Monday, December 20, 2010

Thank you, Anything

I didn't think this would be so difficult - these daily gratitudes. 

I find myself more and more uncomfortable with the piling up of evidence how lucky I am - the small blisses, the huge blessings. I'm more and more ashamed of the abundance that more and more begins to feel like it's weighing me down - the intangibles as much as the plenitude of material goods.  

 (thank you, Roof's Safe Shelter - thank you, Patient Fritz - thank you, Democracy - thank you, Flowered Wallpaper - thank you, CD Player - thank you, Curiosity - thank you, Opportunity - thank you, Daughter Friend - thank you, Great-Grandma's Recipes - thank you, Trunks of Trees - thank you, Wonderstruck Ten-Year-Old - thank you, Health - thank you, Health Insurance - thank you, Hope in Christ)

All the goodness so unstintingly showered down on me.  So undeservedly that I feel ashamed rather than grateful.

I can hear you already, jumping in to set me straight.  Bear with me.  I know I'm wrong, I know I've got this tangled, but I want to figure out why. 

Last week at the food bank (I had biked in that morning composing in my head an exuberant Ode to Joy - thank you, Sunshine; thank you, Muscles; thank you, Thoughtful Driver; thank you, Flutter of Birds), I scrubbed down walls and sanitized freezers and fridge for the quarterly inspection in between waiting on a regular stream of the needy.  We had the radio on, playing happy Christmas music. 

"Bah, humbug," said a woman not much older than I.  "Not much to be merry about when you don't have any money and can't buy anything to give your kids."

I could have said . . . or I could have pointed out . . . but I didn't. 

I believe she'd have felt happier if she'd looked around right there and been glad for this clean, well-lighted place that existed just to help her, the loaves of bread on the shelves, the cheese sticks in the fridge, the sign-up for the hot dinner and gift for each child the local Boy Scout troop would deliver to her house (or other central location if she didn't have a house) on Christmas Eve.  She would've felt more fortunate if she'd let her thoughts dwell on all the people who donated cans to feed her, the hours volunteering, fund-raising, the local gardeners who planted extra so we could offer her more.

But was it for me to tell her? 

Maybe.  Maybe it would've helped.  I've heard other people make the point and make it effectively, compassionately.  But I didn't.  I felt I couldn't. Because she was right. It's hard to be merry in the face of poverty and hunger.  If I'd been facing what she was facing I'm not sure I wouldn't have been bah-humbugging myself.  Why not allow her bah humbugging space as a valid response to this world, this time of the year?

Before she came in I'd been humming inside with pleasure at the bike ride, the vigorously effective scrubbing, the music playing.  After she spoke I stopped my silent happy humming.  Which did her no good but allowed me to listen a little better to what she was saying.

I looked at her, beheld her, the sad skin beneath her eyes, the angry tightness around her mouth, the bad luck that hung about her like a cloud.  I nodded and made a sympathetic sound and then fetched the frozen green beans and plastic-wrapped tube of ground beef that we give everyone. 

Later, this weekend, we drove down to see my brother's new baby.  Along the way, at the rest stop, we saw a family - man, woman, two children - camped out with a sign asking for money to buy more gas for their bus.

It might have been a scam.  They sometimes are.  None of them - children, woman, man - might have even been actually related - except in the way we all are.

Waiting for my sister and my daughter,  I watched a slim well-groomed woman jump out of her shining white SUV, cradling a fluffy white lapdog.  She strode into the rest stop. On her way back, she stopped to say something to the woman holding the sign asking for money, then Ms. Fortunate in her scarf and tasteful beads trotted back to her car, looking pleased.  Her Fluffy gave a quick happy bark.

"Did you hear what that lady said?" my sister asked me a few minutes later when she herself had returned.

"No, but she seemed happy to have said it."

My sister huffed "She asked the other woman where she lived and the woman pointed to her sign - Homeless - and then lady said, Why are you here?  She told her she should be in the city where there are jobs, she shouldn't be here."

I had seen others - mostly truck drivers, men in rough jackets - quietly slip a bill or two into the man's or the woman's hands.  And because I wanted a picture of their bus I had gotten out while waiting for my passengers, given $5, and asked if the bus was theirs, if they'd mind if I took a picture.

"Yes," she had looked at me a little strangely, "Yes, you may.  And thank you for asking first."  She lifted her chin, looking out at the world with dignity.

I have to make it plain that it had not been compassion that had moved me.  Not compassion that actually moved me up and out of my car.  If they hadn't had something I wanted, something I would have been ashamed to take without giving them something I had that they wanted in return, I would have stayed snug and warm in my car.  I say that without shame or guilt or apology.  Perhaps there should be shame, but there it is.  

It wasn't pity, or acting Lady Bountiful.  It was a trade between citizens. 

When I was young, home for the summer between semesters at school, a girl I knew, visiting at my house to talk her troubles over with my mother, had accused me - "You've had everything handed to you on a silver platter."

I was tired. It was late in the evening. I'd been gone since 5 a.m., driving my dad's little truck over to the neighboring town, working 10 hours at the foundry, then another 4 hours copy-editing for the local Shopper-Advertiser newspaper.  I was working long days to pay my way through college - though even there I had the help of a handful of scholarships. 

I felt more tired still, looking up from the cold dinner my mom had set aside for me, looking up into this young woman's unhappy face.  Because she was right.

Everything had been handed me.  All I'd done was reach out and take it.  Which is something - we all know that. 

