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Filled to Overflow: Busyness, Contentment, and the Donner Party
  • History
Laura Nicol

Last fall I started grad school so that I could write about the Donner Party and have academics take me seriously.


That’s a joke—mostly.


Actually, I started grad school last fall because I realized that, over the past seven or eight years, I had developed both a passion for American history and plans for two books and (with a B.A. in Creative Writing) I simply lacked the training in historical research and methodology to write them well. Plus, you know the saying: When the going gets busy, the busy go to grad school.* What’s one more thing on the proverbial plate, right?


Well, a lot, it turns out. I’m a full-time teacher and administrator, a part-time graduate student, a wife, a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a church member, a body dealing with chronic pain and chronic doctor visits, a human with hobbies and this pesky need to sleep occasionally… Even without children of my own in the mix, that plate is full. Sometimes, I think, too full.


But I’m not sure that I know anyone who can’t relate to that. Your list of busy “plate” items looks different than mine, but I’m sure you have a list, all the same.


Our plates are full.


This summer, in my ongoing quest to learn and write more about the members of the Donner Party so that my thesis advisor will take a gamble on a topic with me, I reread the seventeen extant letters of Tamsen Donner. Tamsen was married to George, the leader of the Donner Party: that ill-fated group of pioneers who, between October of 1846 and April of 1847, were trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains. (If that doesn’t ring a bell: some members of this group resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. That Donner Party.) 


Tamsen Donner kept a diary during their ordeal which—unaccountably, and unbelievably unfortunately—has never been found. What we do have from her are seventeen letters ranging from about 1820 (when she was nineteen years old) to 1846. The last two of these letters, dated May and June of 1846, were written from the trail west. Her tone over these years varies, but she is an unfailingly smart writer, a well-educated New England lady who doesn’t mince words or stop at easy answers. 


On this summer’s re-reading, it was a letter from 1833 that most stood out to me. Tamsen was not married to George Donner at this point; in fact, she wasn’t married at all—not anymore. You see, before George, there was Tully. And two years before writing this letter, she had watched their young son die, and then their prematurely-born daughter, and then finally her husband—all in the span of three months. She was now a single woman living several states away from her family, working multiple teaching jobs to make ends meet, and suffering from repeated bouts of malaria. And in a letter to her sister that July, she says this:


“Tis morning and nature is lovely indeed. I rise very early and I cannot describe my feelings on viewing the level dewy southern landscape. It seems as if my feelings struggle for vent and rushing to my pen are lost for want of words in which to clothe them. Why was I made with eye and heart to enjoy all of these delights? Because my maker consulted my happiness. He fills me to overflow.  …To overcome all unamiable feelings—to participate in the joys and sufferings of others,—to trace every incident in life to a Supreme power and realize that it is also the expression of goodness.”


I had remembered the last sentence of this excerpt (I have it framed in my office), but the previous two sentences had escaped my notice before. “My maker consulted my happiness” is an admittedly odd sentence, but in the context of her other letters, it seems likely that she means that God takes her wellbeing into account. What stopped me in my tracks this summer was this: “He fills me to overflow.”


There’s a way of reading that sentence that makes it trite, like good old Tamsen simply can’t believe her luck: “I’m so full of happiness that it just bubbles over!” Well, first of all, that’s clearly not how she feels: she goes on to talk about participation in joy and suffering, and (later in the letter) about her ongoing attempts to reconcile her own bereavement with what she believes about God’s sovereignty.


I think the key to what Tamsen means here can be found in the function of the word “to.” I don’t think it speaks to a direction (“He fills me to the brim and over”); I think it speaks to a purpose (“He fills me so that I can overflow”).


It is easy to feel that “overflowing,” or expending more attention/time/effort than is absolutely required, can wait until we’re filled with only good things (or, at least, with a comforting majority of them). Personally, I feel much more generous with my time and attention on Mondays than I do on Fridays; I have more energy at the beginning of the week. It’s wonderful when overflowing comes easy. But what about the times when we’re working off of less sleep, worse health, tighter deadlines, or more distraction than we would like? 


Tamsen wasn’t writing from a place of being full of only good things in July of 1833. There is goodness expressed, certainly, and beauty, but there is also loss. There are things that are impossible to bear, and there is also hope. She can hold both sides because she trusts that everything, in the end, can be used to point to God’s goodness. She is filled with all these things, so that she can extend love to others. So that she can support her family, even from a distance. So that she can teach the students in her care with grace. So that, thirteen years later, she can be the last person alive in the camp at Alder Creek, the person who stayed when she could have saved herself a month before, because she will not leave the dying to die alone.


“He fills me to overflow.”


That’s my prayer for our school community this year. In whatever types of busyness and full-ness we find ourselves, may we trust in God’s goodness and, so, be filled to overflow.





*I think I made this saying up, but I still find it apt.