A Bite of Tradition

At this time of gratitude, I am perhaps most thankful that I don’t have to write a Turkeybiter.

Unless you have friends or family around the area of Emporia, Kansas, you probably haven’t heard the word before. Like lightsabers in “Star Wars,” Turkeybiters are a vestige of a more civilized time – short, simple notes in the local paper about how local families were spending their Thanksgiving. Usually, it’d be something along the lines of:

“Sally Johnson is gathering family from seven states for the Thanksgiving feast, which includes turkey, cornbread and Aunt Willie’s Buffalo-Squid Surprise that she’s made for 37 years. Annual traditions include board games, bad football and keeping Uncle Matthew from talking politics again.”

You get the idea.

Some people would mail them in. Sometimes teachers would assign them for homework. But mostly, the newspaper staff had to go out and hunt down a certain quota themselves. Our regular sources learned to quickly duck for cover when they saw an intrepid reporter approaching with a Turkeybiter gleam in their eye. After all, even the most damaging investigative piece would eventually come and go, but chatting even once in November would mark you as a potential Turkeybiter every single Thanksgiving.

Which, of course, made them a perfect celebration of the holiday. Like the Thanksgiving feast itself, they were:

  1. A lot of work
  2. Grumbled about constantly as the work went on
  3. Seriously appreciated as a special tradition once everything was ready to serve

And they were. People would thank us for carrying on the old-time hometown tradition. Some readers would get a glow from seeing the news of their neighbors. Some reporters would get a glow from seeing column inches that they didn’t have to worry about filling when everyone was out of town. Everybody got a win.

Odd? Sure. But somehow it worked.

And that’s also a perfect description of Thanksgiving.

It’s a strange little holiday, isn’t it? It sits tucked away in a corner like a guest at the kids’ table, apart from the gaudier Halloween and Christmas festivities. Oh, long ago in the early 20th century, it used to be a time for masks and costumes as well (seriously!). But these days, the weirdest things associated with the holiday are “Alice’s Restaurant,” the WKRP turkey drop, and the fact that Detroit Lions football is actually considered worth watching.

It’s quiet. Respectable, even. No decor on the house or giant pilgrims in the yard, just  a lot of work that’s mostly seen by close friends and family. (Unless you’re one of the many who reaches out to the forgotten on Thanksgiving, of course.)

It doesn’t shout. And that’s OK.

In a country that’s so often extroverted, it’s OK to have a time about turning inward and considering gratitude.

At a time of year when the very landscape seems to become a little quieter, it’s OK to have a time that doesn’t need its own  Mariah Carey anthem.

It’s an unheralded celebration that can feel exhausting, even burdensome in the days leading up to it. But oh-so-special when the moment finally arrives.

I hope you get to touch that quiet appreciation this year. To lift someone up or be lifted in turn. To share in a spirit of thankfulness that deserves to last beyond a November afternoon.

Celebrate. Enjoy. Remember.

And if you feel like sharing those memories in a Turkeybiter, I know just the editor to talk to.

Moon Over Thanksgiving

By the time this appears in print, Artemis will be flying by the moon.

I’m not sure I ever expected to write those words.

NASA has literally been away from the moon longer than I’ve been alive. Not that we’ve utterly forsaken space, of course. Satellites guide our communications and report our weather. Telescopes like the Webb increase our knowledge and our wonder. We’ve seen Earth orbit used for research, for music, even for tourism.

But we haven’t been back to our nearest neighbor since the early ‘70s. Truth is, until recently, we haven’t even had the tools to try.

Now, crewed by dummies (fill in your favorite celebrity joke here), the Artemis I Orion capsule is about to pull within 81 miles of the moon. In astronomical terms, that’s practically buzzing the tower.  It’s exciting stuff.

So naturally, it’s being overshadowed by more terrestrial headlines.

