a couple walking past me that I hadn’t seen before. They smiled at me with a trace of having giggled to each other about my strange behavior.
The exuberance with which the magnolias, cherries, and honeysuckles spring back to life after a cold winter has gifted me with a newfound appreciation for life. In this time of devastation, I was grateful for these plants’ beauty. I was grateful for the sun. The wind. The thunderstorms that are characteristic of New York weather in the spring and summer time. I was overcome with gratitude for living. The fresh food I was still able to eat. The work that I was still able to do. The home that I got to live in. I was grateful for all my relations — human and more-than-human. I was grateful for all of creation. Despite the pit of despair that humans are finding themselves in, the rest of the natural world continues to thrive and it is beautiful and glorious.
I learned very quickly that gratitude brings with it other pleasant emotions. Gratitude elicits in me joy. Gratitude helps me feel abundant. This feeling of abundance is so opposite of the poverty mentality that I grew up with and reminds me of indigenous botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer. In a chapter in her beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer recites the traditional Thanksgiving Address that is spoken by the Haudenosaunee people of northern New York. The address, usually recited at the start of every day and every important gathering, gives thanks to the sun, moon, stars, trees, fish, animals, water, wind, thunder, our own ancestors, and lastly, creation itself. It’s a beautiful ode to the natural world and all the relationships that sustain us and give us everything we need. Kimmerer notes, “You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy”. Indeed, I feel incredibly rich— materially and spiritually — every time I recite the Thanksgiving Address as prayer.
Nature is teaching me the gift of gratitude during this pandemic and it is doing so in a way that only nature can: By reminding my human-centric mind to look up and pay attention to the larger, natural world that exists beyond human concern. Nature is teaching us two lessons at this moment. The first is that the virus is present in our lives because we have broken a sacred covenant with the biosphere. The virus was able to jump from bats to humans as a result of our pattern of insatiable development and consumption of bio-resources that has caused us to encroach upon the ancient habitats of these viruses. Nature does not engage in moral punishment, of course. It’s simply an outcome of system dynamics — push a delicately fine-tuned, natural system to its breaking point and you will reap the consequences of the system’s unraveling. The second lesson that nature is teaching us is that we are children of the earth and, as our Mother, the earth will always take care of us if we respect it and learn to live in reciprocal relationship with it. During this time of great loss, gratitude is helping me see that the earth is abundant. It has enough for all of us. I am receiving this wisdom through the radiant beauty of springtime flowers.