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Structurally, Thanksgiving is very simple: Go in a room, sit down with at least one other person, and have a meal. If it were a game or a dance diagram, it would be ver easy to instruct someone unfamiliar with the steps. It replicates nothing so much as an experience many of us have more than once a week. It is unremarkable, and yet it is also extravagant and unnecessary, a strange Caligulan occasionin which the objective is to make far, far, far more food than the people seated at the table could ever hope to eat even in second and third and fourth helpings.
Excess is not actually a way to show gratitude. Rather, it’s the opposite – to be grateful is to hold something close, to be possessively frugal and wary of waste. Thanksgiving is inherently suspect, enacting the profligacy that someone who has never felt lack mistakes for gratitude. The kid running around the candy store, stuffing his face with chocolates until he bursts or passes out. As a symbol of our nation, and of our national understanding of gratitude, it is all too accurate.
But nevertheless, I love it. Like most if not all things I love, I mistrust it down to the edges of my skeleton, but I love it all the same. I love the slumber party of it, the way our families or friend groups for a day take on the set-up of a reality television show without the cameras, everybody stuck in a room together for long hours, making the shape of the day out of one another. I love the sense that everything stops for gluttony, for whatever you turn toward the light and call family. That for one day nothing matters outside of a single small warm room.
Family is difficult much as celebration is difficult, its presence always announcing its absence, its gifts making its lacks loom larger. The holidays bleat and crow about love, and thereby create a gaping space for loneliness. The most difficult thing about the holidays is perhaps how everywhere they are proclaimed a time for family, as though that were something available to everyone, as though family were something everyone could choose to do, as though it were so simple.
Nearly all families are incomplete, composed of accumulated absences and resentments. My family is very small – both my parents are through various circumstances more or less estranged from their families, and through various other circumstances only ever had one child. They both come from families that are broken in one way or another but we ourselves are as a family highly unusual in how little we are broken. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for a lot of things, for a litany of things that string like inexhaustible rosary beads across a long grey day, threading through the smell of cooking, stumbling across the drinking that starts too early, the blare of the parade two blocks from my apartment. I want a whole day to glut myself on my gratitude, to invent a version of the world that carries only blessings. There may be no better symbol for such a false world than a room where there is always more food than you can finish, where one never approaches even the edges of enough.
But perhaps it’s something odder, something sadder and more quietly sinister about the day. Thanksgiving is the Sunday afternoon of holidays. Set at the picture-frame-bracket end of fall, it marks the place where we pass through the next place. With its food and its light and its warm rooms, it carries us over the threshold to winter. Thanksgiving is in this way like the nurse who tells a joke so the child won’t notice that they’re getting a shot until after it’s happened. There’s the sick lurch into winter at the end of the meal, when everyone cleans up and goes home or watches TV or naps, the sense that when this meal is put away what comes next will be otherwise. There’s the moment at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade when all at once its not Thanksgiving anymore, but Christmas, and time marches on just that fast and that relentless, and we have so few small days to make bright before they escape us and ravel out into forgetting, into a small blur of remembered noise.
(There’s also the fact that the Westminster Dog Show is on TV is FULL of DOGS.)
In the midst of life, death. Abundance is a giddy and fearful acknowledgement of the losses that have come before and are coming once again. We gather more to us than we need as a way to say that we have felt lack before and we will feel lack again. We gorge ourselves like bears ready to sleep through a fallow season, and at the end of the night as the table is cleared there is a silence as the rushing darkness gapes ahead of us. We love each other more fiercely in the winter when the dark crowds close. My mom makes everyone go around the table and say what they’re thankful for; counting your blessings is a way of remembering that they’re scarce, is a way to say “here is what I am glad has not been taken from me.” Any abundance that is not finite is an acknowledgement of scarcity, of what you would be afraid to lose. It gets cold and we go inside where it’s warm and celebrate gratitude. It gets dark so we hang up lights all over the city, the constellations dotting down the avenues, the trees up on College Walk and on Montague street wrapped with strings of cheap stars. We brace for what is coming. We feast when we should be saving, we let the water run and leave the lights in the house burning, thinking that if we can prove we have enough to waste, we can evade the specter of loss. We pack up the food and we blunder out into the dark, into the lipstick-stained holiday parties, into the small days tumbling down to the bottom of the calendar just ahead.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. I’m hosting my parents for the first time in my life this year, and they arrive in about four hours and I’ve been a ball of panic for at least three days. This was meant to be a series of stories about various utter shitshow Thanksgivings I’ve had in past years. Maybe I’ll write that one from the center of a food coma tomorrow evening.