During my poorest years, I was working as a freelance editor and putting my first husband, Al, through school. Al was an exceptional person (I miss him still), and one of his gifts was the gift of being pleased.
Christmas for us--he loved Christmas--began the day after Thanksgiving. Not the celebration, but the preparation. We were both very High Churchlike in our belief that the celebration shouldn't begin till Christmas Eve. Meanwhile we observed a sort of atheistical Advent. We couldn't afford many presents, so we tried to consider anything that came into the house a potential present. A sale on tuna fish at the supermarket? Buy two extra cans and giftwrap them. Need paper towels? Make the old roll last a little longer by cutting each piece in four, and giftwrap the new roll. Ballpoint pen out of ink? Write with pencil for a while and giftwrap the new pen. We carefully ironed out wrapping paper to reuse from one year to the next.
As well as new purchases, we also wrapped things we already owned. A certain little Japanese watercolor we both loved would be ritually taken down from the wall and rewrapped every year. We rewrapped books we especially liked, favorite pairs of shoes, and my good flatware that I was laboriously collecting, one spoon at a time.
Christmas Eve, when we put up our tree, we had a fabulous array of presents. We worked hard to make ourselves into voluntary simpletons, surprised and excited about all the wonderful things in our lives that we hoped not to take for granted.
I wish I could tell you that we were entirely successful in our endeavor. Alas, among his other gifts, Al had the gift of borrowing money from everybody we knew and running up huge credit card bills that we didn't have a prayer of ever paying off, because--well, because perhaps tomorrow would never come. Al's moment was the present moment, the brightly colored moment, not some dull, gray future off at the edge of the horizon.
So among our touchingly wrapped cotton socks and cans of chili would be several expensive art books, an expensive hand-knit sweater, six expensive little demitasse cups, an expensive velvet scarf, an expensive Danish cooking pot, an expensive bottle of perfume, expensive, expensive, expensive--all for me, all because he loved me, all because he knew I wanted them. Christmas morning usually ended with a knot the size of a basketball in my stomach, and angry words, and tears. (Al cried easily, a trait I find attractive in a man.)
The point of this whole reminiscence is that I know I haven't given voluntary simplicity and gratitude a fair try, but I don't think I can. For me, they are far too complicated.