Thoughts on Thanksgiving

When I’m tempted to complain about the lines at the store and the effort required to plan a holiday meal, I wonder what those who have nothing would think.

When I’m tempted to feel down about not seeing family at the holidays, I wonder what mothers of prisoners would think.

When family drama weighs on my mind and I’m tempted to be angry, I wonder what orphans, both young and old, would think.

When the future feels uncertain and I’m tempted to fret, I wonder what those who were recently diagnosed with a terminal illness would think.

When I’m discouraged that Thanksgiving means being stuck in the same house we’ve been in since March, I wonder what those who make their beds under bridges would think.

When I’m upset that traditions won’t be kept the same way and that things won’t feel like they always have, I wonder what refugees who’ve been away from home for years would think. 

When I take the food for granted and rush through the meal like it’s a job, barely tasting it as I eat past the point of satisfaction, I wonder what those with no food on their table would think. My wife’s great-great-grandmother lived through the Great Depression and was thrilled to receive an orange for Christmas one year. She marveled that her parents could do it. She ate one slice per day and wrapped the rest in a handkerchief until it was gone.

When I feel stretched by the demands of parenting and impatiently demand personal space, I wonder what parents who have lost children would think.

Giving thanks lifts me out of myself and provides a much needed distance from my wants, my needs, my disappointments and sufferings. To give thanks I have to forget myself for a minute and look around me, not just at the pains and trials of others, but at the good things life has afforded me.

I’ll never forget the morning after the saddest day of my life. The first thing I saw was the head of my 16-month-old boy looking up over the pillows in the hotel room to see if we were sleeping across the room. Would you believe that under grief so heavy I could hardly breathe I started off the day with a laugh? In one of the worst moments of my life, goodness found a way in.

I don’t know why 2020 has been so tumultuous and dark. I don’t know when COVID will be a page in the history books instead of the daily headline. I don’t know how to cope with the weight of this world completely. 

But I do know that to be here—just to have life and be able to think and breathe and eat and speak and give and receive love—is more than I might have, and for that, I am grateful.

*

Lastly, there’s a prayer in the back of a prayer book that is relevant today. 

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us.

We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

A General Thanksgiving, The Anglican Book of Common Prayer

A Theory for Making “Big” Life Decisions

I have been asked over coffee more than once, “How do you know what you should do next in life?”

We all come to these decision points, and they can be some of the most perplexing and anxious moments in life. Should I get another job in the same field? Should I move to a new city? Which job offer should I accept? Is now the time to get married, to buy the house, to have a child?

Who can possibly answer these questions? Anytime I’ve been asked this I sit there blinking for a few seconds feeling totally inadequate to answer.

But the longer I live (and I’m still a baby), the more a theory is starting to develop in my mind. 

My theory about making “big” life decisions: it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t really matter where you live or which job you accept or when you have the child or get married. For every side of the decision your mind will create a list of reasons why one might be better than the other, and you can fret and sweat over this list for a month and be no closer to a choice.

But the biggest reason I think it doesn’t matter is that you don’t know. You can get the job of your dreams at a great organization and detest it from your very soul once you start working there.

The future isn’t real. Once it gets here, it will be the present—the real thing—and then you’ll be worried about the next step all over again. 

In those times when you don’t know which path to choose, pick one, own it, and refuse to let yourself play the what-if game. If the future isn’t real, alternative versions of the present are even less real. 

Many life situations can be undone if they really need to be. You can always move home. You can always close the business. But even when they can’t be undone, you have to remember that nothing stays the same. Eventually, it will change all over again. 

I don’t think we’re meant to exist primarily in the whirlwind of anxiety about our next life step. Few decisions are really make or break.

If your life is a book, you have no idea how the story will end up—no idea which parts are really important—until the end. Don’t spend all your time flipping through pages you’ve already read. Don’t fret about the next chapter so much that you fail to read the current one. 

One page at a time.

A Reflection on American Building

The city used to amaze me. Maybe it’s because I’m from the part of the world where the plains reach out farther than you can see, so the sight of a 30-story building, or even a naked parking garage, is almost a spectacle. It gives you the feeling of being elsewhere—not here, not home, not out in pasture with the wind and the sun, but in the city where everyone is busy with important things.

A charm for the city still lingers in my imagination. And yet, it’s changing. 

I used to look at skylines and feel the pulsating energy drawing me in and pushing me away at the same time like the snobby cool kid at school. I wanted in, wanted to feel like I belonged there, wanted to find an inlet to the mainstream, whatever that is.

Now I’m not so sure. 

I recently visited a city, and in a neighborhood where humble houses once stood there is now a mammoth hole hewn deep into the crust—a squared foundation for a skyscraper. As I looked through the chain link barrier I was reminded of the meteor crater in Arizona I saw when I was 5. When you look down from that ledge you can feel the leftover violence that bowled out the earth so long ago, and a similar brutality looked back through the chain link fence of job site. Laborers ascend the hole on makeshift stairs at the end of their shift and think of the leftovers they’ll have when they get home.

Enterprise does this. It takes a wooded hill and fells every tree and flattens the dirt and puts its mind on nothing but the job to finish and the profit to realize. It installs a manmade plain where for centuries a riverbank stood—where wolves once watched the moonbeams warble on the river currents, where Native Americans likely sat seeking solace for sufferings they couldn’t understand.

