I’m several years late on the bestselling book, but prompted by reading her wonderful blog recently and the fact that one version or another of it seemed somehow always in my view every time I was in a bookstore, I finally gave in and bought a copy of Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts”. Somehow the few passages I had turned to prior to purchasing the book didn’t cue me in on what might have been obvious to most from the title alone: this book is about gratitude. I mean, I’m sure I might have thought that it had something to do with gratitude, that whatever spiritual story or practice or formula the author was sharing included gratitude, but I was wrong. Spoiler alert: it’s actually all about gratitude. Really, it’s not about anything else at all. It’s all about gratitude and creating the mother of all gratitude lists, hence the title, “One Thousand Gifts”. Jesus Christ. Had I known I would’ve been grateful to not buy it. Don’t get me wrong, Voskamp’s heart is as beautiful and generous as her writing is eloquent and authentic as it can be. I actually recommend the book, for you. It’s just that for me, halfway through it, I don’t get it really. It’s lovely writing but it might as well be about animal husbandry and written in Farsi. I just don’t get it. I mean such sentiments about gratitude make great Precious Moments coffee mug text, but who really sees everything, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g as a gift? Never mind who it is, just keep ’em away from me. “Gratitude List #862: shiny dish soap bubbles.” Ugh, truly, like animal husbandry written in Farsi. Mind you, I haven’t finished the book, but right now it seems to me that to accept every little thing, even calamity, as a gift assumes that I even want to be at the party to begin with. “One Thousand Reasons to Want to BE at The Party” would be the primer I need as a prequel. “Parties”, such as this world offers that include such incredible and escalating suffering and the majority of us who are either complicit in the suffering or somehow not heartbroken by it, don’t interest me at all, let alone being at the “gift” receiving table.
Unlike the weaver of the mother of all gratitude lists, I can pretty much count on relating to or at least being amused by David Sedaris’ writing. The other day, after reading a new piece he had written for The New Yorker, I clicked on the title of an essay he had written in 2013. The piece deals with a Sedaris family tragedy and is, I think, some of his finest writing. At one point in the decidedly unsentimental essay Sedaris refers to his family of origin, saying, “Ours is the only club I’ve ever wanted to be a member of,” and I experience a disconnect, an absolute, total disconnect. I simply have no frame of reference for such a sentiment. Families are terrifying and should all come with an escape route. For me, someone screaming, “FAMILY!” in crowded movie theatre would induce way more panic than someone shouting, “FIRE!”. At least with fire there are extinguishers to put it out immediately, but with family you’re stuck undoing the damage for the rest of your damn life.
I don’t think that I’ve ever seriously contemplated staying here. Perhaps that’s not completely true, there have been a few moments and those moments have been the great loves of my little life. It is accurate, though, to say that I cannot remember a time in my life, no matter how young I was, no matter how happy a particular day, when I didn’t contemplate leaving; staying never really seemed like an option, let alone desirable. Group me with those living daily with p.t.s.d. from the car wrecks that are families, and The Church, and the pile up of grief, and those living with p.t.s.d. from actual car wrecks for that matter. The only club I’ve been a member of, and my wanting to had nothing to do with my induction, is the club of outcasts and orphans, the club of mourners and prodigals, the left-out, locked-out, and the left-behind; the club of the never-good-enough, the wanderers and drunkards, the loved in beds and left in alleys, the lepers and the lame, the hungry and the always looking over their shoulder. This is my club. These are my people. No, none of these are badges of honor; membership doesn’t grant boasting rights. None of these are fishing lines for sympathy. None of these negate personal responsibility in my life and in the lives of my people, nor though, does it negate grace and mercy in lieu of being born into boots with straps your own two hands can reach for pulling on. What it does do is give us a completely different frame of reference. Gratitude lists are harder to get to from Survival Kit Checklists. You may hear the word “family” and think safety and refuge; we feel fear or nothing at all. You may hear the word “Christmas” and think of happy hearth, cider-mug smells; we remember hiding or abandonment or chaos. It’s a different life than we dreamed of and your life – your life of one thousand gifts to be grateful for, when we can’t come up with ten good reasons to stay – is a life we can’t even imagine. We don’t even know that language, except as a foreign tongue often spoken by those who sometimes look like us, but turn out to be aliens just the same. One of the few privileges of membership in this club is how often we find ourselves washed ashore together, shipwrecked at Calvary. Those of us who are lucky and brave and have insurance also find ourselves in therapy.
