Don’t be enticed by the promise that things will be okay. If only you simplify, or eat better, or pray more, or work out more, or are kinder, or fairer things will work out like you think they should. Yes, these things are good, but we do not live in an economy of reward, where doing the good and the right things yield to you what you long for. We do the right thing to do it, not because it will make us happy or make things easier, but because it is the right thing. It will always be hard, if you are living well you will be struggling, you will be aching, you will be longing and loving and failing and getting up again. It is messy out there, beautifully and excruciatingly messy. The sirens of simplification, of accumulation, of trying harder, of being more worthy, of being nicer – they call to us, but they are false promises. Life is in the mess, the ache, the joy, and baby steps forward and the big steps backward and it is here that we must find what we long for.
This is a time when everyone (including my lovely family) is writing and talking about what they will cook and make for the Thanksgiving meal. As vegetarians and folks who are aware that many Native Americans refer to Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning, it is not quite as exciting for us.
Don’t get me wrong. I really love everyone taking time to be thankful and give attention to our families. I also am very aware that most folks, like us, don’t really tend to associate our holiday traditions with the supposed first Thanksgiving meal. Aside from the ridiculousness taught to most elementary school kids, pilgrims and Native Americans are not really part of Thanksgiving for many of us.
So I get that my feelings about Thanksgiving could be read as crazy liberal stuff, crazy vegetarian stuff. I am certainly not going to raise this with my family or neighbors because I don’t want to be seen as the strange one ruining the fun talking about Native Americans and trying to stand up for turkeys or something. We eat a vegan fall meal in our home on Thanksgiving and welcome anyone who wants to join us.
But, in a way, this is sort of my concern. Because violence get normalized when those who point out the violence (historical or present day) are the “weird” ones.
So, on the one hand, I want to avoid disrupting a nice day by good people who are just trying to have a good meal together. On the other hand, I want not to normalize the history and the killing that is quite literally at the center of this holiday, with the turkey in the middle of the table.
So here is the story we tell in our family around Thanksgiving:
Our son was born at home, at the end of a dead end road in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Our house was up against ten acres of woods and it was quiet and I can’t think of a better place for him to have been born. It was a chilly spring day that he was born. I wasn’t able to get out of bed for over 24 hours. Finally, when I got up for the first time my partner said, “Look out the window!!” I looked out into our back yard, which was right up against the forest and there were 14 wild turkeys, a deer, two bunnies, and a squirrel sitting out in our yard. It was misty out, early in the morning, the day after our son had been born.
We tell him that the animals in the forest knew that a new creature had been born in the woods and they came to welcome him. In a way, I’m sure that is not quite true. But, in another way, I have to wonder if it is. We had never seen any turkeys or deer until this moment – just the occasional bunny and our squirrels.
We tell our son that the turkeys were excited to see him especially because they are simple, peaceful animals and it is a message to us that we do best when we also live simple and peacefully.
We tell him the story of how, many years ago, people lived in the land we now call Plymouth, his birth place, and people came from Europe and wanted to live there too. We haven’t gotten to the details (i.e. the massacres) but in general we point out that it is hard when different people want to live in same place and we need to be thoughtful about how we live with others – the harm we cause and the ways we can lessen that. We tell him that his birth location and his welcome by the turkeys and other animals of the woods is a gift to him to remember the ways that we can live more peacefully, with a spirit of welcome. Eating animals in general seems strange to him since he has never eaten animals and rarely sees others do so. But, we hope that, over time, his birth story helps him remember his connection to animals and to history such that it calls him to make a different sort of world than the one we have.
I get that it might seem hippie or cooky to some. But, for us, it is a small way to say that there is enough killing in the world. There is enough pain and enough violence and we’re just going to do our best to lessen how much of that we take part in, recognizing that we can never fully extract ourselves from this broken world with broken systems of violence that we are a part of. But, at the very least, we’ll try not to celebrate it and try to opt out when we can.
When I was in Kindergarten, I had a bit of a breakdown. I felt like I was not moving through my letter books fast enough. The other children were slow to learn the ABCs and I already knew them and we needed to move it along. I dropped out of Girl Scouts in third grade because I got so preoccupied with getting as.many.badges.as.possible as fast as possible that I could not enjoy it. Or get anything out of it.
It goes on. In seventh grade, it was getting to be the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. As fast as possible. And making them better. Fast. By high school, it was starting to take college classes. Filling out the resume for college. After a full scholarship to my undergraduate school, it was getting more majors. And more awards. So I could go to the best graduate school. After getting into a graduate program at Harvard, it was getting into the doctoral program at Harvard. Then passing exams. With distinction. Then writing a dissertation. I wouldn’t just be spiritual or religious or involved in my church, I would be ordained. Soon it was getting a job. After getting a tenure track job, the big concern has been the getting a book contract. And being the.best.professor possible. I want my students to love learning, love the class, love me, become good citizens, become good thinkers. Somewhere in there: Get married. Buy a house. Have a baby.
I am tired. If I stop to think about what a good life looks like, I hardly know. When I am with my son, who I want more time with, I am worried about when I can clean the house. Or get back to grading. As the trees change and the air is perfect, I look out the window from Starbucks with my overly sweet drink and write more comments on the papers that my students will probably never read. As I apply for grants and funding, my screen blurs together and I wonder what I am doing. I pour over our budget and wonder how we can make what we do and still come up short at the end of every month. What are we doing all of this for if not to be able to pay our bills and have a good, peaceful life, right? A PEACEFUL LIFE, goddammit.
Sometimes it can feel like we are caught in a hologram… but there is no red pill, no way to step out of it, to snap out of it. I think about what I should do to get out – meditate, go to yoga, take time to be present, make better plans, manage time better, get therapy, read more books or better books, and I just add these things onto my to do list and run from meeting to class to meeting, somehow feeling good about myself as I ease the pain with the balm of doing.
I tell my students there are few important easy choices in our lives – as individuals, as citizens. And there may not even be a choice. We are formed over time and our brains develop little pathways and we do not undo this in a day or a night or by getting saved or by making definitive decisions that we really mean this time. We undo or redo this slowly, the way that we have been done up by our universe. Moment by moment. Dragging ourselves back from the chaos into the memory of what we all long for, aware of the cliche and the unoriginality of our desires.
These things are not changed by quotes we tape to our computer screen or put on our pinterest wall, we know, as we hurriedly find better pithy and inspirational quotes and clearer places to post them.
Perhaps this is my draw to God and grace. The idea that we are loved and ok always. From before time and until after time. No matter what we do. We want to believe it, but like the alcoholic who just has one more drink, and feels that emptiness and pain melting away, we put one more good line on our resume. One more grant or book or job or success. And we are good, right? Doing the right things. Right?