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.

A Place of Peace

“All right, Missy, are you ready?”

Sitting up in bed, Missy grinned her crooked smile and nodded. I set our bedtime book to one side.

“Ok, close your eyes.”

Two hands eagerly went up to her face.

“Take a breath … no peeking now … here we go.”

Carefully, I picked up a tiny photo album of hers, one she loved to page through. And set it with great delicacy on top of her head.

“One … two … three ….”

Missy waited through the count, trembling with excitement as the album balanced precariously … but without falling. On “10,” I removed the book and she broke out in joyful laughter.

“You did it, Miss!”

“Yeah!!!!”

That’s what happens when your nighttime reading takes a turn for the Force-ful.

For about 10 years now, Missy’s bedtime story has been an unbreakable ritual. We’ve journeyed with Bilbo Baggins and studied with Harry Potter. We’ve peeked into The Secret Garden, cracked the riddles of The Westing Game, and laughed loud and long as Anne Shirley broke her slate over a classmate’s head before returning to Green Gables. In the process, my wife Heather and I have seen how engaged Missy becomes and how her developmental disability is no barrier to following the plot or caring deeply about the characters.  

This time around, we’ve been able to mix in something different. The story is a familiar one, a junior-level take on The Empire Strikes Back titled “So You Want to Be a Jedi?” But the take is unusual, placing the reader in the role of Luke Skywalker and offering “Jedi training exercises” in between each chapter.

The first ones simply involve closing your eyes in peace for a few brief moments, learning to quiet yourself and concentrate. Then it adds simple (and often silly) things. Like balancing a book on your head. Or batting aside thrown socks without opening your eyes. Or balancing a book while batting away thrown socks without opening your eyes.

For Missy, it’s a fun way to show off. It also, in disguise, is a neat little lesson in balance, awareness and mindfulness.

And time and again, they start in the same place. Take a moment. Close your eyes. Breathe.

That’s valuable no matter how old you are.

And it’s something that’s oh-so-easy to forget.

We’ve all had a lot more than socks thrown at us lately. From the personal to the national, we’ve had worlds upset, lives overturned, familiar things disrupted and shaken and broken. Stress and worry pile up on every side, and not without reason.

Everything demands our attention and concern, but there’s still only one of us. It’s easy to become a balloon in a hurricane, tossed this way and that before something finally makes everything pop.

In the midst of that, taking a step back sounds impossible. Like Luke trying to lift his own X-wing, the situation just seems too overpoweringly big to get a grip on.

But that’s when a place of peace matters most.

It doesn’t have to be long. But it does have to be. Just for a few moments. Just long enough to set the shouting of the world aside and find your own thoughts again.

It’s hard. We live in a world of urgency and “do it now!” where action is valued over contemplation. And finding that moment doesn’t solve the problem – but it puts us in a better place to understand it, to see rather than just react.

Take that moment. Find that place. It’ll probably take practice. But it may just give a bit of balance in return.

And if that balance involves a photo album, Missy’s got a trick she’d like to show you.

A Space Apart

Methodically, one by one, I went through the motions.

Roll the neck. Flex the shoulders. Windmill the arms. Eyes closed the whole time as I carefully stretched each muscle and joint, down to the ankles.

The routine was familiar. The setting was not. Usually, I would be doing this on a stage in an empty theatre, a silent preparation for the organized chaos of a show. This time, the space was home, a familiar place pushed to one side of awareness for just a while.

This time, the quiet moment would descend for a different purpose.

Different actors may call it different things, but I suspect that most would recognize what I call the “quiet moment.” It’s the moment before a performance when you still your thoughts and clear your head, preparing to put on a new life and story. The moment that stands between your true self and your stage self, when all is quiet and in readiness. Soon, something will be. For now, it simply is.

Everyone has a different way of entering it. For me, it’s a routine of stretches so familiar, it no longer impinges on conscious thought. For others in a cast, it might mean lying in a darkened hallway for a few minutes, or whispering an exchange of lines like a mantra. However you do it, you’re entering border country.

It’s a calm place. Peaceful. Everything given over to complete focus.

In other words, a complete rarity in today’s world.

You know what I mean. We travel through a world of constant chatter, and not just in actual conversation. Televisions blare. Radios and music fill our travels. From our desks to our pockets, computers constantly connect us, filling each space with the latest thought, the latest news, the latest clever joke or point of interest.

I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, mind you.  I’ve met some close friends through the Internet that I never would have met any other way. I’ve found inspiration from something heard by chance on a morning drive. But while it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it is a busy thing, keeping thoughts buzzing, awareness ever-vigilant.

In a stressful time, that can mean less chance for respite and recharge. Maybe none at all.

And which of us hasn’t had a stressful time lately?

National politics. Local traumas. Personal matters of a hundred kinds. It can all seem relentless. Combine it with the constant mental buzz, and it becomes darned near inescapable.

Breaking that requires perspective.

And perspective – whether literal or figurative – requires a little distance.

That’s not always achievable at every instant, I know. If you’re wracked with excruciating pain right now, or distraught over an immediate crisis, that moment may simply not be reachable yet.

But it’s a moment we need, in order to survive all the other ones.

Again, everyone’s key to the door is shaped a little differently. Some of us have a whole ringful: prayer and meditation, a burst of exercise, a quiet walk under the night sky. Not so much taking yourself out of the moment, but plunging more deeply into it, taking a moment as a moment and not just a bridge to the next task.

The task will come. It always does. But for just a little while, it’s good to let the moment be.

Outside the theater walls, I often forget that. But, with apologies to the Bard of Avon, maybe it’s time to let all the world be a stage. If peace and focus is valuable for creating an imaginary life, how much more so for a real one?

The show must go on. But the orchestra doesn’t always have to be playing.

If that’s not too much of a stretch.