Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanks-taking Day!

I enjoy the traditions of this day! The third Thursday in November is a national holiday that is secular and all-American (except for the original "Americans.") But the myth of the first Thanksgiving is dangerous. I've taught all my children the truth: the story of the Pilgrims and the Indians was made up to whitewash genocide. Just yesterday, I told Seth, who is now twelve, a version of this, and since he's autistic, we never know how he'll react. He did reportedly, say, "Happy Thanks-taking Day" to a few people, but he also, when put in a group to make as many words as possible out of "Happy Thanksgiving," added in s--t, a prank that has more to do with his fascination with cuss words than with his newfound understanding of Thanks ("giving.") 

My son(right) in first grade, 1988

I think schools are far less likely to teach the old pilgrim and Indian story now. I know our national parks and museums have begun to include truthful accounts of the invasion and genocide we prosper from. You could say: that's the past, so get over it, because we can't change it.

But Native American communities are suffering today. They are suffering from poverty, early death, and addiction at higher rates than the general population. And the opioid crisis has hit them even more intensely.

My great grandfather, J.D. Self, and three daughters. My grandmother, Agnes Self Patton, is the eldest.

My great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian who married a white man. She died in childbirth, and the baby, a boy named after his father, died a few months later. This was in the late 1800s. He was left to raise three girls, my grandmother, and her sisters. I found the graves of my great-grandparents and the baby in the tiny town of Telford, TN, some years ago. My grandmother married an alcoholic, my grandfather, also from Telford, and the disease has run rampant through my family. 
Great-grandmother Mora Lake Self

Family systems are remarkable. Without even knowing the patterns, we repeat them. My mother died when I was five, and my father raised three children, albeit with a stepmother. I married an alcoholic, and my own sons suffered from the disease. All of this is to say that holidays are fraught with memories and sadness and pain that may be invisible to others, and incomprehensible, even to oneself. You can repress them, but grief unacknowledged will surface.

Alice Miller:

“The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.” 

My first child, 1982.

My mother died on December 10, 1960. It took me a very long time to acknowledge that Thanksgiving and Christmas, and especially the time in-between, would never be uncomplicated. My father's only brother, a beloved uncle who played a magical role in my childhood, came to our house for Thanksgiving when I was 13 and died in his sleep that night. My father's grief was bottomless. He drank even more than he had before. He and his brother had been best friends, and had both been bachelors and sportsmen into their forties.

The Thanksgiving before we separated, my then-husband told me he wouldn't cook and he wouldn't be there, after I'd invited my family. I can't even remember why. I know he thought I'd beg him to stay home. But I went forward, and just decided I'd cook the food myself. He ended up being there, and cooking, after all. It was a cruel trick.

Because of divorce, I spent many Thanksgivings alone, or without my kids.

After I remarried, and our daughter came along, the bad holidays continued. Once, we drove to New Jersey, and brought all the makings for Thanksgiving dinner, to find that my half-sister and stepmother had decided to go elsewhere, and my sons had to eat with their father, so my husband, our daughter and I ate alone in my family home. This sort of disregard is typical in my family.

My brother lives in Connecticut, and I haven't seen him for about ten years. My half-sister in New Jersey isn't speaking to me. To be fair, I confronted her angrily in April for what I perceived as her lack of hospitality to my kids (and me.) I may not have any meals, far less Thanksgiving, at the home I grew up in. It belongs to her now.

One thought I had when I heard David Cassidy died was, "Well, he and his family will be spared another hellacious Thanksgiving." Cynical, I know. But having alcoholics in the family is worst on holidays. The apprehension about whether they will show up, and in what condition, is bested only by cumulative fear and anxiety when they don't. Texts and phone calls, excuses and late arrivals, slurred speech and bleary eyes: these are on the menu in an alcoholic family. Just recently, one of my sons told me that the holidays caused him intense anxiety. I'd never taken the time to see it from his point of view. Now, I can. I am so grateful to him for telling me.

I could go on, but you get it. And I know I'm not special. Or unique.

Last Thanksgiving at home? 2014

I actually love this day: my favorite part is the food preparation. This year, we are using lots of things we grew ourselves. I'm grateful for so much! My sons are years into recovery. One of them is in Oregon, working on a fishing boat, because he can now follow his dreams. The other one will be at our family gathering. He's a vegan, and so is my daughter. I'm healthy, and have time to write, garden, and do research.

I focus and raise up the problems of the world, because we cannot ever forget those who suffer, who are impoverished, addicted, oppressed, or disenfranchised.The world, like the body, will present its bill, already has, and we can no loner afford to evade the truth. At the same time, I can be profoundly grateful for what remains. You wouldn't fight for a world you didn't love.

I would be happy to have it called "Gratitude Day." And in our gratitude, remember all of those who came before, those who didn't make it, those who aren't here, and those who writhe in pain today:

If you are here to read this,
think of those who aren't.
Pray for them: good thoughts for those
who lost their minds, love and years
to compulsion, addiction and fears.
Think of their great sacrifice.
We recover on the bones of others.
Wrap your loving thoughts around them:
alone no more.
If you are here and recovering
your original shining true self,
a moment of silence for those driven mad
by the voices and screams of disease-
driven dreams. We walk from night to day
on a path made of the bones of others.
Hold them tightly in the warm arms of your spirit:
cold no more.
If you are here and attaining freedom,
a thousand bows for those who didn't
reach this shore and drowned in a
sea of despair: suffering no more.
We walk in freedom past cages made
of the bones of others.
They hand us the keys of desperation.
Quench their burning thirst
with the tears of your soul.
Calm their cravings. Still their minds.
Grant them peace in the dark and
lonely places below and above the ground.
Fill the gaping holes left by their deaths
with the immensity of your love.
Remember them as you sleep;
remember them as you wake.
Only a thought is the difference
between you and the bones of others.