Giving Thanks, Silently

Most years, my husband and I celebrate Thanksgiving twice: first on the actual holiday with my family on Long Island, then again that Saturday, in the Hudson Valley, with his. While there are nice aspects to both celebrations, it can also feel like an exhausting hustle.

This year it all seems particularly overwhelming. Maybe the non-stop onslaught of upsetting news is to blame — from our president’s efforts to dismantle our democracy, to the barrage of necessary but demoralizing reports about men in power sexually assaulting and harassing women and men — or the prospect of discussions about these horrors with people at different ranges of the political spectrum; but I feel as if I’m already experiencing the tryptophan effect, and I’m still a good 24 hours away from consuming any turkey.

Next year, I would like to do what Nina Coomes’ family used to do on Thanksgiving: take a silent retreat.

At Catapult, Coomes reflects in a personal essay on those times with her family at St. Mary’s of the Lake, a Catholic seminary in Illinois. There, Coomes and her Japanese-American family engaged in extreme unplugging — no reading, talking, using digital devices, and listening to music; they were allowed to write, draw and play the piano.

The retreat gave us all time away from the bewilderment we tended to experience around American holidays. By the time we first visited St. Mary’s, we had lived in the US for almost five years, but holidays and the surrounding sociocultural expectations were still a source of stress for us. Spending the weekend in silent contemplation and companionship proved a good way for my family to ease into the American holiday season; to take what we appreciated and understood—quality time together, to reflect and feel grateful—and leave what we didn’t, such as football, Black Friday shopping, and the white-meat portion of the turkey. Silence provided us with a touchstone to return to what we held dear as we continued to acclimate to a new country and culture.

While it was initially difficult for the family to acclimate to the silence, once they got used to it, they came to like it.

On our first Thanksgiving retreat, I was a seventh-grade bookworm of the highest order and had just received my own textbook-sized laptop. I was sure I would be bored to death with no one to keep me company but my little sister and newly uncool Mom and Dad. And at first the silent gesturing seemed infuriatingly slow; communication of the simplest ideas took minutes, minutes that slid by in what felt like an eternity. But after the initial frustration, the silence around us seemed to deepen and warm. Moments when one of us might have snapped at the other over a dropped piece of pie or a hand in an almost-slammed door were smoothed over more quickly, because the expression of frustration and anger had been relegated to facial expression.

To express affection or care without words, we sat close to each other, took long walks together, or fell asleep in overstuffed armchairs, side-by-side in puddles of late-afternoon sun. Silence made us more patient, more creaturely, somehow truer to ourselves. We did not have words to give thanks, but somehow gratitude remained, flourishing and becoming all the more tangible. On Sunday morning following that first retreat, even after we pulled away from the gates of St. Mary’s, our quietude persisted. It was with a lingering sadness that we slowly eased back into verbal communication, reluctant to return to the world of sound.

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