I tried to explain to my therapist today that the expiration date on all of this “everything” we’re supposed to see as “gifts” really ruins the gifts for me. Ask any of us orphans what we want and temporary shelter or foster care may bring relief, but home is what we really want; it’s home because it can’t be taken away. Ask any of us who have truly known hunger what we want and the fast food sandwich or the one-off meal will bring blessed relief, but what we really want looks more like a full pantry, a packed deep freezer; the security of relief without the sting of scarcity or famine tied to the end. I tried to explain how hard it is to even understand how other people seem to find something so good about being alive that they’d want to stay. I just don’t get that, not on my best day.
Sitting across from my therapist I pause, lean forward, and say, “Of course, you don’t have to answer this, after all, you’re the one that’s s’pose to be asking the questions, but you’ve shared briefly how you’ve survived an incredibly painful, life-threatening, life-changing situation. Can you tell me what’s so good about being here, through all of that, that you wanna stay here?”
My therapist, Donetta, originally from Spain, with her large, dark, expressive eyes and mandatory placid-lake-therapist-demeanor, folded her hands in her lap and in her lyrical accent explained how she visited an astrologist after her diagnosis. She said she had gone there wanting to know if she would die, when she would die, and about her relationships. She wanted definite answers. She wanted guarantees. Donetta shared the astrologist’s metaphor.
“He said, eet is like when you can have thee most Wand-er-Full, thee most deLICious meal, all of your very faVOrite, Wand-er-Full foods, but,” she said, her eyes suddenly growing large, feigning wonder, “but Steel, veedy soon your body will begin to diGest, to break Down, and to process this wonderful meal and, of course, eventually, we will go to the bathroom and…”
It’s here that I break in.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but, so the moral of the story is that it all goes to crap? Yeah, that’s where I’m running into the problem.”
I left her office and walked up Roma Street, a neighborhood so monied that even here in the ongoing drought, all of the homes have lush green lawns, many with water fountains and babbling little brooks. The park on Roma has a few tables and benches in addition to the children’s jungle gym area, all shaded by generous, old trees. I found a choice bench, exhaled deeply, and pulled my notebook and pen out of my backpack. I had written nearly a sentence when out of nowhere an old homeless man appeared just to the left of the park bench.
Guess that’s one of the other few benefits of membership in this club, and it’s surprising every time, but no matter what it seems, we will find each other.
“What’cha writin’?,” the old man asked.
“Oh,” I said, looking up, “just jottin’ down some thoughts.”
“Yeah,” he said, sitting down uninvited next to me on the metal bench, “I write sometimes.”
“Better to get it out on paper, otherwise it gets too heavy to carry here,” I said, tapping my forehead.
Underneath his dirty baseball cap, his face was tanned and textured like jerky. His gray hair matted in bands at the top of his t-shirt collar and he sported only two visible teeth which gave even his animated smile the look of something deflated. He took a moment to think about it when I asked how old he was and I was surprised when he decided that he was only sixty-five. Assuming that he was homeless, but still not wanting to be right, I asked him where he lived.
“Oh, I live over at The Regal,” he said, “That ol’ hotel they made into little apartments, not much, just one bedroom, well, it’s just one room.”
Based on his appearance, I was a little surprised that he lived indoors at all, even if it was at a place ironically called “The Regal”. I asked him how he paid for it.
“I’m on SSDI,” he confided, “since, oh, eighty, two, eighty-three.”
“1983, did you say? That’s a long time ago now. What happened?,” I asked.
“I’m paranoid schizophrenic,” he volunteered without any hesitation and without hesitation I asked if he was on medication.
He explained which psychotropic medications didn’t really work and which one was best before admitting, “No, not anymore. I self-medicate,” he said and made the extended pinky and thumb, folded middle fingers-universal sign for booze.
“Well, that kind of medication’s pretty hard on your liver,” I said.
“No,” he said laughing, “I got an iron-clad liver.”
Then he told me how a friend of his, whom he said drank way more than he did, died last month, in an alley up near The Regal, behind the BBQ & Burger Hut.
One other privilege of our membership in this club is knowing that we have nothing to lose, so we will just say it.
“You know,” I said, “I’ll bet if I was sitting here with your friend, he’d tell me how he had an “iron-clad liver”, too. You outta take care a yourself and take it easy on that stuff.”
After fifteen minutes or so I said, “Look, we’ve been visiting too long for me to not even know your name. Sorry about that. What’s your name, brother?,” I asked extending my hand.
“Michael,” he said, taking my hand and smiling. I introduced myself, repeated my name, and he shook my hand again and said, “It’s real good to meet’cha.”
