Giving Thanks

During the last two months of the year, we inevitably receive constant reminders to reflect on what we are thankful for. Magazine covers show perfectly roasted birds laid on fine porcelain platters in November for the Thanksgiving and transition to glossy stacks of perfectly wrapped presents in December for the holiday season. It is quite impossible not to dwell on the things you are grateful for during the few weeks that round up the year. There are naturally the obvious things one is thankful for - health, comfort, family, success, possibilities, the liberty and ability to do anything, be anything, to aim and achieve. However, when I read Rachel Ray's letter in last month's Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine, in which she talks about being thankful for "food," I wondered if it is not worth being more granular in my thinking as well. After all, the hunger statistics in the world are staggering. 

I am thankful for food, too. I have more than I need, and it is a great pleasure for me to write about it. During this season, however, it is important to observe that with my fridge bulging with leftovers after a magnificent Thanksgiving feast, I am far from the despair that is brought on by a hungry belly. If you are like me, even a quiet moment of meditation will go a long way if it results in you sharing a small slice of your pie of prosperity with the unfortunate. It is really very simple – just one recurring payment to your favorite charity hidden between the monthly evidence of a comfortable life (charges for beauty boxes, video subscriptions, book purchases, etc.). There are obviously other ways to give back. A friend of mine volunteers in soup kitchens during the holidays. Another friend is planning to capture portraits of patients to give them hope. My roommate in college used to invite all the stragglers for a Thanksgiving meal - college students who couldn't go back home and wanted a nice meal and good company...

I am thankful also for having a welcoming home, and more importantly, I am grateful for having it frequented by guests. I was talking to my sister the other day and she mentioned that in most religions and traditions, to host guests is an honor. In Islamic tradition specifically, we grew up listening to the story of Hazrat Abu-Bakr Siddiq (r.a.). He gave away all his wealth in the name of Islam. One night, he was sheltering travelers, but had very little food. He offered all of his food to his guests and lowered the flame of his lamp so his guests would not know that their host was forgoing his own rations to feed them. I had forgotten about this story until she reminded me of it. I have been guilty in the past few months of wrinkling my nose at the prospect of hosting guests. With a demanding schedule that encompasses work, family, baby, writing, studying, and teaching, I am left with very little patience to entertain – even though I feel my best when I am doing exactly that – entertaining. This story made me realize how guests really are an honor (I also agree with Benjamin Franklin that “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”). Let’s face it. I am not the only person in the world with responsibilities and a grueling routine. If my guests are willing to take out the time to visit me, I should take it as the compliment it is meant to be. 

Finally, I am thankful for my friends. All of them – near and far. Some of my family members are my best friends. There are others who, over the years, have acquired a familiarity that is akin to being related by blood. We are all separated by time and distance, scattered as we are across several continents. Sometimes, we don’t speak for months, and then suddenly some kind of magic takes hold of the air around me and them at the same time, and we are propelled into the perfect harmony of “having free time” to Skype for hours (I should also offer thanks for Skype and Facetime). Speaking of friends, though, I must say that everyone should have a Rebecca in their lives. There is very little about my life that Rebecca does not know. While she does not always understand the complexities I encounter as I tread two identities in two different continents, she is always able to sympathize. Every year, she cooks me a fantastic Thanksgiving meal and has become a part of my family so completely that all you have to do is look at my baby’s big smile upon seeing Rebecca to realize how much we care for her. This year, Thanksgiving was spent with the usual preparations and piles of delicious food as you can see in the pictures. The turkey was beautiful to look at and perfectly moist and wonderfully flavorful with crisped golden-brown skin. Creamed corn, fluffy mashed potatoes and salty gravy, crisp string beans with pesto sauce, smoky roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and tangy apple pie for dessert with a flaky crust. It was a memorable dinner to say the least. 

Being in the presence of other family members, I sometimes find it difficult to transition into and out of accents, inflections, and even languages. While Rebecca was busy cooking in the kitchen to prepare our feast, I was going back and forth between Urdu with my family and English with her. The juggling made me wonder, quite profoundly, if I have sometimes inadvertently left her out of conversations, and worse, if she has felt that way. 

It is one of the aspects of my personality I have struggled with. I have never been at ease with speaking a language that a part of my audience does not understand, but over and over, I fall back into this pattern, perhaps by habit or by circumstances. I noticed, for example, my mother who does not converse fluently in English shying away from the company of my American friends  and preferring to stay in her room after greeting them, because we spoke English among ourselves, and I often forgot to translate for her benefit or include her in the conversation. I wondered anxiously on Thanksgiving Day, if I had somehow alienated my best friend, too, by not having the discipline to stick to one universally understood language. I may have – I will hear about it either way after she reads this. 

For now, I am sanguine. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, we met up with Rebecca at the mall. My two-year-old daughter rushed into her arms, ran around her in circles, and stayed with her for two hours, just playing and laughing because she was so excited to see her. There is no language between them, but they understand each other perfectly. My daughter is able to communicate with everyone she loves without saying anything at all. Maybe that’s a universally understood language in itself, and I am thankful for being privy to it.

Photos by Rebecca McCue