Mind you, I get it. I know we’re capable of paying attention to multiple things at once. And when Twitter is on fire, politics are in upheaval, rivers are drying up and the Broncos can’t seem to find the end zone with a map, I know that our mental space is a little crowded.

As a result, quiet wonder has a way of being pushed out of the spotlight by louder events. Which sounds familiar. Especially now.

After all, it’s pretty much how we treat Thanksgiving.

Aside from a pretty good parade and a pretty bad football game, we don’t give Thanksgiving a lot of splash. Honestly, that’s probably the way it should be. It’s a more introverted holiday, one about appreciating what we have and who we can share it with. For some, it’s even a time to remember those with less, reaching to them as part of the human family.

It’s a core that’s quiet. Reflective. Even humbling.

And therefore, it has absolutely no chance against occasions with brighter lights, louder music and more sheer STUFF.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that magical December time and tend to push out holiday columns by the bushel. But it’s a bulldozer, running over everything like reindeer flattening an Elmo & Patsy grandma. Christmas shouts. Thanksgiving whispers.

That doesn’t make it any less valuable. But it does mean we have to look a little harder to see beyond the stuffing. (Mmm, stuffing.) Especially in challenging times, when a holiday about gratitude may feel less than fitting.

Hold onto it. However you can.

With a quiet holiday, you get to be the one that finds the meaning. Your gratitude doesn’t have to be anyone else’s. It can be for much or for little, for what you’ve received or what you’ve escaped. It might even be for just making it one more hour of one more day. However you do it, you’re not doing it wrong. (And if someone says you are, one of the things you can be grateful for is that you’re not them.)

It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood production. In fact, given how Hollywood often treats Thanksgiving – turkey with a side dish of strife and conflict – it probably shouldn’t be. Just take the moment, however you need to, and find whatever light you can.

It may not sound like much. Just one small step.

But if you’re in the right space, one small step can be a heck of a leap.

And that’s no moonshine.

Gee, Thanks

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.

And yet.

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?

A Simple Thanks

“What time will the bus get here?”

For a moment, Heather didn’t know what to say.

Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, spends five mornings a week waiting for her “bus,” the van that takes her to her day program. She’s watched eagerly, fumed impatiently, even rearranged the contents of her lunch box a dozen times to pass the minutes.

But the minutes – that was the trick. In three and a half years of living with Missy, we had never heard her refer directly to “time.”

A simple time. Small in moments. But not in meaning.

Faced with that, what else can you do but say “thank you?”

And note the time, of course.

==

When you think about it, Thanksgiving is an odd sort of holiday.

Most holidays, aside from deliberately silly ones such as Talk Like a Pirate Day, commemorate something grand or important. They mark the birth of religions, or the founding of nations, or the labors of parents, workers, and soldiers. They underline famous names and sometimes infamous ones. (Right, Mr. Fawkes?)

And then there’s the fourth Thursday of November.

The first Thanksgiving — the one mythologized with construction-paper hats across the country, anyway — didn’t mark the arrival of the Pilgrims into a new land or the first meeting between natives and newcomers. It celebrated simple survival. Not so simple at that, either. Half of the original Plymouth colonists died in the first year, many in the first three months.

After a start like that, a good crop and helpful neighbors were things to be thankful for, indeed. Mind you, I won’t put on rose-colored glasses; I think we all know how quickly those neighborly relations turned sour. But I won’t ignore the moment, either.

And if the moment then is foggy and half-legend, the moment now is more like Missy’s grasp of time: simple in its essence, profound in its implications. An entire day, built around the words “thank you.”

That’s something we don’t always do so well, anymore.

Oh, we know the words. We learned them all as children. But “please” has become an intensifier for the resigned and the upset(“Will you please stop feeding your peas to the dog?”), while “you’re welcome” has vanished almost entirely in the wake of “no problem.” And “thank you?” That’s something we toss off over the shoulder, a social nicety less about gratitude and more about saying “OK, you did it, that’s great, can we go?”