Over nearly the next hour I learned about Michael’s move from Chicago to Florida when he was two and half years old and to New Mexico with his mom and brothers when he was four and heard several random anecdotes about his brothers and his experience in high school. I asked him if he hadn’t married and had children. Now, I’m no prude. I can hold my own and maybe yours too (see what I did there?) when it comes to innuendo and locker room humor, but even I probably blushed as I did my best to not laugh disruptively in the otherwise quiet park as Michael proceeded to rather graphically shared about his attempts to impregnate the woman who would be his son’s mother. Positioning his hands and spreading his legs to illustrate, he explained,
“I had to get it in those, um, what do ya’ call ’em? Utopian tubes.”
Smiling hard against my laughter, I said, “Um, I think it’s fallopian tubes, Michael, but I s’pose, maybe, if it’s real, real good, maybe it is “utopian tubes”. I’m gonna defer to your experience on this one.”
Michael’s experience had been sometime ago now as he put his son at being around forty-seven and mentioned his grandson going in to the Marines, but something Michael had said earlier had stuck in my mind.
“Michael,” I said, “you know earlier when you talked about your mother passing away, you said that the ‘precious Lord took her home’. Now, I’m not trying to sound judgmental, I just know myself pretty well at this point and frankly, Michael, if I was on the street begging for food and drink, hadn’t seen my family in years, and was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, I’d probably have some other names I’d call God besides ‘precious Lord’. I’m guessin’ I’d be pretty bitter in my lucid moments, but all things considered, you seem kinda happy and still willing to accuse God of being good. Why?”
“Look,” Michael said, “I took a class years ago, a, uh, a theology class, that’s what they called it and there was such a fuss over deciding where man came from. Was it a theological cause or a, uh, what’s the word?”
“Evolution,” I supplied.
“Right,” Michael said, “What a fantastic waste of energy is what I always thought. I mean whatever the details, it weren’t no accident. I mean, from a baseline of zero, do you wanna be plus one or minus one? The problem is that some people think that everybody owes ’em somethin’ and some people do owe us somethin’, but then you get that somethin’ an’ some folks keep on askin’, an’ more an’ that is just greedy. I mean, the way I see it, the good Lord put us here so we can hear, see, speak, and breathe; it’s the least we can do. It’s when we don’t do that stuff an’ try and ask for more an’ is ours and complicate it all that we get all scuffed up.”
Well that seemed clear enough without having the blinding sheen of a thousand gifts. I thought of the outrageous dimensions of God’s love described in Ephesians 3:17-18, “how wide and long, how high and deep is God’s love that we would be filled to fullness with God.” Michael’s statement poses it’s own questions to us about our love of God and each other: how wide will we hear and listen? , how long are we willing to see? how high, how life-giving can we speak? how deep can we breathe to be filled with the fullness, the abundance of God? Activist and author, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has written that “People listen because they see signs of hope.” Michael’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia not withstanding, his clear-headedness about life and God randomly glimmered hope for me where gratitude lists had left me discouraged, rather than thankful, so I chased the glimmer and said,
“Michael, you know one of the things that wears me out?”
He looked at me, shrugging his shoulders.
“I hear people say stuff all the time like how we should all see everything as a gift, how it’s all from God. “It’s all good,” they say over and over and I’m guessin’ they have to repeat it constantly because they’re battling reality in order to hold on to that bull crap. I mean, anyone with two eyes and a tiny bit of honesty can clearly see that it is so not all a gift. If it were all God, if it were all from God, well, there’d be no need of God, would there? People tell us “it’s all good” and then, when we cannot help but see that it most obviously is not all good, we also get to feel somehow less than, somehow less spiritual for not joining them in their denial. Christians’ version of this sometimes sounds like how it’s all a part of God’s plan, grrrr,” I growl my frustration before continuing, “I mean, I really do actually believe that God has a vision, a purpose, and a plan for our lives, but, I’m also convinced that disharmony and division, broken families and broken hearts, violence and cancer are not a part of that plan! Honestly, if there’s anything worse than going through some hardship or heartbreak, it has to be being told that your hardship or heartbreak is really a “gift”; that your pain is actually “good”; and, worse yet, that it’s from some monster God who uses tragedy as the preferred lesson plan.
Apparently unphased by my little rant, Michael turned to look at me directly and asked, “Say, do you know that old story about the man with two sons?”
“Well,” I replied, “I know the parable in Luke about the man with two sons. It’s my favorite.”
“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head, “the other story.”
