November 2009

Click to go visit our new blog.

Perspectives Journal
4500 60th St. SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512

November 2009: As We See It

In Defense of Extravagance

by Jennifer L. Holberg

"...all that we behold is full of blessing."
--William Wordsworth

Several years ago I was in England, researching the life of a very minor Modernist poet. I had dutifully made the rounds of libraries far and wide, and finally, after about a month, I had arrived at the very last one on my list. My reward when I was done was to be my first trip to France with my brother, who lived in England at the time. To be honest, I was only visiting that particular library out of a sense of scholarly thoroughness (I refuse to say obsessiveness) and because the manuscripts in question involved the über-Modernist T.S. Eliot, albeit eight of Eliot's letters to my poet's sister. I told you I was thorough.

In any case, I submitted my manuscript request to the librarian and waited at my assigned carrel for the arrival of the letters and a quick morning's work. Instead, after half the morning had elapsed, the librarian appeared with a trolley heavy-laden with scrapbooks. I was sure he had brought me the wrong order. Where were my eight measly letters?

"Oh no," he replied, "the letters are somewhere in these," motioning vaguely to the groaning trolley. "Good luck," he chirped, practically skipping back to his desk.

Though I was a bit flummoxed, I am not one to let a smirking librarian beat me, so I emphatically took the top scrapbook off the pile. I opened it gingerly--and to my surprise, discovered an amazingly delightful world. What I had before me was a small portion of the scrapbooks kept over the course of a lifetime by Margot Coker. Born in 1898, Coker had decided in her teen years that she would never be a person given to diary-keeping. Yet, she wanted to record her life in some real and material way, and so, in 1913, she began her scrapbook, a project which would end up lasting until her death. As a scholar of women's history and literature, I found her collection fascinating. On the righthand page of each spread was the ephemera of a 20th century upper middle-class Englishwoman's life: a piece of rubber from the factory in which she worked during World War I, the speeding tickets she received in one of her county's first cars (and the accompanying newspaper articles chronicling her misadventures), playbills and menus, pictures and postcards, programs from gardening expositions and philanthropic meetings, and yes, letters from friends like T.S. Eliot.

But it was the left-hand page of each spread that made her scrapbooks extraordinary. Without fail, on every single page in multiple volumes spread over sixty years, the caption that accompanied the ephemera always began with the words, "To celebrate...." To celebrate the good: "To celebrate going to Shamley Green to help Mappy move into her new house." But to celebrate the bad as well: "To celebrate the disastrous picnic" or the caption with some get-well cards, "To celebrate being stricken with shingles & what a foul disease." Coker's playful sensibility of celebration was infectious. Indeed, I was so captivated that the trip to France was delayed, and I spent the next week and a half, from the time the library opened until it closed each evening, going through these self-titled "Celebration Books" from beginning to end. Here was a woman even less well-known than her minor-league sister, living a relatively typical existence for a woman of her class, and yet her life was one of the richest I have ever encountered. As I progressed from year to year, I was utterly charmed by someone who deliberately worked to frame everything in such joyful terms, and I could imagine why people like Eliot enjoyed her hospitality so very much. As I reluctantly reached the last volume, I was genuinely sad over the death of a woman I would never meet.

I wondered even then: how would our lives as Christians be different if we were willing to more purposefully adopt Coker's model? After all, Psalm 145 calls for one generation to "commend" and "celebrate God's abundant goodness" to another. Is this the testimony of our lives?

Of course, I didn't need to go to a library in England to find out about celebration. Like Margot Coker, my mother took unapologetic delight in celebrating events, big and small. In her unwavering gestures of hospitality, I witnessed the truth of William Blake's claim that "exuberance is beauty." For example: when I graduated from college, my parents hosted a party for me at which there were thirteen cakes. I don't think my mother intended to have that many--her initial concept for the party was something "simple and welcoming": sandwiches, finger food, and cake, all served in the comfort of our house and backyard. Eventually, though, my mother could not resist the idea of having several cakes from which guests could choose, and as those were finished, to bring out several more--a never-ending rotation of baked hospitality. My mother was a major proponent (and a living embodiment) of what she often urged me to cultivate growing up: "a kind and gracious spirit." So, somehow, between my mother's baking and perhaps the contribution of a friend or two, the thirteen cakes ultimately appeared.

Needless to say, although many people attended the party, we had quite a bit of cake left over. My mother didn't care: "it's always better to offer too much, rather than too little." Less than a decade later, when my mother died quite unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm, her hospitality was one of her qualities most frequently evoked. In fact, at her visitation, the first words from one of my friends were: "I still remember those thirteen cakes."

Scrapbooks and cakes, even in superabundance, are perhaps little to show for a life. Yet, they are undeniable witnesses to the heart of the gospel--and one of the scandals of the cross: God's lavish gesture of love. It seems to me that we don't think often enough about the extravagance of grace. Indeed, I would wager that we have heard more sermons on stewardship than on extravagance. We "make do," emotionally and spiritually, fearful of giving ourselves away, fearful of not having quite enough. But in the 16th century, being an "extravagant" meant roaming far outside of prescribed limits. As such, the word suggests to me something very rich indeed: going out of our way as a habit of heart and mind. Is such a gesture ever wasted? Mrs. Coker would have found something to celebrate in adopting this original meaning of extravagance--and, as those who believe in the excess of God's grace, so should we.

Jennifer Holberg is associate professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.