When I was a kid, my family used to spend Thanksgivings on the farm. The idyllic, iconic American experience. Mamaw would spend days shopping and chopping, and woke before dawn to start the turkey.
She always had everyone's favorite pie.
Dinner would involve, among other things, three different pans of stuffing: one with everything; one with no onions; one with no giblets. Plus the copious amount of sides including deviled eggs in a giant Tupperware container–because if you don’t have deviled eggs, is it really even Thanksgiving in Kentucky? All of it would somehow fit on the table that also seated 6 adults. (The 4 kids were relegated to a card table in the den, of course).
As that turkey roasted to the perfection that only childhood memory can muster, I was outside with my cousins, playing on the tire swing and jumping in hay bales. The barn smelled like tobacco and Novembers were warm. This is not a Norman Rockwell imprint on my psyche. It was actual life.
You don’t know when you’re having the last one of those before life happens and people grow up, and everybody gets jobs and car payments and a set of in-laws. But at some point, all those dominoes started falling. Thanksgiving migrated to my aunt’s house in Georgia, and I married into a very large Catholic family where Thanksgiving was less an exercise in finding space for the deviled egg and more a game of Twister to get everyone seated.
Then I moved. To Phoenix. We lived in three different places in 7 years there, transient in they way of Gen Xers in general, and Arizona residents specifically.
We had good friends from home living in Southern California. When you’re a Kentuckian living in diaspora, the 5-hour plus drive across the desert seems like nothing at all, and so the Cali-Kentucky contingent would come to Phoenix to spend Thanksgiving with us. Those years involved the gradual introduction of babies (ours and theirs) and friends’ husbands, and an ever-expanding table of mostly vegetarian fare. The church I was serving at the time always had a big Thanksgiving meal the Sunday before, which meant turkey with an abundance of jello-dishes and store bought salads because– THIS JUST IN– Arizona people don’t cook like your Kentucky Mamaw. But they have their own virtues. For instance, those were the years I learned to put green chiles in everything. Seriously, corn pudding, cheese grits… whatever, it will change your life.
Somehow, even though ministry life means that holidays are the worst possible time to go ‘home,’ that desert was filled with all the goodness of family and belonging that I could ask for. Maybe it’s because there was so much love in the scrappy little church that made a pastor of me. Maybe it’s because my friends and chosen family were willing to drive across the desert just to hold my babies and enjoy pie-for-breakfast-Friday (my favorite, if self-appointed holiday).
Or maybe it’s because home is not a place you go, but something you take with you.
During our years in Kansas City, Thanksgiving was a pieced together thing. Some years we would go to a friend's house rather than burning up the road to Kentucky; one year, I made a midnight run to the airport, in the snow, to pick up my mom. Sometimes we traveled, sometimes we set the table.
All told, in our first 15 years of marriage, my husband and I lived in 3 states: 3 Cities, 3 timezones, and (I’ve lost count but roughly) 9 different houses and apartments. There were times I felt untethered; years I wished I could transport myself to a Rockwell-esque farm scene and whatever ‘home’ means when you’re missing it; times I wished that we had “a holiday tradition” that was just what we did every year, no matter what, and we didn't have so much stuff to figure out. But that sense of lack and longing isn’t what I remember. I remember holidays from those transient years as enforced sabbath time. A few days to breathe in the goodness of our current life situation, wherever that happened to be, and enjoy it with whatever friends and family we could scrape together. Wherever we were, and whoever was there, was exactly who and what we needed at the time.
We are back in Kentucky now, and like the rest of the country, heading into our 2nd pandemic Thanksgiving. So on the one hand, we have plans for about 3 different gatherings to ensure that we hit all sides of the family. On the other hand, we've got a kid at home who is technically COVID positive (though asymptomatic, thankfully) who is supposed to quarantine through Thanksgiving day. We'll do another round of tests on Wednesday and see what's what. But the past week has been a reminder that it's best to stay flexible and know that 'plans' are rarely more than good intentions. And that even our best traditions will give way to real life.
