Just read a poignant post by a Facebook friend who has suffered a string of sorrowful events this month—a fire, the death of a beloved parent and a dear friend and a too-young niece, his partner in Paris at the time of the terrorist attack and yet more strokes of bad fortune. And still he found a way to count his blessings in the midst of so much grief.
So often people’s notions of being blessed amounts to being thankful for privilege, good luck or their notion that God loves them and that’s fine as far as it goes— but it could go further. Sometimes that reads to me as “well, thank goodness I’m not as downtrodden as them and that my children are on the honor roll and our car gets good mileage.” But as my friend above modeled, the larger blessing is being able to hold grief and joy together, to fully comprehend the sheer miracle of being alive, to value the opportunity to be of service, to feel the pain of others and the pain of self and to look all of our unbearable losses in the face and still emerge hopeful and grateful and determined to get up off the ground and take the next step forward.
Gratitude and thanks is more than a social gesture or a ritual grace once a year. It is a living presence spoken in the way we move through the day and meet whatever fate and fortune throws our way. It allows for room for some whining and complaining and even cursing and swearing as long as it’s sincere and called for, but also constantly searches to look beyond the immediate inconvenience, minor catastrophe or major tragedy to hold it in a larger story. It is a faculty of soul, a practice of attention, the good sense to understand the Buddhist notion that it is a gift beyond measure to attain a human incarnation and we better not squander it. In Buddhism, sin is not worshipping a false god or coveting your neighbor’s wife. It is wasting our body, heart and mind on trivial, harmful and self-serving things instead of turning them toward their highest possibilities. The ultimate thanks is for the daily possibility to train our body for grace, eloquence and sensorial delight that savors beauty, to cultivate our mind for understanding, to open our heart to compassion and love, to appreciate the simple wonder of being alive and be wholly present for each moment that we are until we’re not. And of course, that includes appreciation for daily food, clothing, shelter, friendship, family, autumn leaves, a rising moon, a setting sun.
Thanksgiving. Giving thanks. Also a time to remember all those who gathered around tables all those other years and those memorable ones that rise up in our storied collections. Childhood meals in New Jersey with relatives and my parent’s family friends, with my first girlfriend in Brooklyn with Marge Piercy and Sol Yurick, at Antioch College hearing Scott Joplin for the first time, eating non-sweet macrobiotic pumpkin pie with my sister and husband on Downey St. in San Francisco, in our home on Castro St. with friends and colleagues and touch football afterwards, alone with my wife in Athens, Greece on the way to India, my sister on our couch going into labor one year, the next year in Calistoga with my wife’s water breaking and the imminent birth of Talia, year after year with my kids and my sister’s growing family and then my parents joining in for fifteen of them, my mother-in-law’s last trip to San Francisco, dinner with my daughter, husband and grandchild and more first in Washington D.C., then in Portland, Oregon. Now back to being with my sister and two of her three kids, her son Ian and my daughter Kerala in Portland with their new babies, my daughter Talia (it’s her birthday!) in L.A. with friends.
Take a moment today to recall your own history of Thanksgivings and marvel that such a life could have been.