Tisquanto, Mrs. Shay, Sara Mardini, and the ‘original virtue’ of Thanksgiving

What would Tisquanto, the author of our holiday called Thanksgiving, think of our ritual today? Or asked differently, how might his act of ‘Original Virtue’ be viewed and understood through the optics of our current ‘Original Sin’ warfare? So much has evolved since that very first Day of Thanks that Tisquanto organized precisely 400 years ago.

Onward is the journey
Photo: Charles Judson

It’s a good question to ponder at this time of year: What would Tisquanto think of our ritual called Thanksgiving? Or “Squanto” as Mrs. Shay introduced him to us as first graders at Castle Rock Elementary in 1961. So much has evolved since that very first Day of Thanks that he organized precisely 400 years ago.

Thanksgiving is a holiday for family, of course. As such, it’s also a time for reconciliation, for reflection on life’s journeys, for remembrance of those loved ones with whom we no longer walk together on this Earth. It’s a time to climb Sonoma County’s Bald Mountain Trail with Nephew The Younger and his Love, while listening to Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Old tales, hurts and joys become part of the new canon. It’s a canon of traditions. It’s a time when even a sports idiot as clueless as This Reporter will shamelessly gloat over Cal’s 41 to 11 blowout, wipeout, maximal crush of Stanford last Saturday. On this day, no strong feminist leader, not even globetrotting Alpha Sister, will be denied a central role and place in the kitchen as the meal is made. Enduring questions abound about cranberries.

Among the “Zoomies,” The Scholar in Istanbul will Zoom in with Erasmus news, and fan the flames of robust family debate over the comparative virtues of her going to Berlin vs. Paris next year. I’m for Berlin, but informal surveys as of this writing indicate I’m losing ground fast. 

Thus family focuses the mind on Tisquanto. But his works and spirit are particularly inspiring in this moment when there’s such a scramble to unearth Original Sin.

It’s a zeitgeisty kind of thing, whether the search is done by Nicole at the 1619 Project, or by Alexandria in and around the Bronx, Queens, and Rikers Island. Hunts for Original Sin come in sacred or secular varieties. They are revealed in places like the Gettysburg Address or the six categories of the annual Nobel prize awards. Sometimes, the hunts unfold in places like Salem or Hollywood or Kenosha. And — without implying any equivalence — the Hunts for Original Sin have common attributes even when waged by searchers beyond the pale, such as those by the two gun-toting MAGA loons, Marjorie from Georgia and Lauren from Colorado. (Full bias disclosure: The 1619 Project was the best journalism since Guttenberg invented moveable type.) 

But Original Sin is not the quest today. We’ll return to such regular programming on the 364 other days of the year, beginning with the perfectly named Black Friday. Today, however, on November 25, 2021, let’s turn our attention to “Original Virtue,” a concept first articulated and defined by Oscar Wilde in 1891: 

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue,” he wrote. 

It fascinates me that there is no stripe on our richly fissured political and cultural faultlines with an Inquistion-like quest for Original Virtue. From school boards to boardwalks to the bonded warehouses of supply chain infamy, the hunt is on only for the sin. In which case, why not a commensurate counter search for Original Virtue? It’s worth a try! And I would hazard a guess — and it’s only a guess — that all those named above could agree on Tisquanto as the source of America’s Original Virtue. Or at least agree that he is certainly among the top exemplars of original American virtue.

That Nicole, Alexandria, Marjorie and Lauren, plus Oscar Wilde, might all agree on an Original Virtue of this magnitude is amazing. But there is more amazement in the story of Tisquanto, born in 1585, a member of the indigenous Patuxet Tribe of Plymouth Rock territory, and the author of that first Thanksgiving. It was English-speaking Tisquanto, you’ll recall from Thanksgiving stories past, who introduced the Pilgrims and the locals on that fourth Thursday of November 1621. And, if Mrs. Shay was correct, he also taught them how to grow corn by fertilizing with a fish. One fish in the hole with each seed planted in the spring for a good fall harvest, Mrs. Shay explained.

