I had been left at home to nurse a sore knee while Elizabeth went to visit friends overnight. I was feeling rather sorry for myself, hobbling around the house and going up the stairs one step at a time. For supper, I put together the remains of our Thanksgiving turkey with some spinach and ricotta sauce—again leftovers—and heated them up in a frying pan. I found myself a beer—Bath Gem, we always keep a case in the basement—and crisps, added extra garlic and olive oil to some hummus, and snacked on them while my food was hotting up.

In the middle of all these very everyday activities, I suddenly thought, “How wonderful it is to have all these things immediately to hand.” I can turn on the tap and get clean hot and cold water; the fridge and larder have sufficient food to last a couple of weeks; the house is bright and pleasant; I have a comfortable chair and stimulating books to read; on this dark and cold winter night I am safe and warm. I was startled for a moment at this ordinary richness of my life, while at the same time just getting on with preparing my supper while half-absent-mindedly dipping crisps into hummus and washing them down with beer.

Restless in the middle of the night, I remembered I wanted to write something about this everyday wonder. As I turned it over in my mind, lines from a hymn we used to sing as children came to me:

For air and sunshine pure and sweet,
We thank our heavenly Father…

It struck me as curious that when reflecting on my open sense of wonder I was reminded of these sentimental words. There is, after all, something rather over-precious about hymns like that—when I looked up the rest of the words they made me slightly nauseous:

For lovely flowers and blossoms gay,
For trees and woods in bright array,
For birds that sing in joyful lay,
We thank our heavenly Father.

I can well remember singing this in the hall at the back of Balham Congregational Church, where we met each Sunday for what was called Little Church. The Hall was big and draughty, so a corner would be screened off with religious pictures—Joseph in his coat of many colours; Jesus being meek and mild, and looking after lambs; Durer’s Praying Hands. We sat, dressed in our Sunday best, in semi-circles around Miss B, one of the elderly ladies of the Church, who looked after the younger children. She was tiny, very thin and very wrinkled, and as we walked in procession from the Big Church to the hall she would grasp the hands of as many little children as she possibly could, drawing them close as if suffering the little children to come unto her. She was determined we would grow up as good Christian children.

I am sure she was really a good soul. But even at seven or eight years, I recall feeling a faint sense of unease, even repulsion, at the over-sweet piety she seemed to carry with her. I avoided having my hand held, and both conformed by joining in the singing while letting it all go right over my head. I wonder if I had tangled up expressing gratitude with the idea of God, giving it a too-religious slant? Just because I don’t now subscribe to the idea of a heavenly Father doesn’t mean I can’t give thanks.

My father (real, biological, human father) had a cynical phrase to describe Miss B and others like her in the Church. He said they tried to “Improve the shining hour.” He never explained what he meant by this, but of course I understood exactly and the words stuck in my mind. So I looked it up on Google and found that it comes from the Victorian morality poem Against Idleness And Mischief by Isaac Watts:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

I also discovered that it was one of several poems parodied in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

Lewis Carroll clearly had a wicked sense of humour.

I am fascinated about just how complicated I was finding the simple giving of thanks. My spontaneous gratitude is constantly invaded by religious and social norms that taught me such feelings are a kind of sentimentality and to be treated with a degree of cynical suspicion.

But gratitude is deeply important in this time of ecological crisis as we learn we cannot take the bounty of Earth for granted. It is important to appreciate both the things we can see—flowers, trees, woods, birds—and also the underlying ecological patterns—weather, climate, the formation of rocks, the long-term carbon cycle and other great cybernetic patterns that create and transform the planet. Gratitude is too important to be taken hostage by the sing-song piety of the hymnal ditty.

So I again pause in the present moment to notice the cat purring on my lap, my books surrounding me, the letters flying up on the screen as I type, the family photos I have chosen stick up in odd places, the Buddha on the shelf with a Sri Lankan flag around his shoulders, bits of granite I picked up each side of the Channel, on the Scilly Isles and Île d’Ouissant. Outside leafless trees fade into the December gloom as we move toward the shortest day of the year.

As well as everyday wonders, there are particular points where the heart opens in appreciation, wonder and thankfulness. In late November we invited friends—three couples—to a Thanksgiving Dinner, something we do most years as an appreciation of our stay in America when we were young adults. As is our custom, between the main course and desert we asked each person to speak about something in the past year they were grateful for and wanted to give thanks for. As the stories passed round the table—stories of family, joyful events, appreciations of life—I felt we were participating in an authentic secular ceremony. This was not “improving the shining hour,” for each person in turn was speaking of love, of beauty, of connection, speaking from the heart, as it were (even though that phrase comes close to cliché) and everyone was listening with deep appreciation.

With conscious appreciation of the world around me, intentional noticing of beauty, and little secular ceremonies like this, I can recover my capacity for unselfconscious gratitude. But I realize I need to practice.