Gifts, Gratitude, The Empty Manger, And A Broken ATM

The kids just got back from their dad’s house on Sunday night, where they’d done an early Christmas gift exchange with their grandparents. As soon as they walked in the door, I asked them what they’d gotten from Santa (early Santa, he’s circling back around on Monday) and they couldn’t remember. Moreover, they weren’t particularly interested in trying to recall.

“Candy!” William said, definitively.

“I think William got a fish,” Beatrice added.

“A fish? Like a toy fish, or a real fish in a bowl?” but neither of them bothered to answer me because they were very excited to hear we had ordered pizza

The kids are not particularly interested in gifts. Beatrice, in particular, lives so lightly in this world that you can rarely get her to name a single item she wants (this year, after much prodding, she told me she wanted Santa to bring her a pair of white canvas tennis shoes and a set of Magic Markers so she could write on her shoes). Every October the kids fill their trick-or-treating buckets with candy, eat three pieces the night of Halloween, and then never think or ask about the candy again.

In theory, this non-attachment to material things is admirable. In practice, it’s annoying, especially when I’ve spent hundreds of dollars and many hours finding the perfect gifts for each of them, in full knowledge they’d be just as happy with a handful of candy, or a twig, or a fish that may or may not be a real fish, or nothing at all. (This annoyance is further compounded by the fact that Zac is one of those people who sincerely “doesn’t want anything,” something totally unimaginable to me. I’m sitting in a Starbucks and there are at least four things I want within view right now, including a miniature copper French press and a mason jar full of bite-sized gingerbread men.)

Ever since November, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude and I’ve come to the conclusion I have no idea what it means. I do know a lot of people practice gratitude as a sort of incantatory recitation of blessings, and others as a public confession of privilege. Children are made to dutifully list all the things for which they are “grateful” — their pets, mainly, if I’ve learned anything from working with children. I don’t know what gratitude is, but I think it’s more than that.

The children are grateful — they thank me for everything every day — but they manage to feel the extent of their good fortune while also holding it very loosely. This is their greatest privilege, an expectation of infinite abundance, the security of knowing that behind every Halloween lies a Christmas, and then a birthday, and then another Christmas, it’s pizza night forever.

I feel “grateful” all the time, if by grateful you mean that I’m constantly and anxiously aware of how much I have. I recently compared dating Zac to going to an ATM and finding a banking error had added an extra $100,000 to your account. If you went to the ATM and found you had an extra $100 in your account, you’d probably be very happy. An extra $100 would likely never be missed, and even if it were, you could pay it back again. But finding an extra $100,000 in your account would be terrifying. You don’t deserve this, this is too much, and someday someone’s going to figure out that you don’t deserve this, and then how the hell will you pay back $100,000?

Everything I have is $100,000 I haven’t done a damn thing to earn, and I’ll never stop worrying someone’s going to catch me and figure it out. Being painfully aware of how lucky you are is not the same thing as gratitude. When I was a little kid, I loved my gifts so much that I could hardly bear to play with them for fear they’d be lost or broken. That is not gratitude either.

This week I’ve been thinking about the idea of tzimtzum, which I first encountered years ago in the preface to Lawrence Wechsler’s Vermeer in Bosnia:

The Lurianic Cabalists [Jewish mystics in the tradition of Isaac Luria] were vexed by the question of how God could have created anything, since He was already everywhere and hence there could have been no room anywhere for His creation… Luria suggested that at the moment of creation God, in effect, breathed in — He absented Himself; or, rather, He hid Himself; or, rather, He entered into Himself — so as to make room for His creation.

I don’t presume to understand this or any Jewish mysticism, but the idea stuck with me all the same. (Tzimtzum has many philosophical and moral implications about which I presume to know even less, but it’s all very much worth reading about, especially as it relates to tikkun and the duty to heal creation.)

As a child, I envisioned the Christian nativity scene as still, calm, empty, trembling like someone straining to hear a distant sound. If I’d learned anything from 1980s sitcoms, it was that birth scenes were loud and crowded and chaotic (and someone usually faints). But the popular depiction of the nativity, accurate or otherwise, is of a small, mostly empty room with no walls suspended silent as a star in a vast night desert. In my mind, this was linked to advent, and to a child’s agonizing wait for Christmas morning, and to the Sunday school idea that somehow everyone was holding their breath everywhere, waiting for Jesus. This month I’ve been thinking about the manger scene as an inhalation, the world withdrawing to make space for something new.

(And then there’s Mary and Joseph, whose lives have retracted a little now, too. I remember thinking how crazy it was, each time one of my babies was born, that there was space for them. Where had it come from? The world felt full before, and it still felt full after, but now there was this extra person in it.)

I’m still thinking through what all this means (don’t worry, I have another — five days? — to figure it out) but I think it’s connected somehow to gratitude.

Writer for Catapult, Longreads, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. Owner of After-Party Taxidermy. Working on a book about Halloween.

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