"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

23 November 2011

One Thousand Gifts

I have finally begun reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts. Last spring a beloved former student first told me about it, and I must have heard the name a dozen times since. I ordered the book, with a large number of others, some time back, and it had been patiently waiting its turn at the bottom of the stack. Then a couple of weeks ago, K. showed me an interview with Voskamp in World Magazine, and the next day my oldest daughter mentioned hearing her at a conference and said I might enjoy her book. I retrieved it from beneath the books left in the stack.

So far I find it encouraging and honest fare. I am having to get used to her writing style, just a little different from the norm and something many readers would likely not notice, but it is growing on me and I think I will find it pleasing long before I reach the final chapter.

She begins by describing her family’s shutting out grace when her baby sister was killed in their driveway, toddling behind a delivery truck after a cat. It is her first memory, “my mother’s witnessing-scream,” “blood [seeping] through that blanket” in which her mother held the dead body. She describes the grave: “They lay her gravestone flat into the earth, a black granite slab engraved with no dates, only the five letters of her name. Aimee. It means ‘loved one.’ How she was. We had loved her. And with the laying of her gravestone, the closing up of her deathbed, so closed our lives. Closed to any notion of grace.”

Voskamp struggled well into her adulthood with believing in and opening herself to grace. I am only two chapters in, but I find her struggle to be written genuinely and I trust her as she describes her journey and reminds us of the lies Satan tells us about what we need – that what we have is not enough, not fair, that God owes us more, keeps back from us what would make us happy – and reminds us against that of what the Scriptures say about joy and gratitude and grace.

She explains her discovery of the meaning of that word we use for the Lord’s Supper, the eucharist, which she finds translated in Luke’s version as “he gave thanks”: in the Greek, it is eucharisteo. Its root is charis, which means grace; but it also contains a derivative of charischara, which means joy. “Deep chara joy is found only at the table of the euCHARisteo – the table of thanksgiving. I sit there long . . . wondering . . . is it that simple? Is the height of my chara joy dependent on the depths of my eucharisteo thanks?” She list the words, savoring, reflecting, wondering: Charis. Grace. Eucharisteo. Thanksgiving. Chara. Joy. A triplet of stars, a constellation in the black. A threefold cord that might hold a life? Offer a way up into the fullest life?”

She lets us hear her wondering, her meditations, her working to understand, ending with the plight of living and the question we must all someday answer: “The way through is hard. But do I really want to be saved?”

As she is considering these things a friend sends her a sort of dare: can you list one thousand things you love, one thousand things for which you are grateful? And she begins, immediately, with “morning shadows across the old floors” and “jam piled high on the toast” and “cry of blue jay from high in the spruce.” And smiles, finding the exercise of putting the gifts she has into words on paper to be like “unwrapping love.”

She finds beauty and joy and increased gratefulness in recording these small, everyday things – at the same time admitting, sometimes “I do scoff. I yearn for the stuff of saints, the hard language, the fluency of thanksgiving in all, even the ugliest and most heartbreaking. I want the very fullest life. I wonder, even just an inkling – is this but a ridiculous experiment? Some days, ones with laundry and kids and dishes in sink, it is hard to think that the insulting ordinariness of this truly teaches the full mystery of the all most important, eucharisteo. It’s so frustratingly common – it’s offensive.” And adds, “Driving nails into a life always is.”

She reminds us of what C. S. Lewis says about life: “If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.” She begins to see her list as a training ground, practice; one must begin somewhere: “Practice,” she writes, “is the hardest part of learning, and training is the essence of transformation.” Finding herself beginning to be more grateful, finding that others – friends, family – sense a change in her, she writes, “Gratitude for the seemingly insignificant – a seed – this plants the giant miracle. The miracle of eucharisteo, like the Last Supper, is in the eating of crumbs, the swallowing down one mouthful. Do not disdain the small. The whole of the life – even the hard – is made up of the minute parts, and if I miss the infinitesimals, I miss the whole. [. . .] There is a way to live the big of giving thanks in all things. It is this: to give thanks in this one small thing. The moments will add up.”

I came home yesterday to begin Thanksgiving break feeling nearly euphoric. I recognize that much of that feeling stemmed from circumstances – the research essays were graded and didn’t need to come home with me, five blessed days of quiet, maybe even a few minutes within them to grab hold of for writing . . . But it was as well some part genuine simple gratefulness – for the weekend visit of the Young Man, for a loving husband and comforting home to spend these five days with and in, for colleagues who encourage me and allow me to be an encouragement to them, for children and grandchildren, and my mother still well, and friends who love me, and books to read . . . certainly one could go on forever; a thousand gifts is a pittance of all that we have been given.

But I don’t practice gratitude, not really, not regularly. Two chapters into Voskamp’s book, and it’s so lovely and encouraging, and I am almost afraid to keep reading – for what one knows one is responsible to and for. Do I really want to be saved? Do I really want to learn the way of eucharisteo, of giving thanks in all things, of living in grace? Or do I prefer to listen to Satan’s lies and whine and complain and demand more and more of what I never needed? Teresa's little way, the only way life is lived, minute by minute, blessing by blessing . . . do I have the courage to embrace it?