Carving Turkey and Other Sacred Acts

There is ritual here.  The smoothing of the tablecloth, the excavation of the good dishes.  The hot blast of the oven opening to reveal the poor, delicious bird.  The smell of onion and butter cooking on the stove first thing in the morning that morphs slowly throughout the day, taking on various notes as dishes vie for coveted space in the oven.

There is much routine in our lives and precious little ritual, precious little honored formality about our habits.  Routine we see as boring, as grating even at times.  We do not elevate the morning tooth brushing routine to something sacred.  We do not honor the reverent act of browning hamburger on a nondescript Tuesday night.

But the Thanksgiving preparation is honored.  It is ritual shared and observed, beloved and remembered from one year to the next.

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The ceremony of preparing this meal links us to every Thanksgiving in our living memory, reminds us of every year we've shared this ritual.  It reminds us of watching our fathers pull out the electronic carving knife and jack-knife their way through the bird, reminds us of watching our nervous husbands wield the carving knife for the first time, then of watching our children watch our husbands tackle the thigh meat, now so smooth with the carving knife after all these years of practice.

The scent in the kitchen is loaded with a thousand memories, some that come forward and others that crowd in silently, an undercurrent that gets twisted up in everything.  In the next room, someone is watching the parade, or the game.  Our hands settle into the rhythm of peeling sweet potatoes, and we watch the strips of discarded skin as they fall, still clinging to a bit of orange flesh.  There are diced onions in a pile on the cutting board.  There is a list somewhere, perhaps only in our heads, that we are checking off as we go.  Everything must be done in order.  And the rolls will be forgotten, either forgotten to be thawed or forgotten to be taken out of the oven before their bottoms blacken.  And the ice will be melted in the glasses when everyone sits down because, of course, the turkey will take longer than we expected.

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And then we will come to the table, where the work of a whole day or more will be eaten in half an hour or so.  But for a moment, while the foods sits growing cold on the table, we will stop and give thanks.  Thank you for this food we are about to receive.  Thank you for this family, this life, this breath.  When we get started, the list stretches on and becomes at once infinite and also singular: thank you for everything.  Everything I have ever known and will know.

I live a life of too little ritual.  Too much routine and too little ritual.  Perhaps for that reason above many others, I cling to the traditions of the holidays.  I breathe into the petty rituals, the simple work of my hands, the evocative smells.  I set out the china with solemn care, and I fold the napkins earnestly because there is a timelessness to the ceremony.  And each tiny ritual is an act of gratitude, yet another service paid into the great debt of gratitude we all owe.

{This month, I am writing on the topic of gratitude, keeping a gratitude journal, and generally wrestling with that insidious tendency to think there is always something missing. I hope you will join me in this month of giving thanks.}


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