After dinner

For the third year in a row, J and I went to Davio’s in Chestnut Hill for Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of ordering a traditional turkey dinner, we ordered off the menu: J had filet mignon, and I ordered scallops. We split a cocktail between us and shared his and her desserts: a cranberry tart for J, and maple creme brulee for me.

Although J and I often go out to lunch, we rarely have dinner out, so Thanksgiving is our annual splurge. We make reservations for the late afternoon so we can get home in time to feed the dogs and do our evening pet tasks. This year, we were home and I had changed into pajamas by 5:30 pm, long after dark.

Stained Glass by Tiffany and La Farge

Earlier today I paged through the weekly planner I use to track my monthly goals, and it was sobering to see a week-by-week account of the various stresses I’ve withstood this past year: the day we put Bobbi to sleep in April; the various hospitalizations, rehab appointments, and medical setbacks that culminated in Toivo’s death in July; and my Dad’s passing in September.

The Pool at Bethesda

With each of these losses came a grief that was necessarily compartmentalized: with other obligations to tend to, I haven’t had the luxury of lengthy mourning. Unable to find the time to fall apart, I’ve simply had to soldier on, each loss layering over the previous.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day we are told to count our blessings, an endeavor I full-heartedly support. And yet, I sometimes bridle against the performative nature of Thanksgiving, as if giving thanks counts only if you do it in a festive and properly public way. Although I have no problem with giving thanks, the mass-marketed version of Thanksgiving portrayed in both conventional and social media gives me pause, as it reflects a quintessentially American optimism that papers over more painful experiences with a veneer of positivity.

La Farge stained glass

I’m happy if you indeed are “blessed not stressed,” but in all honesty, some of us are both blessed and stressed in equal measures, and I don’t think there should be any shame in counting one’s losses alongside one’s blessings. If we count only our blessings, we acknowledge only the bright side, not the accompanying shadow, and I don’t believe you can have one without the other.

When we count our losses, we acknowledge too our lessons. As much as I wish I’d had the complete catharsis of allowing myself to fall to pieces on any given day this year, soldiering on has taught me something not only about myself, but about the nature of grief itself. They say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but to experiences that gain, you have to open yourself up to the accompanying pain.

Tiffany glass

I think a superficial counting of blessings can be misleading and even harmful: a kind of self-censorship where we allow others (and ourselves) to see only our polished and perfect side: something I might call the Instagram-ification of our inner lives, where every experience is rendered through a rose-colored filter. If I share only my happy and picture-perfect moments, I lie to both myself and others, and my gratitude can veer painfully close a boastful form of one-upmanship.

Ultimately, I worry that the counting of blessings alone is a kind of betrayal to the ones we’ve lost. If we can’t acknowledge the pain of loss, how can we feel the depth of love? Our societal rush to Get Over any emotion that isn’t purely positive is the worst kind of superficiality. If we are comfortable sharing happiness but not pain, our interactions will be emotionally amputated: only happy, never sad.

Louis C. Tiffany's Angel of Resurrection

I am grateful for my blessings, but I am grateful, too, for the painful lessons of impermanence, mortality, and grief, as well as the love that preceded them. Perhaps Thanksgiving makes sense only when coupled with that other November holiday, the Day of the Dead. Our blessings shine more brightly when we remember the darkness that dwells alongside them.

Annunciation with shadows and mirror

I’ve decided I feel about Thanksgiving the same way I feel about Valentine’s Day: sympathetic in theory but a bit embarrassed in practice. When you feel grateful and loving every day, it’s a bit discomfiting to be told to display those private emotions in a publicly ostensible way once a year. Both Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving strike me as being almost skeptical in nature. It’s not enough to privately love or be grateful; instead, these two holidays demand we prove it.

