Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Edward Hicks, "Peaceable Kingdom"

For any American readers who may be logging in to read as you prepare to travel for today's holiday, or as you prepare for the family gathering (and I dearly hope holiday-makers aren't wasting time reading this), a pre-gathering reflection I find helpful from Patricia Volk's book Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family (NY: Vintage, 2001):

Family is what we first know of the world.  Family is the world, your very own living microcosm of humanity, with its heroes and victims and martyrs and failures, beauties and gamblers, hawks and lovers, cowards and fakes, dreamers and steamrollers, and the people who quietly get the job done.  Every behavior in the world is there to watch at the dinner table.  You study them.  You learn.  You see how they change and how they stay the same.  But if you think you know them, you’re missing the point.  The point isn’t how well you know somebody.  The point is this.  In a family you don’t come from nowhere.  You enter the world already part of something.  The myths and behaviors are all there to model yourself on or against.  You are who you come from.  There is no escape, but there is transmutation.  Family is how you become who you will be.  It’s through family you learn there are no limits on ideas, nothing is strange if it seems right, and if you believe in what you do, who cares what anyone else thinks.  Knowing so much about them, how open-hearted can you be?  You were born with the chance to love them.  You might as well.  They’re yours (pp. 230-1).

There's a sensibility in Volk's viewpoint--perhaps a specifically Jewish one--that rings very true for me, from my cousiny Southern experience ("We're a very cousiny people," Mary Harty tells John Berendt in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil [NY: Random House, 1994], as she warns him to be careful what he says about whom to whom in Savannah, since they're all related [p. 36]).  Family is.  It's there, for weal or for woe.  And it's the backdrop against which we form our personal identities.

It's there even when we no longer gather around a family table to celebrate with a shared meal.  It remains the deep psychic backdrop of all we do to the end of our lives.  This week alone, I've dreamed of family members dead and alive, of those with whom I'm still in contact and those who, for whatever reason, choose to shun me.  They're all still there inside me, shaping me through their psychic presence to me.

And because of the primal significance of family in all of our lives, the family table is always open.  It is always open because, quite simply, family is family.  If you are family, there's a place for you at the table.  The gathering of a family around a table open to all, at which everybody is equally welcome, inevitably echoes for those of Christian traditions Jesus's radical practice of radically open table fellowship, in which, as Marcus Borg notes, he sought to model his vision of a radically inclusive community, and in which the eucharist is born (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time [NY: Harper, 1994], p. 56).

And given that all this seems so clear, so obvious to me, I don't think I'll ever quite grasp the viewpoint of a number of my fellow Christians and fellow Catholics who are so intent on restricting access to the Lord's table, on drawing lines to denote the welcome and the unwelcome as we gather to remember Jesus breaking bread and blessing wine for all.  I don't think I'll ever quite grasp the concern of folks like Catholic anti-gay activist Maggie Gallagher, who has just released a video instructing "people of faith" how to let their gay family members know that they're under condemnation at the family table:

Eat up.  Enjoy.  We're all one family, one happy family.  But remember, you gay brothers and lesbian sisters, that we're the righteous and you're not.  You're at this table only through our good graces.

What kind of bona fide family ever behaves this way?  What kind of family gathers around a table to break bread together, but only after it has read out a list of the sins of everyone at the table?  Or what kind of real family ever chooses to preface a family table celebration with denunciations of Aunt Meg's racism and Uncle Bob's exploitation of his workers, of Cousin Charlie's latest dalliance with another man's wife or Cousin Miriam's fourth marriage?

Family gatherings around the table are--they should be--the one time we choose to forget about all of these lines separating the pure from the impure.  They are or should be the one time we all remember that none of us deserves all that is offered to us within the family circle and on the family table.  That, viewed from the standpoint of a God who chooses to make the rain fall on the righteous and unrighteous alike, none of us merits the gifts of life and love offered to us.  We stand in gratitude for what is freely given and never merited.

That's, after all, what giving thanks is all about.  Or it should be.

Happy Thanksgiving, all--well, to American readers of this blog.  And a good day to all readers everywhere.  (And now Steve and I will start preparing for a long walk to a dim sum restaurant we like [we're in Salt Lake City right now] to have our own Thanksgiving dinner, followed by a walk to the movie theater to see "Hugo.")

No comments: