By Todd R. Nelson
I embrace a whole nation that holds a holiday in the name of gratitude and coming home: ours. It’s rare in this day and age and social climate to have so many people pausing with humility for these simple, soulful things. That’s my opening point of thankfulness, every year. Just being here.
Gratitude has power. We must exercise it more often. It’s the core of one of the great redemptive experiences of literature, in addition to the world’s religious traditions. I like to think of gratitude as a link to our sense of home — less a location and more a pattern of acceptance and welcome awaiting us even in unfamiliar places, from unfamiliar people, if we’re awake, perceptive and receptive.
Sure, home contains the customary scenes of kith and kin associated with Thanksgiving. We joke about the grudging relations and fraught discussions around the dining table. However, its essence turns up unexpectedly at other times. Perhaps it’s the smell of buttered toast, steam heat, Ivory soap, or just burning leaves. It’s the sound of the creaking stair, of a particular tea kettle, a favorite Beatles album or the heavy clank of a familiar front door latch. I like the dog on the sofa, beating her tail in greeting. I’m home.
Or the welcoming, familiar voice. For every literary prodigal or pilgrim who journeys away from home, there is also the child who stays put; perhaps they are two parts of the same journey. Both are heirs and must learn that they have their father’s blessing. Staying at home to learn that “all that I have is thine” may be a lengthy journey too. The Thanksgiving table isn’t complete until both seats are filled.
I’m fond of a scene in “Nicholas Nickleby,” by Charles Dickens, that brings this point home for me. Toward the end of the novel’s prodigal saga, Nicholas asks Smike, the devoted, crippled waif whom he has rescued from oppression and abandonment at sinister Dotheboys Hall, if he would like to go home. Indeed, where is home for Smike, Nicholas wonders. Where does he feel from? No one claims him. The answer is one of the book’s great plot arcs.
“You are my home,” replies Smike. He has attached himself to the goodness he perceives in Nicholas, the gentle love and generosity to which we all turn quite naturally. They are indeed intimations of our fondest hope for home. This is what we most fundamentally feel from, and when found it feels as if it’s where we’ve always been, despite life’s anguishing plot twists — and feel grateful for the discovery. Such gratitude makes any day Thanksgiving Day. Where there is gratitude there is home.
I’ve felt it most deeply on those Thanksgiving holidays when I sojourned in a far country — but never far from home, in some form. I have been Nicholas. I have been Smike. You?
Human nature predicts this, as well as the reunion with one another at the right moment. The human condition would siphon off our focus toward the superspread of pain and sorrow; uncertainty and loss. But the default position is still this: chaos is the exception and interruption of the rule of order, goodness and stability re-established among strangers. Home is thanksgiving — anywhere, everywhere. “Home is where I wanna be; but I guess I’m already there,” as David Byrne sings. Welcome home.
Todd R. Nelson, a former educator, makes his home in Penobscot.