For what are we giving thanks this year?

Posted November 26th, 2014 in Blog, Featured 2 Comments »

I’m not finding that an easy question right now. In fact, I’ve struggled for a few days with what I want to write for this long weekend of national holiday, family gatherings, traveling, feasting, and shopping. The context for many of these holidays grows more challenging for many of us as we wonder what they actually mean anymore.

The home where we once gathered.

The home where we once gathered.

Growing up, of course, it was the smell of the pies already in the oven when I woke in the morning, the preparations for the 24-lb turkey for our family of nine, the incredible meal and what is still the best stuffing ever made (my mother’s), watching the Macy’s parade, and later on the annual Packers-Lions football game.

As we grew older, we had our own annual football game, first across the front yards of our house and the next door neighbors, and then as we grew still older, down in the park where things really got serious, especially when in-laws and significant others were involved.

There was also the national mystique of the holiday’s origins, some Edenic myth about pilgrims sharing a meal with indigenous tribes in gratitude for the autumn harvest. Of course, humans have long held celebrations to mark the harvest, a time when food was most in abundance and shared among tribe, village, or community. In many cases, sacrifices were offered to whatever gods or spirits, acknowledgement that humans were not the masters, that greater powers were at work that needed to be respected and thanked, certainly not taken for granted.

There are a lot of stories about that supposed first nationally recognized harvest meal, but whatever actually happened in the Massachusetts Colony way back in 1621, we know from subsequent historical developments that this shared thanksgiving did not end well ultimately for the Native Americans. Gratitude given, then taken away.

It is also unlikely that stuffed, fattened turkey was served.

Speaking of turkey, PolitiFact Wisconsin did a check on a recent story in Mother Jones reporting that, “Turkeys today weigh 29.8 pounds. In the 30s, they weighed 13.2 pounds.” They rated this statement true, with one correction – the figure is a bit understated. The average today is 30.3 pounds.

Industrial turkey factory. Source: Mercy for Animals

Industrial turkey factory. Source: Mercy for Animals

How and why did this come about? Well, because U.S. Americans like their meat and they like their turkeys fat and lean, and they love breast meat especially. Enter the animal engineers to design a turkey, a living being, to meet our desires. So, along with the 46 million turkeys slaughtered for this holiday, add the ingredients of hormones, antibiotics, and lives of suffering – where turkey breasts are so huge on these birds that they can hardly stand up.

And after eating, off to Walmart to feed that other insatiable human creation – the GDP!!

Hey, America, remember the harvest? –  that celebration of abundance that the Earth gives back to us in exchange for our labor, the labor of producing food, sowing, planting, bringing in the crop, putting up for the winter, along with a few wild turkeys or deer taken by hunters for protein over the long winter months.

I get that celebration. I also know that very few people in this country have that kind of relationship with food anymore, expect it just to be there when they go to the store, packaged, bound, ready for them, even off season, even when their demand means we ship strawberries from Mexico and sweet peppers from Israel. No need to sow or harvest, no need for manual labor, no relationship with the soil or the summer rain (or lack thereof), no need to put anything up for the winter. Meanwhile, hunting has become sport.

In a very small amount of time at a very rapid pace of change, so much that gave meaning to holidays like this one seems to be evaporating. When I try to imagine what the harvest meant to colonists, a very religiously conservative group of people seeking some sort of new start in a new land, who put so much labor into making what they needed to live, I get what gratitude must have meant to them. I get what it must have meant that the seemingly exotic peoples and cultures they met here would help them out, teach them a few things, help them learn how to live in this strange new world. It’s hard for me to feel that same sense in an industrial consumer culture where we feel good about ourselves as measured by our affluence, that affluence distancing us farther and farther from a sense of living within a natural web of life that has been so generous with us – and which we are now tearing to shreds in order to continue those alienated, fragmented lives.

