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This past Tuesday I dug up sweet potatoes from the garden box in churchyard. It was the last of the summer harvest that needed to come in. I should have done it weeks ago, but with such a very late frost here—only about a week ago—the potato vines looked so verdant and healthy and abundant that I wanted to squeeze every last bit of the season’s nutrients going into those tubers. So the day before a wintery mix and our first nor’easter of not-quite-yet-winter, I brought in the last of my garden produce.
Two days later, some of those fresh vegetables are in the oven getting prepared to become sweet potato pie for dinner later today. I can smell them now as I write.
You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.”
Why do we do what we do?
I approach this not concentrated upon the way St. Paul comments in Romans 7, “for I do not do what I want,” but rather the way a child would ask the questions at a Seder, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Why is this day different from all other days?
Why the turkey and stuffing and cranberries and all the rest? Why this feast on this day?
Doubtless many of us will return to the images in our minds of Native Americans and Pilgrims gathered together, a national narrative that’s been ingrained and instilled in our collective conscience. Perhaps.
Thanksgiving is no Passover, certainly wouldn’t want to imply otherwise. But still, it’s a funny thing in the United States, to think of so much of our population recognizing this day in some sort of way, with some sort of commonality. Very little else connects us so. As such, I wonder why. Why do we do what we do?
Just maybe there is something primordial in our biological makeup about giving thanks—be it to our spiritual Creator or simply those person closest to us—that causes us to want to set time a part, to come together, and to celebrate. Maybe it’s that basic; we’re wired that way. In a world filled with alienation and striving, divisions and a sense of rootlessness, perhaps Thanksgiving offers us another way to know ourselves and from whence we came, to recognize, and to give thanks.
Which returns me to my potatoes… Growing up, I cannot recall ever eating a sweet potato. And this year is only the second time I’ve ever grown them in the garden. But “regular” potatoes, the starchy white kind, those I know. My grandfather who lived next door to me when I was younger was a potato eater, usually for two meals a day, sometimes three. There seemed to always be potatoes on the table. As such, there were always potatoes in the garden—red skinned and purple, Russets and Burbanks. Potatoes for him were foundational to any meal.
Back then I was never much of a potato eater. Because of my family of origin from my other grandparents, steamed white rice was my foundational food. Therefore, whenever I ate with Grandma and Grandpa, there was always potatoes on the table and a pot of rice for Tommy. Coming home during the college years meant coming home to a table with both potatoes and rice, Thanksgiving day included.
Why do we do what we do?
Eventually, I learned to eat potatoes too. Although admittedly I still don’t like them in any sort of mushy form—say boiled or mashed—not for me. But I branched out to the sweet potato form too. I grow them because my grandpa was a farmer and he taught me how to grow things. I cook them because my grandma was a farmer’s wife whose knowledge of throwing together a meal—in simple form or as feast—was passed on to me. And today as I join with dear friends and family for Thanksgiving dinner we’ll eat sweet potato pie and somehow it will connect us to them.
On this day, why do we do what we do? Because somehow, we are connected to those who created us to be who we are and we need to give thanks.
I encourage you to also take the opportunity to wonder why it is that you will do what it is that you do today.
One more thing about my grandparents, because of who they were, I am who I am. And for that I am grateful. This Mary Oliver poem shared by Parker Palmer on Krista Tippett’s OnBeing site spoke of that gratitude and is fitting.
by Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.