It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and everyone is doing something. There are houses to clean and beds to be made, or there is a car to pack up and gas tanks to fill. You might be on the road (or in the air) right now as you read this, or your rolls might be rising. It’s the day before. The day before whatever is supposed to happen tomorrow. That “whatever” is purposeful: Thanksgiving gets a lot of ideals piled onto it. What we individually want from it is often ill-defined, marked with whatever baggage we’ve packed and brought with us on the many roads that lead to home.
It’s been a spoken and unspoken thing: this baggage that we’re all bringing. These last few years have been especially fraught. Getting to the table and sitting across from people who we love (maybe), but don’t like (probably), has become more difficult to do. Lingering in the back of our mind are the Facebook posts, the passive aggressive emails, the yard signs for that problematic candidate, the red hats or blue bumper stickers… It doesn’t take much to snap us into the fightin’ mood.
There is a temptation to avoid the table all together. Or to come to the table so inebriated that everything said just evaporates in the fog of your own creation. Perhaps that’s what survival looks like right now. But I have a request: try not to do that this year.
Try to come to the table. Try to come as your full self with your listening ears. You don’t have to come stone-cold sober if that’s utterly intolerable, but do come to the table and come with a willingness to engage.
This is not an easy ask and I’m sure half of you have stopped reading. I’m not asking for you to accept the unacceptable: the racist, the homophobic, the anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim). I’m not asking you to let bile spew all over dinner and simply watch it happen in silence. I’m asking you to know that it’s coming and to come to the dinner anyway. I’m asking you to listen for where it comes from, to hear pain or fear or ignorance, and to not engage with the bullshit, but to engage with the source of the problem. I’m asking you to engage with the human: speak of how life is right now, the day-to-day, the street-level here and now. What’s going on at work? What are prices like at the grocery store? What are you looking forward to in 2019? Why are all movies sequels? What are you putting in the kids’ lunchboxes every day? Where are you doing your clothes shopping?
You think those are mundane questions and stupid small-talk… but they are the questions that get answers that can illuminate a lot. The here and now and the day-to-day reveal a lot about our habits and behaviors, they can unearth a bit of truth about what we want, what we need, what we hope for and what we dread. What’s happened in the last 2 years (3 or 4 years, really) is that we learned we don’t really know our neighbors (that’s always been true), but we also learned that we don’t really know our own kin. Your cousin is coming to dinner in his red hat and with his big ideas about border security. Do you know why? Do you care to know? If you don’t, why not? What could make you care?
And if you don’t care about your kin, do you care about your neighbors in different regions of our country? Why would you, right? And what would make them care about you and what you want and need? What could you say that would persuade them to share your vision for our collective future? Consider this your small-scale practice for our large-scale communal work to come.
World peace will not be achieved tomorrow over dinner. Family peace might not, either. I’m not asking you to seek it, because that would be silly. I’m asking you to come to the table with eyes more open and ears better tuned. Come to dinner knowing that the talking-points and platitudes are bad, but the silences, the stonewalling, and the avoidance are just as bad. Let this be the year you come to the table, ready to be there and whole, and human, seeing everyone else as the same. Just for one day, just for one meal, start with the idea that everyone there is human and the road that brought them to the table was filled with all sorts of nonsense. Your richer-than-God aloof uncle isn’t happy. Your millennial start-up buzzword-speaking polyamorous niece has questions and doubts under her confident facade. Your teenage daughter, who is staring at her cell phone for hours at a time, is still listening and learning. Your mother, who is so busy preparing and just too busy to talk, is hoping for a helping hand, ready for the right question at the right time to answer.
Be there, see them, remembering that your own road home was full of sights, wonders and potholes. Put down your tribal sword and shield. Come unarmed and human. Remember what you hear and learn and know, take that knowledge back with you. This is part of the work. As I told you, we earned 2 years of work.
I write this knowing the full irony of my words. I’m estranged from my father. There is a table that I’ll never pull up a chair to ever again. There is a chair at my own table that he can never occupy. There are people in this world who are worthy of forgiveness and engagement. There are people in your life who may not be. I’m not asking you to compromise the hard-built boundaries of a life worthy of protection. I’m writing in the full acknowledgement that there are some tables too hostile to pull up to. Choose wisely, Dear Reader, and choose well.
But if you are on your way to a table that’s plenty fine and welcoming, but perhaps also occupied by a person or two you’ve been angry at, or confused by, or appalled by, frankly… I’m just asking you not to avoid that table. Go to that table. Sit and be at that table. Take a deep breath, take a sip of wine, and be there for it. When it’s all over, take what you need and move forward. Leave all the rest.
Happy Thanksgiving, Dear Reader. I’ll see you Friday for Quiet Thoughts.