Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Plymouth Rock (Paper, Scissors)

Thanksgiving Redux
I've been around the block and back again twice over, if I might liken the passing of a year to a civic measurement. So I think it's time I talked turkey.

American Thanksgiving turkey, that is.

Yes, 'tis the season, arguably the highest and holiest of days in this red, white and blue land, if the plethora of hushed and humble Happy Thanksgiving greetings we receive each year is any indication. The closest I have ever come to seeing such buoyant excitement and reverence in the air was during the flurry and festivities leading up to (Big) Eid in Islamabad ten or so blocks back.

Most Americans we encounter are surprised at how irreverent we are about American Thanksgiving. Truth be told, calling it American Thanksgiving is a dead giveaway. No one calls it that except us non-Americans, obviously.

When we admit that we're not doing much because we've been there, done that a month a half back, and are still suffering the ill effects of the mashed potatoes, turkey and pumpkin pie, most are shocked. Their first reaction is invariably an awakening - oh, Canada has Thanksgiving, too? You can see the wheels churning - how can that be? - the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, MA. Did it then head to Nova Scotia? Their second is surprise, and you celebrate at a different time than us? And the third is confusion, and you don't want to do it all over again by celebrating it pilgrim-style this time?

To be honest, I did get into the spirit of things last year. We celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving in October and then had a big feast again for American Thanksgiving. And we even got up at 4am to check out Black Friday sales like the good connoisseurmers we are.

But I'm not in the mood this year for huge extravaganza. It's not that I'm feeling completely bah humbug - we'll be attending our church potluck this Thursday and bringing sex in the pan for good sacred/profane measure - but I find all the school pilgrim and turkey teachings become a bit much.

Holy Daughter comes home each day filled with tales that tell a truth, but tells it slant. She is brimming with stories of happy harvesting hoe-downs between the pilgrims and the Native Americans. Big fat sigh. Presumably, the myth still lives large in grade school curriculum. No lie left behind.

When I said, yes, well, that's nice dear but that is only one version of events: there are others, she was confused. I explained that the pilgrim's plight was heroic and sacrificial and that their rite of passage across the great ocean towards new beginnings deserved pomp and circumstance, but if the dead pilgrims could talk, they'd probably tell us that their new Garden of Eden was more paradise lost than found and that a more apt moniker for their American dreamland might just as easily have been Garden of Greed'n.

Indian Paintbrush
To be fair, the history books don't paint it all with a rose-coloured brush. We know that starvation, cold winters and illness plagued the intrepid Brits and Europeans who dared carve a life for themselves in this brave new world. A small sacrifice, however, when compared to the Native Americans who suffered much slaughter, disease and plundering of land and women as a result of white man's arrival.

I didn't bother to share with her that small irony of fall being the season of tragedy, according to Northrup Frye, a famous Canadian literary critic. Not everyone would concur that two of the more contentious colonial and imperial holidays - Columbus Day and Thanksgiving - are anything less than auspicious. But I think 1% of the US population would, which at most recent tally, is the total percentage of Native Americans. Who speaks for them today, tomorrow? The silent untold three million, who quite rightly begrudge the parcels of reservation land set aside for their so-called privilege? Or the silenced few, who are well within their rights and dignities to criticize new-age religiosity that seeks to plunder and all but bastardize the one thing ~ their earth-centered spirituality ~ they can still call their own?

Holy Daughter seemed genuinely surprised by this alternate tale, in which possession turned out not to be 9/10ths of the law, and which does not exactly promise a happily ever after for Native Americans. No surprise that she's confused, considering the only context she has for understanding their relations is the Disneyfied romantic tale of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, or additionally, of the happy, helpful Squanto.

But I like her logic. Upon hearing my hints of battle and war and death and territorial conquering, she said, "But I don't get it, Mom. Why didn't they just play rock, paper, scissors?"

Out of the mouths of babes.

They did play rock, paper, scissors, of course. It's just that the rocks got piled into fences, forts and catapults, the papers were non-negotiable notarized deeds, and the scissors became weapons.

Canada shares chapters in this tale, too, of course. We had our own British and French invasion, Squanto spent some time in Newfoundland, and our own First Nations peoples didn't exactly finish first either. But instead of calling it hegemony, which is a bit harsh, we like to call this shared history commonwealth, denoting, if you will, a win-win agreement. God save the Queen and all that jolly good stuff.

There are no winners in such games but the point is, we have no less a contested history. In many ways, I think it was smart that we moved our Thanksgiving up a month (from the second Monday of November to the same in October). All the better to distance this day from thoughts of war (Armistice/Remembrance) and adopt an air of reverence more in keeping with what Thanksgiving should be, which is a harvest celebration. Harvest time in Canada is most definitely October, not November, when the snow usually starts flying.

