Category Archives: Books

The Art of Thanksgiving

The Art of Thanksgiving Traditions

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The Art of Thanksgiving

“The art of thanksgiving is thanksliving. It is gratitude in action. It is applying Albert Schwietzer’s philosophy: “In gratitude for your own good fortune, you must render in return some sacrifice of your life for other life.” – Wilferd A. Peterson, The Art of Thanksgiving

This year on Thanksgiving, as family and friends gather around our dining table, we’ll continue a tradition started two years ago, even if we never actually finished it when we started it. I’ll explain. Early in the meal, after the antipasto — our only Italian contribution to the otherwise American meal — and before the turkey, green bean casserole and other classic dishes, we will read Wilferd A. Peterson’s essay, “The Art of Thanksgiving.” It comes from an anthology of Peterson’s essays on the art of a number of things — travelling, laughter, thinking, friendship, leadership, etc. — that were originally published in This Week Magazine in the late 50s and early 60s. The Art of Living includes an introduction by This Week Magazine editor and publisher William I. Nichols that notes that the magazine, and Peterson’s essays, regularly reached 14 million families each week. “Never has a feature drawn such warm and instant response,” writes Nichols. It’s not surprising. The essays are an instant source of wisdom and inspiration. They certainly inspired me two years ago, 55 years after they were published, when I decided to take my thrift store copy off the shelf to use like an invocation before the Thanksgiving meal.

We had a full house that holiday. With the table leaf installed, some guests were practically in the living room, while other were stuck at the corners. Everything was as I liked it. I stood up to begin the reading.

“The art of thanksgiving is thanksliving,” I declared. “It is gratitude in action.” I looked up to gauge the attention of the audience. My mother, at the other end of the table, had her head on her plate. She was passed out. “Uh, Joe,” my friend Robert said, who was seated next to her. There were gasps. My first frightening thought was that my mother had died right there at the table. On Thanksgiving. But I put the book down and with Robert’s help quickly revived her and got her to the couch while someone else dialed 911.

Once the initial shock wore off, I wasn’t entirely worried. My mother and I had been sparring for the last week or so about her taking her medication, and I was certain that making her take her medication that morning when I brought her to my house, coupled with the late start of the meal (we always start eating two hours after we say we’re going to) was a bad combination.

The first responders were from our local fire house. They checked her vitals and recommended she be taken to the hospital. I followed in the car. Thanksgiving continued without me; my wife now managing the hosting duties on her own. I’m told someone continued reading “The Art of Thanksgiving” after I left, but I don’t believe it. I can’t imagine anyone waiting any longer to eat.

My mother was fine, but still wound up staying in the hospital through the entire holiday weekend. When I called her senior facility to tell them she was in the hospital, they informed me that they wouldn’t accept her release back to the facility unless she had a psychological evaluation. She had been acting out lately, they said, lashing out at staff and other residents and making false accusations. It seemed she hadn’t been taking her medication for longer than I realized. This also explained why when my wife, Keri, told her to take meds she said, “YOU take the pills, you ugly fuck.”

We were in a bind. I knew with the holiday weekend, it might be awhile before we could get the evaluation, but I also knew that my mother was very good at manipulating these kinds of situations. She’d likely pass the evaluation, be released, but continue to refuse to take her medication. The situation would get worse. At least I knew that in the hospital, if administered by a doctor, she’d agree to the take the meds. At some point, though, she was going to have to be discharged. What then?

I thought of Wilferd A. Peterson and “The Art of Thanksgiving.”

No, I didn’t. That wouldn’t make any sense. If you recall, I never actually finished it. My mother passed out after the second sentence. But if I did think of him, this would have been the ideal part of this essay to mention it.

I didn’t think of anything, really, except getting my mother out of the hospital and back on her medication. And maybe if my pumpkin pie had turned out alright. No one had mentioned it to me.

By Monday, after enlisting the support of the hospital doctors and nurses, my mother’s psychologist and the head nurse at the senior facility, my mother was released. She would no longer have any control over her own medication. It would be administered to her, regardless of her displeasure at having a nurse knock on her door every morning. It was the only way they’d agree to have her back. And the only way I could be certain she was getting the treatment she needed. She’d also have to agree to not lash out at anyone anymore. I knew with dementia and a mood disorder, her word was not her bond, but it was worth a shot. The pumpkin pie turned out alright, too, so I made another one so my mother could enjoy it the following weekend.

