Thanksgiving thoughts from an incident on the Spanish border
I wanted to write a Thanksgiving note to some of my American friends, something that wasn’t just platitudes and clichés.
I looked at what I’d said last year this time, for comparison, and it was all about what had just happened in Paris, what the media was calling France’s 9/11. My son called, and friends, to see if I was alive, because I was supposed to be in Paris, but had decided last minute not to go.
Have you ever wondered how you’d react if you were caught in unexpected violence?
Paris on Friday the 13th, enjoying a glass of wine in a café, perhaps your first trip to the City of Love, and suddenly there is gunfire, mayhem, blood and bodies. Or Brussels airport, dozing over your knapsack, and a bomb goes off?
Or you’re on a sleek high-speed train, dozily reflecting, as Le Pas de Calais flashes by, on the WWI legend of the angels of Mons coming to the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force amongst the coal slagheaps on a hot August night in 1914. And this reverie is interrupted by a top-naked man emerging from the toilet, sporting a white taqiyah, waving a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Where are those angels when you really need them?
In the Thalys train incident, the “angels” were a couple of military men who charged at and subdued the terrorist, along with their buddy, a Brit, and a French man. Thank you, fellas!
But we’re not all soldiers on leave. I’d wager that for most of us the sight of a real AK assault rifle, or anything like it, would be paralyzing.
I travel a lot on trains in Europe, and have been in small situations here and there. The Gare du Nord in Paris when it was evacuated for a suspicious suitcase abandoned on a platform, that did turn out to be a bomb. A train out of Avignon that was pulled to a remote siding because there had been a bomb threat and we were all taken off while dogs and stony-faced militia searched in and under the carriages.
But a couple of weeks ago it got a little more personal. I was travelling from central Spain to my home in Antibes, France, on a regional train. We were stopped at a station on the border while the train-gauge-switch-thing happened (pardon my technical jargon) so that the train could carry on to the French tracks. I was gazing out of the window, enjoying as always the bygone-era architecture of the station, when another train pulled in and suddenly there were explosions on the track. Flash boom and the night bright yellow, dark figures with weapons running crouched on the platform, machinegun fire. Movie stuff, but the smell was real.
We were told (I think) to stay on the train (in Spanish). It was all quite surreal, and I’m still not really sure what happened. Guys ran into our carriage. They looked like nasty perps but it would seem, since we’re all still alive, that they were on the side of good. They grabbed a couple of gym bags off the luggage rack and ran out again.
And after a while the train jerked and we went on our way, leaving a blaze of emergency lights and sirens behind, not much commentary from white-faced staff.
If I thought at all, I thought, this is it. I’m going to be one of those Fox News statistics. Maybe even CNN. And I thought about the fact that no one in the world knew where I was. Pretty inconvenient.
But later, past the first half hour, clattering along the French tracks, I was reevaluating things.
One is, I’m not sure I like how calm I felt. I don’t think it was a “Christian ready to face death” admirable calm. It should have been, but I suspect the greater reason was I just thought, “Good, I can be done with this lousy life. My will is in order. Heaven waits. No more pain. No more disability. No more loneliness. Bring it on.”
Not very noble.
With the delays (there’s a lot more to the incident sketched out here) I finally arrived home at two in the morning. Staring at me when I entered my little courtyard was the skeleton of my little olive tree, that had succumbed to neglect with my long absence. Now that was depressing. Olive trees are supposed to be the great symbol of enduring life, against all odds, all hardships. A dear friend, Jesse, had sent these words with the gift of such a small tree: “The truth of the olivier is in the grain of the wood. Whether it lives or dies, the grain shows all the twists and contortions of the years it has lived through.”
He was referring to the fact that I’m a well-known plant murderer. But perhaps also to the premonition of his impending death.
So when I picked up my dead olive tree, it shook me out of that kind of “Well, okay” dull state I’d been in since the Spanish border. It seemed so wicked not to want to fight for life when so many, my friends, your friends, dear ones, and strangers with their own dear ones left behind, have already died.
Life. Choose life. That has to be the greatest gratitude one can offer on Thanksgiving. Whatever the circumstances, whatever, choose life.
I decided I ought to make the dead wood of my little olivier into a tree of life.
I photographed it on the ramparts on a freezing sunrise.
Now it’s inside, in my kitchen, with lights in the bare branches. My Thanksgiving to Christmas tree.
Choose life. But only God can make dead things live. Only he can give meaning to all these strange exigencies of life.
Maybe what I want to say on this Thanksgiving is, we don’t know, why someone is shot in Paris and someone lives, why some of us are more marked than others with a twisted grain, from things we’d rather not have experienced, or lost. We surely do know for certain that there is nowhere certain in this world, not one more breath in our body. But we can know that someone who knows everything has been that way before us, and he wants to show us his way.
Jesus said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16.33
Perhaps most of all we need, if we are to be thankful for anything in this world, to know that there is someone who has overcome the world, someone totally trustworthy. Because one day, one moment when we’re least expecting it, it will be for real. Our last moment in this life. Here’s a promise for which we can give all thanksgiving:
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21
Zut alors! Now that’s for real.
Ask. Think. Pray. Give thanks for life. And for those who care that you live. Now, and always. Thank God.
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Psalm 107:1