Thanksgivings Past and Present

The Thanksgiving table was ready, each place at the polished oak table sparkling with new stemware and china. So what if the official holiday was five months away? Ann Thomas’* gratitude couldn’t wait.

On this hot June day of 2007, in her village of Phoenix, La., 30 miles south of New Orleans, Ann walked me through her newly built home, fresh with the smell of paint and new furniture. This home replaced the one swept away when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in September 2005. After nearly two years of living with relatives and then in a FEMA trailer, Ann and her husband, Dymond, were finally home.

I was just one of the many volunteers from Covenant World Relief who had spent the past year helping the Thomases and other Phoenix residents rebuild. In the coming months, more houses were finished and more families left their cramped trailers to return home. By Thanksgiving, they were ready to serve up their gratitude and sweet potato pie to the volunteers fortunate to be there for the weekend. I was one of them.

The church-hopping that started the day – we worshipped at St. Joseph’s and then Zion Travelers – moved into table-hopping, a festive parade from house to house where each hostess served us a traditional Cajun feast. I vowed to approach this day as a progressive dinner – appetizers at the first house, salads at the second, entrees next, etc. – but my Midwest resolve disappeared when I walked into Ann’s kitchen and saw the counter laden with a Cajun-spiced turkey, dirty rice, gumbo, shrimp-stuffed peppers, and sweet potato pie. I tasted it all, and did the same at the next three houses. By 7:00, I reached my fifth house with a greatly diminished group and appetite. Two of us shared pie and stories with our 80-year-old friend Ellen.

At each stop throughout the day, the stories and laughter fed us as much as the oyster dressing and baked spaghetti. We learned how faith always trumped despair, how a devastated community remained hopeful and thankful.

It’s a lesson I’m carrying today as I head to the nursing home with Craig and my daughter Anna to pick up my dad and take him to my brother’s house, where 15 of us will be nourished by my sister-in-law’s turkey and stuffing as well as everyone’s stories and laughter. Our faith and gratitude this year are coupled with suffering and sadness. A year ago Dad was carving the turkey and telling the stories. He suffered two strokes this past year and is now weakened and unable to say what’s on his mind. Today he will listen and tire early. We’ll drive him home and laugh some more, letting him know how thankful we are for the rich way he continues to fill our lives.

 

* Thanks to Marianne, my traveling and feasting partner that Thanksgiving Day, for correcting my spelling of Ann’s last name. I’ve updated it from the first version.

Thanksgiving Apples

Apples from the Farmers’ Market in downtown Overland Park, Kansas, where you’ll find us most Saturday mornings from May through November.

Bookshelf Favorites

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
                                                                      Robert Frost

Staring down the Blank Page

Nothing scares me more than a blank Word document. I stare at it and await the perfect opening sentence, an idea visualized in metaphor and punctated with a singing verb. I start typing, only to end with my favorite key – the Backspace button. I hold it down until I’m back where I began, staring at empty space.

Craig, on the other hand, feverishly fills the screen with the images playing in his head. His words carry me along effortlessly long before I realize I have no idea what he’s talking about. But who cares? He writes the right way, like all the books preach. He gets it down. He keeps his pen (or fingers) moving. He turns off the critic and writes from the other side of his brain. He imagines a scene small enough to fit into a one-inch picture frame.

Me? I do it all wrong. I can’t move on to the second sentence until I have some degree of satisfaction with the first. At writing workshops, when everyone’s pens move and pages turn, I’m paralyzed by my few flat sentences.

I spent years wondering what was wrong with me. Until I read Harold Fickett’s essay “Gushers and Bleeders: On Getting Started” in A Syllable of Water: 20 Writers of Faith Reflect on their Art. It turns out Craig’s a gusher and I’m a bleeder. Gushers produce prose “like a Mississippi River without banks.” They have an easy time on the front end creating their art but a difficult time on the back end editing it. We bleeders, on the other hand, “are painfully slow at composition … rather like trying to force kielbasa through cheesecloth.” But once we get things down, we’re eager to clean them up … and maybe the first draft is already somewhat coherent.

I feel validated that my condition has a name. Even better, I’m in very good company. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth is a bleeder, or at least his character in Ghost Writer is. I have the following quote from the novel hanging in my office, tucked in my purse and stored in two places on both my home and work computers. It gives me that much comfort.

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and I write another sentence. Then I have tea and I turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

I had hoped to post this piece on Tuesday. Then I kept turning the sentences around (I also worked late all week and read a mediocre novel for my book group). This time, however, I’m hitting Publish. Then I think I’ll need to lie down.

Wave of Optimism

I walked to the polls today just before sunrise. Along the way I passed:

  • A hawk perched on a high branch in the undeveloped field along the highway
  • Flocks of birds swooping over the field and calling louder than the traffic driving by
  • The American flag flying at the Post Office
  • An ode to American consumerism: a Public Storage facility
  • The recently dedicated memorial to 9/11 – a beam pulled from the wreckage of the Twin Towers – outside my destination, the Overland Park Fire Training Center

I was reminded of the suffering caused by the terrorists 11 years ago as well as the storm last week, and I carried the pain with me into the building. I also carried other markers I’d collected on my walk: the wonder of the hawk, the honor of the flag and a confidence in the resiliency of our nation and its people. I was ready to vote.

