Monday, November 24, 2003

Getting Real About Giving Thanks

It's probably no big surprise that I don't exactly do a lot of cooking. Thanksgiving is different somehow though. I think maybe the logistics of getting a massive amount of food all out on the table in edible form at approximately the same time must appeal to my puzzle-loving nature. Whatever it is, I do seem to enjoy it.

Growing up, Thanksgiving was generally a pretty large affair - lots of aunts and uncles and cousins around to play and joke with. If I was trying to study for finals, it made life tough but otherwise having people around who have it as part of their basic job description to know who you are and like you at least a little is a lot of fun.

Once I grew up and started living on my own I became more acquainted with the notion that not everyone has such a nice time over the holidays. I guess I wasn't exactly surprised by that; I just hadn't seen it face to face before. I learned a lot during those years and what I learned has stuck with me for a long time.

For instance, I remember the first time I was invited to someone else's house for holiday dinner. While it wasn't something they had to do, I was very glad to accept the invitation. Instead of feeling alone in my apartment or like an outsider gatecrashing someone else's holiday, I felt included. I really enjoyed myself and enjoyed getting the chance to participate in someone else's traditions.

Another year, there were a whole lot of us who didn't have anyplace to be over Thanksgiving, so we pulled together our own very non-traditional potluck. A few of us prepared the one or two dishes we each most identified with Thanksgiving. It was a truly eclectic feast, one that we all very much enjoyed, most especially because we had each other for company.

When I started hosting Thanksgiving for myself, the gatherings were often quite small and it didn't seem quite right to me. As soon as I noticed that, I remembered those early years when complete strangers had thought to invite me to their home and I started inviting anyone I could think of who didn't have a place to be. I don't always get guests, but I find that some of the most fun I've had over Thanksgiving has been those years when there are at least one or two. Every time I invite someone new to my home, I make sure to find out what that one dish is that makes it a truly worthwhile turkey day for them - and between us, we work out how to include it in our plans for that year.

There is one year that weighs more heavily on my mind. I was working in a border town and found myself assigned to do the standard news story on Thanksgiving at the local mission dishing up meals for the homeless and other down-and-out folks. On my way out, I noticed several of the visitors were wet up to about mid-calf. Though it was clear these people had waded across the river just because they knew they could find a good meal there that day, the nice people at the mission were very happy to serve them. To them, it made no difference - they were there to help whoever arrived, no matter what their circumstances. Someone apparently saw the situation differently that day; by the time I left, INS had been called to deport the illegal border-crossers, many of them before they'd even had their dinner. If that wasn't irony enough, my boss wanted nothing to do with this twist to the traditional story.

Not knowing any better or having any stronger sense of my convictions, I obeyed orders and went back to the shop with the time-worn story they'd requested I do. Looking back, though, I realize it is a rare gift to be able to fully recognize and preserve human dignity. I also know now that it's a gift meant to be shared, not wasted. Rest assured that if I ever find myself without family or friends to celebrate with, I will be volunteering my time helping others. In my mind, it's what the day is about.

What do you find yourself grateful for this season? If you were to set yourself the task of listing at least ten answers to that question, would you find that easy... or difficult? One thing I'm thankful for is to have people like you share your thoughts with me on whatever topics you find important. Go ahead and send them to

Make your Thanksgiving something real. Gather people around you who are special to you and if you can spare the room, include someone who has nowhere else to go. Do what you can to preserve some old traditions... and create some new ones too while you're at it. Remember, it's about a state of mind that includes sharing and community more than it's about spending money we don't have on more food than we can possibly eat.