And now? Now there’s skid loaders and I-beams, robotic arms with hoses that spray concrete, white lights filling every corner of the site and a polluted reflection dimming the stars. “There’ll be a shopping center at the bottom with stores our predicted tenants will be sure to enjoy.”

I stand on the street and look down into the cavern of industry, seeing how we pummel the earth and blast the rock and spew down cement that will be there forever and I wonder: “Is this okay?” Is it right for us to do this? We stamp and plod and stab into the earth with ever newer ever better machines that multiply our efficiency and force, and the hill that once stood here is nothing but a memory in the minds of the dead, which is to say a memory that exists nowhere.

I don’t know. One could argue that in that building human lives will find their home—that mothers will rear their young, that professionals will rest from anxious toil, that Christmas parties will be hosted and love will be shared. 

We can build whatever we desire—it happens every American second—but should we? Will the universe hold us accountable for the way we kick down earth’s door and smash hills and chip trees and blast bedrock to build a steel and glass profit box? With what presumption do we stomp froward and justify our every action provided the bottom line is black? I don’t know. 

I look up and see the crane forty stories above the surface frowning down at me like an offended conscience. One thing I know is I’m not in control. 

We are a loud species, dead set that our will be done and our kingdom come.

How a Robin Helped Me Through the Pandemic

In the spring, when pandemic wave one was beginning to rage and the fear of the unknown sat upon us all, I saw a robin on my fence. We looked at each other, her red breast shining against the far leaves in the neighbor’s yard, and she flew away.

A few days later I was surprised to see her in the grass, and I knew it was her by the pattern on her wings. She hopped around, stuck her beak in the soil, looked up at me. There was grace in her motion—politeness and gratitude. She seemed kind.

When I started seeing her daily I wondered why she liked our yard so much. Then, one afternoon, she flew up to a high bough on the crabapple tree and landed on a nest I then saw for the first time. A chorus of demand and thanksgiving erupted from the young beaks that drove her labor.

It all made sense now: She was a mother. She spent her day serving. This explained her innate tenderness and the sense that if she could speak she would say something friendly to me. I started talking to her to ease her caution.

*

The world around us closed to mitigate the spread of the virus; I stayed outside with my family to mitigate our cabin fever. We shared three meals a day at the picnic table, and every meal, we looked on as Mother Robin ran food to her own table. Our boy chattered about dinosaurs; the chicks shouted through the leaves.

One day I watched as a chick chirped and Mother Robin came in response. The chick stuck his tail feathers into the air while she caught his excrement in her beak, flew it away from the nest, and dropped it on the other side of the yard. It was unsettling, but I was impressed by the cleanliness and self-sacrifice.

It struck me: we parents in the house aren’t the only ones constantly feeding, constantly cleaning, constantly being called upon for more and more.

A few more robins appeared in the lawn, smaller and speckle-chested. Wherever they landed, they sat stunned. Flying is intimidating. They let us approach until we could reach out and touch them, but we never did, except for the time I used a glove to get the little one off the fence after he had perched there for more than 6 hours. It wasn’t 2 minutes before Mother Robin landed where the chick had been, food in her beak, throwing glances at me. This was the loudest she ever spoke to me, but still she was gentle. She found him seconds later.

And one day, they were gone.

The young she bore and nurtured and fretted over had flown away to face this world on their own, to escape the feral cats, and to compete with bully grackles for food. Mother Robin apparently had no reason to stay.

*

Mother Robin, would you believe that an ache came into my heart when you left? And I am a full grown man. It humiliates me to admit that—other men derive pleasure from slaughtering elk and bears for trophies—but it’s true. I miss the peace you brought, which was so out of proportion to your size. For all I know, you thought nothing of me, or maybe you thought I was a threat to avoid.

You don’t know the light and peace you brought to me in this tumultuous year, in a time when I needed it. Your presence showed me we will survive, even if it hurts, and even if we must strain move forward.

You showed me also that we are not alone in the humble toil of caring for offspring. In my duty to bear with the cry for more from those in my nest, I am blessed.

It was not below you to spend your days tending your home while other birds around you lived more adventurously. Hawks chased field mice through the swaying grains, swans drifted across lakes in romance, starlings inked the sky with jet black murmurations—you hopped about our half-dead bermuda, feeding crying babies.

You never complained or showed disdain for your lot. You searched and ran and fed and cleaned, and you looked at me, a menace, with light in your eyes.

I hope you stay warm this coming winter. I’ll be inside doing the same.


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Everyone Seeks Happiness

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

Blaise Pascal

This quote changed my perspective on life.

No one ever does anything because they want to hurt more or feel sadder. Even the masochist or sadist, those who enjoy receiving or inflicting pain, are motivated by their enjoyment of it. There’s a pleasure underneath the displeasure.

I can’t help but wonder why this is. Can you imagine a world where this isn’t the case? What does this mean? Does it point to the inherent goodness of life? Why should we desire to feel good rather than bad, especially if the universe is empty, with no Creator, with no one good behind it?

Christians have said for centuries that this is a desire to know God, and I’m not sure I can argue against that.