When Thanksgiving Won’t Come

Today is Thanksgiving Day, and I’m making plans to have dinner with George’s daughters Laurie and Robin, Laurie’s husband Jon, and George’s four absolutely delightful grandchildren.  For so many years, I have generally been away from my family for the holidays, for my sister, my brother, my children, all are back East–and once again, we are not together.  But I have been blessed with becoming part of George’s family, and for that I am very grateful.

I woke up thinking this morning, however, about all the times when Thanksgiving was difficult for me, and how difficult it is for so many on this day of family celebration. 

I remember first Thanksgiving after I was separated from my first husband, Frank, and our boys were with him for the holiday.  I woke up in a very empty, very silent house that day.  I had plans for dinner late in the afternoon with friends, but what to do until then?  I decided that I would use the day to write to people–public figures–for whom I was thankful.  That exercise took the sting off.  One of those people was the writer Joan Didion.  I told her how grateful I was for her beautiful prose, and how admiring I was of her skill with words.  She in fact wrote me back, and I have kept her letter all these years.  She is still working her magic with language, I am glad to see.

But there are people for whom today will be difficult.  I just got word that the mother of one of my best friends died this morning.  My friend’s mom was quite elderly and has been frail for a long while, but nevertheless death is always a shock in its terribly finality.  So grief may move in and take over where thanksgiving would normally prevail–though grief and thanksgiving may come hand in hand, as well, as they often do at the time of death.

So my usual reflection today goes out especially to all those who find that Thanksgiving is a bit of a stretch today: to the widow and widower; to all who are separated from those they hold most dear; to the children who are with mom but not dad or vice-versa, or to the children who have no mom or dad; to the family that cannot afford a turkey, much less all the trimmings; to the soldiers who are holed up in some hostile land, thinking of a mother’s kitchen or a wife’s caress; to those who languish in a hospital bed, so ill that they cannot be home for the holiday; to those who live on the street, who will go to some church or non-profit and stand in line with a paper plate to get a steaming plate of food dished out by strangers; to those who have volunteered to work in the emergency rooms of this world today–in the hospitals, the Plaid Pantries, the fire stations, the police beats, the 911 operators–because they don’t have any place to go anyway, and others do, so why not help out.

Let us open our hearts on this Thanksgiving Day, and allow love and compassion to take us way beyond our own needs, way beyond our own family, to the larger community to which we are absolutely and irrevocably connected.  Once again, let us know that we are one, all part of the human family, and all of us stand in the need of kindness and love and belonging.


Living in Terror

Karin Carrington, Susan Griffin, and Howard Teich are coming out with an anthology next year entitled Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World (University of California Press), for which I was asked to write a blurb, and I gladly did so.  The book–mostly essays, but also some poetry–redefines terror not in the usual sense as coming from “a terrorist” alone,  but rather explores the various ways that civilians have been terrorized in modern times, whether through the lynching of blacks in the South or the bombing of innocents in wartime.  A multitude of the wisest voices of our time are included: Daniel Ellsberg, Huston Smith, Vandana Shiva, James Hillman, Czeslaw Milosz, Carolyn Forche, Vaclav Havel, Susan Sontag, Bishop Desmond Tu Tu. 

Reading this moving volume caused me to ponder the ways in which we all live in fear, every day.  And it didn’t used to be that way.

Speaking of terrorists, this morning the headline in the Oregonian was Flying’s too-personal touch?  The article tells of a woman in a wheelchair who was pulled aside by a Federal officer at the Portland International Airport for the new anti-terrorism pat-down.  The traveler, who suffers from post-polio syndrome, teetered up so she could stand on the rug marked with large yellow feet.  The officer told her where she would be touched and then proceeded to place her gloved hands under the woman’s breasts, the inside of her thighs, across her buttocks, and inside her waistband.  Presumably, the officer found no weapons or explosives, so our traveler was free to board the plane to visit her grandchildren. 

Now–do you feel safer?  Does our traveler?  Personally, I don’t.  In fact, I find that I live in a world that is now inundated with fears of various kinds.  We are all subjected to the airport searches, and the “orange” alerts, which tell us nothing except to be more afraid than we were.  Many children don’t feel safe walking to school alone or playing in most neighborhoods.  Unwrapped Halloween treats must be thrown away.  Would a neighbor poison my child?  We are cautioned to shred personal papers and old bills, lest our very identity be stolen.  We read of shootings in schools and even churches.  We have double-bolt locks and security systems in our homes.  Some people have even withdrawn into gated communities. 

The fears I grew up with as a child in N. Louisiana were personal, from a family that had its problems–but these fears weren’t overlaid with the fears that saturate our society today.  Our doors were always unlocked during the day.  When “hoboes” (the wandering indigent) came by, we always gave them a big plate of food.  Our dog never had a leash, and ate scraps from the table.  We rode our bikes wherever we wanted, walked or hitched rides several miles to school and to the swimming pool, charged whatever we wanted to eat at the local grocery store on the town square.  We knew the banker–he lived next door.  Teenagers went to the “Teen Club,” sponsored by Coca Cola, and we drank nothing stronger than our sponsor’s beverage.  After basketball games, we went to the Purple Cow, where we had a burger and curly fries for 36 cents.  The most daring thing we did was to drive a couple of miles out into the country and climb the fire tower.  Since nobody was drinking, nobody fell.  (I should add that this bucolic picture applied only to whites, in a community that was absolutely segregated.)

I did not choose to return to Homer, LA, to live.  It got way too small for me, really soon.  But I remember that lovely sense of feeling “in place,” feeling safe and free in a community.  How do we still our anxiety in these times we’re in?  Where is a haven?  Where do we feel safe? 


