Unabashed gratitude

Column by Hallie Beard, Opinion Editor

There’s nothing I love more than getting to meet or encounter an author in person, though it can sometimes be awkward (being starstruck usually makes me say weird things).

For months, I’ve been wanting to read Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” the poet’s newest collection. If you’re not familiar with any contemporary poetry, this is a delightful collection to start with.

Between giving reading precedence to other school-related books or collections I’d already started and not wanting to drop the money on a new book, I couldn’t get my hands on the collection until last week. Conveniently, I was able to attend a reading by Gay at a university where he read poems from his new collection along with essays that haven’t been published yet.

And, of course, I did not pass up the opportunity to buy the collection I’d been wanting and get it signed.

Fangirling aside, the reading and collection caused me to dwell on some interesting questions.

While one of the main topics of the book is death – the death of the author’s father, the death of a lover and the general realization of mortality – its central focus is that idea introduced in the title: unabashed gratitude.

How, I wondered, can we be grateful in the midst of death, whether it’s personal or global?

In Gay’s newest essays, he concentrates on writing about delights – quite simply, objects, occurrences or people that delight him.

One audience member asked, “How do you practice delight? How do you practice gratitude?”

Initially, it seems like an impossible question. Isn’t gratitude something you feel as a response? Can it actually be practiced and generated without a source?

Well, yes. Like anger, love, happiness or any other abstractions, they can be self-generated and practiced, though they might initially arise in a reactionary or passion-based manner.

Gay pointed out in response to the question that, once you resolve to practice gratitude and actively notice things that delight you, it becomes easier and easier. The first time you try it, you might only feel grateful for something incredibly important, like waking up and not being ill. But after days, weeks or months of active practice, noticing small, peculiar things – like a beautiful plant outside or a striking feature on a stranger’s face – becomes second nature.

In one poem in “Catalog,” the speaker describes the body of someone dying: it’s flailing and jerking in a frightening way, but the speaker pretends the body is dancing instead. While this is a quite morbid and ultra poetic example, it’s an effective picture of turning something terrifying into something beautiful.

Readers, if you’ve endured my poetry-talk so far, I have an exercise in gratitude for you. Maybe you’re already someone who easily notices beautiful things, but as I barrel toward the end of the semester, I find it much easier to focus on the negative. So, if you need a boost in gratitude, do this:

Take a piece of notebook paper – don’t burden yourself with a fancy journal or note-keeping app – and keep it folded in your backpack or purse. Everyday, write down at least five items that delight you or make you grateful.

If you’re having trouble with coming up with these items, don’t be afraid to turn it into a social experiment. Are you friends with someone who sees the world in a particularly rosy way? Ask them to tell you something they’ve noticed that day that is purely delightful, pretty or joy-inducing.

If writing things down is a hassle for you, use social media to your advantage. Create a tweet for each item, or make an Instagram post once per day of your most delightful discovery. I’m hoping to use this exercise myself as I approach graduation, if only to make a mental time-capsule of all the things at Murray State I’ve grown to admire in the midst of stress and mundane tasks.