SOUTHSIDE STORIES

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Lessons in Gratitude

by Dakshina Gammanpila

One of the many joys of expat living is learning the customs and cultures of other nations; this is heightened when living overseas within a diverse community who share their festivals and invite others to participate. All peoples have traditions to help weather the weather, especially in Autumn and Winter when days may be shorter or colder. Rituals offer a way to navigate the darker seasons with the light cast by countless festivities on every continent. This year however, celebrations take on a different hue as Coronavirus numbers spike, and the need to remain vigilant and safe prevails, both for ourselves and the wider community.

It is a misconception shared by many that all of India basks in year-round sunshine. In fact I was rather taken aback when we first moved from England to Brazil and Brazil to India, and realised that South America had a cold season, and that Delhi was chilly in December. In Brazil we were closely linked with the US community, I wrote for them every week and we were invited to many US events. We loved and felt loved by our Brazilian hosts and we felt the same with the US community who had, it seemed, adopted us. I loved Thanksgiving, its origins hail from the pilgrims giving thanks for the first harvest. Canada celebrates on the second Monday of October and the US on the last Thursday in November; for indigenous peoples of both nations the celebration of harvest and thanksgiving fall on a different date, however the underlying theme is gathering and giving thanks.

My first Thanksgiving (as a Sri Lankan Brit) was celebrated in the UK with an American friend. We were at University together and it was with her husband and little girl. We have gone through many life changes together and apart across continents. Seeing her in London this Summer (spontaneously ‘arranged’ by our daughters, for their respective godmothers) was completely unexpected and all the sweeter for it. When we meet, we always look into each other’s eyes and are ever grateful for our friendship.

A beautiful and memorable Thanksgiving was spent in the home of a US friend in Brazil we felt honored that we were included in their family. Spending it in the home of friends who are sharing their family traditions and festivals is such an intimate experience. We gave thanks and appreciated the simple things, in fact we have just messaged each other and she said that she was talking about the meal with her colleagues this morning, saying that my son had given thanks for his family and her son and done the same for his skateboard – they were around 5 at the time! As I wrote, it’s the simple things. Last year I met up with my friend as she accompanied a group of generals on a ‘world tour’. We went out for dinner and relished the fact that even though we had not seen each other for 7 years we had so much to talk and laugh about. I gave her a copy of my book and she wrote to me from her tour saying that reading it ‘makes me feel like we’re still talking’.

Talking face to face with loved ones seems like a luxury now. Never again will we take it for granted. Covid throws into stark relief what we have and what we have lost. There are those who may emerge from this pandemic unscathed; there are those that have used it to reassess their lives and make changes; others may have seen it as an opportunity and still others have profited some by helping others by exploitation.

Where hugs and kisses were currency, they have been replaced by emotions expressed through words as a bridge to those we cherish. As you may have guessed I love words and annually the Oxford English Dictionary announces the word of the year. 2020, a year like no other has thrown up a plethora of words and the OED has for the first time chosen 20 words that have entered the lexicon. We are by now well-versed in words that we may never even have heard of ‘furlough’,’BLM’ ‘Superspreader’ ‘unmute’, and others such as ‘staycation’ ‘key workers’, ’R numbers’’ bubbles’  that take on different meanings. There has been a 300% increase in the word ‘remote’ and even more in the feeling of remoteness isolation loneliness.

However, the word that also comes to mind is ‘hope’ in an interview that the historian David Olusoga conducted with Barack Obama about his new book Promised Land. President Obama said ..’if we are persistent and hopeful we can make things better.. ’When I wrote to teens back in May in an article about Coronavirus, I urged them to try and curb their understandable anxiety with hope. The thought of a vaccine seemed then a long way off but things are changing.

If the word was hope then the image that is ubiquitous, at least in the UK, is the rainbow as a symbol of hope and thanks to the frontline workers and health professionals. Children would paint rainbows on stones for people to find and decorate windows with collages of a rainbow; in one English village we even saw knitted rainbows. We need to remember that a rainbow is created by both rain and sunshine.

Hope and optimism, normality and change this week’s photograph is one I took at the beginning of the second lockdown here in England, a rainbow over the sea. In our household we will be celebrating Thanksgiving, just the four of us, in a country farmhouse. The first time that we have celebrated Thanksgiving in England as a family. So give thanks, be grateful for the things and people, places and memories you hold dear, even if they seem remote. And if ‘Thank you’ is the only prayer you say this year, know that it is a powerful one.

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