Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gratitude: My Five Points

My family never did Thanksgiving when I was growing up.  So I'm unaccustomed to the practice that now seems embedded in American culture, of listing things for which I'm grateful as Thanksgiving day arrives.

When I say that we didn't do Thanksgiving, I don't mean to say that we ignored the holiday.  We did have a traditional family meal, though, as my mother often told me, in her childhood Thanksgiving was hardly marked at all, and the traditional Christmas table was far more likely to feature chicken baked with dressing and ham than turkey.  So "tradition" is a slippery term when it comes to this particular holiday, as it so often when people think they know precisely what their traditions stipulate and have always maintained.

Thanksgiving was, we knew, not really our holiday.  Though the Virginia observance of a harvest festival at which the colonists gave thanks predated the one in New England, it was the Puritans' celebration that had captured the American imagination.  Since the victors write the history books.

And Puritans we definitely weren't.  Whatever the opposite of Puritan is, my largely Anglican ancestors in Virginia and Southern Maryland were: intent on getting Puritan goats by lavish celebrations of Christmas, which was the holiday for which we were really preparing in late November.  Hence our disinterest in Thanksgiving, which was an interruption, a distraction from the serious business of Christmas planning.  A season when, a manuscript written by a member of my Posey family in Georgia who wrote down the recollections of our pre-Revolutionary Maryland Posey ancestors tells us, many families gathered for feasts and balls, dancing and drinking all night long, for the entire Christmas season, from Christmas day to the feast of Epiphany.  While the Puritans in New England imposed heavy penalties on anyone who even thought of celebrating Christmas day itself, let alone the entire twelve days of Christmas.

Thanksgiving was, for us as I grew up, not a family celebration.  Rather, it was a meal at which our sad little nuclear family sat together at the table, wondering where everyone else was--everyone who was part of the Christmas day meal, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, assorted family hangers on and friends.

Despite my lack of attachment to this media-hyped holiday, I am thinking about gratitude today, though, as I read various emails and online tributes to Thanksgiving.  And here's my list:

1. I'm grateful I never became a nun.  Because I would never have been able to practice custody of the eyes.  Which, though enjoined on both women and men religious, is far more enforced in the case of the former than of the latter.  

I've just returned from a stint of slogging away on the treadmill at the hotel in which we're now staying in Salt Lake City.  It's too cold--and, more important, slippery--outside to walk.  So we decided I'd tread while Steve did laundry.

And the experience reminded me all over again that I'd be a very poor nun, because I have roving eyes.  I simply could not keep my eyes from the two other people slogging along beside me, who were not in any way obviously fascinating, but who, because they're human beings, have life stories.  Stories I like to make up and tell myself when I'm bored out of my skull doing something like treading on a treadmill.  Stories I imagine I'm intuiting, but which I'm surely cutting from whole new cloth when I'm covertly eyeing people on whom I've never laid eyes before in a hotel exercise room, as they walk on treadmills.

And so this reminds me that I'm grateful for other people, too, who often work one's last nerve, but who still make life interesting.  Just by being there.

2. I'm grateful for Quakers.  Who keep on keeping on.  And who, right now, are seeking to mess up English categories of marriage and civil registration, to make a point about the discrimination inherent in a system that offers two tiers of marital union to straight and gay folks, and keeps gays out of the tier of "real" marriage (H/T Clerical Whispers).  And, in doing so, are demonstrating all over again that we wouldn't have the two tiers if marriage and civil unions are the same thing.  Why otherwise would English government officials now be denying heterosexual Quaker couples the right to a civil registration, as they seek to prove the point that marriage is something altogether different from a civil union, and restricting gays from marriage while permitting them civil unions is discriminatory?

