Fill Your Hands with Mud

I’m feeling ambivalent about the holidays this year. Until a few months ago I thought ambivalent meant not caring. But then, while watching the Daniel Tiger episode “Daniel’s Day of Many Feelings,” I learned that to be ambivalent is to have mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about someone or something.

In stressful years past, by mid-November my best friend and I are singing “We need a little Christmas” and eagerly awaiting the day when we bring out the décor. This year, not so much.

This year, the holidays feel like just another day to anticipate only to be mildly disappointed. For her this is because her mother died in May and she is mourning the absence of being nagged about the Thanksgiving menu.

It would be easy to say my ambivalence is because my family entered a new reality where we trade off holidays. Cole is with me for Thanksgiving and will be out of town with his dad for Christmas. Last year it was the other way around. But I’m not sure that’s the source of my mixed emotions.

Until a few years ago I relished Thanksgiving. Preferred it to Christmas really. But the sheen on both days has worn thin. I was certain that having a child would bring the sparkle back. It hasn’t.

In pondering my attitude I notice that any joy I feel about the holidays is rooted in preparation.

Missing the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent, the seasons of preparation, was one of the things that drew me back to church. I yearned for the Sundays of my youth when we would gather at dinner, light a candle on the Advent wreath, and read a little scripture. And while my mother still sent small gifts for St. Nicholas day and a new ornament for my tree, without her presence, and without an Advent calendar to open and M&Ms to eat, it wasn’t the same.

To be honest, I love getting presents. I’m kind of ashamed to say I still get a little-girl-thrill upon seeing wrapped packages with my name on the tag. And yet even in all the material excitement, as a child and as today, the preparation means more than the event.

I’ve only hosted Thanksgiving dinner a handful of times and I’m not doing so this year. It’s a lot of work. I’m grateful that the bulk of the time and expense does not fall to me. But to in all honesty, I’d be happy to do it. Again, ambivalent.

This year, as in many years past, we will celebrate Thanksgiving at my uncle’s house here in town. The number in our party has dwindled again this year as friends who normally attend won’t be there. My aunt’s father passed away last week so he won’t be there either. But my grandmother will – the tough old broad who is having a remarkable recovery from a stroke– and for that I have profound gratitude.

Last year one of the friend’s in attendance did something different. She put some twigs in a pretty vase, passed out construction paper leaves, and asked us all to write down one thing we were thankful for. I like this and this year will bring the paper and the tree.

Since I’m gluten free and can’t eat traditional stuffing or pie, I’m going to make my own. Trader Joe’s has an intriguing cauliflower stuffing which could either be delicious or disgusting but since it’s cheap and frozen I’ll give it a whirl. I’ve also called my grandmother to see if she’ll bring along some photographs from a train ride in the Canadian Rockies she took a decade ago. Cole loves trains. I think he will enjoy the photos as much as Grandma will enjoy sharing them with her eldest great-grandchild.

In just those few, small acts – making a Thank You tree, cooking some food, planning something special for Cole – a little shimmer has returned to Thanksgiving. I can’t fully get past the tricky origins of this holiday nor do I want to. To quote Bryan Stevenson, “We are a post genocidal people, and we have not dealt with that.”

We aren’t obligated to celebrate Thanksgiving, or any holiday really. We do so by choice. I’m doing so by choice. This year I’m choosing to prepare myself and my son for a day of gratitude by preparing an offering of love. As he gets older we’ll discuss the backstory of the day with more candor and find our own ways of dealing with it. This year I’m choosing to prepare myself and my son to receive the offerings of love freely given by our family.

And that’s as it should be. In our America, Thanksgiving stands as a gateway to a season of giving and receiving. Giving our hearts to one another, receiving the hearts offered to us. Celebrating all that God gives to us and receiving it with open arms. Which is perhaps the most difficult thing to do. The part that requires preparation. Giving is easy. Receiving is hard.

But as the great Mary Oliver* writes:

I don’t want you to just sit down at the table.
I don’t want you to just eat and be content.
I want you to walk out into the fields
Where the water is shining and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there far from this white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with mud, like a blessing.


Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol 1. Beacon Press. Boston. 1992

If I could just post Mary Oliver poems each week and call it a day, I would!

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