Commentary: Stories of thanks-giving
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2009 - There was a contest on the radio. Write or speak your gratitude on this Thanksgiving. "What are you grateful for?" the radio announcer asked. Send in your story.
I heard the winners. It was a tie. Two women, one from California, one from Massachusetts.
First, the woman from California spoke. She was a sheep rancher, she raised sheep on a ranch in California. Her father before her worked the ranch. The ranch had been in her family for several generations.
She was, I imagine, a woman in her late 40s. Her husband now also worked the ranch, along with her 80-year-old father. They all lived right there on the ranch.
She spoke of the difficulties in running such an enterprise these days. The cost of harvesting and processing the wool is for the first time greater than what it can be sold for, in addition to which there has been five years of drought in her area.
"There's dust in everything," she said, "and the grazing land is parched and cracked," her flocks thin and diminished, her father old and tired, herself and her husband frustrated.
I waited for the punch line. What was she grateful for on this Thanksgiving? I wondered.
The night before telling her story, it rained. It rained an inch and a half. The dust liquified back into the earth, the earth smoothed and healed some of its cracks, but this was not the source of her gratitude. Certainly all the difficulties of running a sheep ranch in these days were not solved by an inch and a half of rain. This was a bonus, a sign, a clue, but not a solution, not even a temporary one, it may have been a joke: God writes straight with crooked lines. Rain, as if that would make a difference.
What was she grateful for had to do with her tired 80-year-old father who has seen so many seasons come and go on the ranch, something to do with herself and her husband working the family ranch scouting the sky week after week, month after month, year after year for rain. It had to do with the shared judgment about their business, which is fragile, outdated, bound up with the shared destiny of one family, one plot of land, one generation after another, being in that thing together, the tenderness as she described her father waddling into the farmhouse after a long day of work and the brave possibility that the ranch would yet turn a profit somehow.
Another season. The possibility, the hope of a future, measured not only in rain but in the dignity of these human beings who hope, who imagine it working, again -- for the sacred possibility of the future -- hope, hope, hope. Hope sustains.
The second woman was from Massachusetts, a Jewish woman I imagined, from her name, from her brand of humor. She was very funny. About the same age as the other woman, late 40s. This was her story:
It has been almost a year since he died, she began, and still she hasn't set up a tombstone for him. It was a marriage no one thought would work -- he had been married three times previously, she several times herself. Neither looking to get married ever again, they met. Against all advice, against their own better judgment and plans for living, they married anyway. Out of the chaos of two lives and ex-wives and kids and step kids and recriminations they found deep love, love that outlasted the complexities of their lives, and tamed them both.
She spoke, her story touching, funny, sad. A year after they married, he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, given not much hope for even another year. He lived six, living with cancer, with dignity and joy and living more deeply than ever before because everything was so precious. Every moment.
Now he was gone. She was broke. Public aid in Massachusetts had all but dried up. She had not been able to find full time work, she was substitute teaching in Boston. What was she grateful for? I was waiting to hear.
This: first, many friends. They called her regularly and invited her to meals, she usually declined but loved the invitations. Someone brought over a load of firewood to heat her wood burning stove as winter came on. She was grateful because she had felt her heart unlock to life so freely that it would never close again, the great gift of love that changed her permanently.
The last thing she said: I'm alone, broke, but not unhappy, not in the least afraid. As a matter of fact, I'm rather content, she said, because I believe something, my little way of thinking about things, that may sound wacky but I really believe this --
I think of him as if he has gone away somewhere ahead of me, as if to find the perfect apartment, you know something near a bookstore, where there is a cafe that serves fresh raspberries all year round. He has gone there ahead of me to find the perfect place for us, she said. I am as certain of this as I am of anything: We will meet again, and because I believe this, I am full of gratitude this Thanksgiving, content and not at all afraid of the future. Everything is possible when you believe in something.
These are the two American stories of gratitude that I heard on the radio just before Thanksgiving.
My own tale
I listened and then I wrote my own tale of gratitude. It had to do, like the ones I had heard, with loving somebody, with what I believe that gets me through the long nights, with a vague sense of possibility that everything is going to be all right, of hope, I suppose, that accompanies all our lives like a sense of something fine arriving from the distance, something good, hope, that's it.
In the distance, it's God you are discerning, or love, or nature, or whatever it is you believe in that animates your life. This is what you are hearing bearing down on you: Be grateful, it's going to work out, somehow
It's going to be just fine.