“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in” from Frost’s Death of a Hired Man
I’ve been fortunate, and perhaps not grateful enough, to have amassed 49 years of Thanksgiving feasts without the uncomfortable family drama staged in a living room
I couldn’t flee. Which means to say there hasn’t been drama I wanted to flee. There have been hard feelings from lingering disagreements. Sure. But a holiday feast has always meant placing our desire that the other person is well, and that we get to see them another year, over any desire to win an argument or to make someone feel slighted for choosing the wrong side of an issue.
I thought it might be a result of years on the road, living in a new place every other year, deployment, hardship tour, etc. But that only comes from hindsight and doesn’t explain the years living on the same farm. Politics did not come up, or an opinion was put forth, heard, and then the tableful of family moved on to the next thought. There were many other nights when a tense topic would come up, when as children we would question whether this belief was inherited or whether we were free, with maturity, to decide for ourselves.
There were also holiday feasts when an issue hung like a dark cloud – the year or two I got arrested and spent a night in jail, the time a family member arrived noticeably pregnant out of wedlock, the time I swore ‘I’m never going back to that **** ing church, shaved my head and changed religions, the times we argued, or more often, grew silent on the subject of racism.
The ability to get along never constituted agreement, or a solution. More of an uneasy truce and an acknowledgement that the relationships came first. And unlike Warren, from Frost’s ‘Death of a Hired Man’ that never felt like it was given grudgingly.
“I should have called it
Something you somehow shouldn’t have to deserve.”
from the next line
Maybe that’s because, while we remembered Warren’s line, quoted often out of context a hundred and two years later, we lived Mary’s line, a statement of grace. Mistake riddled teenagers that we were we didn’t have to earn the spot at the Thanksgiving table. In fact we walked up the stone steps to our back door, knowing what was shared with us we could never fully earn.
Still, that did not constitute agreement. Nor would it ever.
I’m thinking of it more as we grow older – the time to put our arms around each other gets shorter. The time to decide which beliefs we’re going to take with us and which we’re not going to inherit – it gets shorter. I read recently from Contested Terrain about farming and fishing and the spectre of racism hovering over each, something that gets more vivid as the culture of fear and hatred grows, only to have someone speak to me afterward of difficult relationships and uncomfortable visits – which hasn’t been true for me – perhaps because of an education that involved setting it aside over food, and when someone traveled 900 or more miles to say hello.
We are still learning to balance the beliefs we know are worth fighting over and the need to put an arm around family. We are still learning not to make the person we grew up with a two-dimensional character in the allegory of our imagination.
We are still, after all this time, learning to be human – which is an identity we already own, not something we’re still trying to earn.
What the Revelator Said
(An Unfinished Idea)
The danger of focusing all your outrage on one person
is in drawing attention from the conditions that allowed
them to do their damage. If multiple sources say it
was common knowledge that an attorney cruised
the mall for underage girls, an entire community
was ok with predators as long as it wasn’t too
embarrassing. Just like sixty two million people
were ok with giving the rantings of a white supremacist
a chance – yet angry that they are publicly identified
with white supremacy. It’s the crimes that are
allowed in one’s home and shared from generation
to generation across the dinner table that
have always been poisoning our communities –
it’s just now the poison has found a faster way to spread.
The marchers in this morning’s parade are assembling on a stretch of road from the elementary school to the VFW. Vehicles, trailers, horses being soothed by their riders, and plenty of flags. Men in their 20s, men in their 90s, gathered.
I’m in a military town so I know less about any civilian military gap. Even growing up where soldiers were not a daily sight, most everyone through their past or through their relatives, were affected by war.
It seems way too simple to assume that those who don’t serve don’t understand the warriors, just as it’s too simple to assume that everyone who has worn the uniform does understand sacrifice. We have courageous warriors, cowards, and various shades of grey in between – in both cultures.
Perhaps the gap is in those who’ve grown from their experience and those who’ve been hardened by it. Something Whitman saw in four years of serving as a civilian volunteer during the Civil War. His writing during this time began with the broadest patriotic calls to ‘do one’s duty’ and ended with a narrow focus, altered by the experience of tending the wounded, burying the dead, and family who became institutionalized from what was then called ‘shell-shock.’