By the summer of 2017, a bit more than six months after the Thanksgiving event, and more than ten years of living with me in Nashville, my sister and I arranged to move my mother back to New Jersey to a facility better suited to her needs.That next Thanksgiving, I read through all of “The Art of Thanksgiving” without incident. We considered reenacting the scene from the previous year, with someone playing the role of my mother and others playing the firemen, just to make it interesting. We imagined that the event would eventually become a bit of weird folklore in our family, and that years from now, after my wife and I are long gone, our daughters would host these crazy Thanksgiving dinners with their families and friends that involved elaborate play acting and fire fighter costumes. The story, of course, would become more ridiculous and fantastical over time, until no one remembered what it represented anymore. All that would be left is laughter.

Wilferd A. Peterson’s essay, “The Art of Laughter,” would be the perfect accompaniment. “Meet the challenge of life with the art of laughter,” he wrote.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Only Poem

The Only Poem on My Wall Was a Leonard Cohen Poem

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The Only Poem

In a second floor apartment in a non-descript building on a street in the Heights section of Jersey City, on a wall likely hidden under coats of paint, is “The Only Poem” by Leonard Cohen. That is its title. “The Only Poem.” I know it’s there—unless, of course, the building has been knocked down or gutted—because I painted it. It was big, maybe three feet wide and five feet tall. I painted it with a small watercolor paintbrush and blue wall paint, starting at about 2 a.m. and finishing about 6 a.m.

It was the mid-nineties, I was in my mid-twenties, and that apartment was the first place I rented on my own. The rent was $450 a month. On the night I painted the poem, I was months into a serious bout of depression, deeper than I had ever experienced before. It was the kind of depression that we know well today. At work, and out socially with friends, I could be jovial and positive. No one would suspect I had depression. But alone, I struggled deeply. Unable to get myself out of bed, I saw no future for myself. I was overwhelmed by hopelessness and fear, and calmed only by the thought that no longer being alive might be the only way to make the pain go away. On the night I painted the poem, the depression had seized me like never before. I started to consider how I might acquire a gun. I wondered what pills might be best. I worried about who might find me and what might happen to my cats.

I don’t know what moved in me, but in the middle of that night, I grabbed my copy of Leonard’s song and poetry collection, Stranger Music. I flipped through looking for something, anything, to tide me over and get me through the night. And there it was. “The Only Poem.”

This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it
I didn’t kill myself
when things went wrong
I didn’t turn
to drugs or teaching
I tried to sleep
but when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me

The poem spoke directly to me. Leonard had maybe been in the same exact place, and this was his letter to those who would follow him to that place. He learned to write, what might be read, on nights like this, by one like him. I needed that poem with me all the time. Every night. So I  got up, found a small brush, and opened up one of the cans of paint I had used to paint the apartment doors and trim. It was painstakingly slow with the small brush. It took me all through the night and into the morning. And when it was finished, it was crooked and the lines weren’t exactly written in the way Leonard has intended. But it was there, in the sunlight coming through the blinds. For hours, I was not hopeless. I did not think about ending my life. I thought about the poem, and I thought about writing.

Of course, you cannot write yourself out of serious clinical depression. That requires professional help and often medication. And with a reprieve, I soon took steps to find a doctor who diagnosed me and got me the help I needed. The depression would return, in cycles in the years ahead, and fortunately, I always knew when I could no longer keep it at bay and needed to seek help.

But that poem certainly helped. It’s not hyperbole to say it saved my life. I’m thankful to it to this day. And thankful to Leonard, who’s since never been that far from me. I have a tattoo of the cover of his album, The Future, on my arm—a hummingbird lifting a heart free from its binds. And for a decade I carried in my wallet a copy of a passage from his book, Beautiful Losers, about what it means to be a saint. I only stopped carrying it because it disintegrated from being taken out and put back and read so much.

I have a photograph of the painting of the poem, and last night, after hearing of Leonard’s death, I sent it my dear friend of 30 years, Kevin, who moved into that apartment after I moved out. He decided to keep the poem up for awhile, even if it was a little weird to his guests. It was certainly a conversation piece. It was he who mentioned that it might still be there, under many coats of paint. His exact words were that, “The Poem still lives under coats of paint.” Lives. I liked that and suggested it was poetic all on its own.

There’s an oft quoted lyric from Leonard’s song, “Anthem,” from the album, The Future: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” He might be right. Maybe there’s a poem behind everything, too.

I’ll miss knowing Leonard walks among us. But I know he’s still here.

