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Thanksgiving Day, 2011

Many, Many Thanks

How a beloved American Public Media holiday special was first inspired and born, and is renewed annually, by its host John Birge from the "Plugged In" supplement to the Nov. 2001 issue of Minnesota Monthly

A steamed-up houseful of noisy cousins. Fancy plates and silver. A lot of food, not a lot of elbow room. As a child, I measured Thanksgiving through these ordinary things. As an adult, I discovered the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving in the unlikeliest of places—a small studio, where I was putting together a radio show.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll reveal up front my pro-Thanksgiving bias: I love it.

Thanksgiving is the universal holiday. It welcomes all races, all religions.

Thanksgiving is the least cynical holiday. We gather together, not out of media hype or commercial conditioning, but from a personal, conscious need to acknowledge all that we treasure.

Thanksgiving is the most human holiday. As long as there have been food and companionship, there has been the act of "thanksgiving." It affirms our deep and timeless need for sustaining life and spirit, and for celebrating that with others.

Thanksgiving is the holiday closest to nature. There's the harvest, a celebration of earth. Autumn's chill tugs us outside, invigorates the mind, sharpens the appetite, then invites us inside to the warmth of hearth and home.

My first Thanksgiving radio show was born out of necessity 16 years ago. I'd asked for the day off work, but no one could fill in for my morning show. If I had to be there, I thought I should make the best of it. So I started gathering material that spoke to fall, food and gratitude. The hunt soon led beyond music, to words that amplified the spirit of the day. I remembered a beautiful passage by Antoine de Saint-Exupry about the meaning of bread, an autumnal essay by poet Donald Hall, the majestic voice of Dylan Thomas reading his Fern Hill. And I rediscovered The Storyteller, an ancient LP by the actor Charles Laughton, whose spellbinding story connects his personal discovery of Chartres Cathedral with an excerpt from Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums and the 104th Psalm. I'd occasionally heard it as a child; but as an adult, through the lens of Thanksgiving, I came to fully understand it. It's a moving and powerful tale, giving thanks for the discovery that art connects us all to a greater creative spirit. I've played it every Thanksgiving since. And I'll play it again this year on Giving Thanks.

Gratitude creates community; it's impossible to be thankful without declaring our connection to the goodness of others. I started my first Thanksgiving broadcast at 6 a.m., alone in the studio but palpably aware of being part of a larger community giving thanks. That sense was reinforced by many kind listeners, working quietly in the kitchen or loading up the car, who called to say thanks for the program. One caller was eager for a copy of a reading to share with Chinese students she had invited to dinner; she felt it would be a good way to explain to them the meaning of the holiday. When I offered her a copy over the phone, she turned up minutes later—in robe and slippers—outside the front door of the station!

After I came to American Public Media, we offered the show to public radio stations nationwide as Giving Thanks: A Celebration of Fall, Food & Grati-tude. It's a labor of love that requires many hats. As a hunter-gatherer, I'm always looking for new ingredients. Finding them is always rewarding and affirming. With tried-and-true staples and new elements in hand, I put on my alchemist hat, listening for that perfect, golden mixture of music, words and voices. The perfect expression of thanks.

The most gratifying part of the process has been to connect with people whose talents I most admire. When I found several appropriate Carl Sandburg poems, I thought, who better to read them than that other distinguished bard of Chicago, Studs Terkel? And so he did. I've loved the humor of Tom Bodett since hearing his essays on All Things Considered nearly 20 years ago. When I discovered a Thanksgiving piece in his stories from Homer, Alaska, I contacted him, and he was delighted to read it for Giving Thanks. A page torn from the Utne Reader (and stuck on the Birge family fridge for years) led me to track down its author in San Francisco—Katie Butler's essay on voluntary simplicity is one of the most-often-requested Giving Thanks segments. It returns again this year.

Serendipity has played its part as well. Driving to work one morning, I heard Bill Moyers being interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning. Little did he know I'd been trying to figure out the right voice for an e.e. cummings poem. So I stepped on the gas, arriving seconds before he stepped on the elevator to leave, and he graciously agreed to detour through the studio and record it. In town last March at the Guthrie Theater, actor Patrick Stewart agreed to come in to do a recording for Giving Thanks. He put his luminous voice to work and studio 4C glowed with John Keats' ode To Autumn. When I pitched a reading to Whad'Ya Know host Michael Feldman, he replied with a uniquely Feldmanesque Thanksgiving blessing of his own. You'll hear it on Giving Thanks this year.

On September 11, amidst the terror and sorrow of a suddenly changing world, many of us relied on the power of music and poetry to say what we could not otherwise express. To help us mourn what we had lost. And to lead us to focus on what we will always hold dear. Some of the most profound expressions of gratitude have come in the midst of intense hardship. This year, Giving Thanks offers some of those expressions: John Tavener's Akathist of Thanksgiving, which sets to music a priest's prayer of hope from a Siberian prison camp; and Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation, which came in 1863, a dark year of the Civil War. This year, Lincoln's observance offers us again an important gesture of healing, a reminder that when we express gratitude, we're never alone.

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