The Problem with Philanthropy

Everybody loves a philanthropist, right?  And this was a great year for philanthropy.  It was the year of the “Giving Pledge,” when 40 of the wealthiest Americans pledged to give away at least half of their money–around $600 billion.  The pledge was organized by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warrent E. Buffett, who hoped it would stimulate conversation about philantrophy among the mega-rich and bring on a wave of genreous giving.  That hasn’t happened.  Well, the discussion, maybe, but apparently not the giving.

Let me say right off that I’ve never been big on charity–on charity events for rich people, on walls with rich people’s names on them, on programs listing the wealthy people “who made this program possible.”  And yes, in the service of truth and transparency, I admit that my name–though I am not wealthy–has appeared in a few of these places, and I do make charitable contributions.  But let me tell you why I have trouble with charity and lean more toward justice.

Think about Carnegie and Rockefeller.  They took their pound of flesh out of the working man and woman, and then gave them back libraries and public buildings with the benefactors’ names carved on the front.  More than such gifts, I believe that working people need a fair wage–money to spend the way they wish to spend it, on the health and well-being of their families–and that the government should be responsible for the public buildings, through taxing those who have enriched themselves upon the labor of others. 

The fact is that when the wealthy give, they also to a great extent control who benefits from their largess.  They hardly ever give a trillion dollars to “whoever needs it most.”  And anyway, who could decide better than these wealthy people themselves, they may think.  In actual fact, the government can plan comprehensively, through social programs that they have discovered are efficacious, whereas individuals give typically to what is “sexy.”  Drug offenders are not sexy.  Neither are old people and disabled people.  Protitutes are not sexy.  And certainly prisoners are not sexy.  Children are sexy.  Cancer is sexy, etc., etc.  Well, you see what I mean.

We have entered into a new Gilded Age, with more discrepancy in the wealth of households than at any time since the 1920′s.  We are now being compared to those countries in S. America, where such shameful discrepancies have long existed.  In spite of being in one of the most difficult recessions this country has ever known, people in the top 1% continue to own as much wealth as all those the bottom 90%.  Bill Gates himself has as much wealth himself as the bottom 40% of all households in the United States.  At a time when our politicians are considering whether or not to continue the Bush tax cuts, I would ask what in God’s name are they thinking, if they don’t revoke these cuts.

Well, hey, what’s a rich person to do?  They can’t change they system any more than you or I can.  Actually, they can.  All of us can and should work to change our unfair tax system.  We should all work to ensure that in the business world, rules of fair play are put in place and enforced.  But people who have a great deal of money also have a great deal of influence with our lawmakers–no news here–so they have great potential to move the justice needle over to the FAIR side of the spectrum. 

I would suggest that instead of spending their time and energy giving away money (and it does take considerable time and energy), thereby calling attention to their own virtue, rich folks could begin to think “justice” instead of “charity” and then work hard to change a system that condemns so many to lives of poverty and hopelessness.  To make this shift, though, the wealthy would have to begin thinking in terms of “us”– not “us” and “them”–and I wonder if this new vision of humanity might be just too much to ask of most of them.


What Are Your Unique Gifts? How Will You Give Them?

Last Wednesday evening I gave “an inspirational speech” at the Bright Lights Awards Banquet, held at the Portland Art Museum, and sponsored by the Portland Monthly–it was an evening of honoring outstanding volunteer achievements in our city and state.  I thought I would excerpt from that speech for my “Reflections” blog this week:

When I reached my 50′s, I started following the obituaries in the newspaper–middle-aged and older folks will relate to this: you begin to understand that you have a limited amount of time left on this earth, and you want to make the most of it.  Anyway, I started collecting obituaries of people I admired and putting their pictures up on my fridge–in fact, I had a sermon entitled “Dead People on My Fridge.”  (Not in my fridge, you understand, on my fridge!)  I put Richard Avedon, the photographer up there; I put Mr. Rogers; there’s Johnny Cash, Lynn Redgrave, and Daniel Schorr. 


Now what do all these people have in common?  They’re not fabulously good-looking, any one of them–well, with the exception of Johnny Cash.  Yes, each had talent, had gifts–but so does everyone have gifts.  The thing that they have in common is that they each had a vision that was their own, and they followed it.  No matter what other people said, no matter what had been done in the past.  No matter what they had to give up, to become their very own selves, not a copy of anyone else, but their very own unique selves.  They all had that strange and elusive quality that we call “integrity.”


Sometimes in our personal journey a possibility rises up before us, and it is possibility that frightens us the most.  Here is a book I could write!  (And the voice comes whispering, “Who do you think you are, to write a book?”)  Or a path opens before us, and fear grabs us by the throat.  We’re afraid we might mess up, flame out, and everybody will know.  How often do our irrational fears keep us from our deepest longings?  What would you choose to do if you knew beyond a doubt that you would succeed?   


The people we admire the most travel by their own lights.  At the same time, they are not ego-driven.  They know that their lives do not belong to themselves alone, but belong to life itself.  Their lives are given over to something larger than themselves.


You know, the fact is, that most people who do great things in this world are not geniuses–they are often not more gifted than many others.  The difference is that these people have the courage to live the life they were called to live: it’s not that they are never afraid–it’s that they don’t run from their fear: they invite it in, get into it, own it, and it loses its power over them.  As you meet resistance, you will discover strength, beauty, depth, you never knew you had.


The question is not, how can I “be successful,” how can I find the perfect life, but how do I live the life that is mine, the one “wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver says, the one wild and precious life that I have been given.  This is your life, yours and no other’s.  Live it freely, giving your talents, your love, your knowing, as no one else can.   Seek out those people who celebrate what you are; seek out those places where you are encouraged to become every inch of what you were meant to become.  And in so blessing the world, you will find that you are greatly blessed.  So be it.