Nevertheless, I looked at this girl, felt myself torn with self-justifying irritation and grudging acknowledgement that she was right.  My father hadn't abandoned us when I was a baby, my mother wasn't sickly, I hadn't been date-raped, no one had pressured me into getting a degree in elementary education when I disliked children, I wasn't stuck cleaning bathrooms at the Lake Geneva Lake Lodge.  Health, height, metabolism, opportunity, web of support. Life had been unfair to her. 

And yes, she had been unfair to Life.  I knew there were gifts she couldn't bring herself to reach out for, blisses and blessings she had refused.  There always are.  For all of us.

What I was grateful for, what I am grateful for today is that I could see that.  How she was wrong and right, how I was deserving and undeserving. 

I don't know the name for that.

I am grateful to be the watcher from the car.  Not Fluffy nor Fluffy's dog.

And I don't want to refuse the gifts I know thanksgiving gives back again to me. 


ArtSparker said...

Emma, it seems to me you keep circling back to this place of disapproving of yourself. We are most of us a mix of good and bad, and everyone's feet get tired, or maybe they have a toothache now and then, which can make them cranky.

Dude, part of the trick is to give yourself a pass now and then just to feel tired or irritable. Not kicking puppies is good - you haven't been out kicking puppies, right? It was, in fact, courteous of you to ask about taking the photograph.

There's a local restaurant here called "Cafe Gratitude", where all the dishes are called stuff like "Glad to be alive" etc. In order to eat, you have to ask for the dishes by their names. I've never been there, but this (for me) is not true compassion/charity/generosity or what the Buddhists would call Ahimsa, it's aggression.

Emma J said...

Interesting comment, Art Sparker. Helps me see that what I was trying to say didn't quite get across.

Self-approval is a wriggly sort of fish, isn't it? I feel pretty sure the lady with the lapdog very much approved of herself - whether she was cranky or not, I don't know.

ArtSparker said...

I'm not talking about self-approval, really. I'm not talking about smugness, or self-satisfaction. I'm talking about some sort of acceptance of oneself as a flawed human being, who fails from time to time.

Emma J said...

"Acceptance of mutual human frailty" might be the "name for that" (or part of it) that I was talking about - or trying to - but apparently not talking about in a way that worked for you. Disheartening to miscommunicate so drastically.

I am curious - do you think these two recent encounters as decribed here are "failures" on my part? It hadn't struck me that way. I was, in fact, pleased to have responded receptively rather than insisting on inserting my interpretation into either of their experiences.

Your response makes me wonder if the writing slipped somewhere for you or if I'm valuing a quality that is too quiet and too grey to be much appreciated by anyone else?

Thanks for the thoughtful response, ArtSparker, and thank you for jumping in to defend me from myself as you see it - I can feel your warmth and concern and appreciate the kindness of it.

ArtSparker said...

No, I don't think the encounters were failures. You just seem sometimes to think you must have done something wrong. It 's distressing that many people are living as they did in the Great depression and that many people are clueless. I know you are a Christian, but one of the tenets of Buddhism is to first be gentle with yourself so that you can be so with others.

Emma J said...

I have a feeling that we are - at root - deeply in agreement.

Neighbor Jane Payne said...

I loved this line, "she had been unfair to Life. I knew there were gifts she couldn't bring herself to reach out for, blisses and blessings she had refused. There always are."

That line makes perfect sense to me and I love the way it was transposed from life isn't fair.

I have loved your Thank you posts, but I already told you that.

ArtSparker said...

Amen to that, Emma.

Melody said...

"How she was wrong and right, how I was deserving and undeserving."

I don't know the name for that either. Pondering now.

Beautiful post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


You catch me once again. You give me pause in my day to think. I know you. I know your daily life. But this gives me insight and a window into your soul. I write this as you are banging on and shaking an old toaster, digging at it, glaring at it, scowling into it, trying to get the last flammable crumbs out of it, as you coax more life out of it. This is in contrast to your careful, cogent, quiet giving of wings to your thoughts on your blog.

So why do I write today in response? Because I love you. I
see you where others don't. You give by riding your bike-so you can ride with your family. You give your heart to those who will hear. You give to the desparate at the food bank by offering time and means. You give days, months, and years to your children, offering them all that your Father gave to you. I hear your recognition of life being hard, but worthwhile-if we physically nurture the seeds of blessing given to us. I see clearly where you draw your defining lines of life and which side of the line
you place yourself-not in an academic dichotomy, but in word, deed, and action. I see you reach out to your brother and his family. I see you reach out to your sister.

Few hints are given explicity, but I know. I see you receive a gift from each person you write about. And not necessarily an easy gift. I see you internalize that where
much is given, much is expected.

I do like to ponder what you have expressed. If only because we journey together.

Your post reminded me of the most significant experience of my STP rides. All along the ride, people who live along the route or have family members who are riding are
encouraging us along. I usually try to wave back and say thanks. Toward the end of the ride there was a homeless man, with a distant look and missing some teeth, who was smiling and waving. I saw him for about 3 seconds as I rode by and I wondered why he was there. I didn't wave back. It could be excused by being tired after having ridden 200 miles on my bike. But that wasn't it. I have thought many times about him. His face is etched into my mind. Why was I so small that I didn't accept his offer of encouragement immediately? Why was it my response to question his presence? All I can do is accept his offering ex post facto. His offering has been received many times in many places. I am grateful for a simple gift from a homeless man in a small corner of Portland.

And I am grateful for your generosity to family, and to me. Both in thought and action, and in coaxing some more life out of this old coaster (I don't mean toaster).


Emma J said...

Aw, Fritz . . . this is a very sweet gift. Thank you for telling me in words. I don't think I'd ever heard that story about the homeless man before.

Cait said...

Fritz and Emma J, I love how you much you love each other. I can just see your sweet smiling faces. I wish you all the best :)

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