On Gratitude

My son is six, and has the teensiest penchant for the dramatic (no idea where he got THAT from!) He and I are alike in so many ways, and because of this, he is very adept at making me feel guilty. As in, the kid has got my number. Every afternoon, when my husband takes over, and I hightail it to my “home office” (er, bedroom) in order to get a little of my own work done, G acts as if he’s Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, saying one last goodbye to Humphrey Bogart before boarding the plane. “One more hug,” he’ll beg.  And then whisper, mournfully, “I love you, Mommy!”

Sometimes he slips notes under the bedroom door. “Hi, Mommy. I miss you.”

This doesn’t stroke my guilt at all. Nope. Not at all. (“I miss you, too, darling! We’ll reunite soon! Hang in there for the next 1.5 hours as you play Legos with Daddy. It will be okay!”)

The other day, during our morning time together, my son said he wanted to fly a kite. The weather was brisk and windy, so it was actually a perfect day to do so, but I resisted. I didn’t want to put the damn kite together, and I didn’t want to run around like a maniac trying to get the kite to take off. Eventually, though, I rallied, and suggested we walk to the nearby playing field, where we could first fly the kite, then have a little picnic. I packed popcorn, cheese sticks, apple slices, and water.

We found a honeysuckle vine about two blocks from our house, and G picked a great number of the flowers, fantasizing about making a whole tin of “honey,” if he could just extract enough nectar. (I remember having this exact same fantasy as a kid, as well as fantasizing about making perfume by boiling rose petals in water.) I was a little nervous about him sucking the nectar from the stamen in the age of coronavirus, but I also reasoned that the risk was minimal, the joy great. So, I didn’t stop him. After he wearied of honeysuckle, we kept walking, arriving at the soccer field, which was blessedly empty.  We spread out a picnic blanket and began to assemble the kite. It was missing a piece.

I repeat: It was missing a #$%^&* piece.

This is a universal truth of parenthood: Whatever it is you are trying to put together will always be missing a piece.

There was a second kite in the package, a cheap-ass thing my husband had bought the year before in Tybee Island, after our good kite broke. We tried it out, running as fast as we could, the kite trailing on the ground behind us, failing to launch.  Eventually, winded, we sat back down, and I offered G some food.

“Bring anything cheesy?” he asked.

“I brought cheese.”

“I meant cheesy like Cheez-Its!”

“Nope. Just cheese, popcorn, and apples. But they’re the really good apples!”

He started mumbling, “Nothing ever goes my way. The kite doesn’t work, there’s nothing cheesy to eat, it’s so unfair.”

Y’all. I pulled a Mom. Big time.

“Listen, honey. I’m going to tell you something true: Life is full of beautiful things, and big disappointments. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel the disappointments. But if all you focus on is the bad, then that is all you will see. And the more you notice the good, the more  good you will see. I’m serious. It’s like magic. And it’s something I try to do every day, think about what I’m grateful for.”

“I know, I know….” (Believe me: this is not the first time I’ve been an evangelist for gratitude with him.)

“Okay, so you know. But let’s try it. Like, right now, I’m grateful for this beautiful spring day. This blue sky–have you ever seen a sky this blue?”

“It’s blue because of the virus. Because there’s no pollution.”

“Did you know that in New Delhi, in India, the sky has been gray for a long time because of pollution, and now it’s blue? Can you imagine? Can you imagine how beautiful that must look, and how happy people must be to see the blue sky again?”

“What else?”

“Well, I’m grateful that the work I do lets me stay home and be with you for a big part of the day. And I’m grateful we live in Atlanta, and can walk to this park. And I’m grateful that there’s honeysuckle growing all around. What about you, hon? What are you grateful for?”

“I’m grateful for the virus.”

Me: GULP.

“Um, why are you grateful for the virus?”

“Because of the environment and the sky and pollution.”

“Oh. Okay, but, honey, the virus also brings lots of bad things. Lots.”

“Yeah, but more good than bad, right? Didn’t you just say to look at the good?”

Jesus Christ. My kid is too smart for me.

But he got right to the thorny heart of the issue, didn’t he? Should we express gratitude for experiences that might bring about some good, but also cause a great many people to suffer?

