This is a complicated Thanksgiving for counting our blessings. The traditional cornucopias still spill with harvest abundance; what’s empty are the chairs. Throughout Minnesota, too many thousands of spots at tables are unoccupied because of COVID-19 deaths. Far more belong to loved ones who are safely staying away. And how many restaurant chairs sit idle? All of them.
Some of our vacant seats would otherwise be filled this election year by certain family members of certain mindsets. A welcome reprieve, that?
We who do gather are not the same people we were last November. We’ve been made urgently aware that, while most of us will have some chair somewhere come Thursday, many of us have never been invited to share in the spreads that privilege and prosperity offer. Widespread divisiveness and hurt manifest as anger, which hardly encourages our coming together.
Regardless, the calendar calls on us to give thanks. To whatever degree gratitude has been a simple reflex for us in the past, this Thanksgiving it can’t not be reflective. We get to—it would seem we rather have to—practice deepening our gratitude by doing so when it’s neither automatic nor easy. It’s like being forced to try a new recipe because we’re missing ingredients for our usual one and the store is closed. We have to use what we have on hand. We can’t whip it together by memory. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.
Could be we’ll end up liking it better.
Gratitude can be found on the flip side of most everything: Rarely is anything 100 percent bad. According to the science of healing, the tenets of recovery programs, the very anchors of faith, gratitude can sweep clouds from the sky and rewire our mental and physical health. It’s less a counter to that which weighs heavily than a companion, one that’s subject to timing and sensitive to outside suggestion. We don’t deny our difficulty and pain. Nor do we force positivity before our pop-up thermometer tells us we’re ready or settle into hardship as if it’s the only truth. We simply ask, Is there a slice of good here? Might there even be a slice topped with a little whipped cream? Maybe the answer sweetens our situation straight away. Maybe later. No matter; the very asking opens our thinking to the possibility.
I wish I could push my mom’s wheelchair up to the table this year. She didn’t even have a wheelchair last Thanksgiving; she sat—upright, sharp and festive—in an armchair, the queen’s throne. So rapid was her decline, so consuming my despair, that the only gratitude I could summon as she was dying was more shaky acknowledgment than celebration: She didn’t have COVID-19, we could visit her in hospice, we got to care for her at home until her final days. My mom was leaving me, but I had those somethings to hold onto.
“Gratitude is a both/and,” says Minneapolis intuitive healer and ordained minister Nancy Lindgren. “You feel all this hard stuff but there are also beautiful things happening.” It’s real, the grief, anxiety, depression, resentment and fear these days. It’s real any day. Notice it. Tell someone about it. Write about it. Allow yourself to wholly feel it, Lindgren advises. Then recognize that your feelings may have some built-in solace. Those empty chairs at the Thanksgiving table? “The sadness wouldn’t be so big if there wasn’t the love,” she says. What good fortune it is to know or have known big love. “The gratitude is for the richness of being able to feel all that and in having the luxury to do so,” she says. “There are people on the streets who are spending 100 percent of their energy just surviving.”
Simple thanks for simple things can sustain us, too. Our dress pants still fit. A cardinal is at the bird feeder. There’s pie. The gift of this Thanksgiving is that we can be wherever we’re at. Expectations are low. Obligations are fewer. Excuses for not doing what we don’t want to do are ready-made. Maybe, just maybe, we have the time and mental space to consider a bright side. Like the folding chairs we haul out on holidays and keep stored at the ready year-round, feelings of gratitude are always there for the opening.
Kitty Shea is a Twin Cities freelance writer and editor.
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