Gratitude emerges as my way to serve, to heal, to love. It’s been waiting for me, all along. It waits patiently for you too. It’s a silent spirit guide, here to lead us home.

It’s taken me decades to learn how little I know about the nature of gratitude, and how it manifests in me. I know even less about how gratitude manifests in you. I could spend lifetimes fascinated by its uniqueness in each of us; by how it compels us to be. I’ll forever be a simple student of gratitude, eager to learn again from you. I’ve met no masters of gratitude.

At every turn along my path, I’ve been humbled by trouble, surprised by joy, taught brilliant lessons I didn’t know I was seeking to learn. With every rugged switchback, I’ve seen another level of gratitude revealed; I’ve shed another layer of illusions I once assumed to be wisdom. Letting go of all I thought I knew has been a beautiful, challenging awakening. I believe the growing pains of that awakening are universal. To find ourselves lost is what it is to be human.

Or maybe feeling lost instead of being lost is our deeper truth. So many times I’ve felt lost, only to later discover I was right where I needed to be. So many times I’ve felt alone, only to find kinship there. So it is with gratitude: it’s always present and far beyond feeling. Gratitude emerges as my way to serve, to heal, to love. It’s been waiting for me, all along. It waits patiently for you too. It’s a silent spirit guide, here to lead us home.

I spent my young years blindly seeing gratitude as a response to positive circumstance, needing to be earned. I saw love in the same sightless way. So I grew up lonely, not feeling the abundant blessings around and within me. True love and true gratitude eluded my notice.

Strange how trauma can become gratitude, under heat and pressure. Gratitude develops more immunity to injury.

Photo: Giorgio Trovato

A series of October tragedies pierced layers of my illusions, and began to awaken gratitude within me. Beginning the year I turned thirty, calamity struck me five times in four years, always between the tenth and twentieth of October. Strange how trauma can become gratitude, under heat and pressure. Gratitude develops more immunity to injury.

The first October, I had no choice but to move. My housing situation in the San Francisco Bay Area was falling apart, the neighborhood was violent, there were tremors in my soul. I was broke and in danger. I found a tiny attic room to rent, in a stranger’s house in a good neighborhood. The attic ceiling was barely higher than my head. The makeshift bathroom was so cramped I could only bathe sitting down. I could see the Bay Bridge out my one little window, though. I could see the Golden Gate Bridge if I took a walk. It would do. It would have to.

On the day I moved in, my new housemate handed me the keys, then went camping with her son—and didn’t come home. In a tragic attempt to keep possessions safe, she moved her camp stove into their van before sleep. Carbon monoxide killed her child, and left her in a coma. They weren’t found for two days. Finally, she was airlifted to a hospital in an attempt to save her life—and I was in the intensive care unit of the hospital, awaiting her awakening, when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. The ground shakes were so violent that as I hung onto the door frame to remain standing, I watched medical equipment slam from side to side in the hospital hall, smashing off one wall, then the other. The noise was deafening. I’d survived enough previous earthquakes to know the depth of this one, even before damage elsewhere was announced. People were dead. Bridges and buildings had fallen. Fires from gas lines were already starting. No one needed to tell me this, for me to know. Trauma was screaming through the air.

I accepted that it was my place to hold that space for her, looking out my tiny attic window at relentless glaring lights, while repairs on the fallen Bay Bridge continued day and night.

She came out of her coma. Her house survived the earthquake. I stayed living there. I accepted her trauma; the intense heaviness of her child’s empty room. I stayed as she cried, screamed, contemplated the end, moved beyond the end and kept beginning. I accepted that it was my place to hold that space for her, looking out my tiny attic window at relentless glaring lights, while repairs on the fallen Bay Bridge continued day and night. I painfully learned what it is to witness—to accept without fixing what can’t be fixed. That can be an intensely difficult, vital art—as difficult as gratitude. I’m grateful I’ve learned to witness grief, and sad at how many times I’ve needed to practice. I’m practicing yet again today.

The next October, I heard footsteps behind me. I was walking home at night from a friend’s house in El Cerrito—a neighborhood in which I’d felt safe. I turned at the sound, just as a gang member went into a karate pose and kicked me. Soon six were doing so, my back slammed against the cement wall of an apartment complex. No one in the well-lit rooms came to my assistance as I was beaten and robbed. My attackers took all six dollars in my wallet, gaining one dollar each for their troubles and mine. I thought I was largely unhurt until months later, when the sound of a jogger’s footsteps terrified me into jumping into the bushes. I began to recognize the many ghoulish forms of post-traumatic stress. I empathize now with the plight of war veterans living under bridges. I’m grateful for the compassion I’ve grown from my scars.

