“I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act,” Seneca wrote two millennia ago as he contemplated gratitude and what it means to be a generous human being.
It is only from such a place of gratefulness that we can perform beautiful acts — from a place of absolute, ravishing appreciation for the sheer wonder of being alive at all, each of us an improbable and temporary triumph over the staggering odds of nonbeing and nothingness inking the ledger of spacetime. But because we are human, because we are batted about by the violent immediacies of everyday life, such gratitude eludes us as a continuous state of being. We access it only at moments, only when the trance of busyness lifts and the blackout curtain of daily demands parts to let the radiance in, those delicious moments when we find ourselves awash in nonspecific gladness, grateful not to this person, grateful not for this turn of events, but grateful at life — a diffuse gratitude that irradiates every aspect and atom of the world, however small, however unremarkable, however coated with the dull patina of habit. In those moments, everything sings, everything shimmers. In those moments, we are most alive.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins shines a playful sidewise gleam on this realest and most serious wellspring of gratitude in his 1998 poem “As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse,” found in his poetry collection Nine Horses (public library) and brought to life afresh, with a corona of radiance and a perfectly calibrated performance partway between wink and wonderment, by constant comedian and sometime StarTalk Radio co-host Chuck Nice at the third annual Universe in Verse, prefaced by his funny and poignant meditation on the personal gravity of gratitude and why being grateful is “one of the most powerful things that any one person can do.” Please enjoy:
AS IF TO DEMONSTRATE AN ECLIPSE
by Billy Collins
I pick an orange from a wicker basket
and place it on the table
to represent the sun.
Then down at the other end
a blue and white marble
becomes the earth
and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.
I get a glass from a cabinet,
open a bottle of wine,
then I sit in a ladder-back chair,
a benevolent god presiding
over a miniature creation myth,
and I begin to sing
a homemade canticle of thanks
for this perfect little arrangement,
for not making the earth too hot or cold
not making it spin too fast or slow
so that the grove of orange trees
and the owl become possible,
not to mention the rolling wave,
the play of clouds, geese in flight,
and the Z of lightning on a dark lake.
Then I fill my glass again
and give thanks for the trout,
the oak, and the yellow feather,
singing the room full of shadows,
as sun and earth and moon
circle one another in their impeccable orbits
and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.
Complement with Billy Collins’s homage to Aristotle, then savor other highlights from The Universe in Verse — my annual charitable celebration of the science and splendor of life through poetry: Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s ode to how the world holds together, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astronomer Natalie Batalha reading Dylan Thomas’s cosmic serenade to trees and the wonder of being human, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” and a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity.”