We once took a Maine vacation. It was late in the summer and for many months we had not been out of the city of Cambridge where we lived because of the impending birth and early infancy of our third child. All of us desperately needed a vacation. We had heard so much about the beauties of the northeastern coastline and wanted to see something of them. Strapped for money, and stealing precious time off from work we decided to take our vacation. A young artist who owned a house on Penobscot Bay had advertised in a local paper that she was looking for renters for ten days while she attended an art institute. The price was right and we jumped at the opportunity.
Early one morning we set off on the long trek northward, planning to arrive at our destination (with the many requisite stops) by evening. Although I have a nearly nonexistent faith in our family's ability to travel with any sort of dignity and decorum, I had done all I could to anticipate any emergency.
Everything seemed ideal for about a half an hour. Then our two-year-old daughter vomited her breakfast all over the backseat. That set the tone for the remainder of the trip. We discovered that the baby, just a few months old, was content sitting in his car seat while he was sleeping but howled when strapped in it awake. I think he thought we were trying to get him to sleep again. He had never been for a long drive in the car. Needless to say, he slept little and howled most of the way. We stopped frequently so I could nurse him and so that the girls could run around for a bit, but he began to cry each time we started up again. The girls began to fight. They bickered, teased and shrieked. All of our nerves were frayed.
By the time we arrived at our lodgings, it was late and dark. My urgently pleaded nighttime prayer was that everyone would sleep in just a little later in the morning. I, still depleted from an arduous birth and bleary-eyed from interrupted nights, needed rest most of all.
As fate would have it, the tiny bed alcove into which the children and I eventually piled (due to the musical beds effect that always seems to occur in a new place) had two enormous unshaded and unshuttered windows that faced the east. The glorious radiance of the sun streamed in on us about four or five hours after we had all finally fallen asleep.
My eldest daughter woke with the sun. She was radiant with anticipation. "The beach! The beach!" She shouted at full voice, "Let's go down to the beach!" I tried to hush her but she woke our other daughter who immediately began to cry. She wanted a bottle, she wailed. She was grumpy with sleeplessness. I tried to hush them both and stumbled around trying to find a bottle among the rubble of the suitcases that had been plopped in the doorway the night before. Then I couldn't find the juice. All the commotion startled the baby who began to cry.
Our middle daughter, still green-eyed and jealous of the usurping sibling, began to move menacingly toward the baby. My eldest continued to insist at full voice that she wanted to go to the beach -- NOW! I tried to explain that the waterfront was a good half mile down the hill from the house and that we were not ready yet to go out of doors. She became very angry and declared she was GOING TO GO OUT, NOW! I said she was not. She started to storm out but stepped in a pool of pee that had formed beneath her sister who, still weeping, had pulled off the disposable diaper she was wearing. Now the two girls began to scream at each other, adding their howls to the wails of the baby.
I managed to find the juice and the bottle but came back into the room just in time to see my bare-bottomed daughter lunge at the baby and bite his leg. Pulling her off of him, I picked him up, gave her the bottle and tried to settle him down to nurse. It was impossible. I was close to screaming myself and so limp with exhaustion from the short night that I was close to tears. With gritted teeth, I realized that my husband was sleeping through all of this, tucked in his sleeping bag neatly out of earshot in the living room.
My eldest daughter was by now hysterical, ranting on about running down to the seashore alone in her nightclothes. Frantic and pushed beyond control, I leapt up and shook her fiercely by the shoulders. "You've hurt me," she screamed in a shocked voice. Had I? I wondered. Confused, furious, remorseful, I somehow gathered up all three wailing children, hauled them into the living room and dumped them on the inert body of my sleeping spouse. Then I ran out of doors into the low-lying fog of the Maine morning, hurled my nightgowned self onto the stump of a fallen tree and cried.
When I returned to the house, things had calmed down. But my heart was agitated and remained so for much of the day. How was I going to negotiate three children? Would we never make a graceful adjustment to one more? Why was this anticipated special time so marred by ill spirits and anger? How could I have shaken her so hard? What kind of lousy mom was I anyway? Where was God in all this? What kind of cosmic joke was this family life? Why didn't anyone help me? On and on the relentless thoughts went. Late in the morning we all climbed into the car and headed for the nearby town to have lunch and buy provisions for the week (we had spent some time on the beach in the morning). I was sick with exhaustion but stubbornly kept going. I sat in the front seat with my miserable thoughts churning around in my head.
Then, somehow, my mind strayed to a time in graduate school many years before, when I had heard a lecture on the religious thought of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, the professor had said, had written a commentary on the biblical phrase, "In all things, give thanks." In it he described giving thanks as a formative act, something enjoined on all Christians not because events naturally elicit from us a spirit of gratitude, but because the act of giving thanks itself changes us and our perceptions.
"In all things, give thanks." Impossible, I thought, still reeling from the onslaught of the dawn. Then I heard myself say, somewhat ironically, "Thanks, God! Thanks bunches. This is real great!"
Then I tried it again, dropping the irony and struggling to find the simple place within myself where at least the words could be uttered. "Thank you," I said flatly. Then again, "Thank you." Gradually the luxuriant scenery we were passing began to come into consciousness, slowly my fixation on my own exhaustion and anger began to give way. "Thank you," I said. And I felt my heart begin to melt. "Thank you for each of them. Thank you for our aliveness. For our here-ness, for the capacity to cry, to scream, to get angry, for the whole thing. For life, for our silly, petty struggles. For the squirming, impossible mess of it all. Yes, genuinely thank you." And a tender, compassionate love for the is-ness of it all flooded into my heart. All of it. Somehow all deeply blessed. Thank you.
In intervening years I have often forgotten the grace of gratitude, but on occasion I remember. When I do I learn anew the mysterious power of giving thanks and how it changes me and how it opens in me humor and playfulness and acceptance of what is. For, in fact, all that we have is given. Life itself is a gift. We are the recipients of time, of the gracious earth, of each other's lives. These are given to us. Acquiring the spirit of gratitude serves to heighten our awareness of God's gift, of the "Is-ness" of things.
copyright, Wendy M. Wright, used with permission.
The above essay is taken from Wendy M. Wright's book "Sacred Dwelling: A Spirituality of Family Life," Pauline Books (www.Pauline.org). Wendy M. Wright holds a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Barbara and is currently professor of theology at Creighton University and holds the John C. Kenefick Faculty Chair in the Humanities. She also teaches regularly in several graduate ministerial programs including Creighton's Christian Spirituality Master's program and the National Methodist Academy for Spiritual Formation. She is co-host with Dr. J. O'Keefe of the Creighton University podcast "Catholic Comments" and is the author of numerous other books on Christian spirituality.