It’s nearly mid-November and our dining table sits lonely. I haven’t even brought out our Thankfulness Jar yet. It’s an annual tradition: we cut up strips of printer paper and sharpen a bouquet of yellow pencils. They sit on the table, ready for each child and grown up to write one thing they’re thankful for each day (the littlest draw or dictate their sentiments). We fold our little white papers in half (the biggest boys make miniature paper airplanes from them) and then on Thanksgiving Day, we open them all up and read them aloud — our secret gratitude becomes an offering to our family and friends as we feast together. As we eat, we taste and see how good God is.
But this year, we have spent the spare moments playing the board game Clue, making “mama chicken pot pie” (my specialty: leftovers topped with cheddar biscuits and baked together — see recipe below), and cuddling, laughing, and crying during particularly touching family movie nights. Sometimes the best laid plans are only plans.
I spend a night turning the words over in my head, “grateful,” “gratitude,” “grazia,” “grace” — wondering how they all fit together. Our English word “grateful” comes from the Latin “gratus” (a word now extinct) which not only means “grateful, thankful,” but also “pleasing, welcome” and “beloved.” It is love and pleasure which lead us into thankfulness. Gratitude does not emerge from mere duty — though habits can move us into gratitude. When our love bubbles up, we cannot help but be thankful.
For Americans, we’ve settled for a mass-produced thankfulness. It’s as bland and unspecific as wooden “Give Thanks” signs. We look to Pinterest for all the ways we’re supposed to embrace thankfulness this season (complete with new crafts and calligraphy). But in our rush to make memories, or even to mark time, I wonder how much we neglect to cultivate the slow art of noticing beauty — a beauty that will flow like wine into real gratitude.
How we can recover the simple art of remembering, nurturing small moments of sustained attention? What does gratitude, what does thanksgiving, look like now?
That’s why our slips of paper help us to mark the time. We start to mine our days for ordinary beauty as we live out our ordinary days.
This is one way our family hunts for beauty, knowing it can of course feel like an empty ritual — but it can also propel us towards thanksgiving.
But still the table is empty. We’ve orchestrated our lives around our work weeks, soccer schedules, family photos, and the upcoming trip next week. Life feels so full. Add to that that it’s finally cool enough to wear pants and boots in southern California, and it seems November snuck up on me. Is it too late to be thankful?
Maybe we start not by making sure we do gratitude right, where we buckle up to get it done. Maybe we start by slowing down and noticing. Perhaps more could be gained by being beauty-chasers in the first place.
Years ago, with fewer children, when days weren’t punctuated with homework, sports, or playing outside with the neighbor kids, I would try to mark our autumnal days with tea.
I would read a short poem aloud from William Blake’s illustrated “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” a gift from my PhD supervisor, Susan, upon the birth of my first son. It felt right and good to create rhythms in what felt like the interminable days of raising small children. Of course, we only made it through one or two before someone spilled their tea or squished their food into the floor. But it brought me back in memory to Susan.
As a graduate student, I would cup my hands around my teacup and remember. I tasted the sound of words. I marked the layers of myself in her office overlooking the meadow. This — in all its messy glory — was how I chased beauty. I’d traded hours of reading and collegial conversations for the chatter of toddlers, but there was beauty here, too — in the pouring out, in the listening.
So in my mid-November present, I buy a quick-mix pumpkin bread from Trader Joe’s and get down the blue teapot I bought at a consignment shop in the UK. After school, I’ll leave a book of poetry in the wooden box that sits in the middle of the dining table. My boys will huddle around math notebooks and my daughter will do her “homework,” her preschool coloring pages.
I vow not to run away to work on a writing project or take out my phone. I’ll sit at the table, pouring tea. We might get through a few more poems this year. We’ll practice the art of remembering in real time: I’ll tell my firstborn again about his book of poetry from Susan. I’ll remind my daughter how she bears Susan’s name as a middle name. We’ll all partake of the story of words and delight. There will likely be crumbs still, and sibling bickering and maybe even some eye-rolling. But, I pray, tea and good words — and most of all our sustained presence together — will be the liturgies my children steep themselves in to know how beloved they are. I’ll sit at the end of the table, sharpening our bouquet of pencils for another year of marking time.
mama chicken pot pie: a recipe
An imprecise and forgiving recipe to help tired men and women find good comfort food when time is short. It’s highly adaptable, sure to fit whatever leftovers you may have on hand.
2 cups flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) chilled butter, cut in pieces
1 ¼ c whole milk (or other milk)
garlic and onion
spice (sage, oregano, smoked paprika, salt and pepper)
frozen corn or peas
cut up carrots
meat or veggie protein you have on hand, cubed
leftover soup or broth
½ cup sour cream or milk
Make biscuits. Preheat your oven to 425°. If you have a pancake mix or Bisquick on hand, use the mix to make your quick biscuits. Otherwise, combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Cut in butter with a knife and fork, and then pour in milk and stir to combine. Knead with your hands and make sure the dough feels sticky but not wet (add more milk or flour if the consistency isn’t right). Drop biscuits in large chunks on a baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes until the tops are light brown.
Make filling. While biscuits are baking, warm the butter, garlic, and spices in a skillet. Add diced onion and cook until translucent. Add your cubed meat (or other protein) and veggies; cook over medium heat. Add some water, broth, and sour cream (or other liquid) so that ratio of solid food to liquid is about 2:1. Simmer for a few minutes while your biscuits cook.
Combine into casserole. Place filling in the bottom of a small casserole dish or covered cast-iron baking dish. Layer the biscuits on top and mash with a fork to flatten them. Add some grated cheddar cheese on top. Bake at 350° for 5 minutes, until cheese is melted.
Serve and eat. Scoop out and ladle into shallow bowls. Serve with salad or green beans, or just by itself.