In November 1988, I spent Thanksgiving in Borneo as a volunteer with the Earthwatch Orangutan Project at Camp Leakey in the middle of the rainforest.  Just to help you locate me, Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world floating in the center between Singapore, Jakarta, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.  Thanksgiving Day was November 24 that year, almost mid point in my 3-week stay at Camp Leakey.

          By then I had learned what it meant to sweat through every pore in my entire body.  My clothes were all tie-dyed from being washed in a pail by the river with others.  No sorting of darks from lights in this wash-by-loving hands laundry with the indigenous Dayak women on the dock.  Mildew was setting in.  We reeked of DEET to ward off battalions of mosquitoes and other bugs without names.  The black water river with “harmless” crocodiles was our bathtub.

          There are some things about this Thanksgiving I remember very clearly.  That morning we walked in the rainforest.  Just before the next torrential downpour, it grew intensely hot and still.  Then there is the rustle of wind in the treetop canopy followed by a drop in the air temperature.  After that it is as though someone is personally pouring buckets on top of you until you are soaked through and through.  We trudged along in the sopping mess.  The birds were still singing and the drone of the bugs remained like a solid mass we were penetrating as we walked. 

          And, suddenly I had a huge awareness.  “I felt, my body felt so alive!”  The entire surface of my skin, every hair and every sense including all the sensors in my brain were in contact and engaged with my world of this rainforest path right now.  I remember thinking, “I can hardly believe it.  This is my Thanksgiving and I feel so utterly alive.”

          When we returned to camp, we were sitting in the guest cottage and Birute Galdikas was giving us a “college talk” about the plants and trees in the rainforest and also about the orangutans who were the subject of her long term primate research in the wild.  My clothes were still damp.  The intense heat had returned.  I was doing my best to take notes but my fingers were stuck to my pen from the fresh pineapple spears we ate. 

          Three orangutans, the amazing redheads of the primate world, were hanging on the screens observing us while brushing their teeth in perfect imitation with toothbrushes they had snatched while we weren’t looking.  Again, I thought.  “It is Thanksgiving.  I can hardly believe this and yet I feel so alive, so awake.”

          Later in reflecting on this experience, I had awareness that my world at home derives a lot of security from our comfort.  The room thermometer in my home and in my car when I go out allows me to keep the temperature in a narrow range of comfort.  It’s tempting with the holidays to place ourselves in the cocoon of the familiar where we feel comfortable ~ to be with people we already know and eat foods that are both traditional and ones we already like.

          I thought to myself,  “I’ve traded my aliveness for comfort and the idea of security.”  I also noticed that when I feel that peak of aliveness, I am filled naturally with the deep feelings of gratitude and thankfulness for life.  To me, it seemed that my question was answered. What can happen in Borneo at Thanksgiving?  I can have the experience of being totally alive and filled with gratefulness.

          I was 45 years then and one of my favorite volunteers with me was 80.  This Thanksgiving I am 71 years and reflecting on the possibility that to feel the fullness of the holidays may actually require us to shake it up a bit:  makes some changes, do something quite different, make some new choices, touch the lives of new people, go out in nature. 

          When we complain and find ourselves unhappy, sometimes we are bored and our heart and soul is actually longing for something new.  We don’t have to go to the other side of the world, perhaps just move out the familiar to truly be filled to the brim with the rich experience of Thanksgiving.

May you have a rich holiday wherever you are.
Carole Peccorini
Conversations That Matter

P.S.  Something that might delight you as it does me ~  I fell in love with those redhead orangutans with their hair sticking up on top.  They grabbed my shampoo and from watching they knew just how to lather their hair.  Also, I learned later at the San Diego Zoo when they completed the new outdoor natural enclosure for the orangutans, these most curious creatures had watched the construction project with great interest.  The first night in their new home they escaped having watched every screw and how to unscrew it.  They are called the mechanics and construction engineers of the rainforest for a reason!  Orang means person in the indigenous language and utan means forest ~ so they are the persons of the forest ~ with a knack for tools and imitation.

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