Although there are plenty of folks who decry the forced, greeting-card quality of Valentine’s Day, uttering similar sentiments about Thanksgiving is incredibly curmudgeonly: how can one rightly be antagonistic toward a holiday devoted to gratitude and food? But even though gratitude and food are indeed two of my favorite things, the simple fact remains: I’m always a bit relieved to have Thanksgiving over, the calendrical requirement to be sufficiently grateful crossed off the list for another year.

Morning shadows

This is more than a bit ironic, however, since if I had to offer an honest description of my daily spiritual practice, it would be this: my religion is gratitude. Gratitude is not a word many Zennies use to define or describe their practice, since gratitude implies there is someone or something one is grateful to, and Zennies tend to remain silent on questions of theology.

Zen practitioners tend to emphasize what we do when we meditate: we sit upright with eyes lowered, hands in a mudra below our navels, and attention fixed on our breath, a silent, repetitive mantra helping us keep that attention right here, right now. But this description of what a Zennie does when she meditates omits entirely the question of what she feels when she sits and follows her breath. And in my case, I can on most days answer that question with only one word: gratitude.

Tree shadows

The gratitude I feel when I meditate isn’t a hearts-and-flowers feeling, and it’s not something that involves the counting of blessings or anything that could be expressed succinctly in a thank-you note. Instead, it is a deep abiding sense of contentment that simmers beneath the sturm-und-drang of consciousness. On the surface, I might be happy, sad, anxious, or impatient, and my thoughts might be entirely subsumed with the static and distracted chatter of the day’s headlines, to-dos, and petty quarrels. But beneath that turbid roil of thoughts–down at the bedrock of consciousness–a single stream runs clear and pure. That is what I mean by the word “gratitude.”

Leaf shadows on office blinds

The gratitude that bubbles up when I meditate has nothing to do with turkeys, football games, or cranberry sauce. Instead, it is a deep and enduring realization that this present moment is enough. Watching my breath go out and in, I become deeply aware of the precious connectedness of this one individual life. My gratitude (if I must call it that) goes out to all the joined-but-disparate things in the vast wide universe that make this moment possible: family, friends, and loved ones, to be sure, but also the earth and trees and shadows and air. If I had to count my blessings, I’d have to count the entire Universe of existence, from smallest microbe to most distant star.

Such talk, of course, will earn you plenty of odd looks at the family dinner table, and that is why I’m secretly relieved every year when the public pomp of Thanksgiving Day is done and I can get back to the serious business of admiring stars and shadows in secret.

Boston skyline from Skywalk Observatory

Last week J and I had Thanksgiving dinner at the Top of the Hub, just as we did last year. One of the things I’m grateful for is the place we live: Newton is a sleepy suburb of Boston, so it’s a quick trip into the city for culture and back home for quiet.

Towards Longfellow Bridge

When I lived in New Hampshire, I told myself I’d move back to Boston in a heartbeat if I could afford a way to live there, and some ten years later I find myself living just outside a city I loved at first sight. I can’t overstate the amazement I feel whenever I realize how far I’ve come from my childhood in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio, I sometimes say half-ironically, is a great place to be from; Boston, on the other hand, is a place other folks go to. Hailing from flyover country, I still feel like pinching myself when realize I live in a city other people visit on vacation.

Bend in the Charles

Thanksgiving Day was gray and drizzly, so after J and I parked on a holiday-empty Back Bay side-street, we walked directly to the Prudential Center, window-shopping the indoor mall there before heading to the Skywalk Observatory on the 50th floor. Viewed from above, Boston is a crowded tangle of streets and sidewalks: “How could people ever live there,” I can imagine newcomers wondering. But when I lived in a basement apartment in Beacon Hill more than a decade ago, Boston was entirely livable, a place I knew by heart and by foot.

Christian Science Center with drained reflecting pool

Looking at Boston from above is like looking at a map, and when I look at maps of Boston, I invariably juxtapose my own muscle-memories of walking these streets and sidewalks. Here along the Charles is the Esplanade where I’d sit in the sun and write letters home, there is the Public Garden where I’d watch skulking ovenbirds and warblers before heading to campus, and over there is the Christian Science reflecting pool, where I’d spend a quiet moment on my way from the Boston Public Library.

