Thanksgiving: Janie’s Top Five from Phnom Penh

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, so I have spent some of today feeling a bit morose that I am not at home this year. Good things seem to happen on Thanksgiving. Laughing, wine, food and family are usually the winning combination for my Thanksgiving celebrations. For the last three years I have had work trips to Africa scheduled just before Thanksgiving, but I have gone to great lengths to schedule my flights back so that I am back home for the ceremonial stuffing (of me, not the bird).

This year, that didn’t happen. But we’re making the most of it. Shortly, Jimmy and I are headed to a restaurant in Phnom Penh that is hosting a “traditional Thanksgiving feast.” Given the Cambodians’ penchant for eating crickets and snails, I am a little bit skeptical, but I have resigned to give up my recently vegetarian ways for tonight one way or another, so let’s see what happens.

In trying to honor Thanksgiving without the traditional celebration, I have been mulling over this post for a few days now. Mostly I have been wondering how a recounting of the things I am thankful for might be different – after 8 months without a job, six months traveling around the US visiting friends and family, and now nearly two months in southeast Asia – than a Thanksgiving post might be on a more “normal” year (if there is one).

The truth is, my list hasn’t changed much. My Top Five looks pretty much like it does most years. I don’t know if that is comforting or disturbing. But here are my Top Five Thanks from Phnom Penh:

1. My family. They all sing songs. I am really thankful for that. But there are other things too. For example, if there is any center to the feeling I have of being anchored in the world and at the same time encouraged to explore it, my family provides it for me. My parents didn’t just teach me things and provide opportunities (though they did too). More important, they gave me an example of how to grapple honestly and with good humor with the good and the hard of life. They showed me how to gracefully both hold on and let go of long-held beliefs about the world, which is a process I feel myself trying to emulate quite often.

My brother Danny and sister Cindy have provided inspiration for me in so many ways, most of all in the challenge to do what I love, be my own person, and eventually find some way to laugh through it all. I mean, that’s what they both do, and I admire them both enormously. Basically, I want to be my little brother and sister when I grow up.

And Jimmy, well, what can I say about Jimmy? He might have gotten in a wee bit over his head when he signed up to be my companion more than 12 years ago, but so far we are tipping the laughter-to-tears ratio way far towards the former together. I could not ask for a better partner in life and love.

2. My friends. My friends don’t have to tolerate me, but they do anyway, which in some ways is even more to be thankful for – or at least amazed by – than the family kind of love. At every single juncture of my life (and there have been lots of junctures) I can name specific instances where my friends have pushed me, pulled me, cajoled, or just hugged me when it counted. I feel so undeserving of that kind of love, but believe you me, I am not going to refuse it.

3. Laughter. Same same but different. Every place in the world. In the corn fields in Malawi, the streets of Cambodia, the mountains of Colorado. Family loyalty and laughter seem to me to be the two great ties that bind us as human beings.

In Bali, Jimmy and I accidentally attended a “Laughing Yoga” class, taught by the Laughing Yoga Man, as he called himself. Claiming that because laughter has a zillion health benefits, but the body doesn’t know – or care – the reasons why we laugh, that we should incorporate laughter as part of our daily exercise.

Now let me tell you, I thought this was totally hokey. And a little funny too (but not funny enough to laugh at). But because this trip has already caused me to try all kinds of weird things I would never normally do, I went with it. First off, we started laughing in a fake kind of way, exactly like you’d imagine people trying to act like they were laughing. Totally goofy. But within about 30 seconds, the scene was so bizarre that I started cracking up at the absurdity of it. And then I really went off. I laughed and laughed until my eyes watered. And afterwards, I felt really good. Jimmy liked it too, so we have been practicing – walking around town, while riding a motorbike around the island. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! Laughter: It’s not just for good jokes anymore.

4.Running. After my forced rest from running, I promised myself that I would rediscover this activity with patience, trust, and a lack of determination. Lack of determination is not my strong suit, but I have this sense that the Buddhist monks are onto something – even if I can’t really understand it – with their “no striving” ideal. So far it has been wonderful. Every run back from injury (and there haven’t been many – see the “lack of determination” un-goal) has felt like a gift. I just sit there and swoon in happiness for a little bit every time I finish. It might be endorphins, but if so that’s ok. I have no problem with having a nuero-chemical reaction on my Top 5 Thanksgiving list.

5. Learning to be in the world. I am not sure anyone knows how to do this right, but I am so thankful to get the chance to try. The radius of my world is blissfully wide, I know. I feel invariably challenged, hopeful and scared about the responsibility and opportunity that breadth brings. To learn, and to try to find some way to make a gift to the world. I have always been a seeker, and a bit of a frenetic one. But more and more, I feel I am seeking less hard and perhaps, ironically, finding more answers. As Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “The Summer Day,” which has always had a power to crush me to my knees, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And while I may be no closer at articulating the answer than I was when I emerged 39 years ago, I sure as heck am thankful that today I still have the opportunity to try.

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!