JIM DODSON: Thankful for Small Blessings
It's very early on Thanksgiving morning -- the eve of National Listening Day, I'm told -- and my head and heart are having a little discussion about gratitude.
My head, for instance, thinks I should still be in bed, stealing a well-earned holiday snooze. Since mold was found in my office wall two weeks ago, my work life has been as stressful, unproductive, and chaotic as it's been in donkey years. If I had any sense, not to mention real gratitude, I'd be sleeping off such a frustrating fortnight.
My heart, though, thinks it's swell to be up well before the sunrise on my favorite holiday, an entire day dedicated to the simple proposition of feasting with family and watching football and old movies on TV, reading books just for the pleasure of it, goofing off, taking stock, saying thanks.
My head really misses all four of our kids, all of whom are having Thanksgiving with the other halves of their blended families way up north this year. I sometimes wonder what the Pilgrims would make of our modern American families with multiple sets of parents, blended agendas, schedules.
Despite what is likely be our quietest Thanksgiving in memory, my heart knows we're in each other's thoughts no matter what.
Even so, when my college-girl daughter phoned last night from Maine to say she's worried America might be on the verge of having another Great Depression, I heard myself giving her an upbeat history lecture on how we've been through hard times before and will come out on the other side of our current economic woes and will probably be a better nation for it. Hard weather makes good timber, I told her. Nature's fundamental principle is expansion and contraction. No pain, honey, no gain. Why, I almost even convinced myself.
Meanwhile, my heart goes out to the millions of families who have lost their homes, their jobs and their faith in their leaders -- to a system that's been captive to greed and self-interest for far too long.
For this reason, that same head thinks it's utterly disgraceful that a record number of Americans -- 30 million and rising -- are seeking food stamps in the country that purports to take care of its tired, its poor, its huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Twenty million more of our neighbors have no health insurance in a country where we bail out banks and insurance companies "too big to fail" at the drop of the people's hat. These same banks and insurance companies reward our collective generosity by paying themselves boggling holiday bonuses and buying other banks.
My head feels the system is too hopelessly addicted to corporate self-interest to change. My heart feels, on the other hand, that we may finally have reached an epic turning point where America once more inspires the world in darkened times -- listening to the better angel of ourselves, if you will, re-inventing ourselves the way we historically do in crisis. As a people, we always seem to do our best work when our backs are against the wall. I'm deeply grateful for that.
Excuse me while I go put on my famous Thanksgiving collards. They have to cook slowly for at least half of Thanksgiving day, you see.
OK, I'm back now. The collards are simmering in smoked ham hock, and I've just switched on the TV and found Mumbai under siege by terrorists, reminding me of a promise I made years ago to take my college girl to see the Taj Mahal and the Pearl of India once she graduates. She evidently has her papa's yen for faraway places and unplanned adventures.
My head tells me the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Having said this, my heart would head straight to Mumbai in a heartbeat, and the so-called terrorists be damned. The day we quit seeking faraway places and unplanned adventures is the day the terrorists win.
Here's a nice Thanksgiving surprise: My thoughtful wife -- an organizational dynamo who was also up early, playing Christmas music and making pies and her famous homemade stuffing -- has surprised me with a cup of French Roast coffee and my favorite breakfast of cream chipped beef on toast. The dogs are getting some kind of special Turkey Day breakfast treat, too. We -- head, heart and all three dogs -- are grateful that she looks after us so well. We hate to think what might become of us.
Heart Won't Listen
After breakfast and a romp outdoors, the dogs wander off to snooze and I head to the garage to begin finally unboxing books I should have unpacked months ago. My head tells me I have to actually do some kind of work to justify being such a consuming holiday slug. So I pour myself a nice glass of holiday eggnog and spend two hours ruthlessly confronting a small mountain of books. My head tells me to purge at least half of the bloody books I own, but my heart stubbornly won't listen.
After a lot of work, and a quart of eggnog, I manage to discard only about two dozen books I can't imagine anyone ever wanting or needing. Meanwhile, I've found a dozen great old books that delight my heart. So much for productive holiday labor.
In the early afternoon, returning to my sluglike holiday ways, I find one of my favorite movies playing on a remote cable channel and watch it for the umpteenth time. The movie is "Fried Green Tomatoes," the second-best movie ever made about the South, and features the hilarious scene where Kathy Bates, playing a meek and unfulfilled middle-aged Southern lady named Evelyn, mentally snaps after a pair of young women swipe her place in the parking lot of the Winn Dixie.
