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And Everybody Dies—Not Just the Turkey
Gentle Reader, hello. My name is Jeanne Joe and I have lived in New York City for a whole decade. Yes, they give you a medal for that. I have it hanging above my bed. As a result (or perhaps cause) of my tenure in Gotham, 85% of my pants and 97% of my outlook on life is black. The rest is dark grey.
Nevertheless, I distinctly remember the warm, fuzzy, suburban family Thanksgivings with the big turkey, homemade pumpkin pie, cousins and nuclear family and dog sitting around a giant table and saying grace.
Just kidding. That’s from a Norman Rockwell painting. Because, really, is that a thing in real life?
Thanksgiving for me never meant quality time with family, football games, or parties. In real life with my single mom, Thanksgiving meant time and a half and Chinese food. It was just Thursday, with no school and even more daycare. There would of course be a card from my father, usually a torn sheet from a legal pad with an adorably hand-drawn, bedraggled looking stick-bird picture and the words “turkey turkey gobble gobble” with an arrow pointed at it for clarification, in case I couldn’t decipher what it was supposed to be. Later, when my mom remarried, Thanksgiving meant double-time-and-a-half and Patrick Creek Lodge’s buffet.
Times were good then. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet.
But when I think of Thanksgiving, I still think of the Norman Rockwell painting because it struck me as something of a curiosity—a relic of another world, a taunting marker of how things “ought to be” on the Great American Holiday. Cheerful. Boisterous. Lively. Crowded. It’s an image that haunts me, my own plastic bag blowing like a tumbleweed in the lonesome wind over the sidewalk of my Protestant remorse, like that scene in American Beauty: an indissoluble plastic fantasy sweeping out of reach, glimpsed from the desert of an isolated mind. I wanted it. I lusted after its beauty.
And I couldn't have it.
Not that thankfulness wasn’t a familiar concept in our family. Rather, the bit we missed was the expression of thankfulness in community with others. We never wanted for anything even in the bumpy years, and this was discussed fairly regularly as a nontraditional (but statistically normal), antisocial family unit: just mom, step-dad, and me. But the ritualistic saving up of all the thankfulness for a big party on one day always seemed a bit odd. Why the decorations? Why the parade? Why the extended family? That’s expensive and I don’t know most of my relatives! Does not compute! So bah humbug!
Then what I think of as the 'Patrick Creek Lodge's buffet epiphany' happened.
Reader, I tell you what: I’d had great food (and resultant epiphanies) before. My Italian father had been making meatballs and pork chops and calamari for decades and my mom had perfected the art of the homemade pizza and chiles rellenos. I’d met authentic Mexican tacos, freshly caught crab, reindeer stroganoff, and medium rare filet mignon. I’d beheld the perilous beauty of nachos and dingdongs, of barley stew and lamb shank. At Patrick Creek Lodge, it wasn’t so much that the Thanksgiving menu outshone familiar family recipes in glory, but rather in dearth and diversity and display. They had ambrosia, for goodness’ sake—actual ambrosia, like, as in, food of the gods Mt. Olympus stuff. They had horseradish. They had macaroni and cheese. Of course the turkey, the cranberry sauces, the green beans. But they also had everything else. It was a bonanza. They had just about every dead animal you could easily identify: every salad, every pie.
It was decadent, almost embarrassingly so.
The Patrick Creek Lodge buffet was spread on long wooden tables that spanned the length of the common room and wrapped around a corner. White tablecloths were punctuated by candlelight. Across from it, smooth river stones tumbled together to form a hearth guarding a roaring fire. Portraits of pioneers and past inn proprietors lined the log walls, a grandfather clock chimed in the corner. We were miles out of town on the side of a mountain, our county’s ritziest establishment where people had weddings with live swans and whatnot, and we dressed to impress.
Patrick Creek Lodge’s buffet was really my first public, community-oriented venture into Thanksgiving, and by that I mean there were other people in the room besides my mom, step-dad and me. There was a sense of scale, and I really think it was the dressing up and having to wear a bra that started to change my perception of Thanksgiving, thankfulness, and death. (Yes, death, because reader, as I mentioned, I am a New Yorker. Every New Yorker worth their storage unit spies the Inevitable lurking in the corner even on the cheeriest of days. It’s part of our miasma. Maybe you’ve heard of Woody Allen? But I digress.)
Picture, if you will, a swarthy teen-New-Yorker-to-be and her nontraditional family unit in their rural West Coast best, with scarves and Payless shoes and paisley prints. Thanksgiving buffet at Patrick Creek Lodge was actually the first occasion for my use of lip gloss and mascara, come to think of it. Imagine the wobbly procession (it was my first time in heels, too, I believe) through the lobby to a table overlooking a babbling brook, imagine seeing your young and peckish face reflected back to you in the window glass as you stare at the misty November rain outside, as if a goddess is gently condescending to brush the earth with her petticoat on this high holy day. Comprehend, for the first time, the thought: “We are here, we have come here, with others, to be thankful. We have prepared and presented ourselves to give thanks. Officially. So. Here we are. Okay then.”