His poem ‘Reconciliation’ in a few short lines travels this path from abstract patriotism to human empathy – a journey many of us are still trying to complete:
WORD over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly
wash again, and ever again, this solid world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin- I draw
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the
The word ‘beautiful’ can only be expressed from great distance has he imagines invisible forces of Death and Night doing repairs. This is unsatisfactory when faced with a human face up close.
Reconciliation becomes the job of each of us, not only to reach out to the family member but to see the humanity in our enemy, who was also doing his patriotic duty, who also dreamed of returning to his family.
The people we see today, the marchers and those gathered roadside, probably did not think about the abstractions politicians use to drum up support for war. In fact, realizing the thoughts run from returning to family, to not losing a battle buddy, to filling the long moments of boredom between action – it’s a wonder anyone is inspired by abstract talk at all.
Today is a day of reconciliation. I’m thinking about the handful I know didn’t make it back but also about an Iraqi Lieutenant and Captain who each wanted to help set up a hospital with western equipment that would last long after the war, and an advisor who had blind faith his country would be safe for him and his family even though he had supported the Americans, and I’m thinking of one hundred twenty thousand I did not meet whose lives were ended, who are not remembered in American parades, who are ‘divine as myself.’
Two Thoughts on Gratitude
1. One of the best parts of bringing a book to completion – it temporarily assuaged the fear of ‘will anyone bother to read it’ – was the chance to send copies to a couple of professors a couple of decades in the past. Two professors who managed to tolerate my flaws, lazy on the editing, tardy, too stuck in my own head (and depression) to write meaningfully about the world outside it.
Somehow in the waves of hurriedly written first drafts and poorly researched ideas they managed to find the positive. I remember one particular morning when the cloud seemed so heavy I struggled to pull myself out of bed. There was a knock on the door of my dorm room. My professor had decided if Muhammad couldn’t come to the mountain, she would bring the mountain. In the form of my entire class standing outside the door. I don’t remember the words but she ended with, ‘and we’ll be at the cafeteria having coffee and waiting for you to join us.’ An event both humorous and effective.
My other professor welcomed me into a class that I’d failed to register for in time. Didn’t know much about my ability but welcomed me to participate rather than just be an auditor in the back of the room. Which was a stroke of luck since I ended up learning more about the craft of poetry than I had in the previous years.
I had no illusions and wondered briefly if there were a stack of books by former students sitting in an office corner like refrigerator art. Until getting letters back with responses to the poems.
Long story short (or less long), gratitude has such an important role both for the sender and the recipient. There’s no expectation when you send it out, yet there’s a healing process in sending it, if only from the realization that we haven’t been alone.
I remember a football coach who started his career in my hometown and made it to the NFL eventually, who made a name for himself by leaving tickets for Elvis at the box office window of every home game. While there’s no expectation it still registered high in importance for him to leave the tickets. And yes, Dr. Barbour and Professor Miller there will always be a copy with your name on it.
2. ‘Listen /with the night falling we are saying thank you’
There is a kind of gratitude that has little to do with receiving some good fortune, that is more of a way in which we conduct ourselves than in relation to some event. Even in the approaching darkness, if we’re practiced in gratitude, the mindset can carry us through. This is not something so trite as ‘it could always be worse.’ Rather, a realization that the world doesn’t revolve around us.
‘after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead /whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you’
Which can come to seem crazy to a person looking at us from the outside. ‘Why,’ someone might ask, ‘would you be grateful for that misfortune, or for that person who did you harm?’ However, living in a tit for tat world only acts as an accelerant for whatever combustible waste is lying around in our mental attic. Laughter may get increased with more laughter but certainly hate gets amplified with more of the same. Responding in kind often fails to lift anything.
‘with the cities growing over us /we are saying thank you faster and faster’
And I doubt Merwin intended for us to ignore harm being done, or to passively accept it, just not to get bogged down in treating everyone as an abstract idea or as a threat. Try being human. Which is coming to look insane in a world judged by clicks and likes and frowning red emoticons.
‘we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is’
Yet this is perhaps the two pictures of faith. Viewed from the outside it looks like a clueless reaction to events that do not deserve a kind word. It’s incomprehensible to smile in the face of a collapsing world. Viewed from the inside it’s a profound experience of grace, one in which we keep walking forward courageously because that may be the only way to walk forward.
The entire poem, by WS Merwin, © 1988, is here: