The theme of the meeting was gratitude and the role that gratitude plays in our lives. Elizabeth Espersen set the stage, as she talked about the power of gratefulness. Women who are grateful, she said, have the power to heal the broken world in which we live.
To illustrate, she held up a transparent globe that was in two segments. She asked each woman to write a word that expressed gratitude. Then she passed the “broken world” around the room, and women placed their slips of paper in one segment of the globe. She said that we would return to the broken globe at the end of the meeting.
When Lynda was asked to talk about gratitude, the first thing that came to her mind was the prayer of Shehecheyanu (translation: “Who has given us life”), which is recited on any occasion of thankfulness, including, in her own home, on Thanksgiving. Lynda stressed that she could speak only to the Judaism that she practices, but she said that no matter where you travel, when you find a Jewish house of worship, you will recognize the poetry, prayers and blessings because they are the same.
Gratitude permeates Judaism. Lynda celebrates Shabbat on Friday evenings. The lighting of candles delineates the Sabbath, bringing one into a sacred space in time, separate from secular time. She finds this time of pulling away from the world to be vital in her life. The Kiddush, a blessing over the wine, is chanted to thank God for “the fruit of the vine.” A blessing is also said over the challah, a braided loaf of bread; a large chunk of the bread is broken off and passed around the table to that everyone can partake of it. Lynda encourages those who celebrate Shabbat with her in her home to bring a reading or poem to share. She brought copies of Marge Piercy’s The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems With a Jewish Theme, a favorite of hers.
Sukkot, the Jewish festival of thanksgiving for the harvest, occurs at somewhat different times in different years because it is based on the lunar calendar. In North America it always occurs in autumn and coincides with the harvest, as it did in ancient times. Sukkot is a reminder that God redeemed the Jewish people from Egypt during the reign of the pharoahs. Like a loving, caring parent, He caused them to live temporarily in booths (sukkot [plural]) that sheltered them from the elements. The festival of Sukkot also reminds us that in ancient times, a farmer would stay in a booth (sukkah [singular]) at the edge of his field so as to not lose valuable time traveling back and forth to his house during the busy harvest season. Jews traditionally commemorate these events by building these temporary structures and living in them for seven days. Many Jews in Syracuse, where the climate is not conducive to living outdoors in the fall, eat their meals in their sukkah.
Lynda pointed out that the original American Thanksgiving took place in 1621. Later, George Washington, when he was president, proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was not celebrated again until after the Civil War, when it was seen as a way to unite people so that the healing of the nation’s wounds could begin.
In summary, Lynda said that Jews are grateful for each day. Jews do not describe things in terms of sin. They believe there is a spark of the divine in each of us, and that it is the obligation of Jews to live up to that spark, to make each day worthwhile and do the best that they can. This goes along with the concept of healing the world that Elizabeth spoke of.
Naima, a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said that gratitude is part of a Muslim’s day from the first prayer in the morning until the prayer at bedtime. She had always thought she was a grateful person, but for the past three or four years she has taken a “crash course” on gratitude— and she is still learning. At age 33, she had just moved back to Syracuse. She hit the ground running, getting a job, reconnecting with Danya Wellmon and other friends. Then she noticed that she was getting tired, losing weight, and waking up with a fever. A biopsy revealed lymphoma. “I screamed for a minute,” said Naima, “but that was just for the moment.” Then she proceeded to figure out what to do about her disease. Her first concern was that she had no health insurance at the time, and she found that physicians were not interested in treating the uninsured. However, Danya was working for Dr. Dhafir and recommended Naima to a good physician in East Syracuse. Fortunately Naima was able to get insurance. She was treated for eight months with chemotherapy and radiation and went into remission.
The first thing that Naima was grateful for was that the lymphoma had not spread throughout her body. She was also grateful for the many good people she met during her course of therapy. After the treatments, much to her surprise, Naima found out that she was pregnant. She felt happy and grateful about the pregnancy, since she had been trying to have another child for seven years. During those years, she had been working, attending school, and taking care of her older children and her in-laws, who were living with her.
Unfortunately, her cancer returned during her pregnancy. She was grateful that she was able to feel the new tumor pushing against her collarbone because this gave her the opportunity to deal with it right away. She went from being very happy to being very scared. Her treatment this time was a stem cell transplant. Because the cancer had not spread into her bone marrow, the transplant procedure could be done using her own cells. Everything went well, although she required hospitalization and chemotherapy just to get ready for the procedure. Following the transplant, however, Naima suffered acute anxiety, partially brought on by postpartum depression. Unlike after the initial diagnosis, when she was a little upset and nervous but felt she could lick her cancer, this time Naima was crippled by fear and could not leave her home. She knew she should be grateful: her baby was healthy, and she had two other wonderful children. She was grateful to Danya for pointing this out to her and for intervening when the doctors said that Naima was too sick to be treated.
There is a constant theme of gratitude in the Qur΄an. Naima expressed gratitude for all the people who were praying for her. Her mother kept reminding her of people’s concern for her and reassuring her that she was strong. She is grateful today for her good health. If you recognize the divine first, Naima says, that relieves stress. Knowing that you might not have tomorrow gives you no option but to be happy today. Naima reminds herself of Job. She also found that once she was less stressed, her friends became less stressed. We were not put on this earth to be miserable, she declared.
After Naima’s and Lynda’s stories, there was much lively discussion and sharing among the other members of WTB. Elizabeth told us that a female journalist, Sarah Josepha Hale, kept after President Abraham Lincoln until he declared that the last Thursday in November should be Thanksgiving in every state of the union. President Franklin Roosevelt changed the date to the fourth Thursday in November.
Several WTB members who are cancer survivors spoke of gratitude for the lessons that cancer has taught them. They characterized themselves as being healthier and happier than they were before. One said she no longer fears dying; another, that she lives life from second to second. A third woman talked about the many other women who reached out to her, many of whom she did not even know.
A new grandmother expressed gratitude for her granddaughter and said, “My soul is dancing and singing all the time.” Another member expressed gratitude for the women who had fought for the political and legal rights that we all enjoy; she expressed fear that many people do not remember this. A Muslim woman said that Muslims must name the things that they thank God for; with all their prayers, this amounts to 33 per day. Another woman was grateful for her new life in Syracuse and for the welcome she received from so many people, particularly her WTB sisters who are like an extended family. Two women remembered Jeanne Shenandoah telling WTB that the Haudenosaunee are grateful for the weather, no matter what it is like; this caused these women to rethink their weather complaints!
The meeting ended with our forming a huge circle. The broken globe was passed around, and each sister read another sister’s word of gratitude. Elizabeth reminded us that gratitude means reaching out. She put the two segments of the globe back together. As she held the intact globe in her hands, a new sister suggested that we sing, “She’s Got the Whole World in Her Hands.” So we did, as the “healed” world made its way around our circle.