Blessings and Hearts
Today my American family and friends are celebrating Thanksgiving. Internet sites are posting stories about all we have to be thankful for. In particular, I was reading a text by psychologist Dr. Robert Emmons about the power that gratitude has to transform our lives. His spiritual counterpart is Brother David Standl-Rast, who for decades has been teaching about gratitude. “All prayer is essentially a prayer of gratitude”.
One point made by Dr. Emmons caught my attention this morning: a feeling of gratitude changes the words we use when we speak. His research noted that the word ‘blessing’ appears in the conversations of positive thinkers who are grateful. This brought back memories of my grandmother, one of the many resilient women in my family.
In the summer that I turned 9 years old, I spent a blissful week in the country with Nana and my grandfather, “Cappie”, and their black lab Kim, who could balance a dog biscuit on his nose and then toss it into the air and catch it. As the oldest of four children, being alone with my elderly grandparents was heaven on earth, never boring. Nana made glue out of flour and water and I cut up magazines for a scrap book. In the afternoon, while she napped, I played on the white scatter rugs in the hallway, imagining that I was floating through the sky on a cloud. Later, Nana brought out a set of delicate demi-tass cups and saucers and offered me my first taste of tea, delicious with lots of milk and sugar. Then, with the curtains in the dining room drawn from the hot summer sun, she went to the piano and sang a song to me that I’ve never heard before or since. It was a song about a little black boy who was hurt by the words ‘those white boys say’. In the song the mother soothes her son, saying no matter the color of our skin, the colour of everyone’s heart is gold. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I’d ask her to play it again and again.
Nana was elegant, but she wasn’t a goody-goody. When we went to church on Sunday, she’d impishly whisper things like “doesn’t that lady’s pink hat look like our toilet seat cover?” I’d spend the rest of the service trying to stifle my giggles. But in my child sense of time, I’d disconnected from the fact that Nana was grieving the death of her oldest daughter during the summer I was there. This was only one of the many tragic deaths she endured in her life. Years later, I was with Nana the day after my younger brother died in a car accident. He was one of three grandsons who she lost within five years. She was overwhelmed with sadness, saying that death was for her generation, not for the children. But, as I said, she was a woman with tremendous resilience.
All of these memories came to me when I reflected on the language of gratitude. Sitting on the front porch shaded by bamboo curtains, listening to Nana chatting and gossiping with her friends, I was struck by a phrase that punctuated their conversations: ‘bless her heart’ or ‘bless his heart’ . The way she phrased the words was melodic, like a little prayer. In a flash I could hear her song about the heart of gold, my heart of gold, everyone’s heart of gold.
It is out of date, a blessing handed down through the mother lineage in my family from the century before the past one. But I’ve decided to say it when I can – ‘bless his heart’, ‘bless her heart’. And, for me at least, this little prayer has a lot of power, puncturing holes in ordinary mindless speech and reminding me of how grateful I am to have had my grandmother, and so many other gentle teachers, in my life.