Although Thanksgiving has passed, I’m holding on for just a little longer. After all, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday — not because it’s extraordinary, but for the opposite reason. Thanksgiving invites us to celebrate simple satisfactions: food, family, shelter, and the harvest. At its best, Thanksgiving is a festival of gratitude.
During the winter of 1621, more than half of the hundred-plus settlers in the Plymouth colony had succumbed to disease and cold, sometimes dying at the rate of two or three a day. But over the following summer, the growing season had been generous; the settlers had confidence that they would bury fewer of their number during the winter to come. Remembering their loved ones who had died, the settlers gathered on what came to be called the first Thanksgiving to give thanks.
The story of Thanksgiving is more complicated than that, of course. In John Steinbeck’s essay America and Americans, he recognizes that the first settlers worked for this land, fought for it, and died for it. But, he says, they also stole and cheated and double-crossed for it. Theft of land from Native Americans was commonplace, as was the oppression of non-Europeans, especially those brought here from Africa as slaves.
Given this history, Thanksgiving may well be our most emotionally and morally complicated holiday. And it arrived at an emotionally and morally complicated time. This year, it wasn’t easy to pull up to the table and tuck into the turkey with a carefree mind.
If we insist on not talking about it, that’s a good sign we should be.
Our nation’s conversation about Native Americans may be on the back burner for now, but our conversation about African Americans is not — and that’s a good thing. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently won the National Book Award for his book Between the World and Me, a searing memoir about growing up black in America. The President and Congress are moving to end the mass incarceration of black people, an initiative generated in large measure by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. And the Black Lives Matter movement continues to spotlight appalling disparities in outcome at the hands of our legal institutions.
When Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, spoke at the United Nations, she created something of a firestorm for talking about reparations. The outrage in response reminded me of what often happens at family holiday dinners when a child suddenly begins talking aloud about one of the family’s carefully hidden secrets. The patriarch or matriarch of the family squelches the child, saying through clenched teeth, “We’re not going to talk about that.”
With nations as with families, if someone insists on not talking about something, it’s probably a good sign that it needs to be talked about. We somehow need to make right our nation’s relationship with Black Americans, who mostly have been oppressed and abused by this nation from the very beginning. We need to talk about that.
And we need to talk about how this so-called nation of immigrants looks upon other would-be immigrants to these shores. Horrified as we are by recent violence in Egypt, Beirut, Paris, and Mali, we know in our hearts that our own nation’s actions in the wake of 9/11 helped fan the fires of fanaticism that now push millions of migrants into Europe and beyond.
The anti-immigrant sentiment roiling our nation today makes a mockery of the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed in the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore: send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” Are those words still true? Not to many governors and even some presidential candidates, who would callously turn away even a Syrian child orphaned by war. We need to talk about this too.
A benefit to one part of the system comes at a cost to another.
And given that Thanksgiving is as much a meal as it is a holiday, we also need to talk about Thanksgiving dinner. The brutal calculus of life on this planet requires living things to consume other living things in order to survive. The plants and animals that become our dinner have back stories, which many of us would prefer not to talk about — especially when it comes to the suffering of animals. Dinner also requires a vast amount of water, energy, and other natural resources, as well as human labor, to grow, harvest, process, package, and deliver. Human life is a resource-intensive endeavor. And it comes at a cost.
In her new book of poems, the American poet Linda Pastan includes a poem titled “The Conservation of Matter.” In the poem, she talks about how things change over time as energy and matter alter their forms and switch places. The title of her poem refers to the well known physical law stating that the total mass in a closed system always remains constant. Matter changes form over time, but the total mass remains constant. In other words, a benefit to one part of the system comes at a cost to another.
This strikes me as a useful way to think about my relationship to everything else. What comes to me comes at a cost: it gets taken away from somewhere else. This principle certainly applies to food. What I ate on Thanksgiving represented not only a sacrifice for the turkey, but also for all the people and resources that made my dinner possible.
This principle also applies to land. There happens to be a finite amount of land on this earth. In this nation as elsewhere, the question of who got there first has long been superseded by the question of who got there most powerfully — either military power or economic power. As it happens, the issue of when a settler becomes a native lies at the very heart of one of the hardest-fought and most deeply entrenched conflicts in the world today: the struggle between the Palestinians and the Jews.
The conservation of matter requires winners and losers in equal measure. For my part, I’m also interested in what we might call the conservation of experience, which doesn’t. It’s not a zero-sum endeavor. Instead, it gathers up what’s past, and then opens to a more expansive future.
By embracing the pain of the past, we can transform it into the promise of the future. By embracing the disparities of the present, we can transform them into the equalities of the future. This embrace ultimately expands to unite us with everything: all that is present in our lives and our world, along with all that is past and all that is possible — the experience of the divine. The beauty of Thanksgiving is that it reminds us of what’s past in order to reveal to us what’s possible.
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