“Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.” – Henry Van Dyke
This November has had the theme of gratitude from the start and well in advance of the American feast of Thanksgiving that will be marked tomorrow. Earlier this month, my friend and creative colleague, Morag Donald of Crafting Your Soul, co-hosted a gratitude journaling workshop with me. Combining creative writing exercises, guided meditation and craft work, we led participants to collage covers of A5 notebooks or scrapbooks where conscious note can be made of all those acts of kindness that occur in our life. I chose a scrapbook where I can paste in images to remind me of all the myriad miraculous events and details that populate one’s days. So far birthday cards, chocolate wrappers, newspaper snippets and headlines, and more have been pasted in. I also use words, but I keep it brief. It is also acts, in part, as an aide memoire.
There is anecdotal evidence that the practice of gratitude journalling greatly contributes to a feeling of happiness and well-being. Over the past decades there are any number of books and articles written encouraging people to embrace the practice of gratitude. Which is really a reminder to not take for granted all the acts of kindness, random or deliberate, from strangers, friends, even institutions.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, that great feast of family, food, football (for some) and the official opening of the Christmas shopping season in the USA on Black Friday. I am long gone as an ex-patriot and there won’t be any turkey and cranberry sauce for us tomorrow. (Sadly, my Irish husband does not understand my liking for pumpkin and all kinds squash, succotash and sweet potatoes; this hampers any meal planning if there are no more than the two of us eating in on Thanksgiving Day.) Since I have to post Christmas presents across the Atlantic, most have already been bought, wrapped and despatched already.
There is also the issue of celebrating a narrative that does not admit the impact of the colonising of North America and consequent displacement and genocide of its original inhabitants. Some maternal ancestors were early Quaker settlers in the Burlington, New Jersey region. At least I can say I come from people who paid the natives for their land, which was a rare occurance back in the day. The Lenape chief Ockanickon is buried in the Burlington Friends Meeting cemetary, reflecting the integration of Europeans and indigenous peoples at the beginning of the settlement. But even Quakers were slave holders in the 18th century, so I cannot be certain that all my ancestors were always on the right side of history on all questions of morality. The Burlington Quaker mystic, John Woolman, had his metanoia regarding slavery as an apprentice clerk when he was required to write out a bill of sale for the purchase of a slave. He did so just the once; he approached his employer afterwards and said he could not, in good conscience, do so ever again. His employer may not have comprehended his morality, but he did respect his ‘light’, as Quakers would call it.
So how shall I mark Thanksgiving 2017? I will be having a routine mammogram free, courtesy of Breast Check Ireland. I will cherish our old dog who is as loving as ever even in an illness that will ultimately earn her angel wings. I will bless the names of our vets, Sinead and Thomas, who care for her.
But I will also bless those cranky colonial ancestors who braved leaky wooden sailing vessels to migrate to another world, circa 1630-something. I will be grateful that I inherited their itchy feet.
I will bless them for their idealism and their calculated risk taking. I will be thankful that I have inherited both their tendency to flinty morality and tender conscience.
But above all, I bless and thank the Lenape people, who welcomed my ancestors, sheltered them in the caves on the banks of the Delaware River, who taught them the ways of squash, corn and bean, who helped them survive in a harsher climate than they knew in their old world. For this I am thankful, for without them, there would have been no descendents born, wed, bred.
What I am most thankful for this Thanksgiving is connection. For the kinds of connections that can be made in poetry. Also, the human kind of connections, all the little heaps and piles of kindness. Thought of in that way, lineages are wrought from the seemingly random decisions to behave kindly, to help another human survive another day, to live and to love.
I realise that not everyone has had such a benign experience or even expectation of life. But, I pray ‘May Love cast out Fear’ daily. Perhaps, my ancestors did, too. That is my hope this Thanksgiving.