Opinions on Thanksgiving
posted November 19, 2004
Thanksgiving is coming, and for the first time in my adult life, I am hosting the big Turkey meal. There’s one problem: I don’t like turkey. (I like duck). I know I will receive lots of opinionated e-mails for saying this, but I’m a brave lady, and right this moment, there is no one in my sight. Therefore, I have the illusion that I can say whatever I want with impunity. So here goes: Turkey is pathetically inadequate compared to any other variety of poultry (especially duck.) It’s practically all white meat, and its legs and wings are bizarrely gigantic. In order to keep it from being dry, one has to baste it all morning or afternoon long. You have to put the rack in your oven down to the bottom and you can’t cook much of anything else in there while your turkey roasts. And what if it’s underdone by mealtime? Did I mention I have a phobia of food not being ready on time when throwing a dinner party? Did I mention my phobia of having people judge my housecleaning/cooking/hostessing skills in general? Especially my mother and assorted female relatives?
The good friends I turn to for advice when it looks likely that I might start making bad decisions said this: “Don’t try to please everyone at Thanksgiving. Everyone has his or her own favorite traditions from childhood. You will not be able to replicate them all. Just do your best and make sure the food is fresh and not burned. Try to have fun. And don’t overwhelm yourself.”
So what did I do? I sent out a group e-mail to my family (fourteen of them, going on fifteen—as of this writing Baby November is still not born). Among the many questions I asked was “When should we have the meal? Lunch or dinner?” Those family members who are parents of young children (my sisters and brothers-in-law) opted for noon; it’s too much of a hassle for them to try to eat a fancy meal at any time approaching bed time (5:30-midnight, in the case of Amelia, Emmett and Reese). But my parents said they wanted the meal at dinnertime. They said a lunchtime meal would knock them out and they wouldn’t have the energy for touch football, our family tradition (naturally).
I also foolishly mentioned my aversion to turkey in the family newsletter (“Why do people even bother with the whole buy/freeze/thaw/cook for twelve hours nightmare? Can’t we just pick the frozen bits out of the turkey pot pie?”) And received mostly agreeable feedback and votes for the much tastier and easier to cook duck, which I had proposed as the alternative. “Hooray for duck!” wrote one family member. “A much better national bird! Although both birds resemble our president: he IS a turkey and he ducks all the issues!”
However, one family member who shall remain nameless and unidentifiable said–poignantly but annoyingly–“if it’s not a horrible imposition, I’m a huge fan of a small, but whole turkey-one of my traditions is hacking off a leg and eating it.”
This one lone sentence sent me into a tailspin of despair and rampant people pleasing. For now I will have to serve turkey AND what Tom has taken to calling “duckey.” In the middle of the night, I am tormented by visions of me on Thanksgiving morning, basting, sweating, hacking at poultry, the duck undercooked, the turkey overcooked—or vice versa. And what about the apple pie? And the chocolate coffee cheesecake? And the garlic mashed potatoes for my parents but garlic free mashed potatoes for Katryna? And the green beans with almonds for Dave but almond free green beans for Abigail? And should there be a paper turkey centerpiece? Tom wants cranberry sauce in a can and to make sure that the can lines are clearly visible. Wait– shouldn’t we acknowledge the genocide of the Indians at this point in time? And what about the Electoral College? Should it be abolished or not? My mother says yes, my sister Abigail says no. They are both brilliant students and teachers of US History, and if we don’t take this particular opportunity to have them each debate the merits of the system, we will have lost some crucial porthole into The Next Phase of our Republic. Why oh why did I ask anyone what they wanted? Why did I have to make this a democracy when a dictatorship has served hostesses of Thanksgiving perfectly well for almost four hundred years? Did the Indians ask the pilgrims if they liked corn pudding?
In the middle of the night, these thoughts swirl through my poor tired mind, alongside visions of Iran going nuclear, Condaleeza Rice taking over Colin Powell’s job, Tom DeLay getting away with criminal acts and poor John Kerry eating Chinese take out in his Senate office because he’s too ashamed and depressed to join his colleagues at the Capitol Hill luncheon. In the middle of the night, I carry on arguments with people who call themselves Christians and also voted for Bush. I point to all the Bible passages that support my side. I show them images of the powerless and downtrodden and beg them to have mercy. I dream of powerful men becoming impotent and crumbling into the arms of a loving God. I get it that we cannot come to God with our minds. It’s got to be our hearts. And no one can drag us there. I’m not even sure it’s a choice.
If my family can’t even agree on a time to have the Thanksgiving meal, what hope is there for peace for the world?
