Written Nov. 23, 2019
The film critic Roger Ebert once noted that if you want to show a family coming together, you set a movie at Christmas – and if you want to show it falling apart, you set it at Thanksgiving.
If you’re nodding along, I can’t say I blame you.
On the surface, Thanksgiving is one of the most wonderful holidays there is. It doesn’t shout and try to sell you a million things, it doesn’t involve recreational explosives or hastily-ordered last-minute floral bouquets . All it asks is that we appreciate what we have, eat, spend time together, and maybe watch some mediocre football before trying to remember the box of house lights is. I mean, there’s even a Charlie Brown special!
And yet … we know better.
Heather and I have had several Thanksgivings where one of her chronic illnesses suddenly switched into overdrive, canceling a plan to visit friends or family.
Or where something vital broke down at the holiday (a computer, the plumbing, our last nerve), adding that much extra delay before repairing.
Or when we received staggering news, like the fact that our much-missed Duchess the Wonder Dog had cancer and maybe a month or two left to live. (She passed a few days after New Year’s.)
And for many, that family togetherness can be more stressful than recuperative. Maybe feelings are still simmering a few weeks (or years) after an election. Maybe it’s the annual debate about which family “gets” Thanksgiving and which gets Christmas. Or maybe there’s an empty chair at the table that won’t be filled this year – or at all.
Whatever the reason, sometimes it feels like the universe is conspiring to turn a moment of “Thank you” into “Gee, thanks.” That stress and crisis are natural companions to the stuffing and can-shaped cranberry sauce.
I get it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.
We know the ideal: that Thanksgiving is a space apart from crisis, or to celebrate having surmounted one. (OK, I’m laughing, too.) But the real is no less powerful – that it can be a space in the midst of crisis. Maybe even one that crisis throws into stark relief.
When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the country was in the midst of civil war. He neither denied it nor ignored it. But he did note how, even in the worst moment of the nation’s history, the country was still growing, still abundant, still at peace on foreign fronts, and (outside the Southern battlefields) still upholding the essential work of being a nation. Great wounds needed healing, but there was still much to be grateful for.
Maybe that’s true on a smaller scale than a civil war.
Our “illness Thanksgivings” turned into one of our favorite stories, about how Domino’s pizza started becoming the centerpiece meal instead of turkey.
Our own empty chairs (and collar) have given us occasion to hold loving memories close again and remember the wonderful lives that touched our own.
Our stresses have remained real – but with something beyond the emergency of the moment that lasts. Maybe even something summoned by the crisis, the way that a community comes together in times of flood or blizzard.
“Forget your perfect offering,” Leonard Cohen once sung. “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”
I’m not saying Thanksgiving has to be stressful to be special. But the stress doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
We can still find the space. Maybe a weary one. Maybe a painful one. But still a chance to look within and look without, and find something still standing. Some light in the crack that reaches us, or that we can reach toward.
That’s worth a bit of gratitude.
Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.
Want to go take in a movie?