Teri Orr: With a measure of …
Sunday in the park
Park Record columnist
We were in the middle of the southern hemisphere eating outdoors as the sun was setting and something very ordinary happened at the other the end of the table. It was a long table of Americans and Europeans at this point. As the dinner plates were set down, the Americans picked up their forks and immediately started eating. My new German friend, Lynn, looked at me and said: “Why do Americans always do that?” And I asked: “What? Do what?”
“Dive directly into their food without giving appreciation for the meal and each other?”
I had an instant out-of-body moment where I remembered dinners from long ago when the appreciations around my table lasted so long the food got cold.
Sometimes it was a too-long grace. Sometimes it was everyone saying what they were thankful for, or just one word to add on to the sentence that had started with a toast. Every single dinner party I had in my 20’s and 30’s and 40’s had shared gratitude before we ate. It was something I had never grown up with, so I created the family I wanted for my children and myself.
I looked back at the long table outdoors in the fading light, and at the other end, they were all eating. When the plates were set down on our end of the table, I watched as Lynn toasted us all in a few words but with great pleasure. I mean, the guy is German – he knows how to be efficient, even with a toast.
So for the rest of that trip (we split ways for the next six days and Lynn was no longer in our group) I asked everyone to express an appreciation before we ate dinner. We were mostly Americans with lapsed manners so it didn’t take long for us to get the muscles back. By the end of six days, folks were waiting when the groaning platters arrived for someone to start the toast/appreciation or, dare I say, grace. I started the first night. But by the end, everyone was eager to take a turn.
And at the end of two weeks – being so very far away from home – we had created a kind of family by some simple but consistent words of appreciation.
Once back to my actual home to my crazy, scattered, never-a-predictable-dinner life, I found I missed the moments. My “to-go” orders had no little notes attached to remind me to pause and appreciate the day.
We had a staff retreat dinner last week and – you guessed it – rather than saying grace (that might have seemed weird and probably violated some employment laws), I asked everyone to share a moment of appreciation. And you know, everyone, spouses included, did just that. It served to more than break the ice. It allowed little windows into our co-workers and their significant others. No one was at a loss to share some joy.
Because the daily/hourly/minute-by-minute news has been so filled with sadness and disgust and some new low level of meanness and lack of grace, it is difficult to understand how it ever gets better. Will there be a week again in my lifetime where nothing really happens? No “once in a lifetime” storms or earthquakes or fires? No riots or men with guns? The sad, lonely and always angry men with arsenals of weapons to protect them from what, exactly? Free speech, free love, freedom of expression, freedom?
And the Horrible Dinosaur Men (yes, they all appear to be men) behaving like primates from the White House to the Bright House. What we are looking for – what we need – is a lighthouse.
Yes, so many outdated social mores need to be leveled but in the process we have lost civility; all the Golden Rule stuff that is the touchstone each of the major religions have at their core, do unto others – not what was done to you – but what you wish could be done for you. Share the very best you have over and over again. Do not say something is “good enough” when you know better. When you can do better, be better. Trying to find common ground should be something to elevate us not, debase us.
So I have been thinking this week about all kinds of grace. That magical gift from the universe you cannot buy or manufacture or hijack with clever code on the Internet. That piece of wonder which comes unbidden, unexpected yet always timely. That priceless gift, that costs you nothing, you can give to stranger and beloved equally. Giving grace and saying grace and finding grace allows us to make the tiniest bit of sense in a world filled with graceless acts and people.
This week I’m gonna find all the beauty I can. I will start by trying very hard to avoid multiple news cycles. I will look to the fall colors and put the vibrancy of all those leaves somewhere in a mental video file to be replayed when those same trees are leafless and white. I will remember there are decent men who respect women and want to be equals in life. And when I am at any table, one filled with laughing groups of people, or one with environmentally eco-thoughtful disposable containers, and maybe where I am only one dining, I will say grace.
There are some pieces of the world I have no control over, so many wild factors assaulting us all day after day after day. To have any grace I must offer my own. Any day, any place will do, like this very Sunday in the Park.
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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