When October again came around, I was having a peaceful brunch in Oakland with a dear friend. She and I looked out the restaurant windows at the strange quality of light. Was it smoked glass we were seeing through? No, but yes. Stepping out, we saw raging flames consuming houses on a nearby hill. Winds were whipping the flames so quickly that houses burst like popcorn kernels, before becoming cinders and gone. An immense smoke cloud soon mushroomed above us, blotting out the entire Oakland sky. We headed north into Berkeley for safety, as a surreal tragedy unfolded. At the edge of the artificial darkness I stood stunned with strangers as every available firefighter poured in from as far as a hundred miles away. The fire reduced living places to the ash of mere statistics: 3,000 houses, 25 lives. Burned book pages and other evidence of charred lives landed as far away as San Francisco. One friend escaped by mere moments, clutching only her dog and her graduate school notes, while her neighbors died in traffic, attempting to leave. There was no time for warnings. In the ash I accepted again the fierce power of nature, even in the paved structures of the city. I accepted the humility of tragedy’s ability to strike any of us without prejudice. Then I witnessed the old elegant neighborhoods, first desecrated by fire, newly desecrated by thoughtless reconstruction. Then the record label where I worked collapsed in the path of more tragedy. I had to accept that too.

The healing waters were magical. So were the spring wildflower carpets, the love I found, and my new spaciousness within.

I felt completely done with city intensity, and my survival struggles in the Bay Area music business. The city was too angry, too crazy, too far from open spaces that made more sense. Through a wild set of circumstances, disciplined outreach and good fortune, I received an opportunity to move to the quiet spaces of Wilbur Hot Springs to become a resident artist there. The healing waters were magical. So were the spring wildflower carpets, the love I found, and my new spaciousness within. It was one of the best times of my life, made sweeter by the contrast with all I’d been through. I learned to accept and love the grace of such contrast. I came wide open and stayed that way. I applied my discipline to drafting a novel I’ve still never been able to fix. It doesn’t matter. Learning how not to write a book is part of writing’s craft. Learning how to become open is part of human craft. I succeeded and was shocked to be truly loved and accepted. I began to love myself for the first time ever. That most vital achievement was one I didn’t know I’d come to pursue. I accept that I’ll never know what may be hidden in a new day still. I’m grateful for the daily mystery, even when the mystery hurts.

I planned to stay at Wilbur for what passes for forever, on our brief human scale. I was offered the opportunity to run the resident artist program. It felt like my life’s path. I was thrilled and grateful. I finished my novel’s first draft, compelled by a sense of urgency I couldn’t fathom. As fall arrived, October’s hard history loomed over me, even in the peace of the hot springs. Determined to avoid new calamity, I sought to stay safe in the embrace of the land, the waters, the love. One week after finishing my manuscript, while soaking blissfully in the hot springs, I found a lump that told me I had cancer at the age of 33. Calamity had found me, within the center of the deepest peace I’d ever known. There was no escape. I was ripped away from hot springs life so suddenly that I didn’t even know I was leaving. When my cancer turned out to be in five places in my lymph system and aggressively spreading, its gravity inverted everything.

What was October’s urgent message? I still had no answer until surgeries and chemotherapy nearly killed me to save me. Complications set in; pain at a level I hadn’t known existed. Through searing convulsions, I began to see.

First I saw I had a choice to live or die. One night in the hospital, at the peak of pain and darkness, I knew I could just let go. Instinct told me I still wanted to live. But why? Pain’s heightened insight clarified my answer. To create and to love. My simple purpose has never wavered since, though honing my skill in applying it is forever a humbling challenge.

I was first grateful just to be alive despite my illness—to have a chance to be reborn, more aware. I was grateful in the very marrow of my bones, breath, soul. That was a start.

Then I became grateful not merely despite my illness, but for my illness.

Then I became grateful not merely despite my illness, but for my illness. I began to see its hidden transformative gifts. It was something to embrace in wonder; not just something to overcome. Over time, I understood why two cancer survivors told me I’d someday see cancer as the best thing that had happened to me.

Photo: Pexels/Pixabay

I did see it that way for awhile—until that illusion was pierced too. Cancer, better than the beauty of this morning’s sunrise? Agony, deeper than the best lasting love of my life? Illness, wiser than the teacher of health? No, no, again no. Yet it was that portal of illness through which I walked, which allowed me to fully experience all that’s better than cancer. The adventure of illness taught me how to transform a wound into a gift—a central skill, in walking gratitude’s wild path.

Being grateful for my illness instead of being grateful despite it was indeed a huge turning point. It transferred directly into my approach to loving another next to me. I learned that if I could also love someone including and for their issues, instead of despite them, I’d be able to love without reserve. If I could love what’s broken as a practice of wholeness—including loving my fractured self—it might lead to deeper healing. It might be a path to fulfillment of my loving purpose.

I began to see that gratitude is a practice, like meditation, compassion, listening and calm. It’s a practice as constant and enfolding as air, to be absorbed and exhaled with every breath.

