If the only prayer we say in our lifetime is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
(–German philosopher Meister Eckhart )
In a time of so many world crises, a divisive national election, global warming, poverty, famine, war or terrorist attacks on innocent people, and living with a life threatening illness like cancer, it may be difficult, indeed, to remember gratitude. It’s all too easy to feel anger, frustration, fear or worry, emotions I find can seep too readily into my skin these days. I work daily to consciously re-direct my thoughts to the things in life that keep me going, provide solace or moments of joy and gratitude. In this season of Thanksgiving, gratitude becomes even more important.
“No school for four days, Gramma!” my 7-year-old grandson announced on a Skype call yesterday. As far as he’s concerned, Thanksgiving is another name for the beginning of an extended holiday. But for many of us, it is still remembered as a time of family, friends and traditions; of coming together to celebrate and share a Thanksgiving meal. It’s part of this nation’s history, as every grade school child learns, a national holiday to commemorate the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621. But to a second grader who lived in Japan for five years of his seven years and whose father is currently deployed to Afghanistan, the history and meaning of Thanksgiving are lost on him.
It’s the Thanksgiving story we heard in elementary school each November. The Pilgrims beat the odds: surviving an arduous journey to a new country, suffering through hunger, illness and loss to create a new community and ultimately, a bountiful fall harvest, which ensured survival in the harsh New England winters. Their governor proclaimed their day of thanks be shared with the Native Americans who were instrumental to their survival and the realization of a plentiful harvest. It took two hundred years, however, before President Abraham Lincoln designated a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated during the month of November, a tradition which continues today.
I didn’t know I was grateful
for such late-autumn
yellow in the after-harvest
sun before the
cold plow turns it all over
“Home,” by Bruce Weigl, In: The Unraveling Strangeness, 2003)
“Home,” a poem of nostalgia and of gratitude, inspired, in part, by Weigl’s return home after the Vietnam War. Thoughts of “home” also triggers my nostalgia, something that routinely surfaces around Thanksgiving. It is the remembrance, in part, by losses—of family tradition and my father. All during my childhood, my father’s extended family lived in the same town. Each Thanksgiving was a joyful time of togetherness, a family celebration of filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, a plentiful feast of traditional homemade dishes, a time of telling family stories, and a time of gratitude and blessings. It seems ironic, somehow, that my father’s death from lung cancer occurred on Thanksgiving Day—but the loss is tempered by the knowledge that before he died, he managed to sit at the table and share in the Thanksgiving meal. Later that night, as the family slept, the cancer took him. As much as I mourned his death, it was somehow comforting to know he ended Thanksgiving day–and his life–with family at the table, and his stomach full of turkey, his favorite oyster dressing, and pumpkin pie.
My family Thanksgivings ended with my father’s death and the empty nest left by my globe-trotting daughters. This holiday, as in recent years past, we’ll share Thanksgiving dinner with friends, who, like us, have families scattered across the country. It’s not the same, of course, yet I’m appreciative for the company of others and the spirit of gratitude. Yet it’s increasingly difficult, in the press of contemporary life, turbulence and struggle in the world and the unending hostility and violence, to remember that Thanksgiving began and was intended as a time of gratitude. Instead, the ritual of giving thanks is often overshadowed by the stress and frustration of holiday travel or the frenzied atmosphere of shopping for turkey and trimmings at the supermarket. Worse yet, this holiday is increasingly overshadowed by the rampant commercialism in “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year.
Yet whatever your traditions are as the holiday approaches, I invite you to pause and remember the meaning of Thanksgiving: an expression of gratitude, the one prayer in life that “would suffice.” As cancer survivors, you too have beaten the odds–whether in full remission or the capacity to live longer with cancer than ever before possible. Whatever your plans may be for this coming week, express the one prayer of “thank you,” and celebrate this Thanksgiving in a spirit of gratitude, as Eleanor Lerman reminds us in her poem, “Starfish:”
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper…
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud…
…And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that you are lucky…
(From: Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)
- Make a list of things you are grateful for this November holiday, and writing about them.
- Try beginning with Weigl’s words, , “I didn’t know I was grateful for…” and see what emerges. You may discover new sources of gratitude.
- Holiday celebrations are often a time when family stories are told and retold. Write one of your family stories—one that may often be retold at a family Thanksgiving dinner.
I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving holiday.