I’m writing this on Thanksgiving morning here in the Northeast United States. My daughter Alex and her friend Rhiannon (who is English, which gives us a heightened sense of the holiday) are sleeping. I’m looking out at a grey sky and mostly bare trees, reflecting on the meaning of the turkey and the Nigella Lawson flour-free Clementine cake that Alex baked and all the rest of the food that I will inevitably (and probably incessantly) eat. I’ve learned a few facts thanks to the generous beings at Wikipedia, and they feel intuitively right. Thanksgiving is also a feast of safe homecoming, safe passage. The first Thanksgiving in this country may actually have been celebrated by the Spanish on September 8, 1565, in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. A day of thanksgiving was also observed in Virginia in 1619.
While not the first feast of thanksgiving on the continent, the traditional origin of modern Thanksgiving in the United States is generally regarded to be the celebration that occurred at the site of Plymouth Plantation, in Massachusetts, in 1621. The Wampanoag Native Americans Native Americans helped the pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts cultivate the land and fish, saving them from starvation. What an extraordinary act of generosity and compassion! And how did the white settlers repay this gift? Since my daughter and I vowed to dwell on wholesome and uplifiting subjects this week, I will just stick with that extraordinary reverberating gift that keeps on giving, year after year. Julia Child once famously said that if you wish to know eternity, to partake of the eternal, cook and eat dinner with loved ones. To cook well requires an extraordinary feeling for the way things are, the properties of things, the way heat and other elements effect them. It requires attention and sensitivity and patience and curiosity and humility. It probably requires all of what the Buddhists call the Seven Factors of Awakening. Gurdjieff once said that if a man or woman knows how to do anything very well–even just making coffee–they know something about the workings of the universe. I know what he means, don’t you? Watching them, or learning yourself, shows you something about the way things work in the real world, about the play of forces. Just imagine how much those Wampanoags knew about Nature, about the land and water and the plants and animals who lived here. They had much to show and teach the white people who showed up on their land, and the early settlers took in a bit of it, enough to take care of themselves. May we return to that original feast, willing to learn all they had to offer, which may have been knowledge of living in harmony with the Whole.
It was not just the knowledge of Native Americans. This morning I learned that the harvest celebration may have been modeled after harvest festivals that were commonplace in Europe at the time. The Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden. In Canada, the celebration of Thanksgiving goes back to the explorer Martin Frobisher, whose celebration was not for harvest, but for homecoming. He had safely returned from a search for the Northwest Passage, avoiding thegrim later fate of Henry Hudson and Sir John Franklin. In the year 1578, Frobisher held a formal ceremony in Newfoundland to give thanks for surviving the long journey.
Last week, I was blogging and reflecting on the interplay of mindfulness and concentration in spiritual practice and in life. This Thanksgiving morning, I see a bit more clearly how these two practices and properties of attention work together–and how we work together. Yesterday, when I was preparing something to be cooked today, I had to concentrate, to note when bubbles started to arise in the milk, to turn off the heat before it boiled, to stir the sauce until it thickened. It never did thicken. We’ll see what time and the cold of the fridge and the heat of the oven will do….let’s be honest, I had to face my lack of deep knowledge of cooking, the fruit of long-term attention. I also had to face the liability of having a college student assistant who was on twitter with her friends and taking pictures of the cake she baked to send around the world at the same time she read the recipe to me. Still, I could see the satisfaction that concentration brings, the grounding force it is. When Alex bakes, she likes to work in silence. It’s a kind of concentration practice for her. It settles and grounds her.
But cooking is also a means to remember. When I interviewed Nigella Lawson years ago, she told me she began cooking to remember her mother and her sister who died. Cooking the recipes that they loved was a sensual, visceral way to literally recollect the experience of being with them, eating with them. While engaged in the act of cooking we can also open our field of attention to remember the tastes and smells of other Thanksgiving feasts. We can remember those who cooked this, even back to those who first showed us how to roast turkeys and cook squash. When we cook and eat we can be mindful of all those who were generous, who concentrated and learned, who suffered and became mindful of the way the universe works. Finally, I am very thankful of all those who have taken the time to read this blog. I’m very aware this Thanksgiving of how we all influence one another–how we guide one another home. Happy Thanksgiving.