I realized that gratitude is a sacred responsibility.

I also learned to see gratitude as an art form, as much as watercolor, poetry, or chamber music. I sensed it as an art of communication, as vital as telling truth to a lover. I realized that gratitude is a sacred responsibility. Gratitude is a form of faith in the divine.

Love blossomed, family scars began to heal. My creative path took flight. I was stunned by how differently I was received, not only in the world, but inside myself—for inside was where my lack of gratitude and forgiveness was most pronounced. Sometimes it still is. I’ll always have my issues, as you’ll always have yours. Forever, new issues will appear, even when old ones have become compost that feeds our inner soil. But at least I’m still grateful for our issues, not despite them—when I’m aware enough to stay so. Returning to gratitude is like returning to my breath, always necessary again. In, out, breathe, sense, move.

I’ve breathed for over twenty-five years beyond cancer’s visit. Yet for all I’ve learned from every breath, returning to gratitude now feels more difficult than ever, in crumbling society and climate.

I once took society’s stability for granted; but the sound of ripping fabric I hear is us tearing ourselves into shreds. It’s allies deciding they’re adversaries. It’s loved ones now destroying each other, over what could be compassionately solved conflicts. It’s people being consumed by the shadows of their issues, as new traumas bring old ones forward. It’s you and me, caught in our shadows together. It’s cynical “leaders” who exploit it all for their own transient gain. It’s vintage barbaric history anew. You and I may seek only peaceful defense; yet our efforts at kindness may falter. We’re still as raw and human as anyone’s ever been.

I once took climate stability for granted too; but as I watch the planet stagger under our weight, that illusion dies too. Fires such as October in Oakland are dwarfed by new infernos. Other extremes heighten with every seasonal cycle. Even where I now live, deep in pristine Oregon woods, there’s no escape from calamity, and there never will be.

This moment offers us a painful decision to live or die, as my cancer once did. It offers us another chance to ask the fundamental question of life, which we all ask from childhood: Why?

To witness and transform our wounds will be far harder than healing cancer, for the lethal illness isn’t just mine or yours this time, but everyone’s—even the earth’s. We’re facing a collective choice: to forgive, heal and live beautifully together; or die in agony alone.

Within that crucible, to be grateful?

Gratitude now more than ever will save us, in practice together, however faltering.

Emphatically, yes. Gratitude now more than ever will save us, in practice together, however faltering. We have no time to wait for mastery. It’s essential now to explore the adventure of putting gratitude into practice, as we walk our wild paths. Our shared life’s growth is watered by our daily return to gratitude, through a return to nature—the very nature of our being.

Why do we seem so out of place in our own created world? Behind masks of concrete, steel and illuminated screens, who am I? Who are you? The answers are our shared quest, beyond our clever inventions that obscure what it means to be human. And the answers gratitude gives are inspiring and transformative. I’m grateful to find in them a restoration of faith. It’s not too late to do more than witness our pain.

I once had the illusion that we’ve grown distant from our soil and ourselves. Along gratitude’s path I’ve discovered that we’re still right here, though, and so is the earth. Underneath, we’re as wild and beautiful as ever. I’m deeply grateful for that—and I’m only learning how that gratitude asks me to move through each moment in response. Only you will know the different dance it asks of you, for its path to become your own path home.

Gratitude lets us love and honor each other’s divinity, despite our inner imperfections and hard circumstances.

Gratitude for the simple miracle of existence, and for that miracle within each other, is where this path of faith begins. Gratitude lets us love and honor each other’s divinity, despite our inner imperfections and hard circumstances. The miracle of mere existence is what I feel now, under my next layer of dying illusions; in my next moment of pained, clear insight. I see that when life again falls apart, our persistent existence offers us an opportunity to newly put it back together. We can’t afford to fail this adventure of grateful creation and love.

I write and photograph as I walk gratitude’s wild path home, because I feed on beauty and expression for survival. I invite you along on this walk through distilled seasons, because your love and creativity are at least as wise as my own. Your pain is equally illuminating. This book is only a shared return to sacred natural beauty; to knowing we’re all grateful by nature.

Grateful by Nature offers affirmation and inspiration; a return to compassion as a healing path and the discovery that in walking the labyrinth of seasons, shared gratitude is our wild path home. In vivid, lyrical language and equally poetic photographs, the author’s personal yet universal stories illuminate gratitude as a commitment in service to the miracle of living, no matter how difficult the days.

Eric Alan is an author, photographer, lyricist, workshop and meditation leader, and advocate for the natural world. Grateful by Nature is his fourth nonfiction book. The insights integrate with touring gratitude gatherings created with other musicians, authors, poets, community service activists and more, as The Nature of Gratitude. He was a founding board member of Cerro Gordo Land Conservancy, successfully preserving pristine Oregon territory through conservation easements. Most recently, he has been the full-time caregiver for his 93-year old mother.