Simple Gifts

This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Part 19 (excerpt)

If there’s a holiday in the U.S. more Whitmanian in spirit than Thanksgiving, I don’t know of it. It’s the one time each year when, among other things, City friends, and others even further flung, hop planes and trains and get in cars to converge at our house for a grand feast.

It’s true, our gathering is tempered by vegetarian and British sensibilities. Nonetheless, despite yearly misgivings about the called-for menu, a turkey always ends up on the table, and the groaning board wouldn’t be out of place in an illustration by Currier and Ives. (On second thought, our chipped dinner plates don’t match, our silverware is cheap stainless steel, and our napkins are paper, so maybe not.)

The simple gift of a convivial meal is what makes Thanksgiving, for me, the best of holidays. Yet, after most guests have left and leftovers have been dispatched, nothing is more welcome than a peaceable country walk. It’s as if we make our farewells to Whitman and enter some semblance of a Dickinsonian room.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

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Listening List

On Spotify, click here for Shaker Loops by John Coolidge Adams, the traditional Shaker hymn ‘Tis the Gift to be Simple sung by Marilyn Horne, Doppio movimento (Variations on a Shaker Hymn; Simple Gifts) from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring with the LSO, conducted by Copland, and the complete Appalachian Spring with the NY Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert.

On YouTube, for Shaker Loops (I. Shaking and Trembling) by John Coolidge Adams, click here; for the remaining movements of Shaker Loops, click here, here, and here. For the traditional Shaker hymn ‘Tis the Gift to be Simple, click here. For Doppio movimento (Variations on a Shaker Hymn; Simple Gifts), from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, click here (Bernstein/NY Philharmonic) or here (Martha Graham, Simple Gifts is at 0:00-3:00).


Of Appalachian Spring, Richard Taruskin wrote:

That invented yet compelling neoprimitivist style reached its fullest development in Copland’s third Americanist ballet, Appalachian Spring (1944), composed for the eminent “modern dance” choreographer Martha Graham, in which a set of variations on the Shaker hymn ‘“Tis the Gift to Be Simple” became something of an emblem for Copland’s uncomplicated yet technically sophisticated manner.

(Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Music in the Early Twentieth Century, p. 666)

Of Shaker Loops, John Adams wrote:

Shaker Loops is a multi-faceted title. “Shake” in string-player parlance means to move the bow rapidly across the string, thus causing a tremolo, or fast buzzing sound. But “shake” also conjures images of the Shaker sect, and particularly the shaking and trembling that accompanied their legendary sacred services. From the front window of our home in New Hampshire I could see Shaker Road, which led several miles up through the woods to a Shaker colony in the nearby tiny village of Canterbury. As a child I’d heard stories, probably exaggerated, of the “shaking” ceremonies. . . . the image of their shaking dance caught my attention. The idea of reaching a similar state of ecstatic revelation through music was certainly in my mind as I composed Shaker Loops.

(John Adams, Hallelujah Junction, Composing an American Life, pp. 91-92)


Credits: The quotation from Whitman can be found here, that from Emily Dickinson here, that from Richard Taruskin here, and that from John Adams here.

33 thoughts on “Simple Gifts

  1. peculiaritiesandreticences

    I agree with you about the Whitmanism of Thanksgiving.

    I have to say, it was a weird experience having the Thanksgiving get-together extended indefinitely by my father-in-law’s death. He died Friday morning as we were going through security at the airport to join the family in Florida. (There really were no plans for Thanksgiving- no sense defrosting a turkey and cooking a huge meal only to get the call to hurry to Florida. ) We just got home a few hours ago.

    1. George Mattingly

      My father died on Thanksgiving day 5 years ago. I heard the news (on the west coast) via a phone call from one of my brothers — just as I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with my family, including my 96-year-old father-in-law, who died 4 months later at 97. It’s definitely colored my feelings around the Thanksgiving holiday.