I have no good answer to this question. But I’m wary of the suggestion that coronavirus is a necessary lesson from God, or the universe. I think coronavirus just IS. Yes, like everything, it exists because of a particular series of consequences and events, and we should examine that series of events and learn from it. As in: Could we have been better prepared for this? Hell, yes. Has our hubris helped land us in this situation? Most definitely. Is our national leadership failing us spectacularly? You betcha. Are we failing each other by childishly deciding that we’ve “had enough” social isolation and congregating in big groups at local restaurants that have re-opened? Guilty as charged. 

But is this some big lesson being co-taught by God and Mother Nature, who have decided to send us all to our rooms to think about what we’ve done to the earth, the planet, each other? I don’t think so. For starters, the homeless among us don’t have a room to go to, and considering that God’s heart resides with them, I can’t see God deliberately enacting something so cruel.

But just because I don’t believe this virus was sent as “a lesson,” doesn’t mean there’s not much to learn from it. It’s more that, referencing the brilliant writer and thinker, Kate Bowler, the suffering itself is not redemptive. As Bowler says–speaking from years of Biblical scholarship–in the Christian tradition, only Christ’s suffering was redemptive. (For this and so much more, follow Kate’s instagram feed @katecbowler and check out her amazing video talks. )

I say all of this, and yet I also have to confess that in my own life, I am most grateful for the beautiful gifts that arrived in hideous packaging, like the freedom I experienced during my divorce from my first husband, a marriage that, much like the cheap-ass kite Gus and I tried to fly, never managed to launch. During my divorce, I was scared a lot of the time — of my sudden financial insecurity and how that might affect my writing career, of my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s mercurial moods, of possibly not ever becoming a mother. And yet. It was also as if I’d sprinkled Miracle Grow — or some organic version of it — all over my soul, because I grew up faster in that year it took us to untangle than I had in the prior 35 years I’d been alive. And I learned how to take care of myself in a real way, to listen to the voice in my head that said, “Honey, is that a wise move?” about any questionable decision I was about to make, and then to heed that voice’s caution.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think I ever should have married my now ex-husband. We weren’t a match. We didn’t have each other’s backs. We weren’t in it for the long-haul. Our love was conditional, and all too often transactional. And yet, being who I was at 26 when I met him, I don’t know how I couldn’t have married him, this older writer who said that he would mentor me, would help me become the thing I burned to be, a publishing novelist.

I shouldn’t have married him, but I did, and I’m grateful for how I grew up in the process of untangling from that failed marriage.

Was it all part of some divine plan? My gut says it’s not that simple. My gut says the world is set in motion in a bazillion different ways, and to think it is all orchestrated around any particular life is hubris in the extreme. And to return to the virus–to think that coronavirus is somehow ultimately a good thing is to spit in the face of the ER nurses and doctors, and hospice chaplains, and frontline workers, and grocery store clerks who are experiencing trauma day in and out, not to mention those suffering from this nasty, nasty disease.

So, I cannot say “thank you” for the virus. But I can look for the lessons learned in spite of its awfulness, and look for the shots of joy amid all this mess. Because those exist, too. The world is a complicated, messy place, and cannot be contained by tidy explanations.

Here are some things I’m grateful for right now:

  1. Discovering, thanks to our friends the Morgans, the Michelle Obama Path, over near Georgia State University’s Decatur campus. It’s so pretty, dotted with shiny yellow flowers and with blackberries growing all around. We were able to pick enough to make a berry crisp. (Served on Peter Rabbit Wedgwood china no less, see pic below.)
  2. The many, many people who have lifted up my brother in prayer. He has Covid-19, but is now off the ventilator and is on his way to recovery!
  3. My solid-as-a-rock husband, Sam, who can build ANYTHING, and is currently finishing up our cedar box front yard garden, and then will be moving onto building a loft in my son’s room, which will give us more places to put stuff (i.e. G’s toys) in our 1100 square foot home.
  4. Harry Potter! I never read the Harry Potter books — I was in my twenties when they launched, and I didn’t have kids — so I’m getting to experience Hogwarts for the first time along with G. I’m addicted. What a treat.
  5. The Labyrinth at St. Philip’s Cathedral. This permanent stone walkway will always take you to its center, as long as you follow its lead through twists, turns, and cutbacks. It’s meditative to walk, and G loves to “run it,” especially if his grandparents–who live nearby–visit while he does, staying at a safe distance the whole time.

Love,

S