“What’s Literary Thanksgiving?” they’d asked, curious, seeing the note on this week’s schedule.
“You’ll have to wait until Thursday to see,” I replied, cryptic. Then, seeing their expectations, forming like frost on a cold November night, I elaborated. “No, it won’t be food. I mean, you can bring food if you want, but we’ll be writing creatively. Which is better than food.”
They laughed, and rolled their eleventh-grade eyes. Nothing is better than food, except sleep, if you’re in the eleventh grade.
Still, they’re in good spirits at the moment, composing Letters of Thanks to all sorts of inanimate objects, ideas, events and other abstractions that can’t reply. Already today I’ve read letters to pie, to basketball, to playing cards and to the warmth of fire. They laugh at my symbolic Letter to My Flight Home, then get to work, dreaming up ways that they can symbolically express their thankfulness.
We started class with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, in which he declared the national holiday of thankfulness, long the pet project of writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who after being rejected by the four previous presidents, finally found victory with President Lincoln. The words sound strange to us this morning, old and foreign, 150 years after that first federal Thanksgiving. I break the address into sentences, and have each student paraphrase one sentence. A few minutes later, we read it out again, our modern version.
Into the silence of this snowy morning, students from Italy, Korea, Ukraine, Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East, putting Lincoln’s old words into their newer ones, remind us that all gifts are from God. That nothing of the goodness and success we experience would be possible without His generosity and mercy. We hear a long-gone president ask forgiveness for a nation at war, divided against itself, and comfort for those who’d suffered unimaginable loss as a result. We hear, in the end, the call to “give thanks in all circumstances,” as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.
As we finish, I’m struck by how easy it is, often, to be thankful on a holiday. Because of Lincoln, Americans spend a day together, reconnecting with family as they eat traditional food and watch traditional parades and football games. There’s honest beauty to be savored in that gift of time and space.
And yet, this year, I find something just as meaningful in celebrating Thanksgiving on a work day, with my students, taking a bit of class time to remember the gifts that make our lives good and rich, even in the midst of stress, busyness, or even more difficult circumstances. In everything, give thanks. In the grey days of November, in a classroom with students from all over the world, amusing each other with creative letters as we celebrate the gifts God has given us.
There are papers still to grade. Stuffing waiting to go in the oven when I get home. Tasks still to finish and details to untangle in preparation for the busy wedding season ahead for us. Still, in everything, I am thankful, as much for the reminder to rejoice in busyness as the rest that’s waiting, just around the corner.