November brings thoughts of closure and completion – sometimes willing and sometimes imposed – as we get closer to completing another journey around the biggest life-giver we know. But November also brings with it one of my favorite holidays – Thanksgiving – a quintessentially American holiday devoted to expressing gratitude for life’s gifts.
Some of my hardcore atheist friends sometimes object “…thanks to whom?” to which I simply reply, “to the universe, to this happy accident of life, to our lucky stars that we are here and that we met…”. We may choose to believe in god or not, but it seems peevish to deny any feeling of gratitude for this life, this unlikely accident of existence — rare cases of extreme and unrelenting bad luck notwithstanding!
So here we are. Ready to fulfill the year’s promises and debts and to say thanks because of AND despite it all! Thanks for the good we harvested, the bad or much worse we avoided and simply for being here for another day, another chance. Even the fact that we are growing older is a reminder that thankfully we are not – or at least getting further away from – dying young!
Happiness experts (yes there is such a thing) suggest that a happy life is not necessarily the precursor to gratitude but a deep feeling of gratitude is very much a necessary condition for being happy. This does not mean we won’t get down, not express despair at some point or resist sharing our heart’s aches with trusted family & friends. We will and must because such sharing is essential to finding meaning and courage for our battles; but just that we not lose sight of the broader narrative of life and the myriad gifts that form our experience. Easier said than done, I know! So how to get there?!
In cultivating gratitude, we need to first rid ourselves of foolish comparisons with others; and even more so all absurd notions that others’ lives are happier, better, more fulfilling. As the world class Urdu poet Nida Fazli once penned, “Kabhi kisi ko mukammal jahan nahin milta, kahin zameen toh kahin aasmaan nahin milta”, which translates to, “No one is ever given the whole world, some are not given the earth and some the sky”. A perfect life is a myth. Note to my younger readers: Instagram lives/ looks/ lifestyles are NOT real. Those posts and pics often gloss over much that is hidden including broken families, despairing youth, pain, feelings of inadequacy, a deep loneliness and much more.
And as we go through this journey to build our lives and contributions, create homes, nurture families, friendships, and find our communities we come to better understand that everyone carries burdens, even as some seem to shoulder an unfair share. People carry so much that is hidden from our gaze, it’s easy to think we are alone. We are not and when we reach out and talk and connect, and even express our gratitude for what we do have, we can find kinship with others in our and their struggles. That precious connection alone is something to be grateful for. I am always humbled any time someone shares their battles with me. But more importantly I find myself in awe of – and inspired to do better – by such everyday heroes.
So as we get ready to host our annual Thanksgiving dinner this November – a tradition my husband and I adopted as “fresh off the boat” graduate students in America and have been carrying on for nearly three decades now – I want to share two poems with you. Both are about gratitude but in oblique ways.
The first is for a dear friend who lost a grown son some years ago. I hope my awe for her bravery in facing such unimaginable grief comes through. It is called “endless march”. The second poem is about the unsung heroes among us who show up daily to fight life’s battles, but whose bravery and grace goes unseen, unrecognized.
This poem is an ode to each of you, to us. It is called “Uncelebrated”.
i hug her tight for loss and love
she hesitates, “i’m ok,” and gently shakes
lost her grown son, decades too soon
i witness my grieving friend today
i barely find bumbling words to account
for this wretched reversal of a universe so cruel
she says she’s back at work and shrugs,
“they ask why, but what else can i do…?”
she talks of his wife and her loss
generously giving that grief more sway
says, “she lost her best friend, her love,
how will she resume walking from there?”
indifferent grief sits among us as we talk
how can we raise them, lose them, yet live on?
what is the nature of hope in such darkness?
“he said goodbye” she smiles wide, “i love you mom”
yet life moves right on without another thought
it does us in, shattering all we sought
wide open wounds bleed and there is no pause
life’s unabated drumbeat, “march on, march on!”
says she’s wading through family pictures, old slides
ever practical, readying for ceremonies and guests
looks up, sees my face and smiles
“i did lose his future, but i still have his past!”
The everyday heroes of ordinary lives
The journeys they make the mountains they climb
Slaying inner demons, mostly out of sight
Battling childhood monsters of fearful might
Yet true grit and spirit and a will to believe
That a better life is possible, though hard to perceive
Naysayers they have slayed, cynicism held at bay,
Apprehensions overcome, to capture a clear day
Sometimes just a vision when you pierce through the haze
The ascent you have made putting all else at stake
Stand up, be counted, show them how to journey through,
Those that claim their wars, stature are of a greater value.
I hope this note and my poems help you slow down and say a deep thanks – if only for this day, this moment, and perhaps only for the connection we made here – but hopefully for much more! Have a very Happy Thanksgiving in whatever way you celebrate. Give thanks AND be sure to raise a toast to all the unsung heroes in your life – especially yourself! I’ll be doing the same.