Monday, November 25, 2013

Saying Grace (and Other Good Thanksgiving Ideas)

Did Norman Rockwell Get it Right?

It is that time of year ---- and in fact, nearly past it, since Thanksgiving this year comes on the same day as Hanukkah and only one week before AVC's final exams.

On farms all across America, turkeys are busy impersonating cows.

(Actually most turkeys we'll eat at Thanksgiving were killed many months ago and frozen, but never mind that.) There are many turkeys in art --- here is the "comic book" artist, Roy Lichtenstein, with a turkey from 1961 (reproduced here from an article in an art newspaper). His tongue-in-cheek use of the Ben-Day dots, enlarged and made into part of the artwork, has been well-documented, but I was amused to see this newspaper reproduction, since it relies on a similar "dot pattern" to put into newsprint what he himself was quoting to create his original paintings.

To be an American dinner it does not have to be the dead bird on a plate, of course. For those of us with more flexible traditions, what about a Thanksgiving tostada? (Recipe here comes from a supermarket magazine, First For Women.)

No matter what one's orientation philosophically or culturally, a large, multi-generational family meal on Thanksgiving often starts by one of the elder members of the family saying grace. Wikipedia even has a moderately long article on the practice, some of which I would like to excerpt here:

Grace is a name for any of a number of short prayers said or an unvoiced intention held prior to or after eating, thanking God and/or the entities that have given of themselves to furnish nutrients to those partaking in the meal. Some traditions hold that grace and thanksgiving imparts a blessing which sanctifies the meal. In the English language tradition, reciting a prayer prior to eating is traditionally referred to as “saying grace.”

A prayer of Grace is said to be an act of offering thanks to God for granting humans dominion over the earth, and the right and ability to sacrifice the lives of divine creations for sustenance; this thanks is the “saying of Grace” prior to and/or after eating of any meal.

However, in many indigenous cultures around the world, including North America, the saying of grace does not signify human dominion, but rather recognition of a plant or animal's giving their life and that some day the prayer giver, like every sentient being, will return to earth to give sustenance and life to others.

When my brother graduated from Fuller Seminary, we had a meal in his honor afterwards. We asked him to say grace, as did, apparently, most other families of their recent grads. He knew to expect this request, and had been warned. Apparently the very worn-out joke is that almost all families now turn to a recent divinity school graduate and say, "You do it --- you are the expert now." In his case, he did a very touching job of saying grace, and he still says grace before all meals, public or private, whether he is eating alone or with a large group.

Luckily, one of the aspects of grace in most religious traditions is that you do NOT have to be an expert to thank the universe for allowing you to participate in the cycle of life. I like the traditions I was exposed to when I lived with an Inuit family many years ago, on an island between Nome and Siberia. Their beliefs were very parallel to a group called the Koyukon people, whose theology was summarized by Richard Nelson in his book, Make Prayers to the Raven.

Nelson says, "For traditional Koyukon people, the environment is both a natural and a supernatural realm. All that exists in nature is imbued with awareness and power; all events in nature are potentially manifestations of that power." He also adds, "Not only the animals, but also the plants, the earth and landforms, the air, weather, and sky are spiritually invested. For each, the hunter knows an array of respectful gestures."

In a child's book about the first Thanksgiving, I found a similar summary.

The text says, "The Wampanoags ... believe that spirits dwell in the forests and waters around them. Even today, many Wampanoags ask the spirits for help and thank them when they bring good things to their lives."

I like this idea very much of combing respect and thankfulness, and in my family, we always said grace at Thanksgiving (and before all dinner meals). Yet I found an interesting piece of art that says that this tradition was not as stable or enduring as I had assumed. Like others, I often think of the 1950s as being the Ozzie and Harriet moment in American society, when cars were large, ties were narrow, and everybody wore an "I Like Ike" campaign button. Norman Rockwell apparently was worried that after the Second World War, some American values were degrading too fast. Look at this painting:
It dates from 1951, and the title is Saying Grace.

