Rolling and rising across the country, the fourth wave of the pandemic and the wake it’s leaving behind is dampening not only our travel, but our slippery grasp on feeling gratitude this Thanksgiving. Poetry to the rescue!
“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” wrote L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables stories. Autumn, when landscapes are painted crimson and yellow, auburn and orange—our season of wandermust. And yet when we’re planning a fall holiday, one of us turns to the other and says, “we’ve got to be home for Thanksgiving.” Well, almost always…
There was October in Portugal, Thanksgiving Sunday in Évora under the Alentejo sun, grand buildings whitewashed and trimmed buttery yellow, their rooftops tawny-coloured, the city evoking the soft palette of autumn. Wandering the main street, we chose Momentos for dinner, attracted by the sign you see below. A continent away from turkey, we ordered zucchini blossoms on leaves of spinach, roast kid sided by mushrooms and fresh veggies. When the chef-owner, Jorge Fava Rica, asked how our meal was, we told him it was Thanksgiving in Canada. Jorge returned with port, exquisitely served small glasses, perfect for jubilado-sized après-dinner drinks. “Where can I buy these glasses?” I asked him. Minutes later Jorge reappeared with a few boxes. “How many do you want?” he asked. For a small sum we came home with a box of eight. When offered an after-dinner liqueur and shown these thimble-size glasses, our dinner guests invariably say “yes!” Then ask for a second.
My gratitude extended into Thanksgiving Monday where in Lisbon, I discovered the poem, “The Best Way to Travel is to Feel” by Fernando Pessoa.
There was October at the Hospes Madrid where the Juliette balcony in our room overlooked Independence Plaza and I woke up to the feeling expressed by Louis MacNeice: “For this is Sunday morning, Fate’s great bazaar.” Yet we don’t need a quick airlift to Europe to feel that way, do we? Not when there’s poetry like John O’ Donohue’s “On Waking:”
I give thanks for arriving
Safely in a new dawn,
For the gift of eyes
To see the world,
The gift of mind
To feel at home
In my life,
The waves of possibility
Breaking on the shore of dawn,
The harvest of the past
That awaits my hunger,
And all the furtherings
This new day will bring.
There was October in Japan but we didn’t miss home because Lynn and Ward were with us.
There was October with Marsha and George and two other couples in Tuscany. Gunshots woke us every morning at 7 am, Italians hunting partridge in the adjacent field. None of us spoke Italian and we were too fearful of approaching men with shotguns to ask about buying a bird from them. Not a partridge nor a tacchina was to be found in the supermarkets, so we settled for a large chicken. The villa had four bathrooms but no oven! We braised the bird on the gas range and Magellan finished it on the janky barbecue. Along with the wine, gratitude poured forth, mostly for the porcini mushrooms purchased from a roadside truck.
The villa was near Certaldo, the hometown of Giovanni Boccaccio, the Italian poet and author of what’s considered the world’s first novel, The Decameron, a 14th century masterpiece about ten people who flee the bubonic plague in Florence. Here’s a translation of Boccaccio describing the youth holed up in a rural villa telling each other stories in the garden:
…in a place suited for pleasure, in the presence of young people who were, nevertheless, mature and not easily misled by stories, and at a time when going about with your trousers over your head was not considered improper if it helped to save your life.
(May no one read this remedy as a cure for COVID and its variants!)
Which leads me to a 21st century poem by Kevin Stein, the former poet laureate of Illinois, about the current plague.
After many and much
have been taken from us, we gather what remains
like hallowed guests at our otherwise empty table.
Feast of hunger, insatiable if consolable, we welcome
the checkout girl whose eyes smile above her mask,
our improv Zoom bedtime stories, his smile-pained wave
behind panes of glass, corn in its bin and acres harrowed
before snows, assembly lines birthing their progeny,
the crimson maple leaf alighted in a boy’s front-porch lap,
the ballot cast, the television muted like index to lips,
shoosh — This sudden apothecary of hope like sugar
upon the tongue, your ungloved hand in mine.
There were two October 14 prairie weddings: six years ago, Richelle and Trevor’s and thirty-two years ago Joan and Blair’s. As you, kind readers of this blog know, an American poet laureate for whose sweet pen I am thankful is Billie Collins. Is it not Saskatchewan he’s talking about in the last three lines of “I Ask You”?
What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?
It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside–
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.
But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.
No, it’s all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles–
each a different height–
are singing in perfect harmony.
So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt–
frog at the edge of a pond–
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.
Variants make us vulnerable. But they also make us value what’s important. “Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes,” wrote Thoreau. Readers of Latitude65, those of you at a distance and friends here in Vancouver, Magellan and I thank you for returning to this Sunday bazaar where you never know what you’ll find. In gratitude we leave you today with a toast from our Momento glasses and this wee poem from Thomas Dekker printed on a little card and placed on our pillow at a hotel in New York when we were there with our mothers one autumn:
Golden slumber kiss your eyes,
smiles awake you when you rise.”
Momentos Évora The restaurant photos above are from this site.