“I guess I don’t then,” I said and Michael proceeded to tell me his version of an old story that it turned out I did know and had repeated myself, the hybrid parable that had been handed down and born originally from the James Kirkwood novel.
“So this old and very wealthy man had two sons,” he began, “and one day late in his life he decides to devise a kind of test for the boys to really, you know, gage their love and loyalty, to really see who they were becoming as men. So the father brings his firstborn to a room, some folks call this a son a pessimist, he brings him to the door of this room and invites him to open the door, telling him that everything the room holds is his. The firstborn son opens the door to this giant room that’s just full of every fine thing he could ever want: wine, women, every new-fangled electronic gadget; just jam-packed full a the finest a everything ever in one room. Well, the son is walking through this maze of luxury just saucer-eyed at what he’s seein’, but then his eyes narrow and he asks his father what the catch is, is something wrong? Was he leaving the boy outta his will?
Well, the old man then brings his younger son to a different door to a different room and explains to his son that all that the room holds is his. The father leaves and the boy opens the door to find a room full of shit; not garbage or trash mind you, I mean, actual shit, manure everywhere; it’s a room packed with manure. The old man returns a good while later to find his son digging through the piles of manure and he asks his son what the blazes he’s doing. The boy, some folks call him an optimist, the boy raises his head and says, “Well, I figure with all this shit, there’s gotta be a pony.”
Now, every version of this I’d heard previously had stopped there, leaving me amused but not long inspired, not shot through with gratitude.
Michael continued, “Now, God love’em, that boy loved his father and knew his father loved him. That boy had faith in the goodness of his father. Most a the time I do, too; that’s what the good Lord asks of us. But, the boy didn’t confuse one for the other. I’ma have faith in God’s goodness and if it ain’t goodness I can know it ain’t come from God. I mean, there ain’t no amount of molding or shapin’ of it that you can do that’s gonna make me mistake shit for a pony.”
“Well said, Michael. Vivid, but well said,” I replied.
New-age priests with tattered Franciscan credentials and pop self-help and even well-intentioned Christian authors espouse non-duality and celebrate that in our modern age that there’s no such thing as sin, but those of us who have both, felt and unleashed it’s willful sting, know better. They encourage us to see it all as a gift, all as good. Michael helped me to understand, to remember more clearly, that there is no call, command, or reason to see everything as a gift when not even God has seen it all as good since the dawn of creation. If it was all good, there’d be no hunger, no poverty, no disease, and no grief. If it was all good, there’d be no need for spiritual warfare and there is such a need for spiritual warfare in the bunkers of our lives and on the frontlines of our world. It’s been said that the best tactic of the enemy is to convince us that there is no enemy and what a success that tactic continues to be. Sometimes small words can pack a wallop of a change in meaning. The Scriptures in I Thessalonians 5:18 tell us to “give thanks IN all things,” not FOR all things. We are called to be thankful from right in the middle of it, but not necessarily grateful for our location in it or, to paraphrase Michael, “We can be grateful In the crap without being grateful For the crap.”
It is almost without fail that it is those of us who can no longer afford blindness who refuse to deny what we see.
We who have been roped off from The Table, the meal, the family, the altar, and the embrace understand the reality of lines, barriers, boundaries, and walls that keep us out from the other side of them. There is no lens pink enough to gauze them away as an illusion.
I looked at Michael and said, “I’m sure glad someone else understands. It sure ain’t all good.”
“No sir,” he said, “it ain’t. But there is grace and even gravy. It’s not all just the other stuff. Guess the math might change, different percent from one day to the next maybe, that’s all. I mean, I’m here,’ he said and looked surprised, “that’s grace. And a young man earlier gave me enough money for a hamburger and I got a snack for later.” Michael nodded to the crumpled ones and the packets of mayonnaise and relish he held in his left hand. “That’s grace,” he said.
“I guess bein’ paranoid schizophrenic is shit, but I try an’ not think about it. Every single test, you know, says that worry is just no good for paranoid schizophrenics,” he said and smiled and I smiled too, thinking it would at least be redundant to be both, paranoid and worried.
“And these shoes,” he continued, “these shoes from the Penny Saver are shit. Heel came right off before I could make it from the store to the curb. But, the Good Book says that one day I’ll see my ma again. That’s gravy.”
“Well now,” he said, rocking himself back, then up to his feet,” I need to go get me a half-pint. Thank you. I had a nice afternoon.” And with that, Michael walked off but left behind generous portions of both, grace and gravy.
– PreetamDas Kirtana
October 6, 2015