Thanksgiving was a big deal in the house where I grew up. It wasn’t quite as good as Christmas (no gifts). But in some ways it was better (no church). Indeed, it felt like a prelude to Christmas—a glorious 4-day break from school that heralded the forthcoming 2-week Christmas vacation.

There were seven kids plus Mom and Dad made nine—plus a grandparent or three, and a widowed aunt, and maybe the widow who lived across the street. We put all the leaves in the dining room table, then the table was set with a white linen tablecloth, carefully folded white linen napkins, my mother’s good China, her sterling silver flatware, and her best (gold-rimmed) glassware.

Mom was an old-fashioned American housewife who took great pride in her cooking. Of course, there was the ubiquitous and humongous turkey. My mother boiled the neck and giblets, then used the turkey broth in the dressing (stuffing), and the giblets in the gravy. (I loved to eat the stringy boiled turkey neck—a tradition I continue to this day.)

Mom made two types of white-bread dressing from scratch. She stuffed the turkey (largely considered a no-no these days) with “plain” dressing, and she baked a special oyster dressing separately in a casserole dish. The oyster dressing was my hands-down favorite. (Sometimes Mom let me snitch a raw oyster, and I loved it.)

There were standard foods like mashed potatoes and gravy, three-bean salad, and crescent rolls—and special foods like cocktail shrimp, black olives, and celery stuffed with pimento cheese. I was a skinny kid—not a big eater. But I always found room for seconds, and thirds, on Thanksgiving Day.

Of course, we always gave thanks on Thanksgiving, but looking back I wonder: Were we truly grateful? Or did we take it for granted?

No doubt, in my youth I pretty much took it for granted. For that’s the way of youth, is it not? We don’t really appreciate good food or anything else until we grow up and work for it ourselves. And even then we sometimes are not grateful—

I love to fish, and I’ve caught and cleaned thousands of fish during the past 60 years. Catching fish is fun; cleaning fish is not fun. Rather, it’s a messy, monotonous, and boring chore, and I used to dislike cleaning fish.

Eventually, though, I realized that if anyone had a right to be unhappy in that situation, it was the fish—not me. Nowadays I’m extremely conscientious about the number and type of fish I catch, and I apologize to each and every fish when I kill and clean it: “I’m sorry, and I wish you a successful rebirth.”

You might think that’s nutsy, but I believe all life is sacred, and the least I can do is apologize to the fish for killing it. Moreover and more to the point, it’s made me appreciate the true value and worth of a fish—even a lowly bluegill.

I’ve learned to have an attitude of gratitude, not just for the fish I kill and consume, but for other things as well. For example, I used to dislike peeling potatoes. It was much like cleaning fish—monotonous and boring.

Now I don’t apologize to the potatoes I peel, but I do give each spud my keen appreciation. The potato is really a marvelous thing, is it not? It’s been the mainstay of numerous cultures, including the Irish and the Peruvians. It’s low in fat, and rich in carbohydrates and essential nutrients such as Vitamin C. It can be boiled and mashed, fried or baked, and one can practically live on potatoes.

In my mind’s eye, I can see my mother, and her mother before her, calmly and patiently peeling potatoes. They didn’t look overjoyed in that moment. But there was a blessed serenity and a quiet appreciation in their faces that I have learned to emulate and treasure. Truly, we can learn a lot by peeling a potato.

For 40-plus years, I smoked cigarettes. Those decades of smoking undoubtedly damaged my lungs and decreased my lung capacity. I haven’t been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), but I can’t breathe as well as I should. The only times I feel like I’m getting enough air into my lungs are when I’m walking into a breeze, or skimming across the lake in a boat.

Breathing is something we pretty much take for granted—unless we suffer from COVID or some type of breathing disorder. Most breathing is automatic, but certain types of deliberate breathing can be beneficial.

In Medicinal News Today (2/12/2019), Jenna Fletcher reports: “How to use 4-7-8 breathing for anxiety.”

“Dr. Andrew Weil is the founder and director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. He teaches the 4-7-8 breathing technique, which he believes can help with reducing anxiety; helping a person get to sleep; managing cravings; and controlling or reducing anger responses.

“Before starting the breathing pattern, adopt a comfortable sitting position and place the tip of the tongue on the tissue right behind the top front teeth. Empty the lungs of air. Breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds. Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds. Exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a ‘whoosh’ sound, for 8 seconds. Repeat the cycle up to 4 times.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is a 94-year old Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen master. He teaches breathing meditations that are effortless yet mindful.

“Please, when you breathe in, do not make an effort of breathing in. You just allow yourself to breathe in. Even if you don’t breathe in it will breathe in by itself. So don’t say, ‘My breath, come, so that I tell you how to do.’ Don’t try to force anything, don’t try to intervene, just allow the breathing in to take place....

“What you have to do is be aware of the fact that the breathing in is taking place. And you have more chance to enjoy your in-breath. Don’t struggle with your breath, that is what I recommend. Realize that your in-breath is a wonder. When someone is dead, no matter what we do, the person will not breathe in again. So we are breathing in, that is a wonderful thing....

“This is the first recommendation on breathing that the Buddha made: When breathing in, I know this is the in-breath. When breathing out, I know this is the out-breath. When the in-breath is long, I know it is long. When it is short, I know it is short. Just recognition, mere recognition, simple recognition of the presence of the in-breath and out-breath. When you do that, suddenly you become entirely present. What a miracle, because to meditate means to be there. To be there with yourself, to be there with your in breath.”

It’s easy to be thankful for a huge Thanksgiving feast. We also should be grateful for little, everyday things—a bluegill, a potato, a simple lifegiving breath.

Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.

Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.

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