Old Friends, Gratitude, and Living the Today We’re Given

June 30, 2011

Ann Voskamp’s luminous book, One Thousand Gifts has been sitting on my bedside table for weeks.  I pick it up now and then to read a bit, but it’s tough going.  First of all, she’s intensely religious, so I have to do some translating from her worldview to mine, dealing with lots of references to First and Second Corinthians so she can get me where we’re going.  Second of all, she’s uniquely beautiful writer, weaving prose that sounds like poetry, so it’s not always straightforward to move through her sentences.

But third of all, and most challenging, this is a book written squarely into the central dilemma of my own life:  how do I adequately appreciate this moment, now.  This one, Launa.  Not the imaginary perfect one I keep imagining is owed me, or the awful one I seem to work so hard to try to avoid, but this perfectly lovely one sitting right here in front of me.

I know that I should live this way.  Not only because I should be more grateful for the beauty of the life that I have been given, but also because the intensity of my life is always equal to the intensity of my gratitude.  I have said this before, and her thesis isn’t that different: noticing the good creates more good.

Alternately, waiting around feeling cheated, expecting something even more wonderful to happen to me is to reject the wonderfulness I already have.

Voskamp writes into a background of much greater suffering than I have myself experienced thus far.   She has suffered far worse familial losses, weathered many worse depressions, and has chosen for herself a much more challenging life.  Get this folks —  she lives on a farm and homeschools six childrenSix.  She scrubs all those toilets, makes all that oatmeal, and writes for Hallmark in her spare time.

She has way more reasons that do I to be disappointed with life (and cranky about her responsibilities.)  And yet turns the other direction, berating herself for not appreciating the joy and the miracle of her everyday life.  She points out the futility of always asking the question so many of us ask:  why me?  Why not more?  When do I get the fullest perfection of life that I have somehow convinced myself is my due?

Voskamp awakens herself to the task of living through her conscious decision to write a list of 1,000 things for which she is thankful.   And then to do it again.  And again.  She elects this task for herself  in part because of a dream in which she is caught up short by her own realization that life will not go on forever.

…the end will come, and this life of the bare toes across grass, the sky raining spring down on eyelashes, the skin spread close under sheets, blink of the fireflies on dusky June nights — all this will all end.

The real tragedy, we start to see in reading her book, is not all the loss life deals us as our share.  Instead, it’s all the opportunities we miss to see the beauty piling up between the loss.  The worst fate — she comes to see — is missing what we should treasure.  The worst sin is to miss the beauty in that which is happening right now.

I have this book on my bedside table, and also on my mind.  Because the question I need to be asking myself at this moment in my life is not “when are all the problems in my life going to evaporate so I can be happy, darnit?” but rather, “When am I going to wake up and realize that this is my own happy life?”

Unlike Voskamp, I’m not living this life with an eye towards getting myself ready for the next.  I’m quite certain that today is the only one of its kind I am every going to get.  So the task of waking up to what I have is an even more pressing one:  I have to live knowing that there is no heavenly do-over.  The joy, love, and fulfillment I create here for the myself and for the people around me is the sum total of goodness that I will ever know.  And I ain’t getting any younger.

When Voskamp takes on her task of noting and naming, she details mainly things that happen to her when she is alone, in a moment of full awareness.  The bluejay on the branch.  They sound of children laughing in the next room.  For me, however, I find myself most alive and most grateful when I am with other people.  Nearly every one of my thousand gifts has a face, a name, a laugh all his or her own.

I have gratitude on my mind as I think about the old friends I had dinner with not so long ago. We took up an enormous corner table in a restaurant, laughing and talking so loudly that eventually everybody else just left.  We don’t get to see one another as often as we would like to — jobs, children, and geography get in the way.  But when I was surrounded by them, I felt suddenly much more alive.

It was the same with the old friends I saw recently at my 20th college reunion, or at smaller impromptu gatherings at a park, or when I have recently seen friends from my hometown.  By now, we’ve been out of school and into adult life for many more years than we old were when we first met. I met these people when we were so young that we attracted each other like magnets.  It’s not overreaching to say that back then, making friends felt like falling in love.