While a pious grandmother says an obvious but silent grace in a crowded diner, the others look on, a bit stunned. In the far left corner, one boor even is smoking a cigar indoors, while one lout at the table with grandma has a cigarette dangling from his mouth. His companion holds his by the condiment tray, smoke rising as if from the ruins of a bombed city. The woman's umbrella and knitting sit on the floor by her chair, and her young ward's hat is off and resting on the umbrella's handle --- after all, he knows, even if these uncouth slobs at his table do not, that a gentleman never wears a hat indoors.

Out the window is a snowy, bleached-out urban environment --- locomotives and silos it seems. (The print is a bit hard to read well; I have taken this from an advertisement for an art sale at Sotheby's, the famous art auction house.) Here is what the Huffington Post blog says about this work: "On a day like today, American illustrator Norman Rockwell created Saying Grace, capturing a Mennonite family praying in a bustling restaurant. Rockwell created the work 62 years ago today, as cover art for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1955 the iconic depiction was voted Post readers' favorite cover."

The original painting will go to auction just after Thanksgiving. Somebody will be saying a big loud "thank you" once the final gavel falls: it's anticipated to go for 15 to 20 million dollars. Norman Rockwell has become collectible in a big way in a relatively short period of time. Ignored as a "mere" illustrator during his lifetime, his technical skill, his ability to compose a busy yet clear scene, and his distinct brand of American vision, all combine to raise his status. He was a very serious craftsman, and worked from live models and photographs to achieve his remarkable and deeply human portraits. The Huffington Post says that he was paid $3,500 for this originally. In modern dollars, that would be about $30,000 --- a respectable living, but nowhere near what some of art's superstars can make today.

What interests me are not the scandals, and with the man himself, there are plenty. Here is a quote from a recent article in the Houston Chronicle"A twice-divorced workaholic who neglected wives and children, a religious nonbeliever, a closeted homosexual, a depressive forever anxious about his rightful place in the world, a Vietnam War opponent who worked down the block from Alice's Restaurant --- guess which product of New York's famed Art Students League this 20th century painter was." Yes, it's him, Mr. Clean Cut himself. But if we leave Rockwell's private life just that, private, what's interesting is the social anxiety this painting describes. We see here an entirely secular world --- newspapers, overcoats, coffee cups --- into which has come a modest and out-of-place saint, our woman who despite the grit and urban secularism all around, finds a moment to listen to her heart and say a brief prayer. He could not have found an audience interested in this painting if our "perfect" post-World War world had not already begun to feel a bit adrift, a bit too cut off from spiritual value.

This does not have to be a "pro-Christian" painting; many faiths ask their members to stop what they are doing and spend a moment of contemplation and gratitude. (In most iterations of Islamic faith, this happens five times a day. Are perhaps Muslims more authentically "religious" than most Christians?) The Sotheby's website explains that the idea for the work came from a Post reader, who had witnessed a scene like this firsthand. 

Apparently one could have seen the original painting in Los Angeles in September, when it made a brief stop on a world tour. I don't follow auction news closely enough to have known this at the time, and I am not sure it would have made much difference if I had. His graphic clarity and wonderful handling of light and dark sections "read well" in reproduction. Even here in the AVC blog we can get a taste (pun intended) for what a striking painting this is.

The original work asks about the place of spirituality in our day-to-day lives, and about what respect we might best show to those around us who are engaged in manifestations of faith.

Sixty-five years later, the painting seems to me just as important as ever. One can be a strictly Darwinian atheist and still find that a moment of contemplation provides clarity and balance. In the Buddhist tradition, they speak of "mindfulness." There are many ways to pray, including just sitting down for a second and listening to the sound of water rushing past the rocks. This year on Thanksgiving, what forces around you would you like to stop and acknowledge?


The AVC blog is generally herded along its path by Charles Hood, Language Arts, who can be reached at It does not represent the official position of the District or the Board of Trustees. Future blog topics will include tumbleweeds and the portrayal of Lancaster by National Geographic magazine, water in the Antelope Valley, the deaths of Lou Reed and poet Wanda Coleman, smoking on campus, and the winter solstice.