In Defense of Extravagance

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.