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How to Give Thanks in a Screwed-Up World

NASHVILLE — My father always had a ready answer to the question that greases the gears of human discourse. Whenever anyone he didn’t know particularly well — a neighbor or a sales clerk or someone at church — would ask, “How are you, Mr. Renkl?” my father didn’t say, “Just fine, thank you.” His answer was always “Fantastic!” Later, when he was dying, it was the answer he gave even to family members checking in. Right up to his death, he was always faaaantastic.

Even before he got sick, this answer was an inexplicable exaggeration. Money was always short in our house, and Mom struggled intermittently with depression, but you would not have known any of that from the way my father greeted others, always with an unexpectedly cheery answer to the throwaway question people asked out of nothing but common courtesy.

I think about my father every day, but I’ve been thinking about him more than usual lately. Not only because Thanksgiving is coming on, that time when the ache of my missing elders is especially acute, but because I am trying to remind myself how to see the world as my father saw it.

“Brew positivity,” the tag on my tea bag tells me, but I am thinking of nothing as simplistic as that. My father was no Panglossian determined to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds. Dad grew up during the Great Depression in what was effectively an orphanage. He knew very well that this was not the best of all possible worlds. Nevertheless, he loved his life and was grateful for every minute of it. Somehow he was able to hold the love and the beauty and the joy alongside the grief and the fear and the pain.

Until mid-November, the daily temperatures in Nashville danced around in the 60s and 70s, even hitting 80 from time to time. There were still a few zinnias left in my pollinator garden, and every warm November day the butterflies found them — a beautiful question mark, several gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs, a couple of monarchs, painted lady after painted lady. Not a leaf left on the maple trees, but the garden was full of painted ladies! I kept going outside to look at them. All day long I could not stop smiling.

I wasn’t supposed to be happy about this scenario. It should not be 80 degrees in November, even here in the temperate Midsouth. Migrating butterflies like monarchs and painted ladies evolved to travel along a corridor of fall-blooming wildflowers, but wildflowers are mostly gone by November. If not for my zinnias, the butterflies would’ve starved. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” said the United Nations secretary general, Antonio Guterres, at COP27, the global climate conference, in early November. It was not an overstatement.

And yet I felt so happy about those butterflies, so happy there were still zinnias blooming in my flower beds. It felt wrong to be so happy when happiness arises from a source of great pain, but there I was, feeling both the joy and the pain anyway. My father would have understood.

Lately I have come to distrust my own capacity for exultation. We had friends over to sit around the fire on what turned out to be the night the 2020 election was finally called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The relief we all felt, the jubilation, was huge and instantaneous. A great shout erupted and there were hugs all around, never mind that we were sitting out in the cold in the first place because a deadly pandemic was raging. We spent the rest of the night drinking champagne and dancing like maenads around the fire. American democracy wasn’t lost at all. Our fellow citizens had saved it.

Only a few weeks later the enemies of democracy were marauding through the U.S. Capitol, wreaking destruction and threatening much worse. People died that day, and all because a U.S. president refused to accept voters’ decision. Almost two years later, someone who believed the former president’s lie went hunting for the speaker of the House, gravely injuring her husband in the process. As the writer Jelani Cobb notes in The New Yorker, Donald Trump “did not single-handedly inject the strains of intolerance, racism, nativism, belligerence and a durable sympathy for anti-democratic behavior into the Republican Party, and there is no reason to believe that his absence would cause them to evaporate.”

Mr. Trump, of course, is far from absent. Several adherents of the big lie running to supervise state elections just lost their own elections, and that’s a tremendous relief, but election denying is alive and well in the country despite its rebuke at the polls. Gerrymandering efforts to create artificially close elections are not disappearing either.

What voters want is transparently irrelevant to many of the officials charged to represent us, as the attorney general of Kentucky made clear last week. Voters in that state defeated a proposed anti-abortion amendment to its constitution, but the attorney general insists the vote “has no bearing” on its near-total abortion ban. Down here, Mr. Trump’s movement is Glenn Close in the bathtub with a knife.

But it’s Thanksgiving, and I’m determined not to think about that this week. I will think instead about my father and his insistence on happiness. I will let my whole heart fill up with gratitude for what is still breathtakingly beautiful about this weary, ragged world; for the many people who are fighting for our democracy; and for all the people I love.

I can’t force polluting nations to work together to hold climate change to planet-surviving levels. I can’t force Congress to work together for solutions to the economic inequities and information silos that separate us. But I can pull out my mother’s recipe box and make a Thanksgiving feast. I can remember the loved ones who once shared this table and fill their seats with people whose loved ones are distant or otherwise missing. And I can be grateful for every single fantastic moment we have together.

A hard frost finally came to my garden last week, and the zinnias are gone now, along with all the butterflies. I am sorry to see them go, and I am trying not to interrogate my own gratitude for the days they had here. I tell myself it is not wrong to exult in the beauties that remain. I remind myself of the testimony of my father’s whole life, of the truth he taught me — that loss and love will always belong to each other, that sorrow has always been joy’s quiet twin.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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