Danny Heitman’s “At Random”: On holiday, give thanks for life itself _lowres

Kindergartner Riley Rushing nibbles on a rice and marshmallow treat made in the shape of a turkey drumstick as she and her classmates dress as Pilgrims and Indians to celebrate Thanksgiving in their classroom in Soldier Creek Elementary School in Midwest City, Okla., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2015. (Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman/via AP)

If Thanksgiving is America’s culinary Super Bowl — an event hyped for days, then unfolded as an annual spectacle — it seems that those of us who live in south Louisiana must rank as national champs.

We are, after all, perhaps better than other Americans at the art of the feast — the meal so mythically grand that no one could possibly ignore it. Eating large is what we do here.

Given the scale of the dinner we’ll devour on Thursday, gratitude should come easily as we carve the bird, slice the pie, make two or three passes by the stuffing and cranberries. Who can see such a spread and not be grateful?

But as another Thanksgiving arrives, I’ve been thinking about those other, smaller, more ordinary meals of the year. I wonder whether I’m properly thankful for the unassuming plate of pasta served up on an uneventful Monday night, the quick sandwich consumed on an April evening because no one wants to cook.

All of this came to mind last week when a copy of Donald Hall’s new “Selected Poems” crossed my desk. Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, lives alone now on the ancestral New Hampshire farm he once shared with wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia in 1995.

Hall is 87, and “Selected Poems,” which gathers his best stuff from a long career, includes a poem called “Summer Kitchen.” It’s about watching his wife cook dinner — nothing spectacular, apparently, just one of many meals families improvise each day to get from one week to the next.

Not much happens in the poem, either. A woman crushes garlic to season the sauce, samples it with her fingertips, beckons her husband to light the candle on the dinner table.

“We ate, and talked, and went to bed, / And slept,” Hall recalls. “It was a miracle.”

The poem is written in retrospect, of course, and it’s only in looking back that Hall deeply sees how meaningful the meal was. Such simple moments, beaded together in a long strand of years, now shimmer as the real prize of his marriage.

A similar sentiment informs another new book, “Gratitude,” which collects the newspaper essays that neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote after he learned he was dying of cancer. It’s a book defined by celebration, not sadness.

“My predominant feeling is one of gratitude,” Sacks wrote. “I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and an adventure.”

This month’s headlines have brought startling reminders of how precious and fleeting life can be. All the more reason to give thanks on Thursday for the most precious gift of all.

It is, of course, life itself.

Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.