By Cheryl Hatch
Special to the Tribune
Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.
A student came to my office to discuss his assignment for our beat reporting class. Allegheny College 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 well-being.
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 5-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.