Good morning rainy day/We can’t go out to play
But we are glad to think/The flowers can have a drink.
We had to recite this verse, singsong-fashion, in primary school in India, and my mother tells a flattering story of me as a child, expressing such thankfulness one rainy morning. Truth be told, it wasn’t selfless feelings for the flowers that motivated me. Rainy days, especially warm, rainy days, have always given me a feeling of comfort. Perhaps it is because of my different memories of rain—both personal and collective—in India, so longed-for after the hot, dry season, so welcomed by us children, who ran out naked to greet the first downpour of the monsoons; and in England, where it evokes misty, moisty mornings, teapots full of piping-hot tea, hedgerows laden with juicy blackberries, and general coziness. Cultivating an attitude of thankfulness, though, is something else altogether.
In boarding-school in the mists of Darjeeling, when the morning bell wakened us jarringly out of sleep at six o’ clock every morning to face the daunting prospect of a cold shower, I would burrow under the bedclothes until the last possible moment, only just making it to Morning Study on time. But my best friend Marianne, who slept in the bed next to mine for all three years at Mount Hermon, would wake at first light and invariably rise before the bell, with a song in her heart. As she made her bed with crisp, hospital corners, she would murmur the song under her breath so as not to disturb me, but I would just burrow still deeper, cultivating an inner scowl worthy of Oscar the Grouch.
When we lived in Winchendon, where most people’s water came from wells which were perpetually in danger of running dry if overdrawn, a sign over the bathroom sink in a neighboring collective household used to annoy me. It read:
Water is precious/Use it gratefully.
Ornery type that I was, I would always think to myself that if water was precious, surely the sign ought properly to read, “Use it sparingly.” Gratitude, I thought, could merely produce a feeling of self-satisfaction without a concomitant reduction of water use. But although I grumbled, I never took up the issue with my friends in this household; neither did I understand what it meant to live and work with a grateful heart. It is only now, more than twenty years later, that I am beginning to have an inkling of it.
A couple of months ago I spoke on the phone with an old friend in England, whom I haven’t seen for a long time. Her dear mother died just recently after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease, and she herself works with children who have cancer. After I had recited the litany of my accumulated woes, she told me about a daily exercise she has found useful: listing the things in her life, large and small, for which she is thankful. She said that it put her personal troubles in perspective and never failed to lift her spirits.
Twenty years ago I might have pooh-poohed such an idea, but now, in my middle age, waking with a song in my heart and a deep gratitude for the gift of life is something I can no longer afford to look upon with a jaundiced eye.
Another memory from boarding school: morning chapel, and a favorite morning hymn, one stanza of which went
Awake, cold lips and sing
Arise, dull heart and pray
Lift up, O man, thy heart and eye
Brush slothfulness away.
I remember looking over at the girl standing next to me one morning as we sang this hymn, and thinking uncharitably how cold and waxen her lips looked, how impassive her face. I loved singing, and it never failed to bring me joy, but it didn’t occur to me either that she might have unspoken sorrows of her own or that the words might have a message for me.
As I sit up in bed in my warm house this rainy morning-before-Thanksgiving with my pot of Darjeeling tea and my laptop, I welcome the new day with gladness. Soon I must arise and face the world, negotiate the traffic on the roads and mingle with the jostling throngs in the shops, and I resolve to do so with a grateful heart. But first, just one more cup of tea.