FEATURE —It’s almost Thanksgiving and that means we must talk about gratitude. I say this unfacetiously. I mean, isn’t that the enduring point of this whole 4000 calorie a plate holiday? Well, that and the pumpkin pie. And the stuffing. Oh, and the potatoes. With gravy.
Wait, I’m losing my focus. Gratitude. Right then.
Over the years, my family and I have tried to orient ourselves to gratitude leading up to Thanksgiving. We’ve written our thanks on pumpkins. We’ve written our thanks with brightly hued window markers on our patio doors. And we’ve written our thanks on hand cut paper leaves.
In fact, the leaves from last Thanksgiving still hang taped to the inside of our laundry room door, a faded homemade wallpaper of sorts.
One yellow leaf reads “hot water” and another reads “school.” A dark green leaf reads “gaming with my brothers.” A pink one reads “friends” and a gold one says, “my car.”
I’m not sure anyone but me notices them anymore. And even so, my gaze only hovers occasionally these days as I rush off and away: to drive the high school carpool; to drive the middle school carpool; to rock climbing; to jujitsu; to the Cannon Building for another negative Covid test; to the foothills above my home for a hike with my dog; to an occasional lunch with a friend.
Sure, we feel grateful. But then we don’t. Because we are also forgetful. Even with the November exercises.
The poet Mary Oliver has this to say about thanks:
It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be
Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
Small stones; just
Pay attention, then patch
A few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate,
this isn’t a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
The Onondaga, a Native American tribe in the New York area, live this poetry. And since many of us think of the first Thanksgiving as a sharing between the Pilgrims and the native people, it feels appropriate to share how the Onondaga manage gratitude on a more regular basis.
On the Onondaga Tribal Reservation, school begins and ends each week with the recitation of something known as “The Words That Come Before All Else.” Or better known as the Thanksgiving Address.
All the students gather in the school’s atrium. Each week, a different grade is responsible for the oratory, and each child in the grade takes his or her turn.
According to a popularly printed 1993 version of the Address, it begins: “today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us, we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people. Now our minds are one.”
Each passage begins with giving gratitude and acknowledging a different element – the earth, the fish life in the water, the plant life in the fields, the berries on the brush, the birds that flock above, the winds and changes of seasons, lightning and thunder, the sun, the stars, and even God – and each passage ends with “now our minds are one.”
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, author Robin Wall Kemmerer, a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Ecological Botany at SUNY and a member of the neighboring indigenous tribe of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, describes the Onondaga’s Thanksgiving Address as: “at heart an invocation of gratitude, but it is also a material, scientific inventory of the natural world. As it goes forward, each element of the ecosystem is named in its turn, along with its function.
The Thanksgiving Address of the Onondaga is long. It is meant to be that way. To take time. To orient the listener and the reciter to their expansive wealth. And also, to orient them to each other and the shared nature of that wealth.
It is more than the blue iris. It is more than the weeds of a vacant lot. It is all of that and then some. And it is all year long.
So, perhaps this year, my family should take a page from the Onondaga. We’ll skip the pumpkins, windows and hand cut leaves and opt instead for a more regular and full recitation of all we are grateful for. Starting this week. And in all the weeks to come.
Kat Dayton is a columnist for St. George News. Any opinions given are her own and not representative of St. George News staff or management.
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