Sacred Wheel
And yet at the heart of Thanksgiving, as it is celebrated by this generation in this age, is something extremely sacred. It is not sacred myth but time. It is a time to feast and a time to reconnect with family and friends, because for everything, there is a season, turn, turn. And first and foremost, it is a time to be grateful and to heed Meister Eckhart's words: "if the prayer you said in your whole life was 'thank you,' that would suffice."

It's not always that pretty - Holly Hunter probably has Thanksgiving nailed better than anyone - but when you ask people what they love most about Thanksgiving, they aren't thinking pilgrim stuff - they're thinking pilgrimage. To happy holidays in their childhoods, or back home to Chicago where Mom & Dad are. They're thinking Grandma's pumpkin pie and juicy succulent turkey and cranberry & sage dressing. Or they're relishing down time at home to recharge batteries. They wear their avoidance of Black Friday mall avoidance like badges of honor, and they speak wistfully about this being their favorite holidays - perhaps because it anticipates Christmakwanzikah and all that December festivity. But most likely because for most, it means four precious days off.

Thus, within the Thanksgiving myth - the holistic one - we have visions of fun, feast, and frivolity, even if that's not really how those early Thanksgiving dinners really went down. We have this need to be inspired by the possibility that we are greater than we are, and to fantasize that our North American history was a cooperative rather than contested one. And given that this is a Christian nation, we have this little myth of the eternal return thing going on, wherein we unconsciously think we might be able to re-create and replant prettier perennials in the garden myth.

And so be it. All that much better to be humbled by our less perfect humanity, so that we can aspire to slightly higher ground than the rock at Plymouth. So that the myth can one day fulfill all that we project upon it. Or not. Who but knows what is to be or not to be - that age-old divine question.

Let's face it - when stripped bare of all those layers of myth, Thanksgiving is not much more complicated than Rabbi Heschel's words above, and yet because it is a constructed and human ritual, it is necessarily so.

And so it is in the spirit of grace and with an attitude rather than altitude of gratitude that I shall approach these next few days, in redux and re-connection to all that is sacred. Sadly, said re-connection and redux is something I need to be reminded of every day, such that there is much I continue to learn and re-learn, again and again, about sacrality, hallowed-ness, thanks and giving from the "red man" who has always known and embodied that thankfulness is irrefutably the most sacred way of being.

Happy Thanksgiving. Blessed Be, Shalom. Salaam. Amen.

"Every part of this country is sacred to my people.
Every hill-side, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed
by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.
Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people,
and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours,
because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch,
for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.
The sable braves, and fond mothers, and glad-hearted maidens, and the little children

who lived and rejoiced here, and whose very names are now forgotten,
still love these solitudes, and their deep fastnesses at eventide grow shadowy
with the presence of dusky spirits.
And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth
and his memory among white men shall have become a myth,
these shores shall swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe,
and when your children's children shall think themselves alone in the field, the shop,
upon the highway or in the silence of the woods they will not be alone.
In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.
At night when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent,
and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts
that once filled and still love this beautiful land.
The white man will never be alone.
Let him be just and deal kindly with my people,
for the dead are not altogether powerless."
Chief Seattle

2 comments:

Michael said...

Beautiful entry.

Thanksgiving continues to be a mythical and symbolic holiday to Americans and Canadians even though it doesn't fit the modern era anymore. There was a time when it had both meaning and importance: the beginning of winter, the crops are in, food is plentiful, the average lifespan is in the '30's, men and boys need 5,000 calories a day just to keep from losing weight during the lean days of winter, spring clearing, plowing, planting, harvesting the hay and vegetables. Their women, eternally pregnant and washing clothes in cold water by hand, need 4,000. Most of the year it's bacon grease, turnips and soft potatoes.

You're also right in connecting Thanksgiving with the westward expansion of North America and our "pioneer" spirit. We'll cherry-pick that chapter, however, and leave out the bits about genocide, delivering shipments of blankets infected by smallpox patients, and killing off the native bison (oh, yeah, and most of the native americans, too).

How romantic an era... How soothing a holiday... millions of 28 pound turkeys dispatched in the past few weeks so we can cook up one today, fantasize about the past, throw most of the feast out in Monday morning's garbage, and work off the extra 5 pounds we gained over the next 6 weeks...

EnoNomi said...

Sorry to go off topic here, but I'm tagging you for the Memory Meme. Please follow my link for more information.

Holy Thought of the Week

"To live fully is to let go and die with each passing moment, and to be reborn in each new one."

~ Jack Kornfield ~