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Stumbling into Gratitude

How can I possibly give thanks to God if I stumble on the thanks I give to the people most important to me?

“Thank you.” 

I’ve been saying that a lot lately. Sometimes, even not through clenched teeth, and my cheeks weren’t always stained pink. Why is it still so difficult to show need, to be vulnerable, to ask for help? And the thanks I’ve been giving has been to people I love, not strangers or acquaintances. 

How can I possibly give thanks to God if I stumble on the thanks I give to the people most important to me? How, indeed?  

“It’s ok not to know,” they said to me 25 years ago, the “they” being the assorted alcoholics and addicts in their varying stages of sobriety, who filled up the rooms of AA and the small cracks and holes in my heart.  

“It’s ok to ask for help.”  

I laughed. I was too smart to fall for that line! I knew it all and needed nothing from anyone. I was the Fixer of Broken Things. I knew, above all else, that I would never be loved, and so decided that to be needed was almost the same. Almost enough. So I found all the broken pieces, all the broken people—and I fixed them all. And in all my fixing, I could find a whispery echo of the humanity I was so sure was just outside my grasp. I knew, without a doubt, that only one person remained outside the circle of healing: me.  

But those people, those glorious drunks, they showed up and they offered and they loved—freely, without any expectation of return. There were no scoreboards or scales that weighed my worth. With infinite caution and care, I crept away from the curse of people—the burden of their need and want and broken desire and slowly, almost imperceptibly, found grace in fellowship, the blessing of people who fill my life, and my heart. 

So here now, a few decades later, looking back at a lifetime of wholeness and brokenness and breathless awe, I find grace—and God—in the kindness of strangers and the people I have gathered along the way. 

Who am I kidding? “Looking back at a lifetime…” Ha! It’s all well and good to talk of lessons learned—difficult, daring, skin-crawling lessons that you learn and then fold up neatly, put away in a drawer in a locked room down a long and cobwebbed hallway dusty with disuse. I like lessons like that, feel a smug humility that I can say, “Ah yes—that was hard, learning how to do that. Not that I’ll do it again or anything, but I got that badge, thanks.” 

This past year has been a never-ending parade of learning that lesson, again and again, the one where I ask for help. I tried. I tried so hard to shoulder all the broken pieces, all on my own. God, I tried. And I couldn’t do it. Time and again, I struggled, like Atlas. I carried every load I was handed, felt buried by the weight of it all, until I stood—motionless, breathless, defeated—until the pain of not asking for help was finally greater than the fear of reaching out. And so, skin crawling, face pink with heat and body glistening with flop sweat, I asked for help.  

And without fail, every time, there it was. Offered not as an “if then” statement, but freely, unstintingly. There were rides and loans and stronger shoulders than mine that could bear the weight of my fear. People showed up, offered their love, sometimes in the form of coffee and a willing ear, once or twice as a job that came as I stood teetering on the brink of financial disaster that threatened to swallow me whole. There was the offer of advice a time or two, but more often, a steady presence and a gentle hand to hold. I needed everything that was given. 

I used to say, in the early days of my sobriety, that the only thing worse than not having friends was having them; the only thing worse than depending upon the kindness of strangers was depending upon the kindness of people you know. Now, just over a quarter of a century later, I still hesitate. I still shudder a little. I still stumble, making my solitary way to some desperately high ledge. But with every piece of brokenness that I cling to, I hesitate a little less, don’t walk quite so close to the teetering edge. I am learning to shrug a little sooner, so that whatever it is that I think I must carry doesn’t crush me under its weight. 

A quarter of a century later, after a lifetime of steadfast fear and absolute certainty that my burdens are mine alone, that I am the fixer who can never be fixed, I have discovered a new conversation topic with God. These days, there’s a lot less “Why me, God?” and a lot more gratitude for all the gifts I have been given. Why me? Sometimes, it’s the choices I’ve made or the actions I’ve not taken that place me smack dab in the middle of something hard and fierce. Sometimes, there’s no reason at all, a thing of fearsome and capricious chance that happens because it does. Even then—a conversation of thanks. 

So, as we approach this day of thanks, I offer this, my own prayer, with humble gratitude for the presence of strangers and friends who teach me, every day, what grace looks like: 

God of infinite compassion, who fills the world with quiet wonder and endless breath, thank You for the gift of not knowing, the grace of bending and the joy of asking, and in that joythank you for the strength of vulnerability, and the ability to give thanks.

Stacey Zisook Robinson is a poet and essayist who lives in Chicago. She works as a Poet/Scholar-in-Residence, creating workshops to explore the connection between poetry, prayer, and text. She blogs at staceyzrobinson.blogspot.com, and is a regular contributor to Kveller, the Reform Judaism blog, and Ritualwell. Her book, Dancing in the Palm of God’s Hand, was published in 2015, and her newest, a book of poetry, A Remembrance of Blue, was just released in early November.



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