It is as if we're in competition to find the starkest horror. This world offers so many comers to the table, each one bloodier, more callous, more inhumane, more despicable than the rest. Some are small insults that strike us in a particular way. Some are grand vistas of despair that we cannot comprehend en masse, and are represented for us by a single photograph, say of a suffering child, as we read the news.
We want to feel it all. To process the world's pain, and know. Like the oculist witness on Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even observing the humiliation of the bride at her wedding, we are the ones who see the world, and hold its measure. But as the sad animals that we are, we have the capacity for so little before we break. Some few have made it their life's work to help others; most of us follow the method recommended by flight attendants: we put our oxygen mask on first before we turn to our neighbor.
But selfish or generous, our daily rhythms are ticked like rulers with the routine of our days, the cycle of the seasons, the turning of the earth. When my father was sick and dying, he was rather taken with the idea of "thin places", where the membrane that separates this world and the next is stretched. It can be a secular metaphor as well as a religious one, and I prefer to think of it referencing a time instead of geography, such as cathedrals, or Stonehenge, or other sacred locations.
A thin place is a time where our fabric stretches and we see its weave. Where the ticks on our ruler marking seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, stretch and warp the very perception of time itself. Sherman Alexie has said he wrote hundreds of poems after the death of his mother. It's as if he stepped off of the crust that supports life onto fabric suspended over a fissure, and felt it give with each step. Those poems are him calling back to us, on the shore, to describe what he feels. Having done that walk before, I can testify it's fraught, and also affirming. You fall, and sometime expect that you too will be lost to the depths, but that material is stronger than you can imagine. You land face down, seeing the epoch below. Discard the cliched advice you've heard in the action movies: you must look down. If you close your eyes and try to will yourself back to steady ground, you risk the footing of your entire life turning soft.
Births, deaths, weddings, and other passages of life change us like this. Nights with superb friends — where understanding dawns amidst the pleasures — are like this. That first night with a person after you've fallen in love is like this. A particularly mind-blowing meal can do this. And holidays, where we set aside the world to mark a shared experience, can be like this, if we let them.
My grandfather was a glass salesman. One of his clients was Pepsi-Cola, in Southern California, which was owned by the Alessio family. For vacation, every year, my mother, her two sisters, and her parents would drive to Ensenada, Mexico, to spend a few weeks vacation.
On the way they would stop by the Alessio house in San Diego for dinner, and every year the matriarch of the family, Gemma, and my grandfather would enact the play they had improvised together. Gemma would say: "I'm going to make you something very special for your visit."
"No, Gemma," he'd say. "We want your spaghetti."
"No, I won't make something so plain for company! I will make a roast."
"Gemma, please," my grandfather would say. "Please, for the love of all that's good, make us your spaghetti."
My grandfather, who was the cook in the family, once asked Gemma to write down the recipe, and she did. But you might as well have asked Elizabeth Bishop to write down a poem so that you can write one just as good. Nobody cooked like Gemma, and Gemma did not use recipes. It never tasted the same at home. I've made that spaghetti sauce. It's simple and nice. But nobody would ever request it from me. It wouldn't evoke that starry-eyed look my mother gets when she describes its scent in entering the Alessio house.
This was the ritual of my mother's family. When my mother talks about her family and gathering, she sometimes talks about Christmas dinner, or maybe Thanksgiving. But more often than not she talks about those Ensenada trips and their stop in San Diego. The ritual of it was unique to her family, it was an experience they owned.
I was in San Francisco with a band. We went to record some songs at a friend's house. In the Haight, there are four Victorians that are designed as the four seasons, built in a neat little row. Our host owned Winter, and had built a recording studio in the 1st floor flat. I asked him what he did to be able to buy such an iconic house, and he said "I'm a designer."
"What do you design?"
"I've designed lots of things. I've designed chairs. But mostly I design molecules."
We were there for the fall in San Francisco, and when we weren't recording we wandered around the sunny city, spending time in Golden Gate Park. Because it was over Thanksgiving, our host arranged for us to crash a friend's gathering.
We took the bus, carrying a few offerings and dishes in shopping bags. It was one of those old San Francisco homes that may have been built as apartments, or once was a strange, plain, huge family home. We had to go down the side, and up some stairs, and in through the kitchen. We arrived at 7pm or so.
