John Birge on gratitude

by John Birge, Minnesota Public Radio
November 27, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Gratitude. It's the signature of every Giving Thanks. I love Thanksgiving because it's universal. No matter what your religion — even if you have no religion — you still have this spiritual desire to give thanks, to feel gratitude for the gifts in life that you didn't earn, but were given to you.

That idea is highlighted by two of my Thanksgiving guests: Anne Lamott and Julia Sweeney. Julia Sweeney talks about Thanksgiving and gratitude in the context her one-woman show, Letting Go of God, about how she became an atheist. Anne Lamott's recent book is Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.

You'll hear two smart, funny, wise women with very different backgrounds: Lamott is a devout Christian who has made her faith something really integral in her life; Sweeney rejected her faith to became an atheist. Yet when they talk about Thanksgiving and gratitude, they both arrive at the same spiritual destination. That illuminates the wonderful quality of Thanksgiving: Everyone has something to be thankful for, it's universal.

Don't forget that Giving Thanks is mainly a music show. There's a lot of Bach this year — partly by accident, partly by coincidence and then partly by design. When Julia Sweeney described gratitude as a cosmic force, it reminded me of pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who equates playing Bach with looking up at the cosmos, feeling absorbed in its enormity and infinity. So Dinnerstein talks about that, and plays Bach. Albert Schweitzer was not only a Nobel prize-winning humanitarian but also a Bach scholar and organist. He wrote widely about gratitude; you'll hear some of his writing about gratitude and his Bach.

New music by Maria Schneider is a set of songs based on by poems by Ted Kooser called "Winter Morning Walks." Several years ago, I had Ted Kooser on the show and he talked about those poems, which he started writing when he was recovering from cancer. They were part of his process of finding gratitude in that healing. Dawn Upshaw recorded Maria Schneider's musical settings of the poems, so after hearing Ted Kooser talk about how his poems came to be, we hear these gorgeous sung versions of those poems.

If you spend time working on a program like this, certain things tend to gather together — no pun intended. Doing this show is always a labor of love, and it always takes me to a place of feeling gratitude, too. It's my Thanksgiving soul food.

Giving Thanks with John Birge airs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 27, and again on Thanksgiving Day at 10 a.m., on Classical Minnesota Public Radio.

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