Thanksgiving is one pilgrimmage which, for most Americans, remains a solemn duty- causing family members in millions to travel today to get back home, to be back together with kith and kin one more time. It’s a mad rush, but once you get there, the urgency of the busy day falls away. The world is somehow hushed because this is a chance to return to the ground where grace once and perhaps still lives in our lives.
We will sit at the table and break bread. We will tell the stories. We will evoke the presences of those we have lost and yet who still linger at the table. For me, my Mum and Dad, sister Sue, Aunty Monica, Aunty Myra. We will think ahead to what milestones lie before us, what weddings, graduations, births? And we will ponder, for whom is this maybe their last Hurrah? Tempus Fugit.
Life seems to come at us like a fire hose, so relentlessly that Thanksgiving allows us to step out of the stream, to slow down. We might play clairvoyant about elections or markets, but we know none of us have map or compass for what world lies ahead of any of us. Yet compressed into this one day, we allow ourselves to sit lazy, (unless you are cookng) smell the turkey, and claim one quiet (or rowdy) moment of contentment.
The echoes of mystic Dame Julian of Norwich always come to me. Her revelation of the divine reassured her that, even though she lived in tumultuous times of plague and revolution, the message was clear “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well and all shall be well.”
Even if all is not well, all shall be well. By divine edict!
President Lincoln knew what Julie knew when he ordered Thanksgiving to be the National Holiday in November 1863. It was not a time that anyone caught up in the bloody civil war would have thought appropriate. Yet, there is some wisdom in being loyal to a ritual that reminds us, as we head into winter, what Camus captured best,
” In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
This is a day when we are called to return to grace at the most basic level. The call comes not from any church, nor from any duty to sect, nation or race. So where is its source? Maybe it comes from some innate evolutionary memory that tells us that we have survived another year- the drought, the flood, the fire and the hurricane, even the invastion of the Vikings. We have endured. So we deserve a chance to declare to the world that we are still alive, still here. Maybe that is what the pilgrims were really saying.
It is also something about the last harvest feast before winter sets in and we have to adjust, settle for the snows, the blizzards and the traffic jams. It is only when we know we will freeze that we need to rediscover familial warmth. That memory is better than any fireplace. All the trials before and troubles ahead make us seek for this one weekend at tranquility base. In Washington and perhaps in the nation as a whole, we are exhausted by the scandals, the division and the enmity. Is it any wonder that our annual quest is to return to one place that seems whole and uncontested, even if ever so briefly?
Cliche tells us to “count your blessings” but Lincoln and Julie had a different take. They wanted us to count our calamities and catastrophes first, and only then feel the pulse of morning to see and if we are still breathing. If the sun rises on you and me tomorrow, that at the very minimum qualifies us to celebrate thanksgiving. You lived through that horrible divorce, your cancer came back but you are coping, you lost your first born or you were fired or sued, or you still face crippling debt. But you lived through it. Till now. No-You have not overcome but you have not been overcome. You have not become the hero of your own story-yet but it’s still your story and you are alive to still tell it. Life itself is no small achievement right now. The strategic plan has three simple steps: “Breathe in, Breathe out, Breathe in.” That is grace at ground zero.
Life hangs by a thread for so many of our brothers and sisters. Dare we be so insensitive or so uncaring to boast to the world our overstocked table of plenty? Dare we post the happy faces of our family reunions when on the border, parents have been separated from their kids or parent and child have perished together, yards from their only chance of freedom.
Thanksgiving for me is less about life’s gifts- less about a Hallmark card. And it is NOT a celebration of capitalist accumulation-(till Friday at least!.) It is reminding ourselves of the fact that we are privileged enough to live long enough to know we are alive. That is the original gift. Remembering that somehow makes all the rest not matter quite so much.
This is not just a return to grace but a return to something more fundamental, what I am calling grace at ground zero. All humans know this grace at some elemental level, without ever having to invent gods or churches or priests. Perhaps we invent our gods for the sole purpose of reminding us that we are human, and the 10 commandments all boil down to one rule- remember you are alive. Beind dead is hugely overrated.
I want to offer a prayer but its funny because I am not even sure who I am praying to. Yet I will press on with my imprecation- to ask you and me and all of us on this lovely fragile planet to return to the fundamental graces. I am a Christian with a Muslim family but the Jewish tradition comes closest. L’Chaim -To Life. To Grace at Ground Zero.
So raise your glass To Life.
For what we have and what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful. Amen.