For me, one of life's greatest joys is waking up to an idea. Truly, deeply, fully waking up. Especially when that idea is one I've been acquainted with my entire life, but its layers and depths and nuances I have not yet fully explored. And you know what else I find absolutely delightful? In the midst of that awakening, you suddenly encounter the idea absolutelyeverywhere. Books. Magazines. Newspapers. Radio. Blogs. From your best friend's lips. In your children's words. I'm absolutely getting hit over the head with this.
The idea in question?
Eucharisteo. Grace. Thanksgiving. Joy.
In the heart of a difficult season two autumns ago, my sweet friend Kara handed me a book. She told me she thought that the time might be right to read it.
She said the content might be difficult at first, with everything that was currently swirling around us. My 63 year old father, who had suffered from early onset dementia for nearly ten years, was dying from recently diagnosed cancer. I was 17 weeks pregnant with a much desired fourth baby after a heartbreaking miscarriage of twins. This baby's ultrasounds kept showing that there were some potentially scary abnormalities, which required regular testing and monitoring. At a routine prenatal exam, I was diagnosed with an enlarged thyroid that needed to be biopsied as soon as possible. I was teaching a full course load with one new prep at two different universities. And my three boys each had their own specific struggle that needed my careful attention: academic issues, emotional upset, developmental concerns. As I navigated the needs at work and home and traveled frequently to be with my parents, I became robotic, using tunnel vision as a coping mechanism. I was numb. I was also exhausted. Depressed. And very, very overwhelmed. On a rare quiet afternoon, I opened the first page of the book Kara thoughtfully gave me and read the opening vignette, which chronicles a raw, honest, lyrical description of the aftermath of a horrible accident that took the life of a child. I very quickly shut that book with a loud clap.
As it turned out, I was so not ready to read this book.
One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp, with its placid, stunning cover, sat on my nightstand for the next 18 months. Staring at me. I stared back and said not yet not yet not yet. I was not ready to face whatever this book had to teach me.
I had a lot of healing to do. Little did I know that if I had picked up this book sooner, my healing would have been hastened.
The book opens with Voskamp, in her unique, lyrical, literary style, exploring the idea of how one can remain faithful, hopeful, and joyful in the midst of immense grief and sorrow, or even in the midst of the monotony of everyday life. As a Christ-follower, she struggled with how to reconcile God's enduring love and the joy that follows with the terrible circumstances that she had faced in the past (the accidental death of a toddler sister) and present (the deaths of two young nephews). This led to doubt, grief, depression, and a struggle for her very faith. Finally, a friend asked her the question that changed her life:
What if you wrote down a thousand things that you love?
Voskamp accepts this dare from her friend and starts scratching down a Gift List. It is a list of what she calls the "everyday common" that fill her with gratitude. Her list begins with these:
- Morning shadows across the old floors
- Jam piled high on the toast
- Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce
She continues scrawling down her gifts as she encounters them, on an open notebook in her farmhouse kitchen, the backs of envelopes, and small notebooks she begins to carry. And as she develops this practice, a habitual practice of gratitude, her life and her faith are transformed.
One Thousand Gifts is unlike anything I've ever read, due to Voskamp's unique voice. It is beautiful and complicated, like reading poetry in prose form. Her style seems at times to be circuitous and rambling, but she deftly brings all disparate pieces into union at the conclusion of each essay. Voskamp writes like a painter paints, with lines such as "Autumn comes quietly to wed the countryside. The maples all down the lane blush and silently disrobe." The essays take the reader on Voskamp's journey to understand Eucharisteo--grace, thanksgiving, joy-- through wrestling with Scripture, motherhood, anxiety and depression, the hectic pace of modern life, and the crippling injury of a child. It left this reader breathless with the beauty of her words, her mind, her heart, and her faith.
As the wise Brené Brown says, "Gratitude is a practice." It's not necessarily natural. Complaining is more my speed, but I've started the hard work of eucharisteo: grace begets thanksgiving which results in joy. And as someone whose constant state these days is a barely suppressed, low-level irritation, I find myself softening into gratitude more and more. This makes for a more peaceful momma, even in the rough moments, and ultimately, a happier home.
I think that practicing gratitude may be the great lesson of my life. It is something to be learned, rehearsed, used. And here is my new realization: I once thought that gratitude is a disposition, like optimism or introversion. It is not. It is something that you cultivate. I have learned that in order to live the life I feel called to live, I can and must cultivate gratitude. This includes gratitude for the big things (my marriage) and small things (a hot cup of tea), and for the "ugly beautiful" things (like the opportunity to mediate an argument between the boys or the quiet introspection that loneliness brings). Eucharisteo is following me everywhere. I can't crack a book, go to a lecture, watch a movie, or talk to a friend without gratitude being the overriding theme. I guess it's true what they say: when the student is ready, the master appears.
Thanksgiving, in every situation, and every circumstance, is an idea, a practice, a relationship that has been a long time coming for me, and will likely be a lifelong challenge. But gratitude for gifts given, large and small, bring a change of perspective, a new worldview, and ultimately, JOY. Choosing thanksgiving, like choosing to love, mends relationships, opens hearts, and for me, helps me to better know God.
I've started my gift list. (Believe it or not, there's an app for that!) I've reached 129 gifts in three weeks time. Make that 130.
I'm on my way to one thousand. And beyond.