Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.
Growing up, my parents always hosted. My mom grew up in a large family, so even when everyone wasn’t there, we’d have twenty or more people descend upon our house. My mom and her sisters had it down to a science—everyone brought the same thing each year, followed the same recipe, and played the same role. I would wake up to my mom in a robe, trying to get the enormous turkey into the oven early enough to be able to eat early afternoon. The tv would alternate between the Thanksgiving Day Parade and pre-game commentary and football games. The house would smell warm and buttery, butter being the predominant flavor of the day (being Minnesotan, the only spices used were salt and pepper. I still remember the year I was met with shock and awe when I suggested adding garlic to the mashed potatoes).
As family arrived, my cousins and I would run off to spend the day playing and, usually, making up some Thanksgiving-themed skit that we’d insist upon performing before the meal. As we got older, we’d be tricked into sitting down with the aunts in what would always turn into an inquisition. It was perhaps the one time of year the stoic Scandinavians would ask more personal questions than how school was going or the results of our latest sporting endeavors. They were questions that required more than one-word answers, and therefore enough to make a 13-year-old squirm.
For the better part of my childhood, we lived in a house with a large open living room/dining room, and my mom could set up one giant table by adding folding chairs my dad would borrow from the hospital. She was always adamant about a single table. We never had a kids’ table or set up two separate tables, even when they moved later and having a single table meant passing through a doorway. We’d set the table up the night before, the good china would come out, cloth napkins instead of paper, Nana’s gold silverware set. I would make place cards with crayons and colored pens. When we were very young, we’d all be placed at the end of the table; as we got older, adult and youth would be alternated around the table in one big disorganized grouping that made me wonder why we had place cards in the first place.
My dad was pretty much out of the kitchen until it came time to carve the turkey. He’d forget how to work the electric knife, since it only got used once per year, and tie on one of my mom’s aprons. I’d stand nearby to pick off any pieces too small to put on the serving plate, especially pieces with skin. They’d be greasy and hot and ruin the rest of the turkey for me.
At some point growing up—we didn’t always do this—we started going around the table during the meal to say what we were grateful for in the past year. Maybe it started when we all got old enough to understand the concept and be able to contribute more than “my toys” to the list. No one got to pass, not even the girlfriends and boyfriends and other plus-ones that started showing up at the door who got thrown into this Big Fat Norwegian Thanksgiving unawares. My mom and at least one of her sisters would always cry during their time to share, and my dad would always have my mom at the top of his list.
Over the past ten years, as cousins have gotten married and started their own families, as we’ve spread out across the country, our family traditions have changed. I started joining my parents for a small gathering in Tucson, which was less chaotic and yet still the visit I looked forward to the most each year. The past few years, after dad’s death, my mom and I especially have been trying to grapple with what feels good for us on the holiday. We’ve bounced around a bit, and this year will be the second year in a row she is coming to visit me for the holiday. As long as we have each other and the trifecta—turkey, stuffing, and un-garlicked mashed potatoes—it feels like Thanksgiving to me.
And the sharing of gratitudes. Some years it’s easy, when Big Life Changes happen. Some years it’s harder, much harder, when everything seems up in the air and lousy.
I’ve been practicing stopping to be grateful every day. I’ve turned my Instagram story into a place to capture daily gratitudes; I write them in my journal every night. I think there is value in appreciating the good things, sometimes the littler the better. When I step back to think of the year, it’s really hard. There are so many things in my personal life I’m proud of and grateful for (even if it’s grateful they’re over). But, on a global level, it’s hard to feel grateful when it’s coupled with a feeling of despair that the rest of the world is falling apart. Maybe that’s dramatic, but there is so much junk swirling around right now that feeling grateful seems like a luxury. I know that if any of us just focused on the bad, we’d go crazy, so it’s important to notice the good. But how to do this without using the gratitude as a way of denial about everything else?
It’s another example of having to hold two truths in the same place, and how impossible that can be. It’s true that I can feel despair about the greater world, and it’s true that I can feel grateful about something in my own life.
This may sound like the contradictions I posted about last week, those that cannot exist in the same place, but it’s really not. This is about feeling, not fact. However, take a look—when you’re sitting with the gratitude, it’s impossible for the despair to crawl in. While those feelings can reside within us equally, they only exist when we look at them. If we’re looking at the gratitude, we can’t see the despair. And vice versa. We can’t multi-task our feelings. We may bounce between them quickly enough that it seems like they’re both there at once, but it’s hard to hold them both at the same time. The same way it’s nearly impossible to think about the love you have for a person and the dislike you have for another at the same time.
This may sound like a form of denial—using the gratitude to cover up the feelings of despair—but that only happens if you never look at the despair.
It’s ok to feel despair, I tell myself, and I tell you. It would probably not be healthy if we didn’t feel it from time to time. So we need to look at it, see that it’s there, recognize it, name it. But we can feel the despair enough to act on it, and also feel the gratitude enough to take care of ourselves and appreciate our own lives as part of the larger human experience. If we would stop the latter, we’d only have the former, and that would really be reason to despair.
When we each individually take a moment to appreciate the good, that way of looking at the world permeates and sends out a beacon of hope that there truly is good in the world and that we don’t have to let the despair take over.
So, what are you thankful for this year?