Blessing the Past

By Allison Backous

Memory makes it possible for us both to bless the past, even those parts of it that we have always felt cursed by, and also to be blessed by it.
—Frederick Buechner

Lately, I’ve been thinking about blessing, mostly due to Tony Woodlief’s beautiful blog post earlier this month. “I pay attention to how blessings are given,” he wrote, “how they are received.”

I’m realizing how much the idea of blessing plays a part in how and what I write, and that is slowly becoming a major decision in how I think about my history, my life.

What I remember and what I bless are often two separate things, with no connection between them.

And that comes from the familiarity of cynicism, the ways I have had to shield myself from my family and the events that have made us what we are. Blessings were not easily given or received in my household. We were always too afraid of what could happen—a lost job, another binge, my mother’s boyfriend at the back door—to notice what was good.

Maybe that is the problem—for me, cynicism is more comfortable, and to intentionally see blessing in the midst of shitty circumstances leaves you open, vulnerable, unprepared to ward off whatever wave of difficulty comes at you.

But the more I think about it, the more I know that blessing had to exist for my family, for me—there is no way that I would have survived if something hadn’t held me together, something etched deeper in me than any curse genetics or circumstance could throw.

To have survived at all is a blessing itself.

And I suppose that is where my problem is—I’m not too sure what a blessing is, or at least, my etymology of the word is shaded by other definitions, ones that probably aren’t true.

Is blessing simply God’s favor, or an unexpected gift, or long-deserved prosperity after whatever toil troubles you?

In my house, the phrase “count your blessings” is a bit of a joke. It is one of my mother’s trademark phrases, something she repeats to ward off insecurity, or fear, or more times than not, responsibility.

“I count my blessings that I’m not like that woman I met at AA,” she has told me, the layers of irony too many to count.

But when I take my mother’s words seriously, I find myself in a bad spot—I end up counting all the good things I have, the love and the friendship, the life-giving work, the way my kitchen has a wooden cutting board built into the counter. I end up cataloguing my possessions, tangible and intangible, as proofs against what is dark, foreboding, and cursed.

I think that, in some cases, this is a good way to recognize blessing. It keeps me from complaining, most days. But is this really the full extent of what blessing, both the act and the thing itself, is? Or is it more like what John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, knows it: “Blessing…doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it.”

There are worlds of theology that could help us bow to the mystery of blessing better than I can say. But if I’m going to write, and if that is meant to bless others, then I had better acknowledge what is sacred about my past, my story. I had better write what I remember, not out of greed or malice, but out of seeking the true story, which includes blessing my mother, broken and afraid as she is.

If I’m going to be a writer, I had better bless.

The first blessing I ever received came from a cooking show. Every weekday afternoon, when lunch was over, my mother and I would sit down and watch The Frugal Gourmet, featuring the television chef (and Methodist minister) Jeff Smith. At the end of the show, Smith, smiling through his salt-and-pepper beard, would pass a benediction to his viewers: “I bid you peace.”

I looked forward to the end of the show with a strange yearning, and was unable to explain what made me both sad and happy about those words, child as I was.

They still leave me yearning. I think it is because those words burrowed deep into me, against my will, holding me up against all those years, begging to be passed on.

And so I listen, and bid you peace, and hope that you remember it.