It’s never been my favorite holiday. Halloween, yes, with all its childish humor, suspended reality, neighborhood fun and friendly competition. Independence Day, too, which is a shock for most people to learn. I’m not a patriotic person, but there’s something about summertime barbecues, a family of friends, and shimmering colors lighting the dark that gets me going. Christmas, of course, has its advantages. Cozy clothes, good food, and giving gifts, not to mention the music and movies that I can’t help but delight in, and the nostalgia that lingers from childhood and past lives. But Thanksgiving?
Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place,
that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?
The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment.
The wicked are denied their light, and their upraised arm is broken. (Job 38:12-15)
This week in literature class, I discussed with my students the concept of bravery. We had just finished reading Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and one student remarked on Starr’s bravery. I mentioned that Starr herself often comments on her lack of bravery, about how she often feels too scared to act. This opened up an interesting discussion about what bravery really is. They came to the conclusion, naturally enough, I think, that if there’s no potential cost to an action, then there’s no bravery required in acting. As such, it’s exactly when we are scared but act anyway, when we are most brave and, ironically, when we feel it the least. We can recognize this bravery in others because we know, intellectually, what it means for a person to act strong when they feel weak; to show courage when they feel fear. We have the benefit, in those situations, of judging the actions themselves, because we cannot possibly feel what the person is feeling inside. But when it comes to ourselves, the feelings come first. So, if we are afraid, even when taking action, it’s that sensation of inadequacy that lingers.
Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this. (Job 38:16-18)
I wonder this year if, to be thankful when you feel anything but, is itself an act of bravery. It’s been a very hard year for me. One of the worst, and it’s hard to put into words, or even logical thought, why this is. Nothing extremely terrible happened, but sometime back in January, I sprained my ankle badly. It happened just a couple of weeks after returning home from a trip to Chicago, to see family and friends. In retrospect, I realize now that that injury and its very long recovery had a much bigger effect on me than I acknowledged at the time, which is bizarre because I was absolutely aware of it at the time. Still, it somehow colored the rest of my year, in the way I reacted to life, the universe, and everything, and that color was decidedly umber.
What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside?
Can you take them to their places? Do you know the paths to their dwellings?
Surely you know, for you were already born!
You have lived so many years! (Job 38:19-21)
Can I find things to be thankful for this year? Sure. But the joy I usually begin to feel about this time is lacking. I try to talk myself into it. You have your health! Yes, despite this terrible cold that persists, I have my health. Despite a relatively unhealthy year and the almost willful destruction of a lot of the hard work I’ve done over the last three years, I have my health. I have a job I love, too. The students seem to strike me with positivity just when I need it most. An unsolicited email thanking me for inspiring someone to read again, and love it. Or comments overheard during break about how much a group of students are going to miss my class, how much they’ve loved it. I have my partner and 13 years of memories with him. Family and friends, though far away, remain present in their way and remind me what it is to have good and loving people in my life. A niece and nephews that I adore, and a completed first draft of a novel that was sitting deep inside of me for a very long time. Music and books and art, and everything else that makes life bearable in the bad times and meaningful in the good. All these things I have to be thankful for, so despite the best efforts of a tired and weary spirit, I’ll remind myself that the good is there.
What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed,
or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?
Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm,
to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert,
to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass? (Job 38:24-27)
Speaking of books, there are two that I want to specifically mention, while I sit here pondering the bravery of feeling gratitude while mired in the depths of despondency. The first is Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and the other is Ziggy, Stardust and Me by James Brandon. I managed to write some thoughts down for the Vuong when I finished it back in June, but I never managed to get anything down about Ziggy. At the time, I remember tweeting something about finding a book soulmate. Is that possible? It’s like James had written the book I’d been waiting to read for so long. It made me feel more than a little envious, if I’m being honest, because, like Shaun David Hutchinson’s Brave Face, it captured a particular experience and worldview that I thought was uniquely my own. As I wrote recently, though, I’m trying to find the benefits in these connections, even connections yielded from a difficult place, because there’s something about sorrow and loneliness, and pain, that not only allows for but encourages the most fiercely human understanding between people.
Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water?
Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you,
‘Here we are’? (Job 38:34-35)
Trying to measure up. That’s the thing, maybe. The great and terrible error for us all, but especially for me. To compare myself to anyone else. To wonder if, when, or how I’ll achieve what I intend to achieve. To be satisfied. Buddhism reminds us that there’s the decision to take action, and then there is the action. The first is a start, but there’s no movement to it, and so no satisfaction; in fact, to decide only, but not to do, is perhaps the most painful state of being. To act, there’s the magic. When one lingers in fantasy and best laid plans, there’s nothing left for him but to measure and measure and measure. But like cups of salt being poured atop each other on a kitchen counter, the peak will ever only reach so high before spreading, without form or direction, and falling over itself into nothing. A pile of salt. An empty vessel of gratitude, filled with a thankfulness that never seems more than thought-deep.
Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together? (Job 38:37-38)
The first step? As with anything else, I suppose it begins with attitude and proceeds with action. So, I’ll turn on Christmas music and get out the boxes of decorations. I’ll listen to Judy Garland sing, haunted, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” while I put up my tree and turn on the lights. I’ll imagine feeling something different and deeper. And then I’ll do something to stoke that feeling from dream to reality. A lesson on the guitar. A page in the journal. A chapter revised.
To act and be thankful that action is possible.
To try, and accept the effort as enough.
I wonder whether the expectation that surrounds this time of the year is a barrier to enjoyment. There’s so much pressure to be thankful or to have the perfectly decorated home and the perfectly cooked meal, that we lose all the joy of the event.
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