The holidays came around last year at the height of the pandemic, before a vaccine was available. All experts advised that Americans forego their usual family gatherings and celebrate at home... but some folks just couldn't get their heads around it. While many sacrificed and planned family Zoom calls and Googled how to make turkey for 4, or 2, or 1... many, many others went on with holidays-as-usual, having no frame of reference for how one might just... not. And we had a massive January COVID spike to show for it.
And yes, the holidays last year were kind of a bummer... But I was very mindful that the art of being unattached to tradition served us well through that time. And it continues to serve us still. There is a certain resilience that comes with having moved and changed your life a lot over the years, a bloom-where-you're-planted flexibility that embraces your current location, both literal and figurative. And one does not have to make geographical moves to cultivate such resilience. Anyone who has ever scraped together a sense of community from a hodgepodge assortment of people in close proximity will tell you the same. When your tradition is no tradition, you make it work. You give thanks for where you are.
Like many of yours, our family table will be missing a loved one this year. The grief is palpable. But there is also real Thanksgiving for the life that was, for life that remains, and for those who are still with us to celebrate.
Nothing is ever the same as it was when we were kids. In fact, things are rarely the same as they were just a year ago. But I know that my truest understanding of gratitude has grown out of the years when nothing seemed normal or usual... but when I could still look around and see how blessed I was by whoever happened to be in proximity.
Because it's really not about holidays at all, but about finding home. And home, it turns out, is portable. Like the Derby pie I took to Thanksgiving potlucks in both Arizona and Kansas– because if you can believe it, there are folks living in those distant lands who have never thought to put bourbon and chocolate chips in their pecan pie. Home can happen at any table where you happen to be, in any season, in any timezone.
Maybe home is just where your pie is.
Oh the joys of a summer trip to the library… my kids piling up more books than they can carry, me grabbing a few new release novels that will inevitably rack up late fees, and a few things I’ll never actually read (cause you’ve gotta have a backup)-- and then going home for an afternoon of family reading time and maybe getting ice cream drips on a few pages. Bliss.
This was one of the things I missed most during the pandemic. Our library was entirely closed for the longest time, and then they did “curbside pickup only” which was fine but all things considered, hard to plan for and utterly unsatisfying. I missed the roaming and browsing, and the flexibility to just go when we had a few minutes and were in the neighborhood. I missed finding and picking up things I’d never heard of. I missed watching my kids go to their favorite sections and totally nerd out over things I know nothing about.
Add these tiny joys to the long list of things I will never take for granted again.
Now the library is back! And it’s summer! Let the people rejoice. Also… what are we reading??
While I had a hard time focusing on ANYthing early in the pandemic, I got my reading mojo back about 6 months ago. I’ve also discovered the gift of audiobooks in recent times, so between the actual paper reading and the listening, I’ve covered some pretty good territory this year. The past year-plus has been a good reminder that a book can take you places, even when you can't go anywhere. As we (hopefully) start to go ACTUAL places again, here are some titles that I highly recommend for your summer roadtrip/hammock-lounging/beach-bumming/mountain climbing/porch-sitting adventures.
Every one of these books, in its own way, has the ‘sense of place’ factor--which is to say, the power to take you places-- that makes a book magical. So whether you need a book to take on the road this summer, or you need a book to actually be the road that takes you--we’ve got you covered. Happy trails!
Yesterday I grabbed the last package of pecans from the baking aisle in Kroger. Clearly all of Louisville is doing what I’m doing today--baking Derby pies.
Shoot, I can’t say that. The official name is trademarked, so let’s just say, I am making chocolate pecan pie (or walnut, if you fancy), using a heavy hand with the bourbon. There may be some on the side for sipping.
Of course, when I say “all of Louisville,” I mean those in my fair city who are not actually going to Churchill Downs for the race. My confession is, I’ve never been to the track ON Derby Day. But honestly, if you aren’t going to pay a 5-digit ticket price for a luxury box, you are just going to stand in the muddy infield with all the drunk frat guys who don’t know the words to My Old Kentucky Home. No, thank you. I prefer to enjoy my pie with a few close friends, the NBC Sports’ view of the whole track, and bourbon refills that you don’t have to wait in line for.