It was the preparation, the makeup, the 15-minute pilgrimage, and the people in the background of the restaurant that first made me feel naked enough to think that perhaps this thankfulness thing is something to make an appointment for and acknowledge formally. Perhaps thankfulness is dangerous, like a dentist or a judge. Perhaps it gets you thinking, shows you something hard, and that is why people tend to want to do it around other people (safety in numbers.) Perhaps the ritual and formalization of acknowledging good things to ourselves and to others has some weight, some point, and we need the support of others to be safe and open enough to do it. Perhaps it’s different to give thanks deliberately, publicly, communally, than it is to do so quietly, privately in your own mind.
Reader, this is where I take a dark left turn. I ask you: Why set a day, make an appointment, perform a ritual to be thankful, unless also to acknowledge that it could be otherwise, might be otherwise, will sometime almost certainly be otherwise? And that it is currently otherwise for the people around us? To acknowledge and appreciate that we have something at present, which is transient: the present. And why is the present valuable, the acknowledgement valuable?
I know Thanksgiving doesn’t immediately make most people think of death, but it does me. It’s kind of the only way I can make sense of it as a holiday. Bear with me here, I swear I have a point, and it’s even a kind of uplifting Zen one-with-the-universe point. (I know you didn’t think this was going to get heavy, but don’t panic. We’re going to be okay. All the thoughts I will lead you through have been thought before. And, yes, the people who thought them are mostly dead, but, hey, the thoughts didn’t kill them, most likely. I would guess. Probably not, anyway.)
Picture the swarthy teenager wobbling on her heels, trailing behind or ahead of her mother depending on how hungry she was or how excited about the aspic at the time. Then, armed with a Shirley temple in one hand and empty plate in the other, our valiant eater comes to a grinding and perplexed halt before the impressive meat table.
There is a turkey, of course—this is America, after all—also a roast dripping with au jus and steaks, thin-cut: chicken, kielbasa, salmon, baked clams, burgers, cold cuts, and corned beef, which apparently couldn’t wait for its own holiday.
Reader, you may ask: Why did the meat table perplex me? It’s not that I was overwhelmed by the selection. It is because, in a new way, I has suddenly been struck with the oddness of the idea of consumption as thankfulness, of celebrating life by killing, I realized that when we are thankful for our lives, it’s usually dependent on the inclusion of the awareness of death and loss in our perspective.
Also, I remember thinking: “Dang. Must suck to be eaten. I’m glad I’m not being eaten. Or am I, in a different way? What’s eating me? What’s gnawing inside, making me restless, making me hungry? Am I consumed by something?”
I was a pretty philosophical teen. Even then, my wardrobe was probably 70% black.
Anyway, that’s when I linked death to thankfulness. I realized that part of thankfulness is identifying my unreasonable expectations and killing them. It’s putting to death, if even for only one day, the grasping unrest and tireless appetite for more that growls in the belly of human nature. Ironically, on Thanksgiving we acknowledge this process by over-eating because America. But really, it’s an important connection, like the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son whose father kills the fattened calf to celebrate the homecoming of someone he thought he’d never see again. Celebration involves putting an end to a longing, putting to death the unfinished business and instead submerging in the fullness of a complete moment.
Deep breath. See, that wasn’t too bad.
Reader, I just want you to know that it’s okay if Thanksgiving is hard for you, if thankfulness is hard for you, because you’re not the only one. Sometimes it makes me want to pull my hair out and throw my best sarcasm back at the world: “Oh, you want me to be thankful, huh? I should be grateful, huh? Okay, sure: Hey, I guess I’m thankful my monthly Metrocard is only $112 a month. I mean, it could be $600, and it isn’t, so I guess $112 isn’t bad for sharing space with rats and radioactive sludge. What a great deal. Thanks for such a relatively small fare hike, MTA. You’re the swellest.” Bah humbug.
Sometimes it’s really freaking hard to be thankful, to silence those voices of want. When your life is so far removed from a Norman Rockwell painting that you stare at one with the same level of comprehension as the aliens in Earth Girls Are Easy trying to use the answering machine, it can be hard to be thankful. When most of your major breakups have happened inexplicably around Thanksgiving (no, not me, a friend of mine!), it can be hard to be thankful. When you’re fired or your house is foreclosed or you’re living under the poverty line or you’re a minority or you’re abused or you’re alone or you’re on food stamps, it can be hard to be thankful. When you’re tired or overworked, it can be hard to be thankful. When you’re a human trying to survive on the planet, it can be hard to be thankful.