George Wesley Bellows - Portrait of Anne

The Art That Whispers from the Alleyway – From Nashville Arts

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George Wesley Bellows - Portrait of Anne
George Wesley Bellows – Portrait of Anne – High Museum of Art

At Nashville Arts Magazine online, a I’ve written a new essay inspired by Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Goldfinch about the art that speaks to us, and what that has to do with our relationships with our fathers. Read it here.

bookshelf

Who Wants to Read About Broken Arms? A Literary Tribute to My Mother

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bookshelf

A few years ago, on the 50th Anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I decided to reread the novel for the first time since high school. Being a classic novel that I was certain even my mother had read, I suggested we read it together in some kind of mother/son book club. Within a week, my mother gave it up. “Too depressing,” she said. “ Who wants to read about broken arms?”

She clearly hadn’t gotten very far.

A curious result of my mother’s early onset dementia is an aversion to anything even remotely depressing. She doesn’t remember having estate arguments with her family after her stepmother died or getting divorced from my father. She doesn’t remember struggling and working two and three jobs at a time to make ends meet and live on her own. And she doesn’t remember getting sick herself and going on disability after years of helping the aged and bedridden as a visiting homemaker. I had given her a Billy Crystal book years before the birth of the mother/son book club, and she seemed to like that. So perhaps I should have chosen something lighter for our inaugural read.

My thinking behind the book club was two-fold. One, reread the book, and two, bond with my mother over something I’ve given her the bulk of the credit for in my life: my love of books. I thought sharing in something she instilled in me would give us a new way to navigate what was surely going to be rocky terrain as her dementia progressed.

From my earliest days being dropped off at the Zabriskie Street branch of the Jersey City public library, I have found a comfort in books. I like to be around them. To always be reading them. I carry one with me just in case I have a moment to read it, even on busy days when I know I won’t have the opportunity. And for this I credit my mother.

She was the one who dropped me off at the library. In between screenings of Disney’s The Jungle Book and arts and crafts classes where we made kazoos out of toilet paper rolls, I read books, and took stacks of them home with me, each stamped with the date they needed to be returned, and each with a corresponding card that now had a record of the fact that I, Joe Pagetta, had turned its pages. When the Scholastic Books Catalog came out, my mother encouraged me to choose copies of The Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island to add to my own collection. One Christmas, she didn’t hesitate when I eschewed GI Joes and Masters of the Universe characters and told her all I wanted was to go up to Garden State News on Central Ave and pick up copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Robinson Crusoe and whatever else my personal library was lacking.

That I can’t share with my mother my passion for something she is partly responsible for is sometimes difficult, a vivid reminder of her disease. When my wife Keri and I moved into our new house, we invited my mother to come over and see what we had done with the place. The new office/library was crammed with books, overflowing in front of and on top of the insufficient number of bookcases we had decided to move.

“Joey and his books,” my mother said. “He’s always had a lot of books. Why do you need all these books?”

“It’s my personal library,” I assured her. “And you’re the one that’s responsible for it.”

I reminded her about Zabriskie Street, and Garden State News. And while she remembered the library, she didn’t immediately make the connection as to what they had to do with all the books in my house. I think she even said something like, “yeah, you’re supposed to bring them back,” but that could have easily been my wife ribbing me as well.

And then I had an idea. I pulled down my old paperback copies of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelf, and showed her the inside of the covers. There, in black rubber stamp ink, sans serif font, was my full name and the street address where I grew up; where we once lived as a family.

I think that’s when it hit her. I had some of these books for over 30 years. I still had those books she bought me at Garden State News. When I was building my personal library, and stacking them in the cabinet in the furnace room in the basement of the house where I was raised, I figured a proper library needed a library stamp. So I had one made. I didn’t know about bookplates and the various other professional ways to mark books, so I got a basic return address rubber stamp, and stamped the inside covers of all my books.

There have been times when I’ve moved in the last two decades and wondered why I lugged around all these books. Why, even after dropping off boxes of books at the library and Goodwill, there were still some books I couldn’t part with. What value is there in some generic Penguin paperback version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or James Joyce’s Dubliners? And why, when browsing a used bookstore, did I get excited about a pristine paperback copy of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, an exact copy of the one I had as a kid. I always thought it was because at some point my son or daughter, or grandson or granddaughter, might come home from school and tell me they were reading Rousseau or Plato or Nietzsche, and I could say, “Oh, I have that right here.” Or maybe they were embarking on Joyce or Hemingway or Fitzgerald and I could tag along. I still think those are valid justifications, even in a digital world. But I think there are other reasons now, too. Reasons that didn’t exist even a decade ago.

My mother and I may never read a book together again, and thinking back, I’m not certain we ever really did. But she’s with me in every volume I pull off the shelf in my personal library — whether in the rubber stamp on the inside cover, in the fond memory of her letting me pick whatever I wanted in the bookstore, or in her voice every time I bring her over my house for lunch and she wonders why I have all these books.