Gratitude & Grief

A canyon with red and yellow rockwalls stretches out under a sky full of dramatically lit clouds. A bright blue river runs along the bottom. Pine trees cover the rim of the canyon, and there is pine tree in the foreground.
The grand canyon of the Yellowstone. Photo by the author.
August 31, 2022
Robin Eastman

I just got home from a camping trip to Yellowstone. It’s an awe inspiring place, with massive bison, thermal wonders, and gorgeous and diverse scenery. Growing up in the Midwest and living on the East coast for so long, the raw scale of the West never ceases to amaze me. I’m not used to snow-capped mountains in August and crystal clear alpine lakes. 

Which is not to say my childhood was lacking in the great outdoors. As a kid, I spent countless hours in our village’s much humbler, but very well-loved nature preserve. To this day, there’s nothing that speaks to my heart quite the way popping a jewelweed pod or catching a firefly does. I’m grateful for every chance I had to wade through a stream catching crawfish, every tree I got to climb, every drink from an iron-rich spring.

And I’m grateful now to be able to experience new wonders, to see the beauty and breadth of the country I grew up in and the world we all share.

A buffalo walks through a meadow, with pine trees in the background.
The buffalo really are majestic. Photo by the author.

On this trip, I’ve been listening to the audio book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It was perfect timing, and I highly recommend this book. I’m learning so much about botany, our connectedness, and Indigenous philosophies and practice. One of the themes of the book is gratitude. Being grateful to the plants, animals, people, and earth that gives us life and sustains us.

I’ve been struggling for a long time now to wrap my head around how broken our country is and how we can do anything to heal it. I get stuck so easily in the grief and guilt and enormity of it all. I know the changes have to be big and deep, but also local, and small and achievable. I spend too much time just regulating my emotions and dealing with overwhelm.

I held off on reading Braiding Sweetgrass long after it was recommended to me. Partly because of my ADHD driven fear of things that might bore me, which includes a lot of non-fiction. But mostly because I was bracing myself for more well-deserved grief and guilt. I know I am part of an invasive species on Turtle Island. I know I am a colonizer. 

I find plenty of evidence of that in this book, but I am also finding so much more. Kimmerer graciously offers me many gifts. One of those is the concept of becoming naturalized. I cannot become indigenous to this land, but perhaps I can become someone who belongs here through balance and reciprocity. I want that so profoundly. It gives me a direction to aim for. She also offers the practice of gratitude. This gives me something small, and local, and doable. Everyday, I can practice gratitude. I can give thanks to the food that I eat, the tree I get shade from, the people who share their wisdom. It is easier to do work when starting from a place of gratitude than a place of shame. 

I’m not new to the idea of gratitude, of course. My parents taught me “please” and “thank you” and how to really mean those things, as well as say them. But like many things that matter, we have to learn them many times, in many ways.

For me, camping is always connected to my dad, the Eagle Scout, whose act of dying was another profound lesson in gratitude for me. He died very suddenly, way too young. I was shocked and heart-broken. And also filled with a deep, bittersweet gratitude. I did not expect to feel that way. But knowing that I had spent all of the time I would ever spend with my dad made me deeply grateful for that time. I am so grateful he shared his love of the outdoors with me. I was grateful on this trip to sleep in his tent. I was grateful when it leaked that I knew how to tie up a tarp. I’m grateful every time I feel he is part of who I am. 

Grief and gratitude will always be intertwined for me. I grieve for my dad, who has given me so many precious gifts. I grieve for the world headed towards catastrophic climate change, and I am grateful for all the world gives us now. I am grateful for the rain watering the garden, and I grieve for what is lost in the increasing forest fires that will get worse every year. 

I am thankful to be reminded that I can call up the gratitude when I am struggling with the grief. I can find a center there, so I can do the work of reciprocity, reparations, and trying to find a path to earning naturalization. It is humbling, it is filling, and it is connecting.

You can find Braiding Sweetgrass here. You will be grateful to have read it.

I’m writing this on Duwamish lands, the first people of Seattle, who still exist and honor this land. I pay Real Rent as a part of reciprocity and reparations.

A geyser shoots up into a blue sky, its mist forming a rainbow.
Old Faithful bringing us a rainbow. Could it be any more on point? Photo by the author.

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