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At my house we’ve started the Thanksgiving conversation with mashed potatoes. Next, the pies. My sister is going to a “Friendsgiving” Gathering in which she has to make the mashed potatoes in advance, but we’ve learned from our mom that you do the mashed potatoes last, for best-quality, fluffy potatoes alongside the turkey. What to do? We discussed at length and decided Mashed Potato Casserole is the way to go. As for the pies, it’s always a bit more complicated. Everyone has their favorite, their expectation. (And what if Dad wants Mincemeat Pie this year? Insert my husband’s grimace here…) After much ado, we usually end up with four pies too many, reminding ourselves that cold pie is also good pie.
At my house the Thanksgiving meal is highly favored; spoken of and dreamed about year-round. My dad even adopted it as his preferred Father’s Day meal, so we do a repeat in June, every year. We love the meal. We love to be around the table together, often with a range of family, friends, and international guests. At my house Thanksgiving is all that is good, around a table.
There is another thing that generally happens around our table, after we’ve eaten turkey and mashed potatoes, but before the smorgasbord of pie. At that point, we pause from our feasting and we say thanks.
It is pretty simple, really. You may do the same. Around the table, everyone is given an opportunity to share what they are thankful for that year. As you would expect, many of the words point to the simplest and kindest things in life- thanks for family, thanks for friends. Some years, thanks for a healthy baby, a new house, maybe a new job. Thanks for a special pet. With children you get a few, “Thanks for giraffes; Thanks for hot dogs,” but our range is pretty small and sometimes seemingly uncreative, though its sameness points in every way toward a healthy, hopeful, steady life. And our gratitude to our good God is as sincere as it is simple.
The thing is, despite the simplicity of our practice and the “ruts of gratitude” that we roll through year after year, I have developed a bit of pre-Thanksgiving anxiety. I worry about my gratitude. In fact, some years I have worried whether I have gratitude. Because some years are hard. Hard all year.
I remember quite well the year I struggled so hard, that as my turn came round the table, there was a long, uncertain silence and I admitted I couldn’t come up with something I felt thankful for. And it crushed me.
On that beloved holiday in which we gathered to give thanks, I was lagging through the day, weighed down by the long exhaustion of personal hardship and hurt. Everything had crumbled around me that year, and the rubble of the collapse had filled me full, grit between my teeth. There were no words of thanks at hand, including the normalized, “family, friends, warm house, good health.”
Every year since then, I’ve worried. In advance I’ll prepare my thoughts and check-in with myself, poke at the thankfulness, be sure that it’s there… because I’ve learned that hidden beneath the rubble, if I look closely, I might find a gem.
This year, we’ve discussed the mashed potatoes and planned the pies. And I have considered my thankful heart. This year, like so many, has seen hardship. This year, wars are waging. I see leaders and institutions teetering. Good people are sick, and some are dying. I’ve seen relationships crash and burn, and friendships die a fighting death. I see kids not living their best lives and not getting help they need. I’m sad about people who are lonely, ostracized, locked out. Sometimes I think the world is crumbling to pieces, pulverized by the weight of these many hardships.
How do we speak words of thanksgiving with the grit of collapse between our teeth?
Well, for one, and I don’t think that we should expect it to be easy. For me, as much as it has prompted some anxiety to have this annual “opportunity” to publicly proclaim words of thanksgiving, it has also been helpful to be reminded that we are to give thanks in every circumstance.
Because it prompts me, then, to kneel down in the rubble of life and begin sifting through the dust, and the grit, and the pieces of things that used to be beautiful and whole. In that sifting and sorting, I feel the granularity of life. I can turn it over in my hands, inspect it, and really look for the good, the colorful, the valuable and fine. And, eventually, in the sorting of particulars, I come across one small thing and place it in the center of my palm.
I gaze upon that one small thing resting there, whatever it is, and I sense that it simply would not be there without God. If I can, despite the grit between my teeth, I say thank you.
If I can’t say thank you yet, I close my fingers tightly over that tiny, valued thing, and I hold it there. I remind myself that thanksgiving can, and should be, every day and not just feast-days.
So then one day, sometimes after many, many days go by, I realize that my awareness of the one valuable thing clenched in my fist was a seed that has grown a little leaf of gratitude. And I see that God is always, always making all things new. Out of the rubble, a leaf grows. From the grit between my teeth, a dusty “thank you” leaks out. And that is a beginning.