You never hear the elk with your name on it

The portal of gratitude is vulnerability

Up here, there are special elk warning signs along the highway. Unlike the traditional deer hazard sign — a buck caught in midspring, lissome as an Art Deco hood ornament — the elk on the sign is flat-footed, with his hindquarters toward the viewer, looking back in the classic “And?” posture preferred by bullies and dullards everywhere. His antlers are pagan, lethal, heavy, and the sign is more or less the shape of a tombstone.

As I was driving home from San Francisco last week in more dark than I would have preferred, I wondered — what are you supposed to do if a deer suddenly appeared? What I did, when Bambi’s mom entered stage left, was shriek and pump the brakes. Happily, when I zigged, she zagged, and we both went our separate ways, startled but unhurt. I’m deeply grateful it was me she encountered, and not the pair of motorcyclists I passed a couple of miles back.

We had the first big winter storm of the season right before Thanksgiving — with the kind of wind that makes it clear where banshees come from, and the power stuttering on and off before going off for good mid-afternoon. While gathering fingerless gloves and camping lanterns to the warmest and lightest place in the house (my bed, under a skylight), I reminded myself that this old house has stood up to over a hundred years of wind and slashing rain, and I thanked all the generations that built it and maintained it so that I’m safe and dry on the wildest of nights.

So I’ve been pondering a lot about that persistent filament between vulnerability and gratitude — that where I feel out of my depth (as I often do these days, between things that I don’t know and things that I struggle to do with an older and out-of-shape body) is where an opening is cleaved forth for the joy of help, gifts given by others that I wouldn’t experience if I were “self-sufficient.” It is harder to take anything for granted about how the basics of life continues — how roads are kept clear, how food is delivered, how a lamp is turned on — when the mechanisms, and the people who are keeping those mechanisms functioning, are visible. Keep looking for them, and let your needs swell your thanks.

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