Cross-posted at Education Week.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, a uniquely American institution. We’ve put the old wicker porch furniture away for the season, along with the grill and the hoses. The dahlias have been dug up and stowed, the boat and the float are out of the water, hibernating now. The summer insects, the ones that couldn’t get inside, have stopped buzzing about and the Russian sage is no longer that sweet ineffable color of blue, though there is still a flicker of yellow in the snapdragons. The wind has shifted to the Northwest now as it always does in the late fall, and the morning sometimes leaves a little drift of snow that fell silently in the still night. The waves advance across the water like ranks of soldiers in battle, driven by the chilly wind.
In the old days, we would have put the root vegetables by in the cellar, hoping they would last the winter. The deer would have been hanging from the porch ceiling. The salmon would have been salted to preserve it. The squirrels would have put their acorns by in a whole raft of hiding places, most of which, evidently, they could find. Those they couldn’t find would become the seeds of new oak forest, a trick of nature to turn these small animals into tree farmers, or at least tree planters.
Where I live, in Downeast Maine, the wild turkeys have come back and they troop everywhere, a bit witless as they scurry about, looking for food. The bobcats and the coyotes are back, too. The raccoons and the porcupines are everywhere. They think we built our garden for them and who is to say they are wrong? We can see the dolphins in the water and the harbor seals, too. The eagles hunt the mackerel as the fish circle around in their schools, looking for safety in numbers.
Not so different from what the Billings and the Condons and the Herricks and the Abenakis would have said if they had been asked to describe what they saw outside their wigwams and palisaded wooden houses at this very place on Thanksgiving Day three hundred years ago. Perhaps they, too, sat down together on this day in the late fall to thank their deities for the bounty of the land and the sea.
This year, we’ve invited some close friends to join us at home. The fire will be roaring. Our friends will bring squash from their gardens and pies from their ovens. The wild turkeys will be safe, at least from us, as ours will come from an organic farmer down the road. What doesn’t get eaten on Thanksgiving Day will become turkey soup the next, with peas and carrots and macaroni, and thyme and parsley and whatever else comes to mind.
Our home lives at the end of a half-mile long dirt road that dead ends into a very narrow, winding paved road barely worthy of the name. Most of the homes in the area are simple structures, many very old. Quite a few are mobile homes that are mobile no longer. Maine is a very poor state. The average age is the oldest in the nation. Our charitable giving goes to the local food pantries, shelters, nursing homes and volunteer ambulance services. We are surrounded by people who don’t have much and don’t complain. They often work two or three jobs and the combined income often leaves them having to choose between food, fuel and medicine.
Down at the Eggemoggin Country Store, where we buy our milk and eggs and get our gasoline, there is almost always a slotted jar out asking for contributions for someone who needs help, a lobsterman who was badly injured at sea, a woodsman whose leg was severed by a falling log or someone with three young children at home who had stroke at the age of 40 and cannot work at all. Mainers are used to pitching in when someone they know is down on their luck. They don’t need to be asked. They just show up.
I remember riding one day in the big diesel truck owned by Clint, the fellow who plows me out in the winter. He pointed out a house back from the road that had the lovely simple lines of the classic Maine farm house, but the paint was peeling off, the windows needed caulking and the roof shingles had started to peel off in the wind. My friend told me that it was the home of a man he had known for more than 40 years who had more than once helped him when he was in a tight spot. Now, in the winter, when the snow came, Clint would plow him out. He never charged him and his friend never said anything. He didn’t have to.
I don’t know how not to be thankful. Kathy and I are in great health. Our children have wonderful marriages and children of their own of whom we are very proud. We are doing the work we love to do and are fully engaged in the world. We have a wide circle of friends at home and around the world whose company we treasure.
I wish I could say the same for the world I see in the newspapers we read and the television news we watch. Though the world, as a whole, has never been wealthier and the world’s poor are rising out of poverty more quickly and in larger numbers than ever before, the world seems an anxious, fractious, resentful and often angry place. Demagogues, catching the mood, fan the flames of these emotions, and the world turns sour.
Thanksgiving could be a time to turn inward and shut all of this out and that, I suppose, could be forgiven. But it could also be a time, considering how much we have to be thankful for, to see what we can do to help others get to the same place, so they, too can build a sparkling fire, drink mulled cider and watch the dolphins play with their friends.