Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving in the Time of a Plague and Murfin Verse

It will be a Thanksgiving like no other.  Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house is off the table for many of due to soaring Coronavirus infection rates, deaths, expanded mitigation rules, and desperate pleas.  Many of us will be hunkered down with our immediate family or limited bubble.  Others will be locked down alone in dorm rooms, nursing homes, and apartments.  Some will even be sequestered in basements, garages, and single bedrooms in their own homes expecting only a plate to be left by the door.  For most of us the y’all come family, friends, and lonely strays feast around a groaning table is this year a super spreader event that just might kill Grandma.

So I am taking a pass this year on my most requested annual holiday blog entry, Murfin’s Thanksgiving Rules which was written for just such a sprawling gathering in mind.  Hopefully we can dust it off and haul it out again next year.

Of course too many of us are ignoring the tearful pleas of exhausted nurses, the gloomy prognostications of Dr. Fauci trooping legions of public health officials, and the nagging of governors and mayors.  Some of those folks are motivated by Trumpian fake news syndrome, you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-ism, and take-that-libtards defiance.  But most of those crowding airports and bus terminals, jamming highways, and showing up at home, where ever that is are simply pandemic burnt out and desperate for the embrace of loved ones whatever the risk.

The controversy over Thanksgiving gatherings reflects the deep divides in our country, and often in our families.

Social media, naturally, has broken out shaming and smearing those who have made different choices than our own.  It echoes the relentless social and political divides among us, but is also a new twist on Thanksgiving controversies.  More on those in a bit.

Despite this, the passion on all sides shows just how important today is for almost all of us.  it is our only national feast day, something else common to most cultures.  Here we have no other common feat, accessible to all unless you count burgers and brats on the grill on Memorial DayMembers of the many religious groups that populate our country may have their particular feasts—Christmas and Easter, the Passover Seder, Eid ul-Fitr, Diwali for example—but only Thanksgiving allows us all to gather around one table and is largely devoid of the chest-thumping jingoism connected to other Federal Holidays. 

For generations it has brought us together like no other occasion and has often encouraged our greatest virtuesgenerosity, acceptance of our differences, our love not only of family but our communities, and fostered a sense of gratitude for what we have even in the most trying of times.  This year many of us feel what Thanksgiving represents even more deeply.  And so do those over yonder who don’t agree with you about much of anything.

Ron Cobb's iconic 1968 cartoon from the Los Angeles Free Press perfectly illustrates the critisism of Thanksgiving as a settler/colonist travesty.

Of course Thanksgiving has been fraught with controversy in recent years.  For years Native American protests that the holiday represents European settler colonialism, American racism, cultural erasure, and actual genocide have begun to register with many of the rest of the current inhabitants of this country.  It is hard to deny that our First Nations, as the Canadians call their aboriginal peoples, have an excellent point.  The people we call Pilgrims represented a tip of the spear of a virtual invasion.  Despite their reliance on the wisdom and assistance of the natives to survive their first brutal year at Plymouth and the shared harvest feast they reportedly had, in less than a generation the settlers were engaged in brutal warfare to annihilate or displace their former neighbors.

Growing numbers joined in a boycott of the holiday.  Others, bowing to family pressure showed up to dinner armed with arguments that the whole affair is a racist travesty.  Next to those who tried and inflict their own brand of religion on a typically diverse American family or brought their political chips-on-the-shoulders to the table these folks were the cause of an epidemic of eye-rolling, groans, and occasional full blown family drama.

As if that weren’t enough, there seemed to be no end of other reasons to hate Thanksgiving—the ecological damage of factory farming, the ethical and health horrors of carnivorism, gluttony in the face of a starving world, wanton consumerism in the launch of the holiday shopping season, and the brutal enjoyment of men hurtling themselves at each other in a modern re-creation of the Roman gladiator spectacles.  Whew! And if all that wasn’t enough, we should not gloat in the embrace of our families and friends because too many are alone.

Now there is more than a kernel of truth to all of these criticisms.  And there is nothing wrong with taking time at the holiday to consider them—and to consider how we can all do and be better.

The cornucopia, a horn shaped basket of ancient Greek origins that overflows with bountiful produce, is a symbol of Thanksgiving as a harvest festival.  

On the other hand, there is much to admire in Thanksgiving.  First, it is, after all at its heart, a harvest festival.  Virtually every culture that has been dependent on agriculture marked the critical completion of the harvest, which staved off starvation for another year, with some sort of festival.  Just because we are Americans, doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve a festival, too. 

A discussion of those divisions, an explanation on how to separate the Pilgrim First Thanksgiving myth from our celebration, and a history of our observances can be found in full here if you are interested.

Buy maybe our physical separations this year will let those particular controversies slide, if only for a year.  Our need for each other may just be enough to bring us together even if it is only on Zoom.

Whatever your circumstances you are welcome to share a prayer or meditation I devised a while back for a typically diverse family gathering.  I found myself asked to say grace at a typical extended family Thanksgiving.  Around the table were Catholics ardent and lapsed, liberal Protestants, Jews (mostly secular), a practicing Buddhist, and unchurched secularists.  And I, of course, was a Unitarian Universalist with Humanist leanings.  To be inclusive, to whom should I address a prayer?  What deity, if any, should I invoke?  Should I lead with a Chinese menu of options—pick a god from column A and a spirit from column B?

This is what I came up with.  You may find it useful—or not.  Feel free to use it if it fits.  Or adapt it to your needs and circumstances.  No pressure.

A Thanksgiving extended family and friends meal like the one where I first said my prayer.  Mine is the empty seat.

A Thanksgiving Prayer for Those Who Don’t Pray


Thanks for the hands.

All of them.

            That dug and scratched,

            reaped and loaded,

            milled and butchered,

            baked and cooked,

            served and scrubbed.


The cracked,

            the bleeding,

                        the blistered hands.


The hands that

hewed and smelted,   

            sawed and hammered,

            wove and sewed,

            put together and took apart.


The calloused,

            the greasy,

                        the grimy hands.


The hands that

            wrote and painted,

            plucked and keyed

            carved and created.


The graceful,

            the supple,

                        the nimble hands.


The hands that

            caressed and fondled,

            stroked and petted,

            held and are held,

            grasped and gave,

            played and prayed.


The warm,

            the soft,

                        the forgiving hands.


And today bless even the hands that

            shoved and scourged,

            slapped and smote,

            bound and chained us.


The harsh,

            the hateful,

                        the heavy hands.


Today they cannot still our hands

            from their pleasure and their duty.


The void of anger they create,

            our hands fill with love.


The gentle,

            the clasping,

                        the reaching hands.


Patrick Murfin

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