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Thanksgiving - pay it forward

“What is this Thanksgiving?” our Chinese guest asked. That was at the first Thanksgiving my husband and I ever hosted in Berkeley, in 1982. We had a table full of orphans — foreign students with nowhere to go. I tried to explain that half of the first boatload of immigrants to America died of disease, cold and hunger. They were religious refugees from Europe weakened by malnutrition and illness. The following year, some Native Americans taught these Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. When the harvest was over, the colonists gave thanks by hosting a celebratory meal.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and the fourth Thursday in November was declared a public holiday to celebrate Thanksgiving. “Of course,” our Dutch guest added, “most of the Native Americans were slaughtered as the New Americans colonized their lands.” Unfortunately we don’t talk about that enough.

There hasn’t been a Thanksgiving since then that I haven’t held the Native Americans in my heart. They acted out of kindness and compassion and shared their knowledge and knowhow. That thought is soon smothered in the smell of roasting turkey, and cinnamon- and nutmeg-laced pies.

I awaken to the celebration and the family and friends present. The inevitable Thanksgiving question pops up, “What are we grateful for?”

The 6-year-old pipes up, “My new pink shoes.” Grampa says he is so grateful for term limits.

According to national surveys, the most popular answers are family, health, for being American, for my job and for my friends.

There is a moment of shared piety, before the pumpkin and apple pies, whipped cream and ice cream are served. Slowly we slip into a food coma.

Every Thanksgiving, I yearn to do something different. Something that gives me a reason to celebrate. One year, my husband introduced the idea of, “What if we gave up something in the week that leads up to Thanksgiving — a kind of secular Lent, or a short Ramadan? Wouldn’t that make the Thanksgiving celebration more meaningful?”

Last year we tried to give up single-use plastic. What a challenge that was, since most food comes pre-wrapped in oodles of Saran wrap, and before we could object, wait staff automatically would stick plastic straws into our glasses. Some of our friends chose to give up driving and walked or rode their bikes instead.

This year as we come upon our beloved holiday, the yearning is back.

I think back to the kindness and compassion of the Native Americans and the gifts they gave to those escaping persecution in Europe by coming to the New World. Imagine the hope that fueled that first Thanksgiving celebration. We will live. We will make it through another winter. How sweet the taste of the new lease on life must have been.

I, as modern day American, take for granted the freedoms and the wealth I have. What if I choose to help refugees around the world including those at our own border so that they too can live in hope of survival and celebrate their good fortune? Paying it forward would be one way to honor the kindness and compassion that the Native Americans showed our ancestors.

Maybe this Thanksgiving, instead of asking people to say what they are grateful for, I shall ask how each of us can show our gratitude by doing something for our fellow human beings, who are trying to escape violence, oppression and hunger, looking for a place to call home.

Maybe, together we can hatch a plan to help the refugees, rekindling the same hope that our struggling first settlers felt.

I will suggest to my guests, “Ask not what you are grateful for; ask how can you show your gratitude.”

Wouldn’t that make for a truly happy Thanksgiving?

Asifa Kanji was born in Tanzania, educated in England and came to the USA 44 years ago. She is an author, a teacher and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. Her new book Pilgrims with Credit Cards will be coming out early next year. Send 600 to 700 word articles on aspects of inner peace to Sally McKirgan, editor: innerpeaceforyou@outlook.com

A banner made for the Peace Fence in 2007 that is now on a tile in front of the Ashland library.