Gratitude is not the same as Perspective

I was on a mountaintop in Vermont during Hurricane Irene.  I was anxious for days before it hit , obsessively following the NOAA weather report as if I was a farmer or a meteorologist. In fact, I  was teaching at a retreat center high on a mountaintop. I feared what 55 mile an hour winds would do to our tents and tree limbs.

We sat out the worst of it in a 150 year old barn. Under flickering electric lights, we learned that such winds are not unusual high above the Mad River Valley in winter. We were safe and warm during the windstorm, cared for by people who knew the landscape and the way to live on this land. Retreat participants and staff all  contemplated the power of nature with our hands wrapped around mugs of tea.

The next morning we walked around in wonder at the streams and small waterfalls nature had carved overnight. The sky was washed clean and blue, and sun sparkled on water gurgling from culverts. The sound of trickling run-off across water bars on the logging road lulled us to sleep at night. Our greatest misfortune was the loss of a lamb, taken by a coyote under the cover of the driving rain.

It wasn’t until we left, three days later, that we witnessed the devastation of the towns at the foot of our mountains. The road home had been washed away. The farmers whose crop had fed us stared at the destruction of year’s labor; we drove slowly by homes and stores shuttered against debris in a road that had become a river. Even 100 miles away, the bridge that takes me home was closed down, twisted and unsafe from the power of all that water.

It took me eight hours by backroads to make the three-hour drive home. The stretch of  highway that would take me home had been twisted and crumbled, as if by a giant’s hands. This gave me a long  time to think.

I wondered about  privilege and gratitude, and how I often think that the former can be cured by the latter.  I noticed that  am full of gratitude, but mostly for the  things I that can see. I thought about the lives that mine depend on – those who feed me, make wool for my sweaters and power for my electric toothbrush — and how  I cannot see them until the work of their hands has been swept away.

I count my losses – a host’s lamb, a nights sleep — and notice that there is a difference between being grateful for what I have,  and having perspective about where I stand in the world, and how this bounty arrives to me.

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