A Specific Kind of Gratitude

25 Nov

My boss in the meals program at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco;  serving others helped James transcend homelessness and addiction. (Photo by Glide.)

Being an expatriate Southerner in New England, I’m always glad this time a year to have a half dozen or so families who invite me to their Thanksgiving feasts. One of those families has an interesting year-round mealtime tradition: They ask that each person share one thing she or he is grateful for.

The catch: You must focus something specific and concrete thing, not a general, abstract bailout concept like “family” or “love.”

For instance, imagine – and this will take some imagination – that, while standing over the Thanksgiving bird, I were to express my gratitude for the opportunity to type the minutes of Faculty Senate meetings.

Under this rule, I couldn’t express my thanks for “the collegiality, intelligence, and eloquence of my colleagues.” But I could express my thanks for the Faculty Senator who, amid a discussion about a proposed change in the Natural Sciences curriculum, observed that you have to approve of a proposal that contains the phrase “since we lack the resources for human dissection.”

In fact, I’m still grateful for that joke now, a month after I made sure it wound up in the minutes – probably at the expense of some bureaucratically serious and relevant piece of dry data I should have included instead.

There’s a similar argument for championing the specific and the concrete when it comes to serving others – the theme of this blog. Consider The Call of Service, a book by Robert Coles, a towering figure in the field of studying our altruistic tendencies –as well as a man who walked the walk himself. When listing the kinds of service, he made sure to include the service of the personal gesture, the little things we do from one day to the next. To all the personal gestures from particular individuals, I’d add all the random kindnesses I’ve received from the universe in general.


Tony Amos, founder of Animal Rescue Keep (ARK), takes measurements on the same Port Aransas, Texas beach he’s studied on almost 5,000 morning cruises. 

But I imagine right about now you’d be grateful if I just quit hemming-and-hawing and got on with sharing some of these specific things.

Since I just finished both a memoir project – The Whole Service Trip – and an art exhibit – part of Kaboom! – I might as well focus on particular people, places, and incidents I experienced driving across the country in 2014.


I’m grateful for Amy Logue, Peter Salemme, Ellen Potts and so many others – including my own family – who have helped scores of Assumption students who have headed to Alabama every winter to help Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa rebuild my hometown after the devastating tornado of April 27, 2011.

I’m grateful for how, when I confessed my anxiety that I would drop one of the green sea turtles I was helping release at Port Aransas, Texas, Tony Amos loosened me up by quipping, “The turtle has a shell. I’m more worried about you.”

I’m grateful for the reunion two days later with dear friend Pat Clark in Austin – and for the fact that later that night on a Texas highway, the deer chose to dodge left as I dodged right, letting me live to tell both tales.

I’m grateful that, as I worked at Truly Living Well gardens in Atlanta, a rush-hour driver opted for polite waiting when I stopped pushing my wheelbarrow halfway across the street, if only to tighten my belt and keep my shorts from sliding off. I’m also grateful my shorts didn’t fall off.


Green Acres in downtown Atlanta: Chinmaya schools me in the ways of urban agriculture in the middle of a USDA-designated food desert. 

I’m grateful for the Assumption student who, on the first SEND trip to Tuscaloosa, exclaimed, “Professor, your accent is funny enough back in Massachusetts, but down here it’s out of control!”

I’m grateful for the conversation of a couple in the bar of a Basque restaurant in Elko, Nevada, who, noting my new t-shirt from Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, said, “We wouldn’t have talked to you tonight, but since you’re wearing a shirt that said ‘Love Unconditionally’, we kind of had to.”


I’m grateful for all the specific and concrete ways that love shows itself at Glide, including the 727 meals we served the evening I was invited to volunteer there.