There, a turkey was on. Arguments were underway about the internal temperature, and how long it takes to reach it. We drank wine and cocktails, the living room completely unlit save for the central overhead light in the kitchen. The oven and counters were crowded with dishes covered in foil, in a random assortment of dishes.
Dinner was served, after many drinks, some time after 10pm. There was no family here, other than the family we chose. I was with the band, and the San Francisco people were — like many people in San Francisco — freaks of a certain sort who ran away screaming from their traditional upbringings.
And yet, here we were, all gathered, sharing a meal. It was wholly unremarkable, the food. I remember missing a bigger spread with experienced cooks. The company, too, although pleasant, was not my company. I was not among the people I felt warmest and safest.
Yet this night I remember more clearly than many other Thanksgiving meals. I think that has to do with the choice — nobody was there because they had to be. Nobody was pushed up against a familial cultural clash that made them uncomfortable. Nobody there was traditional in any sense of the word. We came together to eat the bird and partake of the two relevant themes of Thanksgiving: communion, and gratitude.
As usual, when talking about food, M.F.K. Fisher said it best:
It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.
But, perhaps, in forward-looking critique of unprepared cooks and guests dining too late at night, she also said:
First we eat, then we do everything else.
Like all holidays with any tradition, Thanksgiving is problematic. Foremost because it's a stark reminder of genocide, subjugation, and then cartoony celebration of that subjugation under the guise of communion. The narrative of the holiday is wrong, and offensively so.
Less bad, but still bad, the imagery is cheesy and cliched. The tall black hats with gold buckles, the feather headdresses, the cartoon turkeys winking at the viewer, all in flat browns, reds, and oranges. It's a holiday that operates at a Kindergarten level of sophistication.
If you're more worldly than that, perhaps you picture a table set by Normal Rockwell, with Ma serving and Pa carving, and Grandma and Grandpa smiling on the messy, but authentic, grandkids. You are in the 1950s, and the men and boys spent the morning raking leaves and tossing a ball around, while Grandpa rocked on the porch and smoked that fragrant tobacco — the women, of course, cooked.
Or maybe you picture that other great American house where a television the size of a wall emits football and commercials non-stop, turkey dinners are served on tv trays, and the women are fishing out their sleep masks so they can get a few hours in before hitting the Black Friday lines at 3am.
This is not mockery. These are the set pieces of Thanksgiving in our country. If they resemble yours, and you love them, I wish you all the best.
But I don't recognize myself in those traditions. Still, I make this bold claim: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. As an agnostic (which is the modern non-asshole version of an atheist), I like Thanksgiving because it's secular. And I like the reminder once a year to pay attention, and be grateful for the things that you have.
A friend on Twitter argued that we shouldn't need one day a year to appear grateful, and while I agree with her, I think holidays like this are not for us who are old enough and experienced enough with life to know how to be grateful more often. The older I get, the more my personal attitude aligns with "there but for the grace of God go I." Except without the God part.
The ritual is still worthwhile because, as humans, we need those reminders to pay attention to the ticks on the rulers of life. We need to teach these slower, longer cycles of life to those that haven't learned it yet.
Gathering at the table with people you choose to have around you, and hopefully love, and sharing a special meal? That's hitting a perfect three on the Fisher checklist.
Perhaps we need a new Thanksgiving iconography. Something modern and clean. It should be just as secular as before, just as focused on caring and gratitude. I'm certainly not the first to call for such a thing, and my call will not be instructive or give methods. My call will simply be an evocation of sorts.
Let us use this one day to set aside the troubles a world away that we cannot control, and mark what we have, and show appreciation. That helps us decide when we can assist that neighbor with their oxygen mask. That helps us decide what resources we have to marshal for the greater good.
We do not have to forget that there are those in need. We are not reveling in our privilege or lording it over those without — we are simply marking the ticks on the ruler of our days, and noting that we are passing them as we go forward. One holiday day cannot halt time, but like a train moving through a station without slowing, it can certainly point out that we're on a track and we are moving. It is human nature to forget that.
Maybe you'll find yourself around your own table, or another. Maybe it's a tray in front of the TV, or a dark room in a San Francisco house, or a walnut burl table with antique lace runners, or even your own room, alone with a book. Maybe where you are the air will shift a bit, and you'll come up to see the movement around you. You'll step off the crust onto the fabric and feel it stretch. Maybe this holiday will give you a moment to see from another perspective. Maybe that perspective will bring you something you need.