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Stirring up gratitude

In a flash, memories of joy and sorrow mingle in thanksgiving.
By James Ishmael Ford
11.22.10

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spoons in a jar (© Karen Butler/iStockphoto)

(© Karen Butler/iStockphoto)

As I was making oatmeal this morning, I found my gaze focused on the large wooden spoon I was using to stir oats into boiling water. Many memories, many thoughts bubbled with the oats.

I have spent much of my life engaged in the spiritual quest. I spent some time as a Zen monk and many years after in which making a living was not high on the list for me. Instead I gave my time to meditation retreats, study, and similar projects. No complaints; it made me the person I am today. But it did mean I lived pretty close to the bone.

When I met Jan, she had dropped out of UCLA to join the revolution and, years later, she too found herself on a spiritual path that meant she had paid little attention to how she would make a living. When we married, we opened a small bookstore, which allowed us to experience a depth of poverty we discovered we didn’t like. We decided it was time to make a real living, which led to adventures of school and professional lives.

Among the consequences of this shift has been vacations. I love vacations. Of course life could shift again, and vacations may go away. Probably will. But, while I can, I do enjoy and often learn from them.

After our Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, in June 2007, Jan and I rented a car and drove north through Seattle across the border to Vancouver, then on a ferry west to Vancouver Island and Victoria, back down on another ferry to Seattle before finally flying home. It was a grand example of what a vacation might be, one of those lovely adventures that too few people get to have.

One of my most vivid memories of that trip took place in Vancouver’s Chinatown, where we wandered into a kitchenware shop. We were looking at this and that when I saw a lovely wooden kitchen spoon. Now, I’d wanted a wooden spoon for a while, but just had never gotten around to purchasing it. The spoons were displayed in a large vase-like container, maybe nine or ten sticking out like wooden roses in a pot. I peered closely at them and saw one in particular had a bit of discoloration along the grain in the handle. I pulled it out and held it for heft, tried the stirring motion, and declared to all who were present—well, to Jan—“This is the one!”

“The one what?” she asked.

“Why, the wooden spoon I’ve been seeking for so long,” I replied, feeling as if I’d found Excalibur. I gave my spoon—it was now my spoon—a sword-like twirl in the air.

“Oh,” said Jan.

Apparently nothing else caught either of our imaginations. So we got in line. In front of us were what looked to be a family, two older people and two young adults, every one of them looking to be out of their minds high on some sort of speed. They twitched. They spoke rapidly and disjointedly. When they got to the register there was considerable confusion, not just of language, but also of what they were trying to purchase, its price, and how to close the deal.

In the snap of a finger my mood switched from that small ecstasy of discovery to a deep sadness.

Now, some years later, I still have that spoon. I don’t give it the sword twirl much anymore. But just stirring the pot I had that small flash of memories—of vacations and how rare and wonderful they are, from that trip in particular, of how much I love Jan, of how sad life can be for some people—and with that and the smell of the oatmeal I found myself drawn back to this moment, the one right now, realizing all those things layered as part of the moment.

And I felt a sense of thanksgiving.


This is the season in our culture when we’re called to remember each other and life itself and how precious it is.

And, of course, how fragile.

It is time for gratitude, but open-eyed gratitude. Our American holiday is shadowed by the fact that the Native peoples who welcomed the Pilgrims would soon regret it. Sadness as well as joy is woven into the story of this holiday. But this is something important. That bittersweet quality is what is so powerful about this season.

Thanksgiving is a harvest festival. It is about getting enough food in, hopefully, to withstand the harsh winter ahead. Similar holidays are celebrated throughout the Northern Hemisphere roughly at this time. Think of the western Earth-centered holiday Lammas, or the German Oktoberfest, or the Transylvanian harvest festivals. And Thanksgiving is very much a kitchen festival, a time for food, a time for friendship, a time to cherish all that which we are fortunate enough to have.

Now, later in the day, my wooden spoon sits with other utensils in a pot in the kitchen. Soon it will be getting a bit of a workout again. And I know as I grab it—and, if no one is around, perhaps swirl it in the air just once before getting to work—I’ll think, briefly, just in a heartbeat, of these things.

And I’m pretty sure it’ll be hard not to be grateful.


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