I was going to begin this rumination with the glib and confident statement: Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. But then I found myself wondering if that is true. I realized that it has been only in the last twenty of my fifty years that this was consciously so.
Thanksgiving has been many things to me over the years. Growing up in a small, nuclear, religiously non-observant family, my experience of Thanksgiving as a child was unmemorable. It seemed to be an occasion for a long weekend and a strange tendency to base the dinner menu (loosely) on some cultural convention, rather than the standard rotation of recipes in my mother’s modest, but fully adequate, repertoire. As I look back, Thanksgiving is notable for being unmemorable. There is not one distinct Thanksgiving I can remember: if memorable events occurred on Thanksgiving, they have been filed under some other topic heading.
For instance, as I grope around in memory, I have a vague recollection of having gone with my parents and dined at the home of my childhood friend Stephanie Hansford at least one year. I probably would not have recalled that if I hadn’t been peering strenuously into the dim void for any impressions at all! And it isn’t so much the gathering I remember now as the arriving home afterward with the memory.
Later, in my teens, when my mother had moved us back to the Southeast, where we were in geographic reach of her relatives, Thanksgivings became little annual inter-planetary voyages, to spend time with people of her origins . We usually made a tour of blood relatives and then most often ate at the home of Mom’s best college friend, Ruth; whom I hold in the highest and most tender esteem. I grew to enjoy these visits in my way, but the food and the personalities were a mostly and distinctly of another tribe, and not nearly as nourishing as escaping down the lane for a silent walk among the trees in the crisp, moist air of Mississippi autumn.
Once the meal was installed in our leaden bellies, the men would retire to one room to consume televised football, and the women (and “unmanly men”) would sit around the table and play board games. And I enjoyed this. But even then, it was a strain. Not just the burgeoning and semi-conscious digestive issues, but the burden of animal allergies in dander-laden surrounds, and the strange and also-semi-conscious sense of being an orphan even in company.
These experiences were NOT torturous. They were what they were, and they were formative. And I value everyone in attendance there, still. But in a way I navigated the experiences in some degree of dissociation.
What inspired my original statement in praise of Thanksgiving is really a single event, probably in 1995, in which I invited a handful of other Thanksgiving orphan friends for a vegetarian potluck gathering where I was housesitting in Albuquerque. It turned out to be one of the most warm and pleasurable, even inspiring, observances of the holiday I’ve partaken in (There have been a few runners-up in years since). I can’t even recall all who attended, nor much of what constituted the Feast. I remember I prepared vegetable biryani (an Indian rice dish), and I remember my massage school friend, Aubrey, and her companion were there, and I remember we spent a good chunk of the evening all working on assembling a jigsaw puzzle!
That was a time when food was medicine. Now, alas, twenty years on, in the competing streams of my psyche, the food as medicine stream is losing to the food-as-menace experience.
Thus it is that on this weekend before T-giving 2015, I am re-examining what the day is for, what I want the day to mean and how and with whom I would choose to consciously observe it. How may I best observe gratitude for all Grace and Bounty in my life?
The holiday was founded as a day to acknowledge all Divine Providence, all bounty; and, of course, a central, tangible and universal realization of that is the Harvest: the providence of the flesh and flora that have nourished us as humans and Americans from the beginning.
So, how does one embrace a day that is now mostly associated with feasting and football, when one can enjoy neither??
As I pass through this crucial and very uncomfortable period of healing of the very disorders of mind, heart and body that give rise to a long-standing antagonism with nourishment, I know that it is no accident, and in fact is a gift, that I must meet Thanksgiving through this lens; meet it with a wakeful heart. As this is coming to a head, in its own mysterious time and intelligence, my digestive system and my psyche barely tolerate food. Eating has come to feel like abuse and betrayal, the gagging of a voice that must speak, or perish and take the whole ship down with it.
So while I have a tempting invitation for the Feast Day, it seems the most respectful and productive course is, well, no courses—that is, to Fast. as a Grateful observance—like Sabbath or Ramadan– of what truly nourishes my soul and a forbearance from what does not.
Since my parents’ passing in 2011, I have fasted on two Thanksgivings. The first time was a clear calling and was a perfectly beatific day, much of it out doors, in autumnal solitude, but for the company of a dog I was tending. The second Thanksgiving fast was less volitional, less pleasurable, more lonely.
This year, Thanksgiving must be a meditation, a detoxification of all the lies I have ingested over the decades, and an absolution of the chronic indigestion—in psyche and tissues—that has resulted. It is to be a day of Non-Judgment. And in this, an observation of the Consciousness that has brought me to this point, has helped me see the purpose in all this pain and distortion.
This will not be a day of deferral to convention. It will not be a hunger strike against an unfair life. It will not be a day of medicating with food, to keep from meeting the pain another day (and then feeling it doubly the next).
It will be another gathering with orphans, but this time I do not mean other human beings without families to feast with. I mean the banished and the buried within, the cries for love issuing from all humanity through my own gut, in the universal language of those who are lost but not forgotten, those who seek only to be welcome home. My feast is to meet them, with unflinching attention and compassion -–co + passion: to feel with. And I give thanks for the Presence in and beyond me with which I am equipped to do this.
As Michael Brown says in The Presence Process, “This is not about feeling better; it is about getting better at feeling.” And there is boundless nourishment in Presence, in following the will to love and forgive and feed on the moment’s bare and infinite truth.
I still love Thanksgiving; it may still be my favorite American holiday; and I look forward to again joining the worldly feast—of nourishment, of gratitude and praise, of togetherness, and of laughter, if not next year, next life!
Save some oyster cornbread stuffing for me!