What Community Thanksgiving Dinner Prep Can Do for You

“All of California is burning,” she said.

Photograph of car driving out of smoke from wildfire
Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

As I write this, we are on the second “red flag warning,” the second roll of PG&E blackouts that in this area in October affect us but little.

There is an impeachment inquiry.

New revelations every day.

Far away, confusing, conflicting and alarming events in Turkey and Syria with allies and enemies.

There are waves of social media outrage, one after another.

I are concerned, but my energy burns out as well.
“Are you following the fires?” she asked.
“I can’t,” I answered, “Not this year.”

When she left, I checked the maps and compared the Kincade fire to previous fires.
Last year my aunt’s house was threatened.
The year before we fundraised for a branch of our women’s organization whose boundaries were affected.

Every year. One event after another affects us. Are we callous to turn the cellphone over, turn off the computer, and put aside the mainstream news?

To not care one bit about fellow human beings across the globe, the state, the county, bears examination.

In empathy, you put yourself in the other person’s place. We imagine ourselves in a similar situation. The movement of emotion can spur us to action, to fundraise, to prayer, to assess our values.

We need empathy because we are, in reality, connected.

But the truth is, no matter how boundless we would like to be in our connections and love of neighbor, our heart has limited resources. There is only so much space for those connecting strings.

The internet connects us in unimaginable ways around the world. That is good. In Hong Kong, protestors relied on social media to help break through the firewall of internet censorship run by the Chinese government. The Me-too movement gave a voice to women who never before spoke out about treatment received and dismissed by others as “boys just being boys.” What effect would social media have played in the Nazi concentration camps, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the cold war?

But the constant stream of information overloads us. Unable to act, in response to a sense of powerlessness in the face of evil or what feels like global chaos, anxiety ensues. And anxiety takes up even more heart space. As does the Twitter-style outrage that waxes and wanes so quickly. The quick turn of the emotions drains our resources.

The answer is not to forget about the world, dig into Christmas shopped (advertisements began arriving at my house the week before Halloween) and hope for a better world we can just have a new rendition “Santa Baby” to welcome new decade in this strange millennia.

The choice to turn inward, into your home, your community, does not mean you are choosing to forget about the stranger in a strange land.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.”

This is what we can do. The answer lies in front of us. It does not seem heroic or particularly romantic, but it begins with the dishes. With saying, as Pope Francis and elementary school teachers remind, the words, “please, thank you, and I’m sorry.”

It is the conversation about empathy and bullying with a school-age child.
It is the bouquet of flowers and hot soup delivered at a neighbors door.
It is the 8 o’clock gathering at the kitchen at St. Anthony’s Family Center in Hughson to prepare Thanksgiving meals for hundreds of people November 16.

Photograph of two people cooking
Photo by Brandless on Unsplash

There is so much we can do.

When our own lives become overwhelmed with the legitimate worries and cares that we must turn the news off to get through the day, the best thing we can do is that which we can do right here. Locally, your impact is greater. Your reach more personal and, because of that, more powerful.

We cannot control gas prices (even though we may vote) or federal regulations (again the voting) but we can build a network of relationships so that when that local single parent struggles to buy groceries because of gas prices, she has a Thanksgiving meal waiting for her and her children. We can hear their stories so they know they are not alone.

And, in turn, they can hear our stories.

I often write as if I or the reader are the ones able and ready to give it out, but as the more sentimental holidays approach, we may find ourselves deeply in need of that sense of connection.

Helping with Thanksgiving dinner can help that, too. Because in donating your time, you not only benefit whoever is on the receiving end, but you have an opportunity to meet a few people, to join in some banter, to be known, to be seen, and to be loved.

California may be burning once again, so along with watching the fire-maps and keeping vigil for those in danger, let us consider the relational infrastructure we have right here, reach out, and connect this season, because no one is ever really alone.

Better than Netflix

This article to appear in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

I started and put down In this House of Brede, Brideshed Revisited, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Shakespeare’s Complete Works (do not make the mistake of starting with “Titus Andronicus”). I read Flannery O’Conner’s Manners and Mystery, a quick read about writing. Still, I wanted something I could sink my teeth into. As an adolescent, I read for hours. Those worlds of Austin and Bronte were my worlds. I relished the characters and the stories, though many things I did not understand. Dissatisfied in my quest for another novel, I decided to turn to an old standby, Charles Dickens. This is how I met David Copperfield.

750 pages. And I finished it, 750 pages later. At first, I attempted to read during the day. I found little progress or pleasure amid the interruptions. So I took my reading to bed, without the phone or computer or children nearby. For one to two hours I read, ten, twenty, fifty pages. At times, it dragged on in the labor of Mr. Macawber’s monologues. Other times it flew, and I felt drawn into the love of Agnes, the heroism of Mr. Peggoty and life lessons of Mr. Copperfield himself.

To leave these characters is more than leaving a habit. When one engages in deep reading of great literature, the characters come to life. You know them. You love them. You are as sorry to leave them as it seems they may be to leave you, at the end of such a long novel. I rush to the finish, and relish the satisfaction of a Dicksonian ending, but I am sorry to have no more.

This is the way in which deep reading can teach empathy. We are brought along someone’s journey, asked to walk in their shoes, as Ms. Hepburn defines the term in the movie Funny Face. Reading occupies the mind in a way watching a movie cannot. The time it takes to know these characters, and in classic literature, to see them grow works in our minds as relationships in real life. You not only feel what they feel, you strive to anticipate what may happen, based on the events and personalities you observe as you read.

Watching movies and even very good television is a passive effort. After enough seasons, you may know and feel attached to those characters. Discussions of the particular Netflix show will drive that connection even deeper. Nevertheless, the encounter itself does not settle as deep in the mind as it does with reading.

It is a priceless effort. But how can one find the time or space in which to engage it? Consider the time you spend online or watching television. There may be some space there. I am too tired, we say, I just want to relax. What truly relaxes us? A drink in the evening may seem to relax us, but it can negatively impact sleep. Social media and television helps us vegetate. Passively feels like it should relax us. Yet it does not. The screen lights, the noise of electronics, cannot calm us interiorly.

What is the next objection? I cannot find anything I want to read. This is a difficulty. The hot right-now novel may read easily, and may engage you, but to truly gain the great benefits of reading, one must read a great work. In a classic literature, characters are more deeply and thoroughly formed. Thus they can come alive and stand on their own feet. In lesser novels, a screenwriter can flesh out these people. In well-written books, no movie can satisfy the conception our mind has made.

Find recommendations where you gain. Love good period TV? I recommend Dickens. Love female driven romantic comedies? Try Austen. Love Sci-Fi? H.G. Wells has goodies for you. Pick up those high school novels you vaguely remember reading half of. See what you think now. They are an excellent place to start. The American cultural cannon possesses many great books.

In the way of novels, I do not know what I will read next. But having broken the habit of a nightly binge watch I am excited to find what other places my mind can go, and the characters on the journey.

Sophia Kramskaya Reading