I'm grateful for my cantankerous Quaker ancestors who were the salt and leaven (mixed metaphors, but with biblical provenance, and surely that makes them right and fitting) for all those dancing, hard-drinking Anglicans (including, even, a handful of Puritan-leaning Anglicans in the southeastern corner of Virginia who didn't break with the established church as they sought to purify it).  Those principled, cantankerous people went to jail to prove a moral point, endured flogging, or, in the case of my ancestor John Biggs in Norfolk County, Virginia, incurred heavy fines from the state to avoid having his children baptized and swearing an oath in court. 

Principle doesn't hurt anyone.  Not when it's applied to morally praiseworthy ends.  So I'm grateful today for the high-principled ancestors who have made me who I am, for all the people of principle who have taught and inspired me through my life.  And whose principles I often belie in my own practice.

3. Speaking of those people of principle and nuns, I'm grateful for the elderly nun who told me years ago, "Priests and male religious tell us to wear those clunky old men's shoes in the name of holy poverty and modesty, but look what divine soft things they put on their own precious feet."  She was long in her grave before Papa Ratzinger came strolling onto the scene with his supple, stylish, hand-crafted Italian slippers.  She is watching the pope now from heaven.  And I'm not sure she's amused.

Thank God for all the people in our lives who have the courage to open their mouths and speak the truth in season and out of season.  And who often teach us and shatter our false images of the world, faith communities, and ourselves, when they speak the truth.

4. I'm grateful for our dogs.  And I say "our dogs," but the truth of the matter is that we are far more likely the humans they have claimed and are trying, with sublime canine patience, to educate and to train.  I'm grateful for Crispen, with his watchful eyes and keen intelligence, and his intent to learn.  And though I love him more (but will not admit this), I love Valentine and Flora with equal passion--which is to say, beyond measure.  I love Flora for the heart-warming way in which she runs to the television set and turns her head this way or that to find a baby if one cries on the television screen.  And will not relent, even when she never finds the little human who needs her nurture, since the baby is in the television set and not on the floor around it where she's desperately trying to find it.  And I love Valentine, despite his tendency to make my life hellacious by disobeying, by stalking over me as though I'm a fat piece of human furniture with no feelings, by peeing when and where he wishes despite repeated admonitions to the contrary.  But who constantly entertains us with his insatiable appetite for play and for affection.  We learn daily from these furry brothers and sister who give us far more than we can ever give them.

5. I'm grateful for Alexander McCall Smith and his latest novel The Lost Art of Gratitude, which I'm reading now with great delight.  Delight in that sly, witty, humane way of educated Scots, who gave the world the Enlightenment, a gift without which we'd all be immeasurably poorer now, and a threatened gift that new barbarians who claim to be doing God's will are intent on taking away from us.  And I'm grateful for Rosemary Macaulay, whose theologically rich, wickedly theological Towers of Trebizond I've just finished, and which made me laugh out loud as I read it on the airplane.

Above all, and in summary, I'm grateful for love, which runs through all the preceding enumerations of gratitude.  And which comes into our lives all unbidden.  And in my case, certainly, all unmerited.  And which, when we accept it with grateful hearts, frees our hearts to love others in return.  Just because.  Because they are there to be loved.  And may merit love no more than we ourselves do.  But despite their lack of merit, tug at our hearts and demand that we open them anew.  And then we learn all over again that, in giving love away, constantly, we invite it back into our own lives, to nest and grow there.

And I'm grateful for the handful of people of strong principle and large heart who keep trying to remind people of the religious mainstream that one of the most harmful, cruel things anyone can do to anyone else is deny him/her the right to love.  To love the person to whom his/her heart inclines, even if that person happens to be a member of the same sex.  And to form strong, fruitful marital unions with that person, which enable the love shared by the couple to overflow into the lives of others.

God is love.  And those who abide in love abide in God and God in them.  And this is the message that the churches need to be lifting up in the world in which we live today.  And I'm grateful for people of faith in many religious communities who keep lifting that message up within faith communities themselves, and challenging these communities to make it the center of their religious life.

One day, perhaps, we'll get there.

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