I’m grateful for my hike earlier that same day across San Francisco Bay in Muir Woods, named of course for naturalist John Muir, who pretty much predicted my unlikely hike-and-serve, woods-and-city day published more than a hundred years before, in My First Summer in the Sierra: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

I’m grateful for the Sierra Club post that clarified that “pick,” not “tug” is the correct translation of Muir’s “hitched to” quote – even if “tug” sounds better.

I’m grateful that the number of people and places that I’m grateful to have my own fate is “hitched” far too vast to sum up here.

I’m grateful for the Assumption student who, on the second SEND trip to Tuscaloosa, described how a Tuscaloosan in a local store asked her to move out of his way in such a polite manner, it took her a minute to process what he was asking. “That,” the New Englander said, “was when I realized, ‘We suck!’”

I’m grateful I could then list numerous ways people in New England, also my home, actually don’t suck – one of them being that they spent their precious winter breaks helping strangers in Alabama.


Amy Logue, soon to escort her fifth SEND Tuscaloosa trip, models the true spirit of what cultural immersion means in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 

I’m grateful that New Orleans music educator Kaya Martinez told me something that helped me see my journey differently, even as it unfolded: “We’ve been conditioned to value that which gives us a return and that return has traditionally been money. Instead, we need to rethink what we value, which is actually our time and how we choose to spend it and whom we choose to spend it with. That’s a far more valuable gift that we have to give.”

I’m grateful for the gift of chatting with Hurricane Katrina survivor Gloria Guy on the front porch of her new home in the Lowe Ninth – built on the site of her old home, the roof of which she was rescued from. (She in turn, was grateful for Brad Pitt and his innovative Make It Right team who, despite criticism, have helped rebuild the Lower Ninth in ways that make environmentally and economically friendly homes available to people far from affluent.)


Gloria Guy on her porch high above potential flood waters in the Lower Ninth. 

I’m grateful for the folks down the street from Guy at Common Ground Relief, whose efforts reach beyond volunteerism to a broader vision of creating jobs for local folks who then help local folks. (My Louisiana beer lover’s gratitude even extends to their canine mascot: Abita Amber.)

I’m grateful to have spend a morning in the New Orleans wetlands hacking away at invasive Chinese Tallow trees with kids from a St. Louis school that builds its service curriculum around the questions: “What? So what? Now what?”

I’m grateful to have had a journey that confronted me with so many “whats” and “so whats” – from preserved wilderness and domesticated animals to the economically disadvantaged and, again and again, immigrants who make me aware of how easy my own   journey through life has been … thanks in large part to my parents, who provided both a comfortable life and the wisdom to see past it to the needs of others.

I’m grateful that near the end of my “whole service trip”, I got a clue about my own personal “now what?” when shadowing volunteer Kathleen Phillips at George Mark House for children with life-limiting illnesses – and that just as I was wondering what service I would undertake upon my return, she noted that one of her qualifications for working with kids was the willingness “to act their age.” My silent epiphany: “I can do that!”


Hard at work at African Community Education, even in the middle of summer.

I’m grateful that all those places helping immigrants, and children, and children of immigrants, led me to African Community Education back in Worcester, Mass. – where I try hard to avoid acting their age until after we’re done with homework.

I’m grateful for the two ACE kids who, seeing one of their friends approach this English prof for help with math homework, cried out, “Not him!” (If I teach them anything, let it be this.)

I’m grateful for the acoustic Delta Blues guitar licks of Jon Short that ring out right now across the hospitable space of BirchTree Bread Company, where I’ve written most of The Whole Service Trip … and this blog.

I’m grateful that as I was about to press PUBLISH on this post, former student Brad Card tapped me on the shoulder and told me his just-concluded year of AmeriCorps service in locales from California to West Virginia went so well, he’s now going to work for FEMA.

Based on the evidence above, I’m grateful for, well, whatever comes next.


Jon Short picking and singing as I post this blog.

One Response to “A Specific Kind of Gratitude”

  1. Amy November 27, 2016 at 3:37 pm #

    These are wonderful words of gratitude and remembrance.

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