I remember how much I used to love the holiday season. From the beginning of autumn until New Year’s Day, life couldn’t get any better. During the last month and a half, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years were lumped into a sort of uber-holiday where I was constantly surrounded by family and friends and church-goers—truly the most wonderful time of the year.
Then, quite a few years ago, I came to the realization that I had gradually stopped believing in the Christian God, or really any deities at all, and the holidays suddenly grew awkward.
Acknowledging with Grateful Hearts
For the joy of human love,
brother, sister, parent, child,
friends on earth, and friends above,
pleasures pure and undefiled
Lord of all to thee we raise
this our grateful hymn of praise.
—From “For the Beauty of the Earth” by Folliott S. Pierpoint (1835-1917)
As a child, I felt, as most American children do, that Christmas and its peripheral holidays—Thanksgiving and New Year’s—could never come quickly enough. Luckily for me, we always got an early start.
A week or so before Thanksgiving, everyone would start talking about their plans—traveling, what to cook, which football team would be triumphant. There would be the big meal that coming Thursday, sure, but there were also warm-up meals at church and school and work. The big day would come around and the turkey and dressing and gravy and casseroles and sauces and rolls and pies and cakes would overflow from one meal to the next (by the time we would end that long Thanksgiving weekend, who knew how many turkeys we’d taste and whose dressing and gravy we had rolling around in our guts?). But there was always a theme to the festivities, and we would often stop and focus on that theme—thankfulness to God for his many wonderful blessings.
The American Thanksgiving holiday is not on any of the “Holy” calendars, but when it comes to important days of the year in the United States, Thanksgiving Day may be the holiday that remains the truest to its original intent. Our first president, George Washington, proclaimed November 26, 1789 to be celebrated as “…a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”
Hundreds of years later, 76% of Americans still believe in a personal God (and half of those people believe God speaks to us directly). So if you walk down a crowded street, more than half the passersby, if they are honest with you, will have to admit, “I believe there is a God and that he/she/them/it is intimately involved in my life.” Gratefulness to God is what this nationally observed holiday is still about.
I’ve made it no secret that, even though I am a pagan witch, I find it just as likely that the god the goddess are manifestations of humanity’s collective unconscious as they are living personal entities that interact with us on a daily basis. So what about me? And what about people like me who often don’t find the idea of god/goddess a believable concept? What am I left with on holidays like Thanksgiving Day or anyone of the three Pagan harvest festivals (Lammas, Mabon, and Samhain)? Can I still be thankful? If so, thankful to whom?
These questions, and hundreds like them, have plagued me for the better part of the last decade. I’ve let go of my attempts to answer a lot of the more abstract or cerebral items on the list (I’m convinced a lot of life’s questions are “unanswerable”), but there remains a small list of mysteries that I want to continue to explore, authentically and with whatever humility I can muster.
What is Thankfulness? What do I have to be thankful for? To whom should I be thankful?
An Unexpected Gift
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
—From “Simple Gifts” by Joseph Brackett
This is going to be a really random thing to say, and I can think of no segue to offer, but I’ll explain in a moment. So here goes. Not long ago, I spent several weeks wishing I was a werewolf. Now, let me explain.
The novels I read are mostly supernatural or fantastic in some way. Magic, vampires, futuristic dystopias or post-apocalyptic survival tales—if it’s fast-paced and fun, I’m in. Like a lot of people with tastes similar to these, I had read some of the Anne Rice vampire series. Well, recently, I had the random urge to start from the beginning and read all the way through Rice’s Lestat books. So I logged onto her website to make a note of the order of publication of the book series, and that’s when I noticed a link for The Wolf Gift Chronicles.
I clicked on the link and read the brief synopsis of the first book, The Wolf Gift. Here’s what I read:
When Reuben Golding, a young reporter on assignment, arrives at a secluded mansion on a bluff high above the Pacific, it’s at the behest of the home’s enigmatic female owner. She quickly seduces him, but their idyllic night is shattered by violence when the man is inexplicably attacked—bitten—by a beast he cannot see in the rural darkness. It will set in motion a terrifying yet seductive transformation that will propel Reuben into a mysterious new world and raise profound questions. Why has he been given the wolf gift? What is its true nature–good or evil? And are there others out there like him?
I was half-way through chapter two on my Kindle a few minutes later. I glutted myself on that book for about a week. There were a lot of passages that I would read and then immediately re-read. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. While Anne Rice is definitely a successful and popular author, I’ve always found her style to be a little more deliberate than my typical reads (like I said, I typically like my novels to be somewhat fast-paced).
What I later realized was that I was having a profound spiritual experience while reading the book. I was learning again, through the eyes of Reuben, the irreplaceable joys of experiencing the world in its raw and unfiltered state. I was falling in love with a set of experiences that I could never actually have, because I could never become a werewolf, or Morphenkind, as they’re called in the book. However, this didn’t prevent me from having a heartfelt desire to become one of the Morphenkinder—if anything the impossibility made the desire excruciatingly more potent.