Thankfulness is death resulting in life resulting in death. It requires some death of ego and desire, some acceptance and intentional focus. Some Zen, if you will. Some Buddha “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment” stuff. Otherwise, it’s all Alexander Pope all the way, each achievement merely opening the door for more unfulfilled desires, and I can’t relax enough to be thankful:
“So pleased at first the towering Alps we try
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labors of the lengthened way,
The increasing prospect tires our wand’ring eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!”
Oh, Pope. Alps on alps! Mountains on mountains! Turkeys on turkeys. Ahh! Desire never ends! We’re all Sisyphus, the work of longing re-starting every day no matter how hard we tried before. We’re all Mick Jagger, and can’t get no satisfaction even though we try. We do try. But we’re eternally finding new things to want or work on, and there’s always more to want and more to have. Horizons, once reached, replace themselves.
Thanksgiving is mean, making me think about all this. Between the thinking and the tryptophan, I may just never get out of bed again. I’m kidding. I will. How else can I ever earn enough money for those Frye boots I want? If you don’t get out of bed, you miss Black Friday deals.
During a particularly angsty era of mine in New York (haha, just kidding, all eras in New York are equally angsty), a friend of mine gave me a book on thankfulness to read. Obviously I felt insulted and threatened. How would I maintain my Fonz-level reputation if anyone on the train saw me reading a book on thankfulness? But she was a good friend, so I had to read it.
I had a difficulty reading the book, mostly because there was a bird’s nest on the cover and so I judged it hard. I don’t honestly remember much about it except that the writer documented this exercise she made herself do, which I also have tried: she kept a numbered list going, which she had to add to every single day, of specific tangible things she was thankful for. “I am thankful for: #1…” etc. The point was to write something real, every day, and shift your perspective.
Considering I started this exercise in 2011 and I now have 101 entries, I have obviously mastered it. I am the Buddha of the thankful list. And as the Zen master of this exercise I can tell you, it’s a lot of things. There have been times where I thought it was cheesy and I judged it hard and just didn’t do it and there are gaps of months or years between entries. There have been times where I was trying too hard (“#96 being able to love”—WTF). There have been times when it has been fun (“#8: the two old men riding the 1 train together wearing matching plaid bowties arguing about Rigoletto), times where it has been uncannily meaningful (“#61: existing”), times when it has been twee (#101: 101 Dalmatians!! Glenn Close!! Cruella!!), times where it’s just been about food (#24: Goldfish crackers; #45 rigatonis and gravy; #72: soppressata).
I could tell you that the thankful list made me more aware of how much I have, more peaceful, less driven to collect wealth and power and success. I could tell you that it’s made me feel thankful.
But I’m a New Yorker, remember? Black? Death?
So what I’m actually going to tell you about the thankfulness exercise is that it really just made me aware of how much freaking work it is to be thankful. Maybe it’s easier for all those bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed Third World country kids that you see dancing and laughing so happily in inspiring Facebook videos about simplicity to be thankful, because that’s not insulting or degrading to think. No! Come on! It’s never easy to be thankful, especially if you don't own shoes. You do have to dress up and set a date and do it on purpose. It’s not for sissies. It takes practice and practice and practice. I'm still working on it.
Guess I have not yet achieved enlightenment. Oh well.
I realized at Patrick Creek that it’s hard to be thankful because I have to turn off the consumer, to turn off human nature. I don’t have everything, I have what I have. I am what I am, just like Popeye. Someday I’ll be just like that turkey I’m about to eat, and I wish Americans thought about that more honestly. I think it would help us understand thankfulness better.
Like the Zen master says, "Bamboos are straight and pine trees are gnarled."
Thank you, reader, for joining me in my ritual of Thanksgiving gratitude and mental spinning. May the Zen be with you. May we all be able to let go enough to laugh at the absurdity of our appetites. I will let go of my Normal Rockwell fantasy, and henceforward will eat Norman Rockwell fantasies for breakfast, chased by bourbon and children's tears. I will let go of my desire for an increased, more expensive wardrobe of blacker pants. I will embrace my Friendsgiving and the 8/3 wine-bottle/girl ratio we have going on.
To conclude, I invoke the sublime words of the great poet Kalil Gibran, from The Prophet’s section on Eating and Drinking:
“When you kill a beast say to him in your heart, ‘By the same power that slays you, I too am slain; and I too shall be consumed. For the law that delivered you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier hand. Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.”
So, anyway, death. And happy Thanksgiving!
Your Thankful Neurotic New Yorker
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