Thanksgiving makes us take that at a slower pace. It gives us time to think about those two words and what we mean by them – well, in between the Lions and the Cowboys games, anyway.

It’s about as simple as you get. And maybe that’s why it’s slowly fading out.

It’s not a fair contest, really. Christmas has the glamour and the music and the gifts. Halloween has wild costumes and abundant chocolate. The most elaborate thing that Thanksgiving has is the food, and that’s easily subsumed by its tinsel-wrapped neighbor.

And so a time for family and gratitude becomes Black Friday Eve.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked on Thanksgiving myself. I know the attitude matters more than the day it’s celebrated on.

But it’s easy to lose the attitude, easy to get caught up in the stress and strain of the moment. Easy to just be too tired, to not have time.

Simple things break easily.

But it doesn’t take much to make the fragile powerful. It doesn’t need turkey or stuffing or a big dining table. All it needs is a few minutes to see the world instead of just passing through it. We’ll see soon enough how much we owe to how many.

And maybe we can even hope for new gratitudes to come.

==

Soon, Missy will watch the window again as the minutes roll by. Her minutes.

It’s only one moment. But it adds to so many that have made this year so special. And like the facets of a crystal, all these small, brief moments add up to something beautiful.

That can’t be ignored. And it won’t be.

Take the time. Always. A simple thought, for a small moment.

Thank you.

Beyond the Black

Beware! The end of Civilization As We Know It is upon us!

No, not the winding-down of the Mayan calendar. I’m pretty sure the last few images on it translate to “Don’t be caught short in the new epoch! Buy your next Long Count calendar now!”

I don’t mean the sunset of the Hostess Twinkie either. One way or another, Twinkies will live on long after any of us, possibly as attic insulation.

And as for any particular election results, please. A day in which the United States survives political gridlock and uncertain leadership is also known as Wednesday.

No, I’m referring to the (drumroll please) SHOPPING INVASION OF THANKSGIVING!

You’ve surely heard about it. How those Black Friday sales kept creeeeping ever closer to the family sanctum of Thanksgiving only to spill over into that blessed time at last. How it’s an offense to humanity, to dignity, to blue-collar American workers and their values. Oh, we got trouble, my friends, right here, I say, trouble, right here in River City …

Ahem.

All right. I’ve exorcised Professor Hill. But his spirit does seem alive and well at times. And well it might. After all, American consumers are being marched into those stores at gunpoint. It hardly bears thinking …

No?

Well, then the store owners. Each and every one of them compelled by alien mind control to open up for business …

You’re kidding?

All, right, but we do have to think about the workers. I’m sure many of them would rather be spending the holiday with their families than grinding out another day on the job, uncompensated, unrewarded…

Although, wait a minute. I’ve worked on Thanksgiving before. So have others I know, usually as part of a skeleton crew to free up as many workers as possible. And as I remember, the paycheck didn’t stop. Sometimes there was even a bonus for working a holiday — not win-the-lottery levels, but a little bit of extra help toward Christmas. Our families usually understood.

I guess it comes down to this. How resilient do we believe the spirit of thankfulness, brotherhood and family really is?

I happen to believe it’s a little tougher than many of us think.

I’m not saying I think it’s a great decision on the part of the American commercial sphere. I like creating a quiet space. I like having a time set apart. I think most of us do.

But if we have to compel or shame everyone into observing it — well, how much credit are we giving it really?

True thankfulness is a choice, on the part of those who give and those who receive. Is it such a fragile choice that we have to take away all the others lest someone be tempted?

Compelled peace is an oxymoron. Or it should be.

I hope the “invasion” doesn’t last. But if it does, Thanksgiving will survive. It may survive on a Friday or Saturday in some homes (heck, it already does), but so long as people want to keep it, it will stay.

So rather than rail and moan, let’s continue to keep it. Let’s be grateful for those who do. And let’s keep that spirit of gratitude alive through the holidays and the time beyond.

Many thanks, everyone.