I still had my optimism when I emerged 30 minutes later, the sun now up. I walked under a canopy of maple trees, the fiery red leaves still clinging to their branches. I stopped at a yard strewn with golden redbud leaves and stopped to pick up one of the heart-shaped leaves. Four flags along my street waved me home.

As I left for work a little later, I got a text from my youngest daughter, Jessie, that simply said: “I voted!!” It was her first time. I texted back my congratulations and remembered my first vote for a U.S. president: Jimmy Carter in 1976. Today’s presidential selection is my 10th. I’ve chosen more losers than winners (5-4) and tonight will learn if I’m hitting .500. I’ll be sad if my candidate loses, but not devastated. The flags will still be flying when I make the walk four years from now.

Autumn Harvest

Don’t Should on Yourself

You know you should:

  • Eat your veggies.
  • Exercise.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • Compost.
  • Carpool.
  • Buy fair trade products.
  • Buy American.
  • Buy local.
  • Buy less and simplify your life.
  • Buy more and stimulate the economy.
  • Eat organic.
  • Call your mother.
  • Write your thank-you notes.
  • Stay off Facebook at work.
  • Feed the hungry.
  • Help the needy.
  • Floss.
  • Invite a hurting friend over for coffee.
  • Let go of your kids.
  • Stay connected with your kids.
  • Love your neighbor, or at least take time to know them.
  • Work hard.
  • Relax more.

I could keep going, but won’t. The point is: Being a good – never mind perfect – wife, mother, daughter, woman, neighbor, friend, worker, citizen and Christian can overwhelm me. I fall short on every bullet point and can easily let guilt shoot me down. Even though I know I shouldn’t. So Craig and I have borrowed a line from writer Brennan Manning, who borrowed it from a nun he knows: “Don’t should on yourself.” We want to stop making excuses and beating ourselves up for every oversight or misstep.

But what should replace the shoulds? I don’t want to give up on living better, more justly and more lovingly. I just want to lift the burden that weighs me down and builds resentment. I need a new perspective, one that forgets about being dutiful, one that embraces gratitude. I don’t have to eat healthy food; I get to. I don’t have to help others; I get to. I don’t have to work; I get to. Not everybody has these riches I take for granted.

I am a middle-class American. I get to live in freedom. I get to choose. Tomorrow I get to vote. You get to as well, and I hope you will.

The choice is yours.

Against the Wind

When the Water Subsides

The stories of devastation and heroism in the wake of Superstorm Sandy remind me of Hurricane Katrina, particularly the residents of Phoenix, Louisiana, who I got to know during their rebuilding efforts. Despite losing almost all their possessions, people in this close community still shared riches with me. Here’s a story from my visits in 2007. 

 

“Why would anybody live here?”

It was the obvious question for a busload of Midwesterners unpacking our legs after a cramped 16-hour journey from Kansas to the tiny Louisiana town of Phoenix, a town trying to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Swarms of mosquitoes coated the windshield. Humidity fogged our glasses as we hit the heavy air. Lizards scampered for cover among the weedy fields. And this was December. What was July like?

Phoenix, once a town of about 300 and now less than half that, sits 30 miles south of New Orleans, a crater between levees holding back the Mississippi River and a marsh leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina was not the first hurricane to fill the basin. Nor would it be the last.

Homes there sat in water for several weeks after Katrina hit in August 2005. Their owners rode out the storm in shelters and then moved to cities throughout the South. Residents couldn’t return for four months. When they did, they found trees and homes blocking their way. Houses still standing reeked from mold, mud and debris. While thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars poured into neighboring New Orleans, people in Phoenix slogged for FEMA trailers and relief funds and salvaged what little they could.

Our team arrived 16 months after the storm. Some houses had been cleaned out or removed and new foundations laid, but residents still lived in trailers and would for most of the next year. Not one to jump into home projects, I was surprised to be drawn back to Phoenix four more times in the coming year. I worked a bit on homes but mostly fed volunteers and talked with residents. I eventually felt comfortable asking them the question we asked the first time I arrived: “Why do you keep coming back?”

The answer was always the same: “Where would I go? Everyone I know and love is here.”

Some thought they had it easier than I did: “How much warning do you get before a tornado hits?”

I had to concede their point. Several years earlier, my 12-year-old daughter was forced to huddle in the restroom of a convenience store while a twister ravaged a field just across the highway. That night haunted her all summer. The year I traveled to Phoenix saw a record number of tornado touchdowns, with Kansas leading the tally. Two towns were leveled. Four people died.

Do I ever consider moving away because tornado sirens send me to my basement once or twice a year? No, never. I’ve lived in the Kansas City area for nearly 30 years. The people I know and love are here.

And that love is much more powerful than the power of nature. As I befriended a handful of Phoenix residents, I felt the force that drew them back, both to the people they have known their whole lives and to the land their families have owned for more than a century. Embedded in them is the simple truth that I first learned from the world’s most famous Kansas farm girl, herself a victim of nature’s wrath: “There’s no place like home.”