So now, when we old friends do see each other, it’s like breathing oxygen again.  We fall back into those old feelings of connection and into the comfort of long, happy regard.  We know and appreciate one another well enough to truly relax in each others’ presence.  And there, around the table, we can share the joys and pains of the year or so since we were last together.  We see life passing in one another’s faces.

And, when all this happens, my old friends remind me to feel gratitude.  Not for the ways in which we’ve been lucky, but for the ways in which we’ve all successfully weathered even the awfullest of life’s moments.

When we were young, we were all too foolish to see how good we had it.  Instead, my friends and I would endlessly commiserate over our young people’s problems with each other, as though these problems were the end of the world.  Some boy we liked wouldn’t like us back.  We couldn’t get the paper done on time, our department chair was being unfair, or some kid in our class didn’t do the reading, or maybe we weren’t sure whether we should stay with this job or find another.   We had trouble paying the rent, or had to go for six months without health insurance, or we were passed over for the fellowship we deserved.

Now, when I see my old friends, our shared breadbasket of problems feels vastly heavier and fully adult.  The outer signs are obvious: we’ve lost our hair, or it’s gray.  A parent is dying of cancer.  We face apparently impossible problems with our teenage children.  Difficulty having children at all.  Physical illness.  Debilitating depression or anxiety — in ourselves, our parents, or worst of all, our children.  A breakup with a partner of over fifteen years.  Being blindsided by a partner’s affairs, or a divorce.   Struggling with a job that is just a little bigger than we can handle, or feeling trapped in a job that is a  little less than we imagined we’d have achieved by now.  A back injury that just won’t ever go away.  Too much drinking.  Too little sex.  Losing a job.  Feeling stuck.  Feeling lost.

All this middle-aged crap that used to be the stuff happening to somebody else: now this is all our turn.  We arrive, and receive our portion of life.

And yet, when I see these old friends, when we pass around that breadbasket of our troubles and our shame and our deep wonderings:  how the hell did this happen to me?  — I can feel the sorrow, but also hold the thousand gifts.  I feel this strangely intense sense that we, together, are still richly blessed.   This sense of blessing is not the same blessing that Ann Voskamp feels: my thousand gifts are earthy through and through.  I don’t experience these moments with my friends as God raining down blessings, but rather as the shared sense of warmth we feel from a long-seasoned affection.  But I am no less grateful, amazed, or awe-struck.

For there, surrounding the table together, we see the joy pieced in between the suffering.  We see it in one another, and in our shared endurance.  For rather magically, even wallowing around in this garbage of middle age, we are all so richly alive. Deep down, we are exactly as we have always been, only better. 

We are alive, here in the middle of things, and also holding on to our one thousand gifts.  I am more aware these days than usual that the gifts in my life all have names.  Mom.  Dad.  Sister. Husband. Daughter.  Aunt.  Uncle.  Cousin.  Roommate.  Neighbor.

And you, each one of my old friends.  The ones with whom I’ve shared this all.  May it be true that each time we see one another, we remember to share the joy of this miracle of finding ourselves so fully alive.

Lindsey June 30, 2011 at 1:43 pm

you know, I put down Voskamp’s book because it was too heavy going for me, but your words make me think I need to return to it. Or maybe your words are enough – I’m sure they are more beautiful than hers anyway. Yes, we are in the thick of it now, the real, serious, heavy adult portion of life, but like you I still feel extraordinarily blessed and fortunate. Still, I struggle, as you know, with the same thing you say. Be here, in this moment, now. See it for what it is. Thanks for helping me do that. xox

Alicia Russo June 30, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Just sitting back and smiling… Very nice…

Gaeal June 30, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Beautiful, thank you.

David Johnson October 1, 2011 at 10:34 pm

You continue to be one of the most amazing and talented human beings I have had walk into my life along the way, and your way and words will touch others as you did me. Of this, I am certain! Thank you. Friend.

Launa October 2, 2011 at 2:33 am

Aw, Dave — you’re too kind. I’m just glad we found the same book and could reconnect through it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: