On Thanksgiving day and each day, I honor all my relations

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014


Thank you.

These are the first words I form when I wake. Sometimes softly, in my mind before I open my eyes. Sometimes out loud, before I roll out of bed and plant my feet on the floor.

Thank you. For another day of life. For the breath that fills my lungs.

Granted, as I start my day, I don’t always remember to say thank you, silently or aloud. Sometimes I remember when I’m washing my face.

Thank you.

For the roof over my head. For heat on a cold night. For running water. For the food in my refrigerator.

Or, I remember as I dash to dress for class.

Thank you.

For my job. For the privilege of sharing my knowledge and experience with a new generation of bright, shiny young people, earnest, restless, wise and naïve.

In our last class before the Thanksgiving break, I asked the students to stand in silence and reflect on what they were thankful for. When they opened their eyes, they shared their thoughts. Thank you. For friends and family, for their love and support.

I said I was thankful for our class and my friends and family, though time zones and oceans separate me from those I hold dear. My parents are still here, having weathered health crises that threatened to tear them from us.

Thank you.

For my ancestors. This Thanksgiving break, I’ll visit their graves and leave flowers, new American flags, seashells and chimes. They dreamed for us—college educations and happy lives. I especially celebrate my matriarchal line and my great grandmother. Widowed, she ran the family farm and raised her nine children. Born after the Civil War, she was ahead of her time. She insisted her six daughters got training to work, so they could support themselves. A suffragette, she blazed a trail for all women who followed.

I am thankful because I have spent time in dark places. Events I’ve witnessed and the suffering I’ve photographed seared my heart and scarred my soul. I remember the dark times. In my mind’s eye, I hung over an abyss, clinging to the wall and life by the very tips of a few fingernails. Every piece of my being pleaded with me. Let go, Cheryl. You’ve had a good life. Let go. You’re tired. It’s too hard to stay the course. It would be so easy to let go.

Except for the small, tiny, persistent voice that whispered “Hold on.” You don’t want to leave your niece and nephew. You want to watch their lives unfold. Hold on. You don’t want to leave this wide world. There is beauty here, even as you dangle above the void.

As a photographer, I know well the beauty of the shadow and light. I also understand the importance of where I place my focus. If I focus in one direction, things may look bleak: I don’t have a job lined up after my third year at Allegheny College. If I shift my attention slightly, I see things in a different light. I have a job now and the possibility of new adventures—and that’s where I place my focus.

If I look in the mirror, I reminded that I’m overweight. I’m forced to face the extra pounds I carry every time I put on a swimsuit or dress for class. Most of the clothes in my closet are two or three sizes too small. They wait to dress a version of my self that I miss and despair I will never recover.

I shift my focus. I’m alive and I’m healthy. With some effort and commitment, I’ll resurrect the athlete I’ve buried and strengthen my core, my muscles and my resolve.

I choose each day to say thank you for the things I have. I don’t spend too much time lamenting what I don’t have or might have lost. I think of the strong women in my life and lineage: my mother, my grandmothers and my great grandmother.

Thank you. For your strength. Your inspiration. Your courage. Thank you for the sense of wonder and lust for adventure that pulses in our shared blood.

In bed at night, before I fall asleep, I again say thank you. For the glorious, precious gifts of the day and this life. For my friends and family. For the beauty of our Mother Earth and all that share the land, ocean and sky.

Mitakuye oyasin. All my relations.

To the Lakota Nation, this is a prayer, an invitation to remember that everything, all life, is interconnected and sacred.

On Thanksgiving Day and each day, I remember all my relations.

Thank you.


Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.


Start each day with thank you

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I wrote this for Thanksgiving Day for my weekly column: Outside the Box

A student came to my office to discuss his assignment for our beat reporting class. President Jim Mullen had spoken at a recent meeting, asking students for their help. The student journalist’s story had first-person references and comments—too personal for a news story.

You could write an opinion piece and begin with the president saying ‘I need your help,’ I suggested. The student corrected me. He didn’t start with ‘I need your help.’ The president started the way he always starts, the student said. He started with thank you. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your service.

I start my day with thank you. Before I turn over and turn on the shortwave radio, I lie in bed and softly say thank you. Thank you for the breath that fills my lungs. Thank you for my body. My life. For the roof over my head. For food and running water, especially a hot shower on a cold day. Thank you for my job and a chance to make a difference. Thank you for my friends and family. And thank you for the abundance in my life that allows me to give back when so many have given to me.

Years ago, I was traveling at night during the civil war in Liberia. A ferocious thunderstorm and lashing rains battered our vehicle. The slender dirt road turned slippery with mud and treacherous with jumpy rebels at checkpoints. We were lost. We didn’t dare go forward and couldn’t risk turning back.People came out in the storm and guided us back to their single-room thatched home. The man and woman left the bed they’d been sleeping in and offered it to me. They slept on the floor. In the morning, I woke early. I didn’t want to put them at further risk. They made me hot tea and stirred heaping spoonfuls of precious sugar into it. They had little; what they had they shared without hesitation and without concern for their own safety and wellbeing.

A decade later, in a refugee camp in Jejah, Eritrea, I spent the day with women who waited for hours for water under a scorching midday sun. After five hours and with no hope of water that day, I walked back with the women including Makur, who shared a tent with members of her extended family. She invited me to stay for dinner. At first, racked with fever and fatigue, I declined. Later, I changed my mind and returned by the light of a bright full moon, searching for Makur’s home among the hundreds of refugee families. I brought sugar and coffee beans, an Eritrean tradition.

She must have heard my voice. Or perhaps word of my return reached her before I did. I had not yet crossed into the light of the campfire before Makur had grabbed one of her three chickens and killed it for our meal.

That night, I would sleep in the sand outside the tent. I lay on my back and played word games with Makur’s five-year-old daughter. I would point to something and she’d say the name in Tigrinya, her native tongue, and I would say the word in English.

I pointed to the moon. When she answered, the adults laughed. My translator explained. She said that’s where god lives.

Throughout my life, I have lived such moments of beauty, the benefactor of the kindness and generosity of others.

I remember the simple traditions of my grandparents and ancestors, who often had little and nothing extra. Still they found a way to share with those who had less. Their generosity was quiet, anonymous. It was, I believe, their way of saying thank you for their blessings.

In my family, we created a tradition of secretly picking up the tab in restaurants for those in the armed forces, veterans and their families. I’ve expanded the tradition to include college students, remembering my own lean days when a warm meal was a big deal.

When I was a student paying my own way through college, my parents would send me cards with encouraging words to lift my spirits during tough times—and sometimes they’d tuck money inside for pizza.

I am troubled by the myth of the first Thanksgiving, of the Pilgrim colonists gathering and sharing the harvest with the Wampanoag Indians. The colonists would later take what they’d once shared and drive the Indians from the land they’d called home long before the Pilgrims landed.

I prefer thanksgiving, lowercase. And we can celebrate it every day, not once a year. There is beauty, grace and nourishment in sharing a meal, gathering with friends or strangers and breaking bread together.

With every meal. With each new day.

Start with thank you.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

The Kindness of Neighbors

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On Thanksgiving, I built a fire in the woodstove. I baked chocolate chip cookies and I read story after story in “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout.

Set in Maine, the book offers descriptions of the color of the ocean and the changing weather on the bay that carried me back to my ancestral home in Rhode Island. At 3 p.m. the sun was heading to bed when I called relatives in Massachusetts and shared Thanksgiving greetings and stories. I learned my great great grandfather made two trips west during the gold rush.

As I talked, I turned and saw a red fox 10 yards from my window. But my elbow gently bumped the pane glass and the sound stopped the fox in her tracks. She turned tail and trotted into the trees

At 5 p.m., I bundled up, tucked a plate of warm-from-the oven cookies and a bowl of salad of organic greens with goat cheese, dried cranberries and walnuts into a bag and started up the hill to my neighbor’s house.

A few weeks earlier, I was walking to campus and passed Chris, who was in front of his house untangling lines of lights. I waved and stopped to introduce myself.

“Putting up Christmas lights?”

“Not Christmas lights,” Chris said then. “You’ll see.”

Now when I walk to and from campus in the dark. I pass the giant eye with eyelashes blinking with bright-colored lights. The neighborhood holiday landmark was aglow when I knocked and Chris answered.

He grabbed a book from his shelf and began searching for connections on our ancestral lines. (We had discovered we shared New England roots during our driveway chat weeks earlier.) His people hail from Sandwich, Massachusetts, and Chris was certain if we went back far enough, we’d find our ancestors had met.

Chris was one of two people—both who’d met me but once—who inquired about my Thanksgiving plans. I was deeply moved by the kindness of Nancy, who I met in a yoga workshop, and Chris, my neighbor, who recognized that I was far from my friends, family and all things familiar and invited me to their homes to share their celebrations.

As other guests entered the house stomping snow from their boots and shedding coats, Chris set aside his search and the book. He joined his wife, Anna, in the kitchen, turning his attention to the three turkeys that needed carving. Guests added bottles of wine, vegetable dishes and desserts to the bounty Chris and Anna had prepared.

Takashi, originally from Tokyo, arrived with Katrin, from Germany, pregnant with their first child and bearing a banana bread with cranberry icing. Julie arrived with her husband, Len, a filmmaker at the Museum of the North. Julie’s sister, Toni, who heads the University of Alaska Fairbanks Yoga Club, came with her husband, John. With Carol, the museum director, Juliet, an artist, and me, we were one shy of a dozen around the table.

At the start of the meal, Anna invoked a Thanksgiving tradition, asking each guest to name three things he or she was thankful for.

“Turkey. Turkey. Turkey,” Takashi said, and everyone laughed.

Platters with meat from three different turkeys passed from hand to hand. A smoked turkey. A natural turkey with butter and herbs. A brined organic turkey burnished with rosemary and olive oil.

The gluten-free sweet potato rolls, homemade cranberry sauce and butternut squash drizzled with maple syrup and garnished with ground walnuts made the rounds.

Conversation circled from the anthropology and artistry of Native masks to the public’s lack of awareness of the toll of war on returning soldiers to how the attributes of pot have changed over the decades.

Desserts as delicious and engaging as the conversation topped off the meal. Anna offered a homemade cranberry pie with gluten-free crust. Juliet brought a wickedly divine flourless chocolate cake. Katrin’s banana bread with chocolate chips had hands reaching for seconds. And my chocolate chip cookies did not go unnoticed.

Sated, guests pushed away from the table and joined in the clean up. Just as people were wrapping up, Anna reached in the refrigerator and discovered the bottle of Muscat she had chilled. A dessert wine to clear the palate and close the evening. We lingered.

We sunk into couches and chairs to savor the fragrant wine and a few more moments together. Conversation turned from holiday travel, the TSA, body scans and civil rights to our history and our feisty, freedom-seeking ancestors and founding fathers. Chris mentioned that one state constitution encourages revolution when rights are violated. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a copy of Article 10 of the New Hampshire (the Live Free or Die state…a motto we all agreed was cool) constitution.

I’m paraphrasing now, because unlike Chris, I cannot quote Article 10 verbatim. It states the people have a right…in fact, a duty…to revolt if the government fails them.

Raise a glass to revolution, freedom and friendship.

And to the kindness of neighbors.