Alice's Garden in Milwaukee - a sacred space

Alice’s Garden in Milwaukee – a sacred space

For those who still find deep meaning in the notion of giving thanks, this holiday has taken on a new tenor. It has become more personal, more “spiritual” if you will. Rather than a national celebration, it is a time to be with family and friends, or to be generous out in the community, and to still connect with the Earth’s abundant gifts – which she still has to offer us, despite the abuse. Bread is still made by human hands, food is still served that came from our own gardens, and the turkeys from industrial agriculture are refused, and in many cases no turkey or other meat is prepared at all. More and more of us eschew the mass slaughter of other conscious living beings as a way of expressing gratitude for being in this world. The industrial sacrifice has become simply too cruel, too inhumane, too mindless.

For many, indeed growing numbers of us, there is this profound inner awareness that giving thanks, that offering gratitude, is an immediately humbling exercise, because it means there is something beyond us and our rugged individualism, beyond ego, that we need to live – from harvests of food, to friendship and community, to a deep sense of that of which we are a part.

Somewhere in that true spirit of gratitude, in the depths of the meaning of that word, is something we descend to, bow to, honor, in search of a way out of this destructive life that has shaped us these past couple of centuries. We not only know what we depend upon for life, but also what we are now in danger of losing altogether.

Gratitude is also a way of living more simply, more respectfully, more tenderly, on this planet.

Look, I’m writing this in a very difficult week. If we believe in being grateful as a nation for what we have, how can we do that in the face of the drama that has unfolded in Ferguson MO, now radiating out into our cities all across the country? How can we do that as our way of life continues to devour the planet, to deplete and contaminate what a few billion years of evolution gave us so that humans could come into being and live here among the other sentient and non-sentient beings, as we move headlong into a future where the harvests themselves are in jeopardy, where it will be harder and harder to put food on our tables, much less celebrate anything like abundance?

Gratitude is a way of living more simply, more respectfully, more tenderly, on this planet.

Photo: Peg Hunter

Photo: Peg Hunter

For what am I grateful on this holiday weekend? For every place where the struggle for life is engaged – whether in the streets of Ferguson or on Burnaby Mountain where courageous people are trying to stop the Kinder Morgan tar sands pipeline, where justice is the faith, and integrity and dignity the core values of struggle, where the Earth is being re-honored and re-membered, where people are putting their energies into healing what has been broken and torn, rather than consuming, using up, contaminating, and otherwise destroying.

I am grateful for the value that millions of us still place in family, friendship, and community, bound not by retail and material possessions, but in passing food around a table, holding hands and giving thanks for our many blessings of life and goodness, in long conversations and play and laughter.

Like making snow angels in the back yard or sledding down a hill. Or a long lingering glass of a lovely red shared with old friends we cherish.

We humans face some tremendous upheavals and challenges ahead. I can say this with complete assurance: as life gets harder on this planet (and it will, count on that for sure), those things we possess will not help us in the least, but those relationships (and not just among humans either) and our knowledge of the natural world will matter hugely. Since that is the case, don’t we really want to take more time to cultivate those very relationships we will need to survive?

In case anyone thinks I’m being overly dramatic, I offer Katrina and Sandy, the California drought, the 8-foot snowfall around Buffalo, as examples of what is to come and of how we will need one another.

I give thanks this day for all those who understand what it means to live on a planet that gave birth to life and allowed us to come into being. I give thanks for all those who work each day to nurture that reality, to protect it from harm, to defend their “places,” to work for social and eco-justice, who struggle against racism and all forms of discrimination because they (we) see that every part of life is precious, given, to be honored and respected.

Have a good Thanksgiving weekend. May gratitude overwhelm us with its grace.

Margaret Swedish
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2 Responses

  1. Gerard Murphy

    This is a timely, compelling, and provocative ‘wake-up’ reflection for the times we live in. Many of us sleep the sleep of the unconscious; we’re in a cultural trance that has desensitized us to the injustices, inequality, and degradation of the earth, all around us. We have become commodities that are bought and sold (daily) to feed the media moguls and conglomerates who call the shots. We lean to living insular, self-indulgent lives – alienated from real (truly human) community, we are so capable of living. Thanks Margaret for this clarion call to reconnect to the natural web of life that birthed us – and deserves our kindness, tenderness, compassion, and above all, humble gratitude!

  2. Barbara Richards

    Thank you for wresting this through. There is much to mourn and only what we can dig deep to own as true and just is what we must hold to as we go forth to the season of giving and receiving, of overcoming darkness.