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November 27, 2008
I just passed up an opportunity to read yet another call to eschew (I try not to bite off more than I can eschew) Thanksgiving feasting in favor of fasting to commemorate the genocide on which this country was founded. No, I'm not in favor of genocide, and yes, I know my country's history well enough to be sobered by it. What bugs me about these annual screeds is that their authors are so often celebrating a side of the Puritan tradition that I would just as soon, well, eschew: the practice of joyless self-denial that believes in spreading joylessness as far and wide as possible. If I ain't happy, ain't nobody gonna be happy, etc. This self-denial is actually a form of self-indulgence, The screed writers, like the Puritans, are happiest when they're unhappy. In their view, happiness is a surefire sign that you don't understand the magnitude of the situation. They get serious satisfaction from looking down their noses at the happily sinful, sinfully happy multitudes.
I like Thanksgiving. Over the years I've celebrated it with lots of different people in a variety of ways. Some years I haven't done anything more special than go for a long walk or a ride in the woods; this year Cris and Owen invited me to have dinner with them, and that's what I'm doing, after I've done chores at two barns. Being a single person without strong family ties has plenty of advantages, and one is that I don't feel obligated to do the same thing year after year, and to slip into the apparently common view that Thanksgiving is an ordeal to be endured rather than an occasion to celebrate. Amidst all the godless materialism that would surely make them blanch, the Puritans would surely recognize us as their descendants!
I don't share the worldview or theology of the white settlers at Massachusetts Bay, and I believe that the seeds of genocide were planted as soon as they set foot onshore -- but when I look at the tiny Mayflower and consider my own experiences with the Atlantic Ocean, I'm awed by their faith and their courage.
Same goes for the "founding fathers" who came along a century and a half later. Instead of treating them like icons who have to be knocked off their pedestals before we can feel safe from their influence, why not see them as human beings who were products of their time and place but who managed to rise above it and do a great thing? They didn't know everything that was going to flow from their declaration of independence, and you know what? I'm glad they didn't wait until they could analyze all the possible consequences of their actions. To see all possible consequences of one's actions is to be paralyzed into inaction.
Because they and a whole bunch of others did what they did, we're able to do what we're doing today. We just elected a man of African descent to be president of the United States of America. No, the millennium hasn't arrived and racism has not been staked through the heart, but take a moment to think about what this means, people! A country rooted in a self-righteousness so sure of itself that it sanctioned -- and continues to sanction -- genocide, slavery, misogyny, assembly lines, and environmental destruction has chosen a black man who's been telling us that we really can do better than this.
We owe our own opportunities to hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of imperfect people who enslaved and killed and did plenty of other appalling shit. Out of appalling shit can grow something wondrous, if and only if we keep sorting through our myriad legacies and choosing the options that expand the options available to more and more of us. The Puritans did it, though they wouldn't have put it quite that way. The founding fathers did it more consciously, but still with great limitations. And all of them helped lay down the track that helped make abolition and the labor movement and the civil rights movement and women's liberation first thinkable and then possible.
So here I am, grateful to be living in this body, in this time, and in this place. Mindful of the suffering, death, and destruction in the soil I grew from, but still giving thanks that I have what I have: my dog, my horse, my island home, and my work in the world.