Reflections on Thanksgiving
I recall many Thanksgivings, some more enjoyable than others but each worth reflecting on.
When I was a child, relatives who worked in my father's restaurant and lived bachelor lives because their wives and families had been left behind in China, would show up at our house on Thanksgiving, bearing gifts of fruits and nuts. I found it hard to relate to them because they only spoke Chinese, which we kids no longer did. But even as a child I sensed that, for these sojourners in a strange land, Thanksgiving meant connecting with family.
After my parents separated, my siblings and I had to celebrate Thanksgiving twice: in the early afternoon with my mother and, later, with my father.
At my first Thanksgiving with Jimmy, we had our first serious quarrel. He insisted on putting water in the pan in which we roasted the turkey. That's what his folks did. I said that would be steaming, not roasting.
Years later, my 92 year old father, who was living with us, helped roast and carve the turkey. For many years we also enjoyed Thanksgiving dinners with Annie, Jimmy's first wife, and their children, sometimes at our house, sometimes at hers.
Every Thanksgiving I wonder whether we should remind each other of how the Pilgrims exploited the Native Americans. Should the holiday be a Day of Atonement, as Robert Jensen, University of Texas activist Professor, proposes?
After Jimmy died, I sometimes spent the day as a volunteer, serving dinners to homeless people at a local church.
This year I am very conscious that the turkeys we enjoy have been raised by agribusiness in cages so crowded that the birds can scarcely breathe, let alone move. So I am thankful for the rapidly growing Food Justice movement which aims to establish justice and health at every stage in the food chain, from farm or garden to table. These days, thankfully, there's something that each one of us can do, according to our abilities and concerns, to become part of the solution.
For example, this year, like many others, I can't stop thinking about our increasingly jobless society. Maybe the main reason we go through such tremendous hassles to get together at Thanksgiving is because it is the only American holiday reminding us that most early economies were driven by social relationships and used values rather than self-interest and exchange values.
As Karl Polanyi points out in The Great Transformation, Jobs (or Work done mainly for pay), are a very recent development in human societies. "The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research," he writes in this 1944 book, one of my all-time favorites, "is that man's economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in material goods. He acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims."
Our increasingly Jobless society challenges us to begin building a new society governed by prioritizing social relationships and use values over economic self-interest and exchange values.
Thanksgiving gatherings could be a preview of that new society.
At Thanksgiving families and friends of many different ages, elders as well as youngsters, create together the long memory that we all need to make good choices.
As we enjoy the food, we also appreciate the craftsmanship and hard work of those, usually women, who have spent long hours in the kitchen preparing the stuffing, gravy and pies.
As we bid each other "goodbye," we say " Thank you" because we feel that our humanity has been renewed and enriched by our coming together.