At first I thought of it as a kind of christmas tree, with ornaments on which we’d write down what we’re thankful for. However, I knew if I gave the assignment of drawing the tree to Latoya we’d have something better. First, she drew a November tree, strong and brown with the heartwood in plain sight. Then she and Omni began cutting out leaves for us to write on.
As people arrived, we pointed them to the “art room,” where they could choose a leaf shape and markers and design their own leaf. Since our group was mixed–very young, family, new friends, old friends–it proved to be a great ice-breaker, as people leaned in and watched each other, then ohhhh and ahhh, as they saw the leaves emerge. I think it was Latoya who saw that the leaf shapes also doubled as frog shapes, so we ended with some tree frogs as well.
This is a new activity, but every Thanksgiving we go around the table with whoever’s here and share what we’re thankful for. I volunteered to go first this time, and Ken said, “Don’t make everyone cry,” which made me laugh–I confess that I have a tendency to do that, ever since our Casey was killed four years ago. But this year it seemed–with Leah writing for the first time, and putting “mom” and “dad” on her leaf–that he was recognized in a new and better way, than my usual tears and quivering voice.
I am very thankful for this girl of his and Diana’s. For her pronunciations–“Can I play on your I-padge?” and thrill of learning to read, “Th” “e”–“The”–“mmm” “aaaa” “nnnn”–“man”–“iiiii” “ssss”–“is”–“ffff” “aaaaa” “ttttt”–“fat.” The other day she asked if she could have a piece of jerky from a bag that was sitting on the coffee table. I said sure and went back to reading. A moment or two I looked up to see her trying to open a tiny square packet. “Wait,” I said, “here’s where knowing how to read is so important. Come here.” She brought me the packet and I had her sound out (“read”) the words: DDD—-OOOO NNNNN—OOOO—TTTT EEEEE—AAAA—TTTT. “Do Not Eat,” she said. For the way she flops around in an arm chair, sitting comfortably on her neck while her legs wave around in the air. “How do you do that?” I ask her. “You could do it, too, Grandma, just try.” For her smile and the light she brings into the room.
It’s not corny to say “I’m thankful for family,” not at all, not when your words are surrounded by actions that show the thanking is not just another opportunity for consumption and waste. I’m sorry that so many people don’t have a family or that they’re estranged or the thanksgiving dinners are cause for more pain and disappointment. Another fight, another opportunity to take advantage. It’s also not corny to be grateful for what you have, or to realize that if you lost it, how lonely you would be, how bleak the world. Does that keep us acting as if what we’ve got is precious? Do we treat our closest friends and families as if they could break?
In the meditation course with Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein that I’m (slowly) working my way through, she says, “A teacher of mine once said, imagine that the breath at hand is your first breath, imagine that it is your last breath.” The point, I think, is to feel it in all its uniqueness and not to take it for granted. Since my mother-in-law is recovering from surgery and in the process has been struggling with respiratory distress, I know that she would have a different take on breathing, but would surely agree that when we are denied air, we would give anything to have just one more breath. At that moment, all ephemera will drop away and who we are as beings in the world–fluid, re-forming, contrary, sneaky, courageous, contradictory–will come to a single point, of rising, falling,and though I don’t really know what that feels like, I suspect that in the moment when there is no more, some sense of self and who we were and are will rush.
In that moment, we will want to feel gratitude–certainly not regret.