Gratitude, Yellow Vans, & Fjaðrárgljúfur
Fjaðrárgljúfur is a canyon in Iceland, formed from millions of years of water run-off dating back to the Ice Age. When I looked upon it, amidst a crowd of photographers I felt like I was seeing past, present and future, creation and recreation. I felt like the all-seeing dragon in John Gardner’s Grendel, seeing “in one instant the passionate vision and the blowout.”
It’s hard not to get a sense that the grassy-topped cliffs which cut down jagged rock formations until they meet an endlessly rushing river with impossibly clear water, was the intentional creation of some majestic artist who wanted to show you just how beautiful the natural world can be. It filled me with a sense of gratitude and purpose, I felt like I saw the frozen earth slowly become rushing water like watching a million-year time-lapse, and then saw the possible degradation of that land in the future, of shifting global temperature, of man-made pollution. But also saw the preservation of that beauty. Not a stasis exactly, but rather an effort to conserve the natural change that it felt the canyon represented, a state of the world running its course over many millions of years. Should it not be allowed to continue in that process, without the influence of man? Feeling the possible branches of the future, the memories written by the land’s past, and the sheer overwhelming beauty of its present, my thoughts were overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude.
I love gratitude. I love structured moments for it, and spontaneous ones. I love how it serves as a reminder that the moment we’re in, for whatever it is, is not something to be expected. It feels like a beautiful sword that cuts through entitlement, and replaces it with humility. But gratitude also often stops. It stops the moment mid-stream and asks you to look at your involvement in it. It is almost always an act of reflection that looks back. I’m reminded of the perennial play Our Town, and the famous lines which the ghost of Emily says toward its end “Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anyone to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it - every, every minute?” To live life and to realize life are two separate states, Emily and by proxy Wilder purport here. And I find great truth in that, and often comfort in their separation. But I also find that separation to not be quite so strict, especially now.
The time I spent in Iceland was a 7 day journey. It began with a surreal, sleep-deprived, dream-like introduction to this otherworldly nation with magical horses appearing on the side of the road. We slept in a magnificent yellow van as we traveled clockwise around the ring road, venturing through the volcanic rock and black sand beaches of the Western Peninsula, north through the fishing villages and misty mountain valleys, east to the twisting road and magical town of Seyðisfjörður, south along the glorious pastures and waterfalls, and then landed back where we started, on the 7th day resting in the chic warmth of the Blue Lagoon.
It’s hard not to find metaphors in this journey. 6 days of toil, exploration, nature, and recreation before a final day of rest feels almost like biblical creation. The journey through time symbolized by a clockwise path that returns you to the place you started, as the same being but fundamentally changed by what you’d seen feels Campbell-esque, our own personal version of the monomyth. And, while tempting, I don’t know that I find these metaphors to hold much meaning. Where I find meaning is in gratitude. Never have I come so close to living gratitude in the present, aware of its reflective qualities yet somehow still allowing the present to remain uninterrupted. Gazing upon Fjaðrárgljúfur while the past present and future of that canyon lived together as one experience felt like a culmination of my experience of gratitude in Iceland: a sense of both living and realizing life, which carried on for seven unforgettable days.
Now I write this from a place of pure reflection. The room around me fizzles into a background that I forget as my mind dances between memory and the words that seek to contain that memory. I take this time to realize life, and in some amount of minutes I’ll return to living it. But the knowledge that both are possible in simultaneous time will be carried on, and my gratitude for that knowledge will not waver. I felt close to life, and I can feel close to life again.