Gratitude from Newfoundland to New Orleans

22 Nov

For which I am grateful, any day of the year.

Last Sunday at First Unitarian in downtown Worcester, pastor Tom Schade preached on gratitude. That particular emotion – or attitude, or philosophical stance, or way of being in the world, or all of the above – radiated from both Tom’s delivery and the congregation’s reception. This was with good reason: With our long-time pastor set to retire to Michigan not so many Sundays from now, one thing folks are grateful for is every Tom Schade sermon we have left.

As usual, it was a very smart sermon, discarding Hallmark sentiments in favor of subtler insights. Gratitude, he noted, was so hard to continuously feel because while we are so focused on the present and future, gratitude demands a continuity with the past.Then there is the challenge of how we construct the narrative of that past. Will it be a story that focuses on disappointments and betrayals – or a more positive plot that foregrounds the blessings?

Sitting there, I thought, “Wow, it’s so important to carve out a space for gratitude, it’s a shame we cannot carve out an annual day when … “

Oh, wait a minute.

Sly dog that Tom was, I don’t recall a single mention of the possible existence of such a holiday, one that, say, might be associated with turkey and stuffing and gravy and pumpkin pie and football and some dubious rock on the Massachusetts coast that might or might not be the rock that … well, you know. Maybe he slipped it in there, but I generally tend to notice references to food.

Instead of provoking salivation over Thanksgiving feasts to come, Tom’s sermon reminded me of a very different Thanksgiving – one six years ago in New Orleans, experienced not by me but one Chris Rose. A New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist,  Rose wrote the Pulitzer Prize-finalist 1 Dead in Attic, which collects many of the columns he wrote over the first 15 months of life during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Since I bought it in a funky corner bookstore in the Big Easy, I connected to the book quickly – but I could’ve bought it in Nova Scotia and still been sucked right in. It’s that good: The perfect example of a great story happening to a great writer, 1 Dead in Attic offers a complexity of tones as complex as New Orleans itself: It’s alternately tragic, bold, sad, funny, sobering, stupefying, redemptive, and, at times, even celebrative.

The inspection marks that inspired Rose’s book title.

Despite all he had experienced – including a crippling depression that gradually sneaked up on him during a year of covering and living post-Katrina New Orleans – Rose comes around in the last few pages to gratitude. He casts the question in a framework larger than New Orleans: He goes as far north as Gander, Newfoundland, which on 9/11 took in 6,595 stranded airline passengers for days. (The Gander story is chronicled in Jim DeFede’s The Day The World Came to Town.) To Rose, the diversity of ways Gander helped its wayward travelers is similar to how still other strangers helped New Orleans. One basis of similarity, Rose suggests, is the sheer impossibility of telling the entire story. If comprehending the catastrophic loss of Katrina wasn’t enough to strip the gears of our imaginations, figuring out who all to thank would certainly finish the job.

Rose writes: “Big Government failed and politics failed but the people rose up, giving us such an abundance of things to be thankful for that it boggles the mind. And the strange thing is that– outside of each of our own singular experiences (those who sheltered us, gave clothes or money or provided whatever needs were most urgent)–most of us don’t even know who it is we’re supposed to thank and what it is they did for us. But there are hundreds of thousands of them–no, millions!–who made sacrifices of time, money, travel, labor and spirit to help the people of south Louisiana and Mississippi get  back on their feet and become some small semblance of what we once were and of what we will become again someday.

“So, today, Thanksgiving, just who do we thank? All those people. But how do we tell them, the soldiers and doctors and Common Grounders and church groups and corporate groups and school groups and animal rescues and the uncountable and unknowable masses who came to our city to clean us up, dust us off, give us a meal, and give us a hug before going back to their own homes forever changed, just as the folks in Gander will never be the same.

‘It’s weird: I just feel like picking up the phone today and randomly dialing some small town somewhere and saying thank you for what you did for us because it’s inevitable that they did something for us.”

On a much smaller scale, most of us have our phone calls to make – more calls, in fact, than we could possibly squeeze in. My personal list would run into the hundreds, and that’s ignoring the folks who came to my own hometown after the devastating tornado of April 27, 2011. Plus, if Lady Fortuna herself had a 1-800 number, I’d be ringing up her as well.. But of course the bigger question still is how to pass on the grace we’ve experienced to still others.

Or, as Rose puts it, “since we’ll never take stock of who they all were, really the best way to thank them is to succeed here, to become a city and region better than we were, a place strong enough, unified enough – and good enough – to take in thirty-eight planes full of strangers when it’s our turn to answer to the call of membership in the human race.”

Memorial coffin near New Orleans Visitor Center.

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