What Mrs. Shay didn’t explain, in part because it was not well known in 1961, was just how Tisquanto came to fluent command of the Pilgrims’ language in the first place. He didn’t pick it up as an exchange student on Rotary. Details on his journey are here, but briefly he was enslaved in today’s New England in 1605, manumitted in Spain some years later, and made his way to London where a seaman’s job caught him a lift home. When, after 14 years away, he did return, it was to find his tribe entirely vanished. Tragically, all dead. So he moved in with the neighboring Wampanoag Tribe. Then the Pilgrims showed up two years later, and you know the rest of that story, including Tisquanto’s hooking up the Massachusetts newbies with the Pokanoket Tribe, their immediate neighbors. Historians differ greatly on much. But they are in remarkable accord that there really was a grand, peacemaking feast of thanks, the brainchild of Tisquanto. This was not Fake News and it was and remains an Original Virtue. Yes, it didn’t go well from there, the part of the story often skipped. And you probably already know that after that first grand meal, Tisquanto met a tragic death in the following year of 1622. He was 37 years old. But his idea for a diverse dinner party remains undiminished as a splendid Original Virtue. It’s among the first in our conventionally recorded history. 

From here, let’s do the rest of this column together: I hope that you are as I am today, among loved ones on this Day of Thanks. Uncle P, sometimes known as Tio Del Norte, who passed in 1982, called ours the tribe of “Notadudamongthem.” In those days we gathered in the tiny town of Cayucos, on the coast near San Luis Obispo. There, his elder brother, Uncle E, or The Teacher as he was known in Laguna before dying in 1973, framed it differently, usually with a dramatic summons to the Five Books of the Torah or Hermann Hesse’s 1922 Novel, Siddhartha. And The Teacher introduced me to both Wilde and John Steinbeck, having me read out loud from their books as we drove his rounds as a refrigerator repairman.

‘The Teacher,’ (far left) in an oil portrait that hangs in The Crab Cooker in Newport Beach, a restaurant among his refrigerator repair clients
Photo: Scott Smeltzer, republished courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

When we all gather, sure there are tensions. Big family gatherings always involve a purloined phone charger, divided sentiment toward the world’s sweetest Rottweiler, and anxiety for the new generation — in this case one-year-old twins — attending their first Thanksgiving. Angst lingers over that bottle of 2012 Rafanelli Zinfandel I polished off without permission last night, and recent days have been filled with endless discussion of ham vs. turkey vs. crab and the new dietary restrictions that ban most of the contents of all the sweet potato dishes made by Aunts O, J, and K over the past half century. There’s surprise but not shock that You Know Who discovered a Turkish-speaking neighborhood in Sausalito. Interest two years ago in solar panels is now giving way to that for the new magnetic induction stoves on display in Santa Rosa, which use a third the energy of gas stoves by conveying heat through a magnetic force field. Or something like that. There’s a triage tizzy among the medical types over the best use of the remaining four COVID-19 self test kits we brought from Austin. And as Big Sister reminds us: The cycles of life are profoundly influenced by the cycles of hot water. “Shorter showers, please.”

And yet we love one another deeply. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday without peer. 

As The Teacher always counseled, pull your own close, think of all those in your family, community, faith circle, fraternity, neighborhood or even, God forbid, a Facebook Group. (Well, Meta didn’t exist when he explained Original Virtue but you get the point). Decide who you believe, The Teacher said, are today’s carriers of the “Original Virtues” of trust, forgiveness, generosity, and kinship that Tisquanto offered to the devastated Pilgrims who had lost half of their number in that first brutal winter of 1620-21. The Teacher’s challenge was, and remains, to choose five people in your circle who embody such Original Virtue. Just five. 

Ready, set, go!

Topping my list is Sara Mardini, the champion swimmer from Syria now on trial in Greece for saving hundreds, if not more, from the seas of the Mediterranean and Aegean. Mardini, now safe in Germany, and her sister Yusra who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team, were rescue divers for ECRI, the Emergency Center Response International, a Global First Responder NGO. It runs its Aegean operations out of Athens but is worldwide with its HQ in St. Louis, Missouri.

Quick context from ReliefWeb:  “…In 2021, the number of migrants crossing the Central Mediterranean is significantly higher than in 2020. Between January – September 2021, the total number of attempted crossings on this route stands at 80,680. while 2020 saw a total of 62,799 attempted crossings. On 27 September alone, 725 migrants landed at the Italian island of Lampedusa…”

In our case, as best I can piece together in this still-breaking story, the Mardini sisters’ crime came after towing — in just one of many missions — a dinghy designed for six but packed with 18 refugees and a dead motor across the 12-mile span of the Gulf of Edremit to safety on the island of Lesbos. Fast forward a couple years and the Mardinis became part of a global team pulling refugees out of the sea. The Syrian rescue diver and her many rescue swimmer colleagues were, as you would hope, monitoring radio traffic, easily scanned with equipment available at Radio Shack or any good hardware store. Much if not most of this traffic was between Greece’s military command and coast guard. You can imagine the ghastly things the rescuers may have recorded in our time of leaders, from Maduro to Erdogan to Lukashenko, who weaponize refugees. I say may have recorded. It’s not yet clear. But still, the Greek government has also imagined what information the rescue teams may have their hands on, which is why Mardini and 23 others are on trial for espionage and could spend years in prison.

