Monday, November 22, 2010

Strength to Give Thanks

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. A day to spend with friends and family, and give thanks for all of life’s love, pleasures and accomplishments.

But sometimes our moods are not compatible with the joyous day. Sometimes when we search for something to be thankful for, we come up empty. So where do we find the smiles and insight to be gracious for the unseen, while simultaneously basting a turkey? Where do we find the strength?

A few months after I graduated from college, I moved to Atlanta and attained a job in retail management. I’d thought that having a degree would make the rest of my life fall into place, creating some sort of yellow brick road that led to happiness and strength.

But after the first few months of being a college graduate and having a “real job,” my mind and spirit were scattered and weak. I was uncertain about my career choice, my friends were all somewhere else, and I’d just come to the acceptance that my dad would be dead from cancer within a year.

I had to work the Wednesday before and the Friday after Thanksgiving, so I stayed in Atlanta rather than coming back to Louisiana for the holiday. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and therefore planned to spend the day of thanks alone watching television.

But the only programs playing were about people celebrating, and eating turkey. Even though I was alone, I had to the urge to be away from the holiday, but mostly away from the civilization that created it.

So I packed a knapsack with food, water and matches, jumped in my truck and drove to the North Georgia Mountains. I’d worked at a camp in Connecticut the summer before, and fallen in love with the outdoors. It seemed to be one of the few places quiet enough for me to think or let my mind go blank and not think at all.

I hiked about an hour up a trail into the forest, and then set up a fire ring on a small clearing. I made a campfire, and then cooked a hamburger and potatoes in aluminum foil. I said grace to give thanks for the food, but nothing else. My mind, spirit and sight were too blinded by reality and pity to see anything for which to be gracious.

During my meal, an older gentleman, who looked to be in his sixties, walked up the trail and stopped by my campfire. We talked a few minutes about the beautiful day, and he asked how my Thanksgiving was going.

“Okay, I guess,” I responded while trying to fake a smile.

It wasn’t the truth, but seemed to be a proper and polite answer for the stranger. But I could see on his slightly tensed face that he didn’t believe me or buy that I believed it myself.

“I was just about to hike up to a clearing with great views,” the stranger said. “Would you like to join me?’

My first thought was to say, “no,” because it seemed that the only thing worse than spending the holiday alone, was spending it with a stranger who felt sorry for me. But I also had the urge to move; to leave a spot of loneliness, and head somewhere, anywhere, regardless of the destination.

We walked for about an hour through the forest, slowly heading up the mountain that seemed to go on forever. The stranger asked me questions about my family, job and other details of my life along the way. I was hesitant at first to start a conversation, but the more and more we climbed, the more and more I spoke.

I was able to get out most of my frustrations about life, but when we finally reached the top, I stopped speaking. It was a flat clearing with a pond right in the center, and in every direction were peaks of mountains shooting up towards the heavens.

It was picturesque like a postcard, and I wanted to share it with someone I loved. The first person I thought about was my dad, and I imagined him standing right next to me holding my hand. But instead of being a twenty-something college graduate, I was five years old on my first day of school, and my dad was telling me that everything was going to be okay.

“Thanks,” I said to the stranger. “You’ve given me something to be thankful for.”

It has been almost twenty years since that day, but I think of it often. It reminds me that there will be many times when my world seems confusing, lonely and thankless. But if we face and accept the challenges of life, we will be blessed with beautiful moments. If we keep searching within ourselves and climbing upwards, we will find strength.

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