One of my favorite quotations of all time is by A.J. Muste, the great activist for peace in the 20th Century. He said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Peace is a lot harder than the alternatives. Staying with people you disagree with is one of the most difficult things to do, and as history marches on, the whole notion of staying seems to become less and less appealing. Isn’t that one of the messages of 1620 and The New World? If you don’t like the people you’re with, sail across the ocean and found a colony. Or get in a covered wagon and ride across the plains, found a homestead. If you don’t like your relatives, go to a spa for the holidays. If you don’t get along with your partner anymore, move out, move on.
Are we letting our compromising muscles atrophy? When do we acquiesce and cook two different birds? When do we say, instead, “I’m sorry. I know you’ll be disappointed, but it’s going to be duck instead of turkey.” I am curious about this process, and something convinces me that arriving at some answers in myself is the route to arriving at the answers for the greater community.
A few days after the election, a group of us gathered for potluck, singing and debriefing about the way things went down on November second. We sat in a circle and shared war stories (funny that we call them that, isn’t it.) One person had been a part of a program that brought the conversation across party lines, asking questions instead of arguing. And it occurred to me that the old truth that you can’t change anyone—they have to change themselves—might hold true for the political discussions as well. In my whole life of debating and arguing (the local pastime where I grew up, inside the Beltway of Washington DC) I have never once, in all my brilliance and determination and terrier-like adhesion to pet issues, EVER convinced anyone to believe what I believe. And the same holds true for me—no one has EVER been able to convince me of anything through intellectual arguments. The only time I’ve ever changed my own mind about some issue is when I’ve been asked questions, gently, when the questioner is full of non judgmental curiosity. As in, “What’s wrong with turkey? What if you got it pre cooked?”
“Hmm,” I would say, “That’s okay then. In fact, that’s a great idea.”
To counteract the swirling thoughts and the insomnia, Tom and I are hosting a project called Journaling For Peace. It will be an eight week course starting with a Day of Peace at our house in Northampton, where we will practice talking and writing and thinking from our own centers, our own hearts. Where we practice listening. Tom’s been trained as a mediator, a practice that’s all about finding the space in your self where compromise is possible, poking around at all the firmly held beliefs to see if there’s a little wiggle room. For instance, you might be passionately pro choice but not chose to have an abortion yourself, when the time came. Or you might be passionately pro life but rethink the matter when your sister’s life is threatened by a pregnancy. You might really like duck a lot, but if faced with the task of cooking it yourself on Thanksgiving morning versus reading the New York Times, you might decide turkey would be just fine after all. You get to see which is your attachment to essential truths and which is your attachment to being right. Those are rarely the same thing.
What if, instead of telling my conservative friend who thinks the Bible is the literal word of God and that George W. Bush has been chosen by God to save us from the scourge of Satan in the person of Saddam Hussein—what if instead of telling that person, gently but firmly that he is irrational and wrong, what if instead of that, I started to ask questions: “Why? Oh. Interesting. Tell me more.” What if I sat for a half an hour and without making rude faces or rolling my eyes, actually listened, as if I were listening to a friend whom I loved, telling me she really thought the Bay City Rollers were a better band than the Beatles? At the age of seventeen, I would have divorced this friend. At thirty-seven, I can forgive her ignorance and poor taste. What if I treated my Republican friend the same way? (Without my characteristic patronizing superiority—which is my gift.) Would the world really end if I let him keep believing his delusion? Probably not. And maybe he would, after getting to talk all he wanted without interruption, for half an hour, maybe he would return the favor and start asking me some questions. Either way, I would change. Either way, I would get to have my tight fist opened and begin to acknowledge that perhaps I might not have all the answers.
It’s so hard to know when to quite kicking and screaming about this election. Some days I want to give up, shrug my shoulders, say, “I lived through Reagan, I can live through Bush II,” and delete all the MoveOn.org messages in my in box. Some days I want to weep about Tom DeLay getting away with his crimes against Democracy. Almost every day I feel powerless. Was there voter fraud? If there were, would I feel any better? One friend says the idea that the Republicans stole this election is comforting because then they’re not really in the majority. Another friend says the opposite: “Face it, we’re in the minority. I’m moving to Toronto where people think like me.”
What I’m hoping to get out of the eight week course, Journaling for Peace, is a place within me where I can rest in the knowledge that peace is possible. That change is possible. As that old hymn goes, “Let there be peace on earth and let peace begin with me.”
At the Cheer Up Post 11/2 party, our friend, Hal, read us this article by Michael Ventura from the Austin Chronicle last week: “Don’t demonize people who disagree with you. That’s how Bush and Cheney behave. Behavior is more important than belief. What does belief matter, if your behavior apes your enemy’s? Behavior shapes reality. Belief merely justifies reality. Demonization creates demons. Your enemies are as human as you are. If you treat them that way, the outcome may surprise you.”
I want to learn how to shape reality through my behavior. What better use of my time is there? And what better way of practicing Thanksgiving?