I’m working to get ahold of the frequencies they are accused of illegally monitoring. The Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club is on the case and will let us know what its members turn up. Maybe we can livestream on Spotify or Meshkal or something as soon as we get our hands on them.

(Full disclosure: ECRI is broadly a network of medical volunteers founded by an emergency room physician in Missouri named Adam Beckett. I am nominating my Big Sister for its upcoming medical mission this spring 2022 to Mhondoro, Zimbabwe, about which she is learning from this column. Actually, the project needs a water well too, so Big Brother and Nephew The Elder could join as well. Maybe.)

But I digress. This after all is a note on the vivid if short life of Urbānitūs. So the other four names I draw from a very long list of more than 40 contributors who brought Original Virtue to this modest magazine you hold in your virtual hands. Choosing four from this list is excruciating, which is The Teacher’s continuing intent. The poetry, the prose, the photos, the insights, and ideas shared by so many make winnowing a torture. But I want to salute four of our own rescue divers who towed our leaky dinghy of a new online magazine through the pandemic storm. We began our brief journey as a kind of poorly defined musing on urban life in November 2019. But soon, we became a global community diary of the plague, as the killer pandemic took us in its grasp. I also should explain that this column will be the last one I pen for Urbānitūs. Time to move on.” — 30 —,” as we say in the trade. I’ve been deplatformed from Facebook, who will only let me back up when I upload my passport or similar ID. (Yeah, right!) But I’m learning Twitter at last, LinkedIn remains available, and good ole email still works. Ping me at ddjudson@yahoo.com if any rewire is needed to keep you sit-ripped on my pace and other coordinates. 

So back to the rescue swimmers of journalism. Moving from Sara to the heroes in our local realm, Susana Almanza was my hands down choice. Susana is an activist of many years in East Austin, who led a strike that integrated the all-white Steve Austin High School cheerleading squad in 1971. And she’s headed revolution upon revolution since. Her essay on “resilience” and the sudden passion among liberals for this word, published in April 2020. Please take a moment to read Let’s start first with the building blocks of resilience

The third of my five heroes was published a few days later. The open letter penned by Paul Huggins, a work unmatched in elegance in all we did, was written to his son’s graduating Class of 2020. Quoting the late Elijah Cummings, Paul’s letter counseled his son not to ask ‘Why did it happen to me?’ but rather, ‘Why did it happen for me?’”

The next rescue diver to plunge off the bow of my little craft was Brooke Shannon. Her five-part series on Austin’s dysfunctional love affair with itself, The Progressive Paradox, began on December 6 last year, just days before the first mRNA vaccine was administered in New York. 

My last rescue diver was Brett Hurt, who actually wrote his first piece on the Austin ethos and the pandemic on May 1, 2020. He was to help usher in the era of vaccines with his second contribution, the series Fear, euphoria, depression, acceptance and imagining, that began January 4 of this year.

There were more than 100 other essays, of course. Our website will remain live. Well, functioning. The work of so many continues to draw readers in this age of search engines. Needless to say I dedicate the effort to all those who showed up to put a shoulder to the Urbānitūs wheel. But especially today I offer my thanks to Sara, Susana, Paul, Brooke, and Brett. These are my 1+4 “Original Virtuosos” who answered Tisquanto’s spirit of Original Virtue with spirit of their own. 

And to Mrs. Shay, who taught me of Tisquanto’s wisdom. And to Tisquanto 1585-1622.

The Teacher would want to know: Who are your five? He would also want me to remember, the first among Original Virtue equals is simply love.

With that, with gratitude, and with admiration for all those we cherish on this day…

Happy Thanksgiving,

David Judson

Editor’s note: This essay may be updated after dinner.

Further editor’s note: Post-dinner updates have begun:
Photographer Lisa Kristine is nominated by The Barrister as his choice for Original Virtuoso because of her countless acts of Original Virtue. Lisa is the founder of the humanthreadfoundation, which drives global awareness of human trafficking through interactive exhibitions and campaigns. Lisa’s photography has documented indigenous cultures and social causes, such as modern slavery, in more than 100 countries.

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