Listenfrom “Thanks,” by W.S. Merwin
with the night falling we are saying thank you
I first learned about the origins of Thanksgiving in 2011, when I happened to be working on Thanksgiving Day.
Of course, I’d heard the same story as every American kid in elementary school, about the brave pilgrims and the generous Native Americans, gathered in Massachusetts and gratefully eating corn together. Until high school, all of my history curriculum came from either Pensacola Christian or Bob Jones University, so the tale of scrappy Christians getting along with their neighbors figured largely in every version of America’s early years.
It’s never been my favorite tale, though of course I can see its beauty without any context. We have reliable enough accounts that some kind of shared feast occurred in the autumn of 1621, but the focus on this event as the origin of Thanksgiving Day is more than a little suspect. My initial disinterest had more to do with a lack of castles in colonial America than an early commitment to social justice, but at this point all of the events surrounding the famous dinner give it a rather grim foreshadowing. If my neighbors welcomed me to the block by throwing a potluck, and then a few years later I forced them all to move away and gave about half of them various deadly diseases in the process, celebrating that initial meet-and-greet would be rather missing the point, I’d say.
Several years ago, though, I found myself working in Germany, where the last Thursday of November is just a Thursday, a school day like any other. And though I was ambivalent about the origin story preached by Big Christian Textbooks, I still liked and missed the holiday itself. Who doesn’t like a day off of work and school, a day that starts with a fanciful parade and ends with an enormous meal, around an enormous table filled with family and friends? Eager to acknowledge the holiday and still compel my English students to learn something, I did some research.
What I discovered was President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, a document about which I knew literally only the title. Surely anything written by Lincoln counted as “literature” enough for us to read it in class, right? I printed off two dozen copies and got ready for my class to arrive. I hope that I read it before my students burst into the classroom, their faces still red from the cold and shouting about the upcoming Christmas Banquet, but I can’t be sure. What I still remember is reading it with them, paragraph by paragraph unfolding the words with which Lincoln addressed the United States in 1863. “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies…”
“What’s the date, again?” I interrupted, to which my students pointed to the 1863 printed across the top of the paper. “Right so that’s… what?”
“The Civil War?” ventured a brave international student. American history was seldom committed to memory for these students the way it was for me at their age; earlier that week, they’d asked their history teacher for a hint about who won the Civil War.
“Yes. Exactly. The Civil War is going on, and he called the year ‘filled with blessings.'”
We read through the rest of the proclamation, discussing the way that Lincoln layered honest acknowledgement of the nation’s broken state with praise for everything that continued to thrive. After a long list of thanks, Lincoln concluded that “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.” With the rest of the speech, he established a “Day of Thanksgiving and Praise,” recommending that his citizens spend the time both in gratitude for these gifts and in both repentance and intercession for “widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged,” before imploring them to pray for the healing of the nation.
I didn’t spend too much time, that day, telling them about Sarah Josepha Hale, the schoolteacher, poet and widowed mother of five who had written to presidents for several decades, requesting a national day of Thanksgiving. I think about her now, though, this project that she must have kept in mind all those years, while she was busy doing other things. She wrote to five presidents—as her children grew up, as she composed poems like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” as she campaigned for women’s rights and edited a literary magazine—until President Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, read her letter and found her request compelling enough to act on it.
For Mrs. Hale and President Lincoln, there was never a Turkey Day full of football and parade floats. No one gave them permission to sleep in or eat a traditional meal, to spend a day in luxurious laziness or frenetic feast preparation. Their lives weren’t just full; they were full of difficulty, and this proclamation arrived at one of the most difficult moments our nation has experienced. Neither denied any of this, but their message was simple; be thankful anyway.
My favorite poem for this time of year is “Thanks,” by W.S. Merwin, which a colleague once shared with me in the early months of what would be a truly difficult school year for both of us. And though Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” seems to be the national poem of the moment, for good reason, this one is mine. For Merwin takes a page of thanksgiving from Lincoln, from Hale, from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, in which he urges them to “give thanks in all things.” These lines haunt and encourage me, on this Thanksgiving like no other:
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us“Thanks,” W.S. Merwin
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
This is a strange Thanksgiving. There will still be pie, still family—just significantly smaller portions of both. And so, with Lincoln and Merwin and the church in Thessalonica, I try to do this thing that feels a bit harder this year. I pay attention to this world in which we live, looking at it as closely and lovingly as I can, and I give thanks.
Father, we see this year with fewer people around smaller tables, a year underpinned with fear and frustration, a year in which too many have too little. We see this year; You see it too. And yet, in spite of all of it, we are grateful. For the love that remains, Yours and ours, and those gifts and joys resilient to all the sorrow around us.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Dark though it is.