Posted by lex, on November 23, 2006
Thanksgiving is, I think, my favorite holiday. It is just enough time off work to seem sufficient without seeming excessive – there’s only so much can pile up over two days. There is always a log on the fire and usually football on TV. I also have what are only memories now, living on this coast, of the brittle snap of fall in the air, the whisper of winter to come, the smell of the harvest, the sound of the frosted long grass crunching under my boots with the weight of a side-by-side on my shoulder and a dog ranging out ahead, questing with her nose, looking for the birds.
There’s coming home to the warm smells of a guilt-free feast – it’s Thanksgiving, after all! – and the warm glow of family, of unconditional love. There are no gifts to give and wonder if they were right, no overt religious symbolism or rituals to uphold. Turkey and ham, stuffing and pie – good food that you somehow only eat once or twice a year with people you care for beyond all measure. There is easy conversation. You are warm, snug, fed and safe. It is a time of tradition, of passing on the foundational tales, of remembering who we are and of what we are capable. It is also a time of counting our blessings, and sharing them too, because God knows we can all do a little something for those less fortunate.
If you’re not a reader of the Wall Street Journal, then you are probably missing out on another annual tradition – They have run the same two editorials at the top two spots since shortly after your humble scribe sprang upon an amazed world.
The first is entitled “The Desolate Wilderness,” and is a contemporary account of the Plymouth pilgrims leaving their haven in Leyden for that further shore. The first half is taken up with emotional tales of partings and leavings and perhaps it is the sailor in me but I skim past that bit quickly. The part that always strikes home for me is this one, at the end:
Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.
Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.
If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.
It’s difficult for us now to grasp the combined pride of those people at what they had accomplished with the fearful realization of all the consequences attending to their actions. There would be no going back, at least not until a hard winter had passed in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming place. The year was 1620, and a lot has happened in the succeeding 400 years which turned that “desolate wilderness” into a land of bounty.
Accompanying that first editorial is always this one, “And the Fair Land.” Like the first it’s worth reading in its entirety, but there are portions that I’d like to excerpt because even though the words were written in 1961, they have a thrumming, current plangency:
His countrymen cannot forget the savage face of war. Too often they have been asked to fight in strange and distant places, for no clear purpose they could see and for no accomplishment they can measure. Their spirits are not quieted by the thought that the good and pleasant bounty that surrounds them can be destroyed in an instant by a single bomb. Yet they find no escape, for their survival and comfort now depend on unpredictable strangers in far-off corners of the globe.
How can they turn from melancholy when at home they see young arrayed against old, black against white, neighbor against neighbor, so that they stand in peril of social discord. Or not despair when they see that the cities and countryside are in need of repair, yet find themselves threatened by scarcities of the resources that sustain their way of life. Or when, in the face of these challenges, they turn for leadership to men in high places–only to find those men as frail as any others.
So sometimes the traveler is asked whence will come their succor. What is to preserve their abundance, or even their civility? How can they pass on to their children a nation as strong and free as the one they inherited from their forefathers? How is their country to endure these cruel storms that beset it from without and from within?
Knowing from our current perspective the turbulence and upheaval yet to come as those words were being written lends them an almost charming air of faded nostalgia. Many of us tend to think if the early 60’s as the last stable breaths of an ancien regime that was on the very brink of passing away, but unaware of its own fatal imminence. In our minds’ eye, that was a time of Eisehowerian placidity, the good old days of “Mayberry RFD” and “Leave it to Beaver,” and perhaps the last years in which Norman Rockwell paintings could be enjoyed entirely untainted by post-modernist affectations of irony.
Thus it comes as something of a surprise to us some 40 years later that each line in that paragraph could have been penned today. This is not, I think, so much a signal of our lack of social progress – we are a much changed land since then – but a reminder of the durability of the social ills which all men are heir to. It is a reminder too perhaps, of the regrettable and narcissistic tendency to think that our own woes and worries are somehow unique.
We live in interesting times, we are fond of saying, while forgetting that we pretty much always have.
Thankfully, the editors do not leave us exposed there, between the hard winter of the first Plymouth colony and dystopian despair. They ask us to look into the mirror:
But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere–in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.
We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.
And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.
Indeed, although we have much left to do here at home and also in the wide world, we have so very much to be thankful for.
We have each other.