"Face it, lady, we're younger and faster," the driver of the cute red VW bug snidely tells her, snapping her gum as she and a friend giggle and flounce away.
As she prepares to drive on, Evelyn -- obviously listening to her head -- looks shocked by such flagrant rudeness. But something in her suddenly changes. Listening to her heart for perhaps the first time ever, she suddenly backs up and gleefully rams the offending car with her huge American barge, reducing the cute VW bug to a heap.
"What are you doing!" screams the bug's owner, whose head is obviously spinning with rage.
"Face it, girls," Evelyn tells her straight from the heart. "I'm older and I've got a lot more insurance."
Room in the Heart
Gratitude, a French proverb goes, is simply the heart's memory. Where there is room in the heart, echoes a Danish saying, there is room in the house.
In the late afternoon, we take a coconut cream pie and a bowl of my collards to our neighbors Myrtis and Max, who are having an uncommonly quiet Thanksgiving Day, too -- a tidy feast with their old friends the Rumreys. In years past, they have joined us and we have joined them, but this year we are scheduled to leave well before dawn for a family event in upstate New York.
"So what have you been up to all day?" I chivvy Max, who is wearing his yard-work clothes and looks as if he'd cleared half of a field that very morning.
"As little as possible," he snaps back at me and grins slyly. "In fact, we were catching a little afternoon nap before you thoughtfully brought collards and pie -- resting up for the big evening feed."
"Thanks for reminding me," I say, making a mental note to take my annual Thanksgiving afternoon nap sometime before bed.
By the time we return home, Miss Jan and her husband, Bill, have arrived. Miss Jan has brought her famous green beans. Mr. Bill has tuned up the football and is already wrestling with the dogs. I'm deeply grateful to have in-laws I enjoy being around. Miss Jan is the after-care director for Episcopal Day, an art teacher with a gift for making small, untidy children feel welcome, which may explain why we get along so well.
We reach our own Thanksgiving table at dusk, having to stretch our arms out in order to join hands for grace around a table that normally has twice as many souls around it. The turkey is the smallest one we've ever had, too, a small bird for leaner times. But the sweet potatoes and green beans and collards and mashed turnips taste just as fine as they always do.
I have two helpings of stuffing, in fact, plus an extra yeast dinner roll loaded with butter, topped off by a large slice of coconut cream pie. My head tells me I won't be able to eat for three days to justify this indulgence. But thankfully my heart tells my head to stuff it.
Curiously, this dinner is perhaps the lengthiest Thanksgiving meal we've ever had -- and one of the most satisfying. Here on the eve of National Listening Day, the absence of other loved ones affords us the opportunity to sit and listen to each other's holiday memories. My favorite is Miss Jan's tale about growing up in an Irish clan in rural Connecticut and always finding a way to wrangle an invitation to Sunday dinner with her Italian friends because of the gigantic spreads the Italian grannies produced.
"The only difference at Thanksgiving," she explains with a girlish laugh, "was they added a large turkey to all the fantastic pasta and pastries, espresso and wine. I remember this one tiny Italian grandmother who would pat my hand and declare with her heavy accent, 'You so thin! What, you have no mama? You come stay with me and I make you cute chubby girl!'"
I tell about how every Thanksgiving Day my dad and brother and I took our shotguns and walked deep into the woods of my great-grandfather's abandoned farm near Chapel Hill to shoot mistletoe from the trees. My wife and her dad just eat, smile, pass things, and listen. They are true patriots on National Listening Day.
No Other Day Like It
After Jan and Bill leave, I pour myself a nice glass of expensive port and go sit and reflect on another Thanksgiving Day in which I've basically done nothing but stuff my face with good food, watch TV, read books, play with the dogs, and avoid all the things I probably should have gotten done in the past two weeks.
So I gratefully flip on TV to check on tomorrow's driving weather and the worrisome terrorist troubles in Mumbai, switch to a spy thriller I've always wanted to see, and even soon find myself catching my annual Thanksgiving afternoon nap just before bed.
My head tells me in a voice I'm frankly getting a little weary of that there will be hell to pay come Monday morning, what with my office still in complete chaos and the world still coming apart at the seams.
My heart, however, interrupts to remind me that this is exactly why we have Thanksgiving in America -- to pause and be grateful for the smallest personal pleasures of home and family. There's really no other day quite like it.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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