Thoughts of an Author in Training
As a child, at least in Colorado schools, we dressed up as pilgrims and Indians to cut out paper cornucopias and rehearse the all too memorized story of the Thanksgiving feast. The feast that was suppose to bring peace to both land occupants in the states. But like so many other stories our Anglo culture tells, it’s altered and Thanksgiving’s peaceful origin is a myth. Like flying reindeer, bunnies wearing pea-coats, the fairy that collects teeth, the story of Thanksgiving gives comfort on the surface level but at some point it’s good to distinguish the truth. So what is Thanksgiving?
After investigation of other countries with hundreds of years of cultural practices and traditions, it was hard to place Thanksgiving among them. It’s certainly American as we do our best to make it bigger, shinier and eventually about shopping. What is the tradition? Some people do genuinely make the third Thursday of November about something genuine, at least we try but as black Friday has now broken in to gray Thursday it makes me wonder what we’re losing from this holiday. I can say that what happens at my parent’s house is food, family and football.
My family is awkward in the kind of way that you might walk in to our holiday feast and not know where to sit. Do I want to be questioned intensively on my career or studies? Talk about devoting my life to the lord? Or should I sit next to the uncle on the floor who seems to only let wise words out of his mouth? You just assume a seat and listen to words fly around the room about every subject and somehow it’s comfort. From our goofy laughs to bushy Hedberg eyebrows, we entertain ourselves and talk, a lot. In the spirit of Thanksgiving taking a religious identity I always assumed our family to be the “normal” amount of religious, we said grace before the big feast. But as I got older I realized both my older brothers were devoted to God, my father, his sister and brother, our extended family and casually my mother. Before you knew it I was surrounded by grace and bibles for the rest of my holidays and sometimes weekends. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it just puts a lot of pressure on you to figure out where your beliefs lie and means that you have to be a good Christian on holidays.
From this notion of giving thanks to whatever God you believe in for your grand fortune, there is a tradition I hadn’t known until I was so far removed from the habit of Thanksgiving itself. I was on Erasmus in Dublin over the fall semester when the American students lead Thanksgiving. The food was somewhat… disgusting because none of us had really cooked a turkey or stuffing or anything Thanksgiving worthy in such mass quantities. But the potluck style afforded us some international delights masking the uncooked or over cooked flavor of the day. When asked by our Polish friend, Gosia what the meaning of Thanksgiving was we didn’t have the heart to break it to her that Americans were celebrating the slaughter of innocent people, so one of the girls quickly piped up that it was about being thankful for the ones you loved. This was more than satisfying for Gosia, who was light-hearted, full of emotion and yet overly wise. You had to be careful how you phrased things, because she would hold on to every breath and not because she was gullible but she was hungry for language and culture. She was starving for the oneness of humanity. She by far had been to more places than any of us girls from the states and her heart for others grew every day. She asked if she could share in a Polish tradition where we were all given a half sheet of wafer thin white food and asked to gather in a circle so she could explain.
“In my country we share that we are thankful for each other,” she said. “The cookie is shared between friends, new and old. You break a piece and share with someone why you are happy to meet them and hope for the future,” she smiled looking at the 20 students from around the globe.
You could tell she was happy for the moment to express her gratitude in making such lasting friendships. There was so much happiness in her eyes at the thought of joining us all together.
“Then you eat to symbolize being with each other.”
It looked like communion in a way. The color of the food, the way she put it on her tongue rather than in her mouth. It was a communion of friendship that we were all about to commit together.
There was some awkward pausing between students who hadn’t really befriended one another and explosions of tears for those who didn’t want the year to end.
Gosia had this presence about her that made me want to follow her anywhere. I wanted her to be my Shaman of travel. She carried herself as if she didn’t care about anything and cared about every detail at the same time. She seemed to have found peace among herself and was so delighted to have met so many people she thought were feeling the same thing.
I can’t speak for everyone, but she was definitely on her own level of gratefulness, her intensity for the tradition was more than any of us could mimic, at least genuinely. Her trip to Dublin was a religious quest without the religion, while the rest of us either needed to gain scholarships by taking classes on Erasmus or simply just wanted to travel for the drink and adventure. But as she came to me and caught my hands, I suddenly wanted what she was after.
I don’t remember all that she told me. I should have listened better, but instead I just focused on her wide smile, bright blue eyes and short blonde hair that curled and bobbed in all sorts of directions. Her hair was as wild as her spirit. I remember her telling me, like so many others, effectively that I was loud, both literally and metaphorically. She assured me this was a compliment that it was my spirit to be bold and fearless. Behind everything I was kind, caring and ready to be anyone’s friend. I giggled when she wished that for my future I find a nice man to treat me special and with love, though she made sure to assure me that I didn’t need a man if I didn’t want one.
She was good in this way of being traditional and yet progressive. She’s the only daughter of her parents and I believe the youngest. Her family didn’t approve of her travelling, hitchhiking and Couchsurfing with strangers, but she respectfully did it anyways because she felt it was necessary in building her character. She was 27 or 28 at the time of Erasmus and unmarried, something very different than the standard of her country.
I complimented Gosia in return for her kind words, confessing that if I could become anyone it would be her. Among many other things I complimented her vigorous dedication to travel and her courage to speak her beliefs. I loved that she was learning a new language so intently and that she wanted submersion in a culture rather than just visitation. I wished for her to find the deepest of love, like the Notebook which she had recently seen and cried in shock at how beautifully they loved one another. Then we each broke off a piece of our cookie and dissolved the flavorless treat in our mouths.
Hundreds of miles away from my parent’s house I realized that Thanksgiving had meaning, real meaning aside from the story of the first feast and that it didn’t have to be religious. It took a group of people on the outside looking in, to reveal that it doesn’t matter the food, the location or really even the day. You are who you are and the people around you only want to offer you support so you continue to be the person they love. You are expected to do the same and from this you are able to create meaning in your continued survival. With meaning you can create holidays that call attention to those that you love and are thankful for. They say you can’t choose who your family is, but I disagree and say that you can create family out of those who care. My cousin once told me that in the end all you have is family, no matter how terrible things get you’ll always have family.