In the United States today is Thanksgiving, a holiday that recalls when European settlers came together with the Wampanoag in Massachusetts to celebrate a successful harvest. The holiday has evolved a lot since 1621; today, it seems like just a short breath before the Christmas rush. This post won't change that, but it is a slightly longer breath.
Over the past decade or so, our family has developed a small Thanksgiving tradition around the Arlo Guthrie song, "Alice's Restaurant". In the early 1990s, we used to drive to Connecticut to spend the holiday with my sister-in-law, and we always got stuck in traffic while trying to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Traveling with then-young children, we'd turn on the radio and listen to "Alice's Restaurant", which by its own tradition was played at noon on Thanksgiving by progressive rock radio stations. The first few times they heard the song, which is more than 18 minutes long, the kids groaned. "What is this?" was one memorable response.
But over the years, their reaction changed, to the point where they'd voice some of the song's more memorable lines. Listening became a holiday tradition.
My in-laws moved to Milwaukee about a decade ago, leaving us without a trip to Connecticut. We figured we'd stay home on Thanksgiving, take a break at noon and recreate the listening experience without the traffic.
Our house is nestled near the campus of Seton Hall University, and the school's radio station overpowers the bottom end of the FM band. Before streaming became commonplace, the tuner in the house couldn't get a signal for WFUV, the station that played "Alice's Restaurant" on Thanksgiving.
That first holiday, we all left the house at noon and sat in a parked car in the driveway for 18 minutes. Expecting friends, we left a note at the front door to look for us in the driveway. For the last half of the song, we had seven people singing along in a parked minivan.
The next year – 2003 – I had this somewhat impulsive idea to invite the community over to listen and sing along. Responding to attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States had invaded Iraq and was at war in two countries. Struggling somewhat to see Iraq as a just war, I'd remembered a line from the song. Trying to coax a bit more participation from the audience, Guthrie said:
"If you want to end war and stuff you got to sing loud."
So that year I put up a note on a local bulletin board, Maplewood Online, inviting people to come by at noon on Thanksgiving. A handful of brave souls did. To save them from being crammed into the back of the minivan, I'd bought the CD and had it ready to play.
The next year, a few more people came. At some point, we added mimosas to the menu to goose attendance, which peaked one year at about 30. Thirty people, sitting in our living room, singing loud to end war and stuff.
Wars go on, some of our making, others not. "Alice's Restaurant" itself was written 45 years ago, in protest of yet another war. It's fun to listen and sing along, but it can be hard to see how even a loud rendition is going to change a cycle of aggression and defense that dates back millenia. And yet we try.
A coincidence of calendars this year places Thanksgiving on the same day that John F. Kennedy was killed, now 49 years ago. Earlier this year, work brought me to Dallas, where I had an afternoon free to visit the Sixth Floor Museum, located on the site where Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy. With this assassination, conspiracies abound, and much of the tour was given over to recounting the inconsistencies of the day the president was killed.
But I found myself drawn instead to the smallness of it all. Dealey Plaza, the grassy knoll, the corner in what was once a book depository – a tragic, iconic moment in our history took place in a space that many Americans would call a side yard.
A few months later, I attended a reception at the JFK Library, near the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts. Before the event, we were invited to tour the public galleries, which tell the story of Kennedy's presidency. One of the galleries, the size of a dining room, was dedicated to the space program and Kennedy's commitment to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.
The walls in the room featured the original texts of space-themed speeches given to Congress and at Rice University, where Kennedy proclaimed "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
And at one end of the room was the Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, that had been flown by Alan Shepard, the first American in space. It fit inside a display case, and yet it carried a man into space.
This time, it struck me that most things are small, but we see them as big and use scale to distance ourselves from them. We pull back.
In the Rice speech, Kennedy invoked those Pilgrims who celebrated that first Thanksgiving:
"William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage."
Kennedy used Bradford to help sell the idea of making a multi-year commitment to a difficult goal. That was the necessary analogy, but it sidestepped the more important point: the founders of the Plymouth Bay Colony had come to America to escape religious persecution, a "great and honorable action" that would later be afforded among the most important protections included in the U.S. Constitution.
They didn't come here to write a new Constitution, but their actions created the framework for those who did.
Mid-year, I posted that "Writing every day, I have trouble hiding my occasional despair for things publishing." That's still true, but writing every day affords me a lot of chances to sort out what's really on my mind. The topics that appeal to me reflect what I'm thinking about, consciously and less consciously.
And here's what I'm thinking about: actions, not necessarily great, but honorable; and contributing to frameworks that will outlast me.
Lately, I've been listening to a song, "See the world", by Gomez, that says in part:
And when all's been said and done
The things that are given, not won
Are the things that you earned
That's my thought for Thanksgiving this year. We can't keep taking, or (perhaps more accurately) continuing to take only teaches others to do the same in return. But it is within our power to keep giving.
We can combine our voices to sing loud. We might not end war in our lifetimes, but that doesn't make the actions less honorable or the frameworks less valid. We can choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Along the way, we just might see the world.