One passage in particular not only altered my consciousness, my perceptions, but planted a seed inside of my heart that quickly grew and spread deep roots into the soil of my spiritual being. It takes place as Reuben is swinging in his wolf form through a forest of ancient redwoods in Northern California and reveling in the simple yet beautiful wildness he is becoming accustomed to.
The night had never seemed sweeter to him in all his existence; it was conceivable that he could live this way forever, self-sufficient, strong, monstrous, and utterly unafraid. If that was what the Wolf Gift had in store for him, perhaps he could bear it.
Yet it terrified him that he might surrender his conscious soul to the heart of the beast pumping within. For now, poetry was still with him—and the deepest moral considerations.
A song came to him, an old song. Where he’d heard it he couldn’t recall. He sang it in his head, putting its half-forgotten words in proper order, only humming under his breath.
He came out into a grassy clearing, the light from the low gray heavens increasing, and after the closeness of the woods, it seemed beautiful to see the shimmering grass in the thin rain.
He began to dance in large slow circles singing the song. His voice sounded deep and clear to him, not the voice of the old Reuben, the poor innocent and fearful Reuben, but the voice of the Reuben he was now.
’Tis the gift to be simple
’Tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
Again, he sang it, dancing a little faster and in greater circles, his eyes closed.
This Our Hymn of Grateful Praise
Since I finished reading The Wolf Gift, as well as the second book in the series, The Wolves of Midwinter, hardly a day has gone by that I have not found myself singing and humming and whistling this Shaker dance song from 1848. There is a single line in the song, a conditional clause that, all on its own, stands out to me and repeats itself over and over in my thoughts.
When true simplicity is gained…
I have spent the subsequent months pondering simplicity and its role in the inner life. While material and outer simplicity are easily quantifiable, if not easily achieved—continue to remove the unnecessary—purposeful simplicity of the heart and mind are difficult to comprehend, for this writer at least.
But I kept on singing and listening to and playing “Simple Gifts,” and it started to change me in small ways. I began to notice things I had forgotten—small yet beautiful things that brought me joy, things that had already been happening in my life, but without my recognition of them, without an attitude of thanksgiving to accompany them. So I began to write them down, in no particular order, so that I would be able to go back to this list of “Things that Bring Me Joy” and remember them all over again. Here are a few items from the list.
- Laughing with friends and family.
- Going to the movies.
- Long drives in the country and in the mountains.
- Sharing a relaxed meal with like-minded friends.
- Playing board games.
- Sitting around a campfire for hours.
- Date nights with my wife.
- Daddy-daughter time.
- Being asked interview-style questions by someone who is genuinely curious to learn who I am.
- Winning a debate.
- Losing a debate.
- Finishing a debate where both sides have more questions at the end than they did at the beginning.
- Entertaining/cooking for someone in our home.
- Someone I care about remembering to encourage and compliment me.
- Remembering to encourage and compliment someone I care about.
- Rambling around town or in the woods (sometimes with my camera, taking random pictures).
- Sharing a secret.
- Enjoying an excellent beer or three with someone who appreciates it is much as I do.
- A quiet house or a calm coffee shop and a good book.
- Sincerely asking someone, “How are you doing?” and getting an equally sincere answer.
- Walking in the dark shade of tall trees.
- A well-executed, concise, and thought-provoking letter from an interesting person.
- Inside jokes.
- Someone asking me to read them a poem, one of mine or one in a book I’m reading.
- Listening to a song for the hundredth time and finally “getting” it.
- Songs that take one hundred listens to finally “get.”
- Swapping stories with people that start with, “The first time I ever…”
- Used bookstores and money to spend in them.
- Experiencing something beautiful or moving or sublime for the first time with someone I care about.
- Thinking about someone, wondering how they’re doing, only to find out they were thinking about you at the same time.
- Discovering things to add to this list.
When Reuben runs through the forest, leaping from tree to tree, he hunts. He smells his kill from far away, and he tracks it for miles. As he quickly gains on it, his hunger increases until it is all-consuming. When he catches his prey, he tears into it with an almost-orgasmic reaction. Each part of the animal is savored—muscle, skin, internal organs—they are all crunched and lapped up to the point of ecstasy. In his wolf form, he is free to enjoy life at its basest, its most sensual, its simplest. This is why he calls it the “Wolf Gift.”
I know I cannot become Morphenkinder, at least I cannot change my body to the shape of a human-animal hybrid, but there is a change that can occur, that can continue to occur. I can see life, no, the living of life, as a gift—from others, from myself. I can see it as a gift to be cherished and devoured all at once. I can leap through the tops of trees, passing over whomever or whatever would keep me from my delight, my bliss. I can sink my teeth into its veins and gulp down the hot meat of now, of this moment.
What is Thankfulness? Living life to the fullest. What do I have to be thankful for? Anything and everything that brings me joy. To whom should I be thankful? To the earth that sustains and comforts me, to myself, and to those I love for participating with me in this grand adventure we call “Life.”
I leave you with my hymn of grateful praise, performed by two masters of music, each in their own rights, Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss. A blessed Mabon, everyone, and many happy holidays to come!