      1. peculiaritiesandreticences

        I don’t know, at least from this experience. Certainly I’ve seen that in my clinical work. We’ll see how my wife is doing next Thanksgiving. For me, Don’s death was such a beautiful experience, a release from pain, and a celebration of his life that I didn’t feel the pall that you might expect. How bad can you feel when you are singing “I’m A Little Teapot” at the top of your lungs with 40 other people in a restaurant? (watch for that one on Youtube).

          1. peculiaritiesandreticences

            That’s my brother-in-law’s department. Once I hear he put it up, I will post a link.

            I could think of no more fitting tribute. Don was famous for goofy stuff like that. Him doing “Love Shack” is already on Youtube, though I don’t know the address and apparently it’s not searchable.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Rubye Jack: I love Wilde’s ability to come up with clever quips like this–and this is a new one for me, so thanks. I’m not so sure this one stands up if examined closely . . . but who cares?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Well, then, I have to say we’re a mutual admiration society. (Your wild ride essay on O’Hara’s Why I Am Not A Painter, just for starters.)

  2. Scott

    In your wonderful way, you have given so much with this simple gift. I have spent considerable time here soaking in the peace. I always wanted to relate to folks like Whitman and Dickens. American, intelligent, kind of out there. I always had trouble trying to understand what the hell they were talking about. Here you come, as a interpreter of sorts, caressing revery and hunger. If only I could move like Martha Graham.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Scott: Ah, if only we could ALL move like Martha Graham! (I wanted to put that video right on the site, but embedding was disabled.) As for relating to folks like Whitman and Dickinson, me too. They are both definitely “out there”! The online poetry class I took with Mark Kerstetter (& 36,000-odd others) was what opened the window to them for me. Really fun.

  3. David

    Simpicity is such a difficult thing, paradoxically, isn’t it? I just don’t ‘get’ Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which I know is my loss, and battling through to accept Vaughan Williams’s simpler stuff, I know it can work – but how hard to reach.

    Love the red/russet barn and the blue, blue skies.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Oh, how right you are about simplicity. Perhaps the hardest thing to come by of all things! As for Copland, for me I’d say it’s just sort of ingrained, like a childhood song that makes for comfortable company from time to time. Now as for Vaughan Williams, my playlist of works you’ve noted ever groweth, with many thanks. I had no idea how rich and strange he could be. (The opening of Flos Campi! Wow!)

  4. friko

    So that’s where you live. Apart from the red barn and the slightly wider open spaces it could be Shropshire.

    Your festivities sound delightful, I would have loved to be part of a civilised Thanksgiving feast; music, poetry, books, convivial company and comfortable conversations, all rounded off with a bracing walk, might seem simple, but it is a truly worthwhile gift.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      That’s one of our favorite walking places–though, unlike where you are, we have to get in a car and drive to all our walks, nothing at all like the beautiful ones you have right out your door. Still, it’s always worth the 30 minutes, and so varied the year round. Perhaps one day we’ll walk it together!

  5. Mark Kerstetter

    I love Thanksgiving too – and ‘Appalachian Spring’! (been listening to some of the Adams music on your lists too, beginning to absorb it). When you isolate some of Whitman’s statements, he seems almost Christ-like. I don’t mean that in the religious sense, but in the sense of how Christ was as a man.

    I recall when Filreis said in one of the first videos, concerning Whitman and Dickinson: we don’t have to choose. It’s beautiful having them both.

    The only think I dislike about Thanksgiving is it’s followed by Black Friday. It’s still November by my calendar and already I’ve been bludgeoned by Christmas. You won’t see me celebrating that holiday.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Whitman is definitely a loaves and fishes sort of guy, isn’t he? As for what’s happened to the December holiday season over here, eight years ago today, Samantha Bee summed it up on The Daily Show here. (Of course, the great irony is that, the first time you go to watch it, you’re made to suffer through ads! Thank goodness for the mute button!)