You don’t have to be at the track to enjoy Derby Day. Actually-- you don’t even have to be in Kentucky to enjoy Derby Day.
I can attest to this after years of having lived “elsewhere,” marking the day as “National Homesick Kentuckian” day--crying into my bourbon even as we sang “weep no more, my lady,” sharing pie with whomever was around, and trying to help my friends and neighbors in Phoenix, then Kansas City, understand what this whole thing was about. Because if you know, you know, but if you DON’T know… well, it just seems like a big lot of fuss for a horse race.
In those away years, I always tried to share the experience with the people in my proximity as best I could. I would say that my transplanted traditions ‘took’ better in some locales than they did in others… But everywhere, everybody loved pie. You can’t argue with the power of pie.
In fact, I have made and shared Derby Pie in so many other places, with so many other gatherings that now, this thing that used to make me homesick for Kentucky now makes me homesick for other places and people. How is that possible? This is Kentucky’s THING! Kentucky’s day. And yet-- anyplace I’ve taken this pie is also home.
I guess home is where your pie is.
This time last year, COVID-19 meant no Derby… Churchill Downs, like every other public place, was shut down tight and silent. The race was postponed until September when, in a truly spooky and post-apocalyptic feeling broadcast, the horses ran with no spectators. No juleps, no fancy hats, no drunken frat guys singing the wrong words loudly…just the sound of hooves on dirt. It was as though the whole pandemic had been distilled into a single, empty, two minute event.
We gathered on our patio with a small group of friends, the T.V. having been moved outside for a socially-distanced watch party. As the opening strains of Stephen Foster carried across the airwaves from that impossibly empty place, my daughter said, “are you CRYING?” like it was weird or something to be crying over a horse race. I said “every Kentuckian everywhere is crying right now. Believe me.”
If you know, you know. But if you don’t know… well, it just seems like a big lot of fuss for a horse race.
Watching the race from just a few miles away that day felt a lot like watching it from Arizona. So close, but so far… So removed from the place itself, but so connected to every other homesick Kentuckian in the world, every other piece of traveling pie...
I will watch again today-- on a friend's patio, from just a few miles away. While Churchill Downs will be at about half capacity, there will be spectators. But I don't feel the need to be there in person.
It is possible to feel homesick even when you are at home. It is possible to feel connected to home, even when you are nowhere near it in proximity. And it is not just possible, but highly probable, that a certain food, or song, or sound of hooves-on-turf, can transport you instantly from home to elsewhere, and back again. Because home is not so much a place as a longing; a thing that you take with you everywhere and, hopefully, share with anyone who happens to be in your orbit.
Home is where your pie is.
I've spent most of the week in the Blue Ridge mountains, on a much needed Spring Break trip with my fam and our friends/framily. (I hate that word, because it is so precious. But also, it is the right word sometimes. Especially during these quarantine days, when ‘framily’ are the only people we have had around for more than a year).
After a few days of driving and hiking these mountains--on a day when we have some particularly squirrelly kids in the backseat, and a confused/homesick dog, and the men-folk are out doing mountain men mountain biking things-- I say to my friend, “is it just me, or do all these trees look...dead?”
I mean, everything else is blooming. There are flowers everywhere, and the evergreen brand of trees are looking all bright and aggressively spring-like, and the grass is neon green and just begging to be a deer snack, and life in general is coming up roses. But half of the trees in the forest around us seem… well, they have seen better days. “A little sus,” as the kids would say. Completely dry, barren and brown. Kindling. It’s not looking good. But maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about?
“No,” my friend says, “I thought so too.”
It really does look like half the Pisgah National forest has just decided to call it. Pandemic year + climate change + downfall of civilization. Who would blame a tree for just giving up the ghost?
I was concerned. For the hawks swooping hopefully overhead. For that deer in the road that stopped and, I swear, looked us dead in the eye for a second before sighing and sauntering off into her dying habitat. For the bears that supposedly lurked in the shadows, waiting to eat our trash--but who had remained on the DL for the duration of spring break and so, must surely lurk on the brink of extinction as well.
