In a recent fit of downsizing, I was sorting through a box of forgotten possessions in the garage. I’m not even sure which daughter had left behind this jumble of school supplies and adolescent accessories. Determined to get rid of one more carton of unnecessary storage, I organized into piles the trash, the sentimental, and the items that were usable enough to be donated. A pencil case that I had just placed in the donate pile caught my attention. It was one of those knock-off “Hello Kitty” rectangular metal boxes, brightly painted with odd little animal characters. Some fancy striped paper clips rattled around inside. What made me look at the pencil box twice was the sentence on the front, printed below the not-quite-identifiable animals in a plain black font: “From time to time, the usual moment seems terribly beautiful.”
It seemed a strangely melancholy phrase for a child’s collection of school supplies. I figured the original Korean words had been awkwardly translated, but that only made me turn them over in my mind more. I knew exactly what the pencil case with the old soul was talking about: the unexpected, lasting beauty of the everyday. I dusted it off, moved it from the donate pile to the sentimental pile. Now it sits on my desk.
We all have those ‘usual moments’: a seemingly innocuous day that, in the light of memory, transcends the ordinary to become extraordinary. Maybe it’s a day when our adult children were small and still fit on our lap, or someone we loved was still alive. Maybe it’s a job we thought we’d always have, or a home where we thought we’d always live, or a romance we thought was the one that would last. But we know the feeling: we remember something that seemed uneventful at the time it happened, and we think, “That was special.”
Those are the moments of life for which Thanksgiving was invented.
How fortunate we Americans are to celebrate annually a national holiday that allows us to reflect, to take stock, and to give thanks. To whom we are grateful is a matter of individual religious freedom, the principle of which was instrumental in the historical events that led to the first Thanksgiving: a bunch of Pilgrims, battered and depleted by their journey but finally free of persecution, grateful to be alive, were shown hospitality and harvest by their native neighbors. Although the two groups would later go to war, becoming adept themselves at persecution and violence, they first ate together in mutual thanksgiving. Maybe they didn’t realize how special their first celebration was.
The Thanksgiving tradition has outlived the bloody disputes over land and sovereignty that chart our growth as a nation. Our internal civil conflicts continue, less physically deadly, but still ideologically bloody. Yet today, in honor of Thanksgiving, we set aside the political labels. Families and friends say grace together, break bread together, share their bounty, and even agree not to get into religion or politics. We coexist peacefully, if only for one day. We immerse ourselves in gratitude.
The gift of today is that it reminds us of how we could feel every day. I’ve heard people use the catchy rhyme “an attitude of gratitude”, and I think the sentiment is right on, even if the phrase itself cloys. We often find it easier to be grateful in retrospect than in the present moment. But like the wise pencil case says, from time to time we are blessed with a flash of pure appreciation for the fleeting, fragile beauty of the mundane, of the life we take for granted. This kind of conscious gratitude can touch our lives.
When we begin each day in conscious gratitude, we treat others, even those we don’t know or don’t like, with respect. We treat our loved ones with reverence. And in our decisions and actions, we are aware of the presence of the sacred in the everyday. These adjustments in our individual outlooks could truly, collectively, change the world. A little gratitude in the heart of one can have a huge, positive impact on many.
On this designated day of Thanksgiving I am easily, consciously grateful for the large and the small: for God’s green earth and for cranberry sauce, for transforming love and for a morning kiss, for a child’s progress and for a pencil case. On the other 364 days of the year, potential days of thanksgiving with a small-t, I’d like to be just as be mindful of giving thanks to God as I am on this holiday with a capital-T. I want to live in conscious gratitude, to be startled by the pervasive grace of every minute: From time to time, the usual moment seems terribly beautiful.