Today is Thanksgiving in the US, at its best a celebration of commensality, of gathering and being warm together. Over the years, I have fallen into the practice of using this day to name what I am thankful for, often irritating family and friends when I insist that we go around and each speak about what we are thankful for. My happiness in those moments was usually related in an immediate way to the conditions of those moments – the wellness of being with family and friends, the suffusing warmth of sharing food and drink.
This is my first Thanksgiving in a dramatically new life. I am living in a small apartment in West Harlem (I am deeply thankful for this apartment), I am far from the friends with whom I’ve spent Thanksgiving for most of the last fourteen years, and preparing to cook a full Thanksgiving meal for my younger daughter and a friend of hers, by myself, for the first time in my life.
It is a cold day in New York, perhaps the coldest Thanksgiving since 1871. When I woke up, I walked without my spectacles to the front of the apartment to gaze at the sunlight in the street. I blurrily saw a squirrel sitting on a branch in the middle of my vision, its tail fluffed and pressed closely to its back so that, to my unfocused eyes, it looked like a single furry protrusion from the branch, taut and very dignified. I watched with an inordinate excitement and started thinking about Thanksgiving.
In the background, to which I soon returned, text messages ping-ed in from friends honoring our relationships, one to each and one to all, with love and gratitude.
Thankfulness comes easily to me; I have much to be thankful for.
In a stream of consciousness, I thought about various people, relationships, and aspects of my life that I am thankful for. My thoughts snagged at a resistance to being thankful for my children. Of course I love my children, I must be thankful for them, I thought. I’m thankful for my children, I can’t say it, I thought. What the heck is that about, I thought.
And here, provisionally, is where that question brought me. To the first degree, I am not thankful for my children because my relationships with them do not rely on desire and choice. This does not mean that frissons of desire and choice have not been parts of those relationships from their conception and even today, but desire and choice are no longer dominant, if ever they were. Trying to figure this out and give words to these thoughts-about-feelings-and-being, I discovered that I have a similar resistance to being thankful for my mother. In some way, being thankful for these relationships is so obvious, it seems ridiculous to say it.
So what is it about this category of relationships? Is this simply about mother-daughter relationships? From what I gather, not all mothers and daughters have such relationships. It definitely starts with my mother, though, this deep knowledge that such relationships exist.
My mother presented me (and my brother) with a relationship that fundamentally did not depend on choice. That did not mean that she controlled us, though she tried. As an aside, though she tried to control what we did, for the most part she did not try to control what we thought. Most simply, for her, her love with all its power and shelter was a fact of life, and that I was her daughter with all of what that could mean was also a fact of life, whether or not I loved her. As it happens, her love, for all its flaws, has been immanent enough in my life that, for me, she isn’t a choice either. Luckily for me, she ‘isn’t a choice’ in a way that brings love and care into my life (flowing in and out). This is the same with my daughters. I have no choice in relation to them, in a way that brings love and care flowing out and into my life. I can tell them, as I do, that they have no choice either, but eventually they will have to know, and feel, this themselves, or not.
These are relationships of being, in a very ordinary way beyond desire and thankfulness. In these relationships, one may be thankful for the health or wellbeing of the other person but one is no longer thankful for the relationship itself. One just bears it, in most cases mostly happily; it is part of one’s being, repeatedly imprinted in one’s neural activity and architecture.
So here is how my feeling-translated-into-thoughts goes: there are relationships beyond thankfulness, beyond choice, and by extension beyond desire. These are not necessarily prescribed forms of relationship; they can be achieved, I feel, in long relationships of deep intimacy, whether these involve strands of kinship, romance, eros, friendship, or perhaps even, most simply, extended physical or intellectual practice of working side-by-side. This kind of relationship seems to take a great intensity, or great durability, or both. Usually, I would propose, one doesn’t get to such relationships without phases and elements of desire and thankfulness, but at some point one reaches a state in that relationship which surpasses thankfulness for that relationship.
Recognizing that I have such relationships, of course I can, and do, feel thankful – but cerebrally more than emotionally – that I have such relationships, several of them. The cerebral ‘gratitude’ or ‘thankfulness’ is an abstract word, almost a prayer or obligatory chant to protect my good fortune. When I try to dive into and find words for the feelings below this particular meta-gratitude – prosaically, what does it mean in terms of feeling for me to be thankful for my mother, for example – I get lost in a complex entanglement of my being with another’s.
On this Thanksgiving then, I found three forms of glowing response to the world around me.
Wonder at the puffy, albeit blurred, squirrel in the tree.
Thankfulness that I have many people who have chosen to care for me and whom I – with elements of joy, desire, satisfaction, and frustration – choose to care for, and also that I have access to communities, places, and things – that I regard and experience with desire and joy – that make me feel well.
And a gaping incomprehension, a kind of expansiveness – quite different from thankfulness – as I consider relationships that seem to transcend choice or thankfulness.
Post-script: The bulk of this piece was written on Thanksgiving Day, which was November 22 this year. As I keep turning it around in my thoughts, I see holes here, gaps there, both logical and substantive. But I will leave it – this piece, these words – in this state of background ferment because it is about feelings, not thoughts, and so inevitably obscured and inexact.
P.S. 2: For those who are curious, my Thanksgiving dinner turned out very well!