It is possible we’re all in a fatalistic mood these days. Can you blame us? Because, let’s be real. Look around. The earth is a dying life form. We are just accessories.
But on the third day…
Early in the morning, on the third day, while it was still dark--it started to rain.
I don’t mean a cute little spring shower. I’m talking cats and dogs here. A gully-washer, a deluge, a downpour. For about 12 hours straight.
The earth got a generous soaking while we slept. And by mid-morning, when I ventured out onto the porch with my coffee (and if there is anything better than vacation coffee on the porch, in the mountains, in the rain, then I don’t know what), the first thing I noticed was--green. Everywhere.
All those dead-looking trees had bloomed overnight. In the cold, in the dark, in the holler, a tiny bud just waited to be called out by the rain. In its time, it came.
Maybe Ma Nature didn’t get the memo that Easter was not for a few more days yet. But she beats the pants off the liturgical calendar, every single time.
For my money, in this year that has felt like one long winter/Lent/Holy Week of holding our collective breath, the breathtaking suddenness of that green was about all the church I needed.
As Roethke said: "deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light." Everything in its season. All things bloom in good time.
Or, if you prefer the gospel of Springsteen: "everything dies, baby, that's a fact/but maybe everything that dies someday comes back."
May it be so. Amen.
Our Billion Dollar Heart Problem
Americans will spend about 21.8 Billion dollars buying Valentine's stuff this year.
That's nearly $4 billion more than it was last time I looked up that number, about 4 years ago.
When I think about what we could do, collectively, with nearly $22 billion, it boggles the mind. No, scratch that-- it literally breaks my heart.
For one thing, it would cover our National Parks budget for about 8 years. Or fund the National Endowment for the Arts for a few decades. How many hungry children could be fed? Student loans forgiven? Refugees resettled?
We could make a longer list, but you get my point- we have the resources in this country to do so much collective good; to meet so many needs; to solve so many complex problems. But when you come right down to it-- our hearts are just in all the wrong places.
Valentine's Day itself is not the problem. A holiday designated for love? Sure. Fantastic. But... when did “love” get saddled with all this stuff? Billions and billions of dollars worth of stuff?
I’d venture that most of the billions are spent on flowers, jewelry, stuffed animals, and any other number of things that come in the shape of a heart. Which, by Monday, will be marked down 80% at Walgreen’s and Target and every other store in America. Not long after that, much of it will be in a landfill.
This holiday is just one of many that draws attention to our consumer sickness. That sickness is big, and multi-layered, and it’s not Saint Valentine’s fault. It’s also not the fault of Baby Jesus or the Easter Bunny; or Saint Patrick, the Great Pumpkin or Uncle Sam. On every one of these days, we wade through the sea of sugar and cheap plastic crap that will ultimately flood the landfills we use to hide our addiction. The dam will only hold for so long.
So there’s an environmental concern, and a sweatshop concern. But more than anything, there's a heart concern, underlying all the paper and diamond ones. The real emptiness that might make us feel like we *have* to buy this stuff, or else we have somehow failed at the whole love thing.
More to the point, this is an illumination of the scarcity mentality… The one that tells us we cannot possibly afford to insure all of our children–or educate them, or provide them with clean water and air, or protect the resources for their retirement someday–when clearly, we have all the money in the world to spend on… What, exactly? Another engraved picture frame? Another charm for that bracelet? Another bear holding a heart? (What can I say, SNL gets it).
Can we fix all of these complex problems by abstaining from flowers and stuffed animals today? Maybe not. But practicing a bit of mindfulness about our own spending and gifting can go a long way to change our thinking about what is needed, what is important, and what is worthwhile. And that shift might, in turn, change our thinking about what we can, and cannot afford… As a family, as a country, and as people who have to inhabit this earth together long after the landfills overflow and the rivers run dry.
Here are a few ideas for how to celebrate this day of love without breaking the bank–or contributing to our collective national junk pile.
This is modified for COVID times from a post that originally appeared on Patheos.