  6. shoreacres

    ‘Tis The Gift to be Simple” is so dear to me. I’ve always thought it sad that “simpleton” carried such negative connotations when applied to people. There are truly stupid people in the world, but simplicity of spirit is quite a different thing, and to be cherished whenever we come across it.

    Given my own simple tastes, one of my favorite videos is a pairing of Ansel Adams’ landscapes with “Appalachian Spring”. It never fails to cheer me – like a good dinner with friends, or a bad dinner with good friends, or a simple walk in the countryside. Such a lovely post, and so many links to enjoy! I’m anxious to do so!

  7. Anil

    The simple gift of a convivial meal is what makes Thanksgiving, for me, the best of holidays. is the key, an abiding allure, a reason to look forward to the day.

    Togetherness, shared make the landscape that much more enticing to the eye.

    Such beautiful pictures.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Anil: So pleased you enjoyed the photos! Your post, “Uttarayan Time On Ahmedabad Streets,” with its wonderful photographs of this festival, celebrated with a day of kite-flying, is another terrific example of what you write here.

  8. Hilary

    Hi Susan .. absolutely the simple gifts of home cooked food, good company, no rushing around … yet a decent walk to start, middle or complete the day … or in our case probably two of those.

    Sounds wonderful – great fun and I can just encompass myself in those thoughts … cheers Hilary

  9. Steve Schwartzman

    Thanks for the Emily Dickinson poem, which I hadn’t seen before. I share the feeling about revery, but the native species sympathizer in me is less sanguine. Only when I was in my fifties did I find out that the clover I grew up with on Long Island and that’s common in everyone’s lawns there is an invasive European species (as is the equally common dandelion whose seeds children delight in blowing). I learned that when I’d already lived in Texas for a couple of decades, around the same time I became aware that the enormous prairies that once covered large parts of the middle of the continent are now down to less than 1% of their historical range in anything even close to their original form, the rest having been destroyed through plowing, ranching, and development.

    But the theme of your post is Thanksgiving, so I’ll give thanks for even the small remnants of prairie I’ve managed to walk on and revel in. I live on the Texas Hill Country side of Austin, but inevitably the urge arises to feel the prairie again, and so I drive to the other side of town, where some pieces of prairie yet remain and welcome the walker.

    Thanks also for the slide show of your late autumnal Northeast, now an almost wintery land. Your picture of curling milkweed pods made me wonder if anyone has ever used them as makeshift Christmas tree ornaments.

      1. Steve Schwartzman

        Thanks for the confirmation. In the same way that some people use wads of cotton to represent snow, I can imagine decorating a Christmas tree with milkweed pods that still have seed fluff attached, but I’m afraid the season for milkweed fluff and the season for Christmas will forever be out of alignment.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I didn’t know, but am not surprised to learn about clover as an introduced plant. As for the milkweed, I went back to look at your site and was reminded of your beautiful photograph of common milkweed in another season here.

  10. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    such a lovely walk in the country! So well depicted in a dia-show – the moving takes us with you. much more than a photograph.
    Thanksgiving is a beautiful feast in America. I am not a vegetarian – I love turkeys on the table, and cranberries and apple sauce – but even more it must be delighting to have so many people you love (or even, as Walt says: “All!”) around your table. Thank you!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: Ah, cranberries and apple sauce (we had a variation on the theme: braised red cabbage and apples). In a way, it’s really all about the side dishes (the food, that is), and most of all about the company around the table, isn’t it? Yes, “All,” I raise a toast to that!

  11. wanderer

    I didn’t really understand or appreciate Thanksgiving, how could I, till I went to Plymouth and stood there chilled staring at the graves of those who didn’t survive. It is the one, if not the only, great feasts – no religion, no politics, no xenophobia – just thanks. Such an elegant post.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: So pleased you enjoyed the post! I am very much looking forward to reading the posts of your walk. The poems with which you returned are a wonderful starting point!

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