it’s been a full fall. travel, speaking engagements, and an ability to stretch whatever is left in the fridge has meant that i haven’t done a real grocery shopping trip in several weeks. the farm stand nearby has provided plenty of produce and we’ve just made due without every thing else. this week, however, i am home and i’m ready to stock up, to fill my fridge and freezer, and to make soup. lots and lots of soup. so, tonight, i went to the store. several of them actually. and...i am stunned. the holidays, it seems, are now “officially sponsored” by a gazillion brands touting pumpkin this, matzo that, and peppermint everything to make “your holiday table complete.” end caps overflow with “holiday favorites” and “frozen” themed cereal/fruitsnacks/hotchocolate/andeverythingelse (all “stocking stuffer approved”). pumpkin marshmallows, power bars, and chips (yes...they exist...pumpkin chips) promise to “elevate your thanksgiving table.” menorahs, christmas lights, and ornaments sit happily next to the thanksgiving table decorations (which are now on clearance) and everything everywhere seems to scream “BUY THIS AMAZINGLY THEMED FOOD/DRINK/GIFT/DECORATION TO MAKE YOUR HOLIDAY GATHERING PERFECT.”
ladies and gentlemen, there is no such thing as a perfect holiday GATHERING and, if there were, you certainly would not find the elements for it at a store.
this is a stressful time of year for many. expectations are high. romanticized notions of family and celebration are before us everywhere. time is short and calendars are full. the options are hyper-plentiful (roast your own organic pumpkin and make your own pastry for pumpkin pie, order one from the bakery, buy frozen crusts and canned pumpkin, buy pre-made crusts but use fresh pumpkin, buy a frozen pie?) gone are the days of a few cut flowers on the thanksgiving table which held turkey and gravy, potatoes, stuffing, and cranberries. oh, and, green bean casserole.
the family that i married into holds a large thanksgiving potluck every year. the first year that i attended, my stress level was high. i was a novice cook from an urban home heading out to the country to contribute a dish to a table full of delicacies made by generations of from-scratch cooks. these were folks who grew their own gardens and made their own grape juice. they canned and dehydrated and baked bread. i wanted to be embraced by these magees who, i assumed, had never bought a convenience food mix of any kind. i wanted to contribute something hearty and wholly homemade to their feast so i went to work peeling potatoes, toasting home made bread crumbs, going from store to store trying to find fresh herbs (this was 1987 when grocery stores showed no evidence of herbs other than in the dry good area). i made my own stock and bought butter from a local dairy. i stayed up cooking most of the night before thanksgiving and woke up early that morning to finish. hours later i entered the gathering with pans of home made mashed potatoes and stuffing, a raging headache, and feeling like i might either cry or throw up if anyone looked at, let alone talked to, me. exhausted and nervous, i was giving my husband the silent treatment simply because it was his family i was trying so hard to impress. as the day went on and a few kind family members complimented me on my stuffing (which was soggy, overly salted, and passable at best) i began to relax enough to eat. by that time my offerings were gone so i helped myself to a heaping plate of the stuffing and mashed potatoes that grandma herself had made. they tasted, as i expected they would, amazing. i went back for more and, low and behold, learned from grandma herself that both had come fresh from boxes. “oh goodness,” grandma said, “i don’t have time for all that work on thanksgiving. not when everyone is coming over. this stuff (pointing to the boxes in the pantry) works just fine.” this wisdom will stick with me forever. i had made assumptions about what was important for this particular family time (from scratch cooking) and had missed the mark all together. what was most important to the magees was the togetherness and my misdirected effort left me largely unavailable for that.
where we put our time and energy, our forethought and intentions, our hearts and even our money, matters. it matters not because there is judgement or punishment awaiting us if we spend them “incorrectly” but, instead, because these expenditures shape us. i am not, by nature or practice, a cook. by trying to present myself as one i profoundly shaped the experience i had 27 years ago. working for the “wow, you really outdid yourself!” and “you fit in with all of us kitchen savvy magees” caused me to miss the opportunity to share myself authentically. in some ways, i didn’t bring what i really, most meaningfully, am meant to bring to the “table.”
what do you have to contribute to the potluck that is november and december? retail establishments of all kinds will tell you that, whatever it is, it is not enough. they’ll suggest (in passive and active ways) that you “need” to supplement whatever you’ve got with an unending variety of items, large and small (take, for instance, the pilgrim/colored leaf/turkey/corn husk name card holders i saw this evening). the not-so-subtle messages are, “what you’ve got isn’t enough. more is better. in every way possible. every. single. time.”
these are lies.
you are made to bring something specific to the community of which you are a part. if you haven’t found that community yet i know that there is one out there for you within which you play a unique role (i’d also love to help you find it). grandma magee knew that her role was to create the space and welcome people. the potatoes and stuffing were add ons. my role was to be a dodgen in the midst of magees...bringing a different kind of energy, connection, and “doreen-ness” to the family gatherings.
what do you best bring and what might you be tempted to bring that is so far outside of your authentic gifting that it will keep you from being present? if your gift takes the form of creating ambiance and space, then, by all means, decorate. if it is cooking, do that part. perhaps your gift isn’t one that retail circulars address. maybe you haven’t even seen it as “bringable” but, when we think about it, aren’t listening and asking questions or playing the ukelele or leading the charge for a post meal game or walk or song fest all gifts? even the introverted community member plays an important part, holding the peaceful and deeply internal balance of the group. the bottom line is, if each of us were to confidently offer that which we were made to bring, our gatherings would be richer, heartier, more unique, diverse, and mult-faceted than what any picture perfect holiday table depiction could offer. culture, history, and tradition tell us that the perfect turkey is key but that simply isn’t so. the most important part of your gathering may have nothing to do with turkeys or food or even a set table.
knowing where, as fredrick buechner says best, “our great gladness meets the needs of the world” provides an incredibly important spotting point as we head into the part sprint/part marathon of the holiday months. it can free us from wheel spinning, unrewarding, fruitless, and sometimes actually harmful ambitious effort and empower us to contribute boldly.
so, this year, in a world that tells us that only the “more-than-full-meal/house/event/gathering-deal” will do, i challenge us to open some boxes, add water, set the dish on the table and proceed to give the most meaningful potluck offering possible...that of yourself.