What I’ve always loved about Thanksgiving is that we’re mostly thankful for the people (and some good food) and not for “the stuff.” For a seemingly increasing number of people the blessed four-day weekend at this time does seem to involve some retail hysteria, but for many families I talk to it’s still a few days that are focused on the most basic of values. One of my most favorite Thanksgivings was two years ago when I found myself alone with my mother at her nursing home. In a conventional sense, there may have been little for either of us to be thankful for. Her circumstances were reduced, the food could hardly be described as tasty, and other family members were in far flung places having their own Thanksgivings.
And yet, we were thankful. Thankful for the company, and just to be breathing air together. We took a long ride in the countryside and my mother opened up and talked about her own mortality in a way she had not before. That too was a thankful moment. We can give thanks for those times when we can be open with someone else about fears and thoughts that by custom we’re not supposed to reveal. Shortly after the next Thanksgiving, my mother did indeed die. I’m ever grateful for that last Thanksgiving with her and the frankness of the conversation.
This year, I’m particularly inspired by the example of the clothing designer Eileen Fisher and the response of her company to the predations of Hurricane Sandy. Fisher, who launched her business in Tribeca in 1984, made a quality-of-life move upriver to the lovely, un-hectic bedroom community of Irvington in 1992. Known for being a values-conscious retailer and employer (and a mindfulness meditator), by all accounts Fisher has treated her people well, kept her eye on environmental values, and been very community conscious. Her spacious riverfront headquarters includes a second-floor space for yoga and whatnot and a ground floor space where a meditation group has been gathering during off-hours for a few years.
On the Monday morning Sandy hit, Fisher’s headquarters filled with water to the height of two file cabinet drawers in some places, her facilities manager told the New York Times. The large plate glass window of her nearby retail store and community gathering space were shattered by the storm. A strikingly beautiful red couch went floating freely and relocated itself to another part of the store. Mud was everywhere in headquarters and store alike. The company’s New Jersey warehouse was shuttered, as was the Manhattan design center, power was spotty, transportation was hampered by gas shortages, shipments were frozen.
Twelve dumpster-loads and eight mobile storage units of goods were damaged, to the tune of $1.5 million. And yet Ms. Fisher told the Times, “It was just stuff.”
Her composure and equanimity are inspiring, not to say that of her staff, who mobilized on all fronts, to make sure not only that a cleanup could begin quickly and the engine of commerce set in motion again, but also that employees could be paid and offered interest-free loans or advances if they needed cash during the crisis. With few desks to inhabit, they cadged meeting space where they could and car-pooled to save on gas. While everything is far from in full working order weeks after the storm, Eileen Fisher is back in business.
As Stephanie Clifford wrote in the Times, there was “an almost out-of-body detachment on executives’ part to see past the emotion of sewage-soaked shirts and stained rolls of fabric to the prize of reopening a ravaged business.” That’s a great description of resilience. We might say it’s only a business, but businesses put food on the table and make life for communities. And when a business has a human face, even in crisis, that’s worth being thankful for.