I didn’t always dread Thanksgiving.
Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, I looked forward to it. I loved the special dishes my mother prepared (sauteed mushrooms and onions being one). I enjoyed making relish, hand cranking cranberries and an orange, rind and all, through a metal meat grinder and watching it ooze red and pink into a bowl. I remember the smell of the roasting turkey filling the kitchen and waiting for it to be done, already. The meal could never start early enough for me. I loved having more than one kind of dessert and, after cleaning the table, picking bits of turkey off the carcass as it sat on the kitchen counter. Thanksgiving might as well have been synonymous with gluttony, as often I unbuttoned my pants to accommodate my intake, then succumbed to a tryptophan slumber. And believing that almost everyone else in the country was sitting down to a meal similar to ours felt reassuring, as if turkey and stuffing acted as the glue keeping America together. On that day, belonging was as easy as eating pumpkin pie.
After I finished college, my parents’ divorced and my older brother married, shifting the locus of the family and reconfiguring relationships. Even with both parents amicably attending, Thanksgiving was never quite the same. Whatever had been “home” no longer existed, despite the fact that my father remained in the house. I moved away, and many years I spent the weeks in advance of the holiday in a state of stress rather than anticipation, unsure exactly where I’d be spending Thanksgiving or with whom. As a young adult, wanting to fit in, I didn’t have the wherewithal to withstand the media and social barrage that inextricably linked Thanksgiving with family, tradition and memory. To not have a place to go on Thanksgiving, or a place where one is truly excited to go, is like being cut adrift, a social death on a day in which many are gathered together, whether happily, indifferently or uneasily. But since hardly anyone spoke of “uneasily”, it was hard to imagine that others might find Thanksgiving more burden than blessing. With neither a spouse at my side nor a family of origin that consistently gathered in one place, I often believed I fell short since my life failed to live up to the Norman Rockwell ideal. Sometimes I held my breath and hunkered down, waiting for the holiday and the hype to be over.
These days, different forces pull on Thanksgiving, reshaping it like a piece of taffy. The New York Times this month offered, “Your guide to the year’s most important meal, with our best recipes, videos, techniques and tricks.” The year’s most important meal? I imagined the pressure on Thanksgiving cooks everywhere, trying to uphold some impossible standard, create lifelong memories and fulfill fantasies. While The New York Times tries to elevate the holiday, or at least the quality of the meal and the experience of cooking it, the growing number of stores open on Thanksgiving encroach upon if not desecrate a day that was once characterized by simplicity and, for some, sanctity. The upside of the changing Thanksgiving-scape is that it’s now more acceptable to opt out or reinvent it.
This year I was tempted to skip it, as I’ve done occasionally. As an introvert, I prefer intimate conversation with one person at a time to group small talk or sitting politely as a host holds court. Taking into account my meat-free diet and my recent ‘sugar divorce’, traditional Thanksgiving meals can be awkward, if not a minefield. Participating in a gathering whose entire design and menu challenges my peace of mind and hard-won personal choices is not what I would consider fun or self-nurturing. For many people whose lives don’t match the mainstream, attending a typical turkey-day gathering can feel like a sacrifice, one I was not prepared to make.
As I pondered how else to spend the day, I saw a notice online for a contemplative, potluck Thanksgiving. I lit up and I signed up, even though I didn’t know any of the participants. The evening is being hosted by one man but is co-created by everyone. We’ll each bring a dish to share and a meditation cushion to sit on. At the beginning of the evening, at least, there will be no cross-talk: each person will have a chance to express their experience in the moment or share their Thanksgiving truth, without interruption. What a relief to start a gathering this way, instead of with cocktails and chitchat.
While choosing what to make, I realized that this potluck among strangers might be closer to the original Thanksgiving than many contemporary variations. That first gathering of Pilgrims and Wampanoag expressed a fledgling community’s deep gratitude for a successful harvest following extreme hardship. Each person brought something to the table, together creating a feast. Those courageous Pilgrims were glad to be alive after having lost many to cold and disease. For them, there was no returning to the ancestral home. Survival depended on befriending the locals, learning new skills and adapting to a strange land. Having uprooted myself more than once in my life, I can connect to this aspect of the Thanksgiving story, often lost amidst the emphasis on turkey, now a stand-in for a complicated, powerful and harrowing experience.
It’s in transitional periods, when everything feels tenuous, when there is no going back and without a clear path forward, that the only true spiritual nourishment is raw, lip quivering gratitude, the giving of thanks for the privilege of being alive. Last year, when I was a Pilgrim along the Camino de Santiago, with a pack on my back, my feet on the ground and my eyes raised to the magnificent sky, I understood gratitude possibly for the first time. It’s not a feeling that’s easily accessible when gorging on turducken, tofurkey, or Terra chips, or debating whether pumpkin trumps apple when it comes to pies.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying festive fare. And it’s wonderful when connoisseurship is accompanied by conscious connection. But eating the foods of the Pilgrims and tucking into a succulent turkey is not a substitute for finding freedom and experiencing gratitude for ourselves. My intention for this contemplative potluck and beyond is to eat mindfully enough to leave plenty of room in my body for appreciation and thankfulness, fuel for life.