Citgo sign, Fenway Park, and Back Bay Fens

Most maps include a marker that says “You Are Here,” but the map that is Boston viewed from above reminds me where I was and were I came from: the long, winding route that led me here and all the places I’ve been along the way. I couldn’t tell you if I tried how to drive in Boston, since I didn’t have a car when I lived there. But I can tell you how to navigate the T and how to avoid being jostled on crowded sidewalks, and I remember with eyes closed the secret shortcuts only locals know.

View from the Skywalk Observatory

This year for Thanksgiving, J and I had dinner at the Top of the Hub, located on the 52nd floor of the Prudential Center in downtown Boston. Before we sat down to dinner, we strolled around the Skywalk Observatory, which offers a 360-degree bird’s eye view of Boston, Cambridge, and the outlying suburbs.

Pumpkin creme brulee

Life really does come into perspective when you see it from above, passing pedestrians and looming landmarks looking equally small and inconsequential. “Look at that guy trying to parallel park,” one woman whispered to her husband, and yes, directly below us there was an unfortunately-angled car trying unsuccessfully to squeeze into a parking spot on Boylston Street.

Top of the Hub after dark

At street level, trying to park in downtown Boston is a Big Deal; from 50 stories up, it’s the stuff of comedy. Sometimes all it takes to see your life from another perspective is an elevator ride and a taste of pumpkin creme brulee from 50 stories up.

Two pumpkins

Thanksgiving Day is one of the few times you can say that downtown Boston has ample free parking. On a typical weekend, it’s easier to take the T than to drive into the city from the suburbs, but today J and I chose to drive down Beacon Street from Newton into the Back Bay, where we knew we’d easily find a (free) metered parking space.

Albania soccer scarf

On Thanksgiving, downtown residents tend to head elsewhere for the holiday, so it’s a rare opportunity to wander the usual sites without having to face throngs of traffic, pedestrian or otherwise. On the Commonwealth Mall, only a few locals were walking dogs; at the Public Garden, only a few tourists posed on the bridge for pictures. On Boston Common, one woman encouraged a squirrel to climb onto her lap while her friend snapped pictures; nearby, a mother photographed her daughter feeding a writhing throng of pigeons, including two that landed directly on her hand.

Central Burying Ground

“This is the emptiest you’ll ever see Newbury Street,” I remarked as J and I crossed an almost-empty street, only a handful of people strolling down the typically packed sidewalks. Only at the Central Burying Ground, a historic cemetery at one corner of Boston Common, did the deserted vibe seem natural, not atypical. Whereas I’m used to Boston being bustling, things are always quiet at the Central Burying Ground, regardless of whether it’s Thanksgiving or any other day.

This is my Day Twenty-Seven contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Dwight Hall with turkeys

Today is my last day of teaching before Thanksgiving break, and at both Curry College yesterday and Framingham State today, it’s clear that many students and faculty alike have already headed home, either literally or figuratively. There are fewer cars in the parking lot, fewer students strolling outside, and an influx of emails from apologetic students explaining they won’t be in class because they’re leaving early to head home.

Turkey trio

On days like today, I remember something Zen Master Dae Kwang, who was born and raised in Nebraska, once said. Every Nebraskan farmer knows you can’t steer a horse that’s headed back to the barn. Once even the most obedient beast is intent on returning to his feed trough, there’s nothing either a carrot or stick can do to dissuade him.

On days like today, I realize both students and faculty alike are already headed (literally or figuratively) toward a barn called Thanksgiving, which offers troughs of tasty food, days without alarm clocks, and the hope (for faculty at least) of catching up with grading. If this morning’s class is any indication, my afternoon class will be small and we’ll end early. There’s no use wasting either a carrot or stick on a herd of obedient beasts whose minds are so obviously elsewhere.

This is my Day Twenty-Five contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.