Dear Folks,

Why do we do the things we do?  Every family has traditions for the holidays… You use grandma’s china or a special table cloth, you sit in the dining room for a change instead of crowding into the kitchen, you roast a great big turkey in place of more typical fare, like meatloaf or chicken or pork chops.

Did it ever occur to you to roast a turkey at any time of year other than Thanksgiving or Christmas?  Isn’t that kind of odd?  Ambrose Bierce wrote in The Devil’s Dictionary, “Turkey: A large bird whose flesh, when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude.”  My father saw it as some kind of penance for his sins.  He didn’t like turkey very much, so there was always a bit of complaining that circled around our holiday table, especially while he was carving.  “I am only going to eat this, because your momma says it is good for me,” he would say, usually when the white meat began to crumble or a drumstick fell onto the table.

And there are some family traditions whose origin no one seems to remember.  Do you know the story of the “ham bone” or the “first brisket?”  The details change but the scene is always a pair of newlyweds, celebrating their first holiday, and the bride is very anxious to make a delicious meal for her new husband, using an old family recipe.  One version goes like this: A young woman was preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner.  As she got everything ready for the big meal, which would be served the next day, she reminded herself to let the turkey finish thawing in the sink overnight.  So she lowered it in, and then carefully placed the dish drainer on top of the bird.  At exactly that moment, her new husband walked into the kitchen and asked, “Why are you putting the dish drainer on the turkey?”

Now a man of some experience with marriage would have had more sense than to ask such a question, especially on Thanksgiving eve, of a young, inexperienced cook who has been on her feet all day.  As soon as he said the words and saw the look on his bride’s face, he wanted to take them back, but he couldn’t.  She answered, “My mom always did that to help the turkey thaw,” and the groom left well enough alone.  The next day the woman’s mother called to see how everything was going.  “Fine, Ma.  I have everything ready to go into the oven.  I even remembered to put the dish drainer over the turkey last night.”  This seemed to confuse her mother a bit.  “What are you talking about?” she asked.  “Oh remember, you always put the dish drainer over the turkey when it is thawing in the sink,” the daughter replied.  “You said it helped.”  There was a pause on the end of the line.  “Yes honey, but we had cats.”  Old habits die hard.  Sometimes families nurture practices whose meaning has been lost or become tenuous.

Why do we do the things we do?  I talked to an old friend late one night on the telephone whose dad was dying several states away.  “It’s been really difficult,” my friend told me, “to see this stoic, old lion subdued by a tumor that we only discovered a month ago.  He was bigger than life in some ways—lost his dad, raised himself, took care of his mother when she needed it.  He was a leader in the community when I was a kid, a hero to my mom and sister.”  What’s hard for you, I asked him.  He paused.  “Last Saturday my dad said that he loved me for the first time.  He said he was proud of me.  It was great to hear, but his words also revealed something I’d longed to know for as long as I can remember.”  Another pause.  “Until last Saturday on the plane ride home, it didn’t occur to me that my dad was longing for something, too.  I don’t think I realized that he probably didn’t get much praise himself as a boy.  I hadn’t thought about why I tell my own children so often that I delight in them.  Maybe hearing ‘I love you’ keeps us from aching so much.”

Why do you do the things you do?  Are you motivated by habit or fear or love?  What do you need to do this Thanksgiving (or any day) to hear what you need to hear, see what it’s time to see, and change what needs to be changed?   A poet named Oriah offers this invitation:

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shriveled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human…

I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

Love, David