(This is a longer post than normal, since I haven’t posted much this winter.)
Deep in the heart of winter, with spring far over the horizon, my outdoor adventures have been unpleasantly short and rather colorless. To prevent my imagination and emotions from getting stale, I’ve decorated my indoor retreat with the thoughtful sound of audiobooks.
As a non-fiction writer, I prefer to listen to (and read) true stories. I value the power of story. Beyond strictly memorializing the memoir, I favor the author who uses storytelling to teach and inspire, who offers a personal accounting of what it meant to him or her, the ways in which it inspired action, or how it helped to make sense of the world. Don’t we all need help making sense of this world?
Some audiobooks grind at my nerves, such as when the narrator’s voice is intolerable or the word choices are too extravagant. Others are soothing, such as when the voice pleases my ears or the words strike an agreeable chord. My most recent listening encounter, the audiobook, Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, turned out to exemplify the profound effect that the harmony of voice, words, and heart can bring to the listener. It felt like a balm as it starts to heal an open wound. Her words resonated with my personal feelings and perspective, and her voice orchestrated her words, like sisters who refuse to be parted. I do not think the content would have resonated nearly as well if I’d read it instead. Nor do I think it would have had such an impact if I had heard it read by anyone other than Kimmerer herself. I sobbed. I laughed. I shuddered. And I froze in agreement with her stance.
For instance, in the “Allegiance to Gratitude” chapter, Kimmerer told a story about an invocation given by a neighboring tribe, part of the Haudensaunee Confederacy, at every gathering. The Thanksgiving Address is described as “the words that come before all else.” She observed third-grade school children struggling to recite in unison the long-winded address, much like we American’s must learn the Pledge of Allegiance, but far more complicated, not at all political, and complete with a call and response. Occasionally a child would complain about the difficulty. “Poor you,” Kimmerer would sympathize gently. “What a pity that we have so much to be thankful for.”
Then came the words that unveiled the logic, the explanation of why I struggle to fit in this world.
“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it’s a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness.”
This is why I step outside: for fullness. But if I go with a disagreeable heart, say after I worked up my monthly budget or got rejected by a potential publisher, I rarely find it. However, if I go with a grateful heart, abundance smacks me in the face the moment the outside air touches it. “You already have everything you need,” Kimmerer said. The difference? Taking the time to express thanks to a long list of beings on planet earth as well as the planet herself. Deliberately and audibly switching my mindset to gratitude for many gifts. That is the difference; nothing more.
Thank you, Ms. Kimmerer. Thank you, Haudenosaunee.