On the Giving of Thanks

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I know by now it’s quite obvious: Thanksgiving is imminent, and like every major American holiday, it’s been predictably usurped by our consumer culture. We all know the tune: the very next day — and in recent years, the very same day — swarms of our friends, family, and neighbors will invade local and regional shopping centers, finally making those vast alienating expanses of asphalt upon which they park their cars seem warranted. Until quite recently, once the consumption-laden season started conspicuously lurking — I see enough fallen leaves this time of year, do I really need to see more on your promotional flyer? — I’d become inconsolable, all but having given up on my American comrades’ capacity to tread with a lighter foot. Thanksgiving, the one particular holiday for which I’d developed a fondness in my youth, had been reduced to yet another opportunity to advance the corporate capitalist agenda.

Perhaps its my advancing age or my loss of memory, but I find my perspective on the significance of the “Thanksgiving holiday” shifting, or might I say, “maturing?” It seems that two thirds of employers still recognize the holiday’s import by granting the overworked a few days escape from drudgery. And like times past, most people will spend time with people about whom they really care. It’s true: many will actually sit down in the physical presence of these loved ones and break bread, and if your experience is similar to mine, imbibe generously.

In these often brief moments — there’s a football game on, isn’t there? — we’re offered a taste of what’s past. We experience what was more common in a world with preposterously fewer distractions and unrelenting demands for our attention. Sure, we might heed the idevices and football circus more than our valued company, but the intention, the yearning to congregate remains.

When philosopher Ivan Illich discussed the concepts of “rests”, he was speaking about occasions like Thanksgiving. For Illich, “rests” were glimpses into a more convivial, vernacular past. These “rests” can indeed be transportive.

What readily comes to mind when I think about Thanksgiving are memories about gathering together with dozens in my extended family at my grandmother’s — and later my aunt’s — house in New Jersey.  The occasions would reliably kick off with chatter about the latest news in each of our lives. Then at some point, one among a handful of matriarchs would announce that food, sufficient for every attendee of the original Woodstock, was available. A rapid, solemn compiling of fixings would then ensue, which was followed anew by the syncopations of animated banter.

Though I haven’t participated in such a Thanksgiving for years, time and life experience have placed these recollections into a larger narrative. I find myself returning to the idea that this activity, this gathering for a purpose, has spanned generations of my forebears. I see that the substance of our conversation was probably similar to the thousands of conversations that had taken place in those kitchens, on those streets, within those landscapes over hundreds of years.

Sitting here now, a few days before Thanksgiving, I intend to remind myself that playful, soulful congregation, that the breaking of bread, and sharing of stories constitute an Illichian “rest” — a flashing impression of a beautiful past, a past worth recognizing, cherishing and resuscitating.

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