Every year when the Thanksgiving holiday comes around in late November, I reflect back on perhaps the most memorable Thanksgiving I ever experienced. It was spent in a country that does not celebrate our holiday or follow our customs. There was no turkey dinner or pumpkin pie that night. No grace said around the table. In fact, as I recall, there was no table, just a concrete floor with a decorative fabric laid out, and a warm and nourishing Indian meal spread before me. I was not with my family of origin, but I was with family — a mother, father, sister and two brothers who had become as much my own family as any could on that cold November night.
I spent Thanksgiving 2003 in a small upstairs apartment overlooking the back streets of Jaipur, India. My family, the Singhs, had served as increasingly close companions since I first met them in September of 2003. Mahendra, my first “brother” and dearest friend, was a music teacher. He and I shared a love of music and spent countless hours listening to and playing Tabla drums and later the Sitar in the living room of his family’s sparse apartment. His mother was the sweetest woman, always warm and smiling. Some how we formed a strong mother/daughter bond despite the fact that she spoke no English and I spoke only the most broken Hindi at the time. Mahendra’s father was a tall, slender man whose seriousness expression would nevertheless convey the deepest care and respect to me at all times. Mahendra’s brother, Kamal, was always cheerful and full of energy. And Mahendra’s sister, Madoo, was like her name meant in Hindi — honey, sweet and overflowing with charm.
Being the sentimental person that I am, when Thanksgiving rolled around during that year I spent abroad in India, I longed for the familiar trappings of the holiday. It was my first ever Thanksgiving spent outside my home country. I may have mentioned it to Mahendra, but only in passing, trying to express that in America we had this holiday where we give thanks for our many blessings and often in the company of family. We throw ourselves a big feast. And we usually eat, and many of us pray, and it’s a good holiday, one of my favorite holidays, because it’s centered around gratitude and delicious food and the warmth and cheer of those around us.
That Thanksgiving, Mahendra summoned me to his home for an evening dinner. And I thought nothing of it, as we had enjoyed dinners and lunches many times prior. His mother, just like my own mother, was always pushing me to eat and partake of the family’s food despite the fact that they lived in the most sparse of conditions. Feeding me was her way of showing me welcome and hospitality.
That evening, I arrived at the Singh residence to find that she had prepared a spread like none other that I had experienced before — potatoes and cauliflower, squash, okra, chapatis, saffron rice, and more. The family presented me with gifts of mithai — Indian sweets — which I consumed with a voraciousness that always made them laugh. (I do have quite the sweet tooth.) Candles were lit around the room and in front of the family’s altar, bedecked with strings of marigolds and various statues of Krishna, Laxmi, and Ganesh. The whole affair was such a surprise to me. And I was nearly in tears as Mahendra shared, in his broken English, how his family just wanted to throw a Thanksgiving feast for me, their adopted family member, so that I would not be alone on my special American holiday.
A World of Good
I share this story because my time spent abroad in India those many years back was perhaps the most formative experience of my life. I went to India as part of what was then called Minnesota Studies in International Development through the University of Minnesota. For three months, I was immersed daily in the language, history, politics, and religion of India. For four months after that, I was matched with an NGO (non-governmental organization) that specialized in helping farmers convert their farms over to organic production, teaching them how to cultivate permaculture soils and create more healthful ways of cultivating crops. I was charged with completing a research paper based on my internship. And several months after returning to the U.S., I left for India again, this time to serve as a consultant to that same NGO to support them with other community projects. I am a different, more whole, more enlightened person today for the richness of experience that I had there and the people who I forged relationships with, many of whom I am still in contact with. And I wish for that experience to be had by others who might spend some time outside of the comforts of their home, learning and traveling and exchanging life with communities so different, and yet so similar.
This Thursday is Thanksgiving, and in a week from today, Tuesday, November 28, 2017, many of us will be celebrating Giving Tuesday. It’s an opportunity to eschew some of the commercialism of our American holiday season and spend your money, time, and resources “giving” to the social change organizations that are working tirelessly to make our world good through their mission and initiatives. I invite any of you who are reading this to consider giving to and getting to know an organization that I am proud to be on the board of, one who makes the kind of experiences I described above a reality — the Foundation for Sustainable Development. While my own travels abroad were not done through FSD, I chose to join their board because I know them to be the kind of conscious organization that thoughtfully matches teams and individuals with community development opportunities, like the one I had, in countries around the globe to foster meaningful, positive change. FSD works with community-based organizations in six different countries — Argentina, Uganda, Kenya, Bolivia, India, and Nicaragua — and offers opportunities for people to share their talents and skills to bring to life the opportunities for a better world that those community members seek.
I could tell you much more, but I would rather you experience it and learn about it directly, by visiting FSD’s website, by making a donation to the organization’s work or joining a Giving Circle if you are so moved, and if you live in the Bay Area, by coming to our fundraising and networking event, A World of Good, on the evening of Giving Tuesday at the headquarters of Splunk, Inc. in downtown San Francisco. It will be a good ol’ fashioned party with lots of stories, merriment, good food and drink, and inspiring conversations.
I believe in this organization. I believe in what they stand for and the way that they bring good to fruition — in their partnerships with community organizations, in their contributions to community development, and in the experiences they offer to individuals and teams. I want to support making the kind of life-changing, perspective-shifting experiences that I had a reality for others. And ultimately, I want to see people come together more to create a world of good. In a time in our human history when so many of us are afraid of “the other,” may we come to know “the other” as family member, friend, neighbor, teacher, partner, collaborator, and most especially as gift.