On the fourth Thursday of November, more folks than not in the United States gather for Thanksgiving. With family, given and chosen. With friends. With strangers. Sometimes with those we love, or those we have learned to love, or those we are unable to love, or those who are unable to love us. To feast. To give thanks. To be together. To be nourished. In my own family, this year, this holiday is the occasion for my beloved to meet my newborn nephew, for my aunts and uncles to travel from thousands of miles away. To be with each other in the midst of our own intimate lives which, right now, include some fearsome holding. To linger together in between MRIs and medical tests that leave us holding our breaths. To find respite from precarities political, economic, and enfleshed. To cook, and share stories, and hold one another.
The fourth Thursday of November, widely known as a day of gratitude, is also a day of grief. Griefs both private and collective, intimate and structural. Personal relationships strained or broken. Complicated belonging and lingering trauma. Food waste and overconsumption. And, of course, the underlying erasures that constitute the whole (hi)story of this (holi)day. Genocidal greed. Land theft. Forced migration. Deadening assimilation.
Since the 1970s, Native and Indigenous people have gathered in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to commemorate a National Day of Mourning. If you, like me, know the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving, sit with that for a moment. A Day of Mourning. Thanksgiving. Let yourself feel the dissonance and disjuncture.
Remembrance. Survival. Irrecoverable loss.
Brutal attempts to eliminate Native and Indigenous peoples, traditions, languages, practices, and ways of life. Ongoing denials of these histories. These realities are not confined to the past, of course. Missing and murdered indigenous women. Profit driven pipelines and practices of extraction that threaten homelands and destroy human health and whole species. Rapacious deforestation and mining and drilling on sacred land. Mobilizations of resistance and resilience and remembrance and recreation. Collectives laboring to repair what can be repaired, to recover what can be recovered, to create coalitions among those who know dispossession and enslavement and deportation, to imagine what can become otherwise.
What practices of gratitude are possible when grief’s heaviness presses down? What practices of gratitude are desirable in a world so shot through with unnecessary violence, and structures of oppression demanding our urgent response and repair? What practices of gratitude are holy when both holiness and horror meet us in our daily enfleshed life together?
“This land has a beautiful and a not-so-beautiful history,” writes Dawson Davenport, a member of the Meskwaki Nation, located in Tama County, Iowa. “And living in that balance of the storm brews a narrative from the thunder that rumbles at night, the black thunder—Makatenenmekiwa. We tell stories. This is only the beginning of the story, because the story is still being written.”
As we continue writing this particular story of our one wild and precious and precarious life, I wonder how we can become more honest about the entanglements of gratitude and grief that mark our life together. I believe this is a path to honoring the Sacred, and moving with Spirit.
This I believe: We cannot really practice gratitude without opening ourselves to what matters most. And we cannot open ourselves to what matters most without encountering grief, and loss. And we cannot survive loss without the honest catharsis of grief, and honest practices of gratitude.
We can hold one another.
We can feed one another.
We can extend the table.
We can create new tables altogether.
We can extend the story.
We can learn stories that center excluded and erased truths, and unacknowledged losses.
We can share the truths of our lives and bear witness to the truths of each other’s’ lives.
We can express and share gratitude for all that nourishes and enables our collective life.
We can express and share grief for all that diminishes and destroys our collective life.
We can tend, honestly, to that which gives life, and that which destroys life.
Because: Gratitude without grief is dishonest. And grief without gratitude is unbearable. Both the beautiful and not-so-beautiful are true.
And in the midst of it all, there are new lives coming into the world, whose possibility of a future demand radically different presents, and there are elders who call us to slow down, and savor, while we still can. There are stories that impart wisdom. There are meals that nourish bodies and souls. There is poetry that helps us stay tender. There is art that enlivens. There are connections of care that hold. There are possibilities waiting to become. There is Divinity entangled in it all.
May it be so.