Thanks for the Dialogue

November 25, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

"Thanksgiving is the greatest example of what a great dinner should be: a meal that welcomes people of all religious, political or ethnic persuasions. The table is the great equalizer, and everyone around that table gets along with one another and enjoys life with family and strangers alike."- Jacques Pepin

According to Merriam-Webster, "gratitude" is the "state of being grateful". According to the same, "thanks" means "kindly or grateful thoughts". The difference is profound. To offer thanks, one does not necessarily have to be in the state of mind of gratitude. Instead, thanks is a simple acknowledgement of appreciation. It is momentary and unembodied whereas gratitude, an entire state of being, is every bit about the present moment. Do thoughts pass as quickly as a state of being? Is a state of being the same thing as an emotion? Are thoughts developed from our state of being?

Thanksgiving is an entire day set aside to dwell on the idea of thanks, but also on the fact that we exist together and depend upon each other – as one society. This is still as true today as it was in the beginning, so why does it always bring up quaint images in our minds? We still decorate the table with turkeys and we still talk of pilgrims. Of course, because it refers to an actual event in American history, our brains automatically think of the first Thanksgiving. There is something to be said for honoring the original event, of course. Thanksgiving is meant to pull on our emotions a bit, to make us remember the people or things that we are grateful for. Which is why I find it odd that Thanksgiving does not also have a strong musical tradition. Holiday music seems to be targeted at the much more commercial holidays like Christmas or Hannukah. These holiday songs ask that we be present, enjoy the moment, celebrate our families, health and resources. And yet, it is this holiday season that often creates more stress in an American lifestyle.

The entire holiday season is daunting for a number of reasons. First, winter always causes delays and unknown weather patterns. People generally receive work and school breaks, which may disrupt schedules. There are parties and family events and friendly gatherings, which are wonderful, but can overwhelm us because they demand additional time. And so we have this one day, this day of gratitude, to wonder about the years of human history, our own ancestors and where we fit into it. I think it is nice to have a quiet moment to enjoy music dedicated to holidays, to enjoy the family, to celebrate with wine and rich food. Whether your version of Thanksgiving is silly, like Adam Sandler's Thanksgiving song, or more solemn, like Johnny Cash's Thanksgiving Prayer, we wish you the best.

Either way, Thanksgiving is about people and sharing. Celebrate with those we love. Celebrate with strangers. The point, I think, is to celebrate. In the case of Harrison Middleton University, we celebrate your participation in discussion and great ideas. We are grateful for the fact that you enjoy dialogue of complicated issues and ancient texts. Enjoy the holiday and we look forward our next discussion!

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November 25, 2015

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Mary Oliver is a poet who often writes of attention to the natural world. Through a keen sense of awareness, one is better able to understand both themselves and the larger world. Oliver offers scenes from the natural world as a path towards our own internal growth. Oliver captures the essence of a moment with expressive, careful clarity. Nature is most often her subject and she beckons to the reader's emotions which rise and fall with the action on the page. Through Oliver's words, the reader also witnesses. According to Oliver, witness is the first step toward gratitude. In her prose-poem “Upstream” Mary Oliver writes, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Of course, this is true of all things – ourselves included.

Mary Oliver talks of beginning at the beginning. For example, she started to learn about nature simply by camping, by walking out among the trees. This turned into an observation of yet-unnamed entities. From there, she learned to identify and name the plants and animals that surrounded her. Careful observation of the smallest details offered greater proof of the intricately woven world. This action turned to adoration. She took comfort in the regularity of natural lives, in the blossoms of spring and summer, and yet also in the frost and bitter cold. Nature's ability to shine despite all external odds comforted Oliver. So, she began to write poems as a form of devotion.

Ironically, through paying attention, Oliver also discovered the impossibility of fully knowing anything. Instead, she increasingly became grateful for the opportunity to observe, interact and exist. At the end of her essay “A Blessing” she writes about summer days spent camping. She says,

“What we saw filled our minds. What we saw made us love and want to honor the world. And dear readers, if anyone thinks children in these difficult times do not need such peaceful intervals, then hang up the phone, we are not having a conversation. Without doubt those summers changed my life and my friend's. Whoever I am, and whoever my friend is now, fifty years later, we are both still part of this feast of the past. Happiness and leaves – they went together. The tender dripping of water on the tent roof, from the maples or, once, the realization that a baby skunk had taken to one of the cots we slept on and was, on a rainy morning, in a sound sleep. What could we do? Think of us – or think of your own children – in a tent that leaked only a little, and then from the beautiful rain and the elegant maples – think of us watching that very little skunk curled in the best blanket, opening its eyes sleepily and then closing them again; think of our silent and entirely happy laughter as we too went back to sleep.”

Oliver's personal connection with nature is clear. More than simply asking the reader to understand nature, however, she begs that we participate, if only by observation. It is necessary for all of us to witness. From there, she comes full circle to understanding the self, human interaction and connection. In the poem “The Whistler”, Oliver writes about the love of her life. She says,

“I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-/ kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too./ And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin/ to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with/ for thirty years?”

Reading Mary Oliver's work always instills gratitude in me, as if a vital spirit has lifted me. I feel blessed to think that I am able to participate in deep conversation. And, as always, I am the better for it. Today, I am grateful for Oliver's words, just as I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss them. As we approach holidays and times of stress, I intend to sneak back into nature, to steal a peek at some scene that refreshes, emboldens, embellishes and enlivens the world I live in. I hope you are able to do the same and I wonder whether or not your tent leaks a little too?

Happy Thanksgiving!

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