I learned this snowy Thanksgiving Week that when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be a national holiday that the individual believed to most responsible for influencing him was a New Hampshire native, ardent abolitionist Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. After an inspired letter writing campaign that had spanned five American Presidents, including New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce, Hale, in a letter penned on Sept. 28, 1863, finally found a receptive ear.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving call came during the Civil War’s darkest days, when America and its families were being ripped asunder, when fathers were pitted against sons, when bodies were stacked upon bodies like cordwood. Indeed, when the very idea of one nation was being challenged by secessionists, Lincoln responded, issuing his call in response to “The lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
I believe we still find ourselves living amidst, “lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.” It seems unjust that today’s ongoing civil strife revolves around issues that the United States should have resolved by now, 150 years after the first national Thanksgiving. Racial divisions, social injustices, gender and pay inequality, immigration rights, battles over universal health care and women’s rights tear us apart still, and it’s not right. I’m not shopping today: I’m staying home.
I’m staying home. I’ll share my life with lovers, families and friends. I’ll read a lot, not think about the bargains I’m missing and contemplate giving thanks.
I’m not without gratitude, though. Today, I’m evermore mindful of the bounty and abundance in which we live, for the scarcity in so many other lives, and I’m thankful for the grace and mercy that fills us all.
My first Thanksgiving away from home was in 1968. It was a tumultuous year. I had left the United States almost immediately after the end of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and moved to Beirut, Lebanon, from where my family had originally emigrated. I had been a personal photographer for presidential candidate Senator Eugene
McCarthy for nearly nine months. I was with him during Vietnam’s Tet Offensive; I was with him when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and I was with him when Sirhan Sirhan murdered Bobby Kennedy.
I was present in Chicago’s Grant Park when Mayor Richard J. Daley’s force of 23,000 police and National Guardsmen clashed with demonstrators, and finally I witnessed the Democratic Party ignominiously nominate eventual loser Hubert Humphrey rather than choose anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy.
After nine months of being “Clean for Gene” it was time to move on. My first Thanksgiving away from home was hard. As my Lebanese relatives, with whom I was living, didn’t have a clue about Thanksgiving I found a group of expatriates at the Mayflower Hotel where we had dry turkey, tinned cranberry sauce and bitter pumpkin pie — but where the sides of hummus, tabbouli and olives were wonderful.
I missed, though, when young the morning touch football games that always preceded our feasts and the wonderful mixture of American Thanksgiving traditions seasoned with Middle East spices and dishes. My family was always, and remains to this day for me Thanksgiving’s raison d’etre.
Since then I’ve spent many Thanksgivings abroad, including a wonderful meal in Ma’adi outside Cairo with my daughter and in Jeddah with a bunch of Saudis all of whom had gone to school in the United States. I found when family’s present it doesn’t matter where you are — when absent no meal redeems the occasion.
Today, I’m thankful for finding the path that led me to Islam. I’m thankful for the diverseness and love of those who fill my life, for all the teachers who’ve inspired me to try to speak “Truth to Power.” And today I’m especially thankful for new friends I’ve made who challenge me and share personal stories of faith and doubt.
Today, thinking beyond turkey, I pray for protestors in Ferguson, strikers against Walmart and health care workers fighting Ebola. I pray for those resisting occupation and struggling for dignity, respect and freedom and I pray for the weak, the poor and the disenfranchised, wherever they live.
Finally, I pray that someday America’s “lamentable civil strife” will have been honestly and fully engaged and overcome.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.