Mainewhile: Give thanks, and give it some thought

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Well, here we are; another Thanksgiving has been and gone.

How was yours? I hope you were surrounded by loved ones and tons of good food. I love Thanksgiving, love it. I love Thanksgiving and that’s causing knots in my brain and in my soul – because it’s complicated.

Growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. Thanksgiving meant a huge meal on grandma’s best china, endless card games with a pack of cousins, long chats with grandpa in his easy chair, and more pie than could be eaten in one sitting. The games and the pie would go on for days, broken up by long walks in the woods at the end of the road. I loved the holiday.

As an adult, I came to appreciate the deeper purpose to the holiday and to wholly embrace a pause in the everyday to be mindful of things in my life for which I am thankful. I believe in taking time out be grateful. I believe in taking time out from the everyday to sit with family and friends, to break bread, to play board games, to laugh. And I still believe in pie.

However, in adulthood, I also came to understand that the story I’d been told about the holiday was a myth, and a dangerous one at that. The myth of Thanksgiving is well known. I’m willing to bet that those of us who have reached a certain age made more than one pilgrim’s hat out of construction paper, and probably quite a few feathered headdresses, too. It seemed noble at the time, a celebration of coming together. With the benefit of knowledge and awareness, it is downright cringe-worthy.

I’ll skip past the more obvious issues, such as the woeful cultural blind spots on how an actual member of the Wampanoag tribe would have dressed, or the less than seemly behaviors of the actual pilgrims, and go straight to the bedrock issue: The pilgrims were the first wave of what would become a mass colonization, resulting in the near extermination of the indigenous peoples. The indigenous cultures were ravaged by illness, ravaged by attack, ravaged by cultural extermination.

Here in Maine, there were 20 tribes included in the original Wabanaki confederacy. Today only four remain. Colonization took the lives, the land, and the culture of the indigenous nations that were here before me. There is nothing in that to celebrate.

And there’s the bind. I still believe in taking time out to be with family and friends, to eat good food, and to be mindful of the things for which to be thankful. However, I no longer know how to “do” Thanksgiving. I know too much.

I suppose I could wish that I didn’t know, that I still believed in the myth. This would, surely, allow me to continue on with the annual feast angst free. But that’s silly. I wouldn’t be undoing the shameful history, I’d just be ignorant of it. Ignorance is never the right answer.

My father is a UCC minister. For that matter, so is my mother. We can revisit what it was like to grow up with two minister parents another time, and I don’t intend to toss religion at you. I mention it now because of a sermon my father used to preach on the Garden of Eden, in which he explained the garden as a metaphor for childhood.

As children, innocence and naivety allow us (ideally) to live in a realm of fantasy, safe and protected from the horrors and burdens of the world. The forbidden fruit, you might recall, grew on the Tree of Knowledge. Knowledge and awareness of the world bring pain and confusion and angst. When we become aware, we are exiled from paradise. We are no longer able to pretend that bad does not exist and with that knowledge, comes the burden of responsibility. This is a tragedy.

It is also essential.

“What parent,” my father used to ask, “would set before their child the one thing that is forbidden, walk away, and expect it to remain unexplored? No. We are meant to explore. We are meant to gain knowledge. We are meant to grow up.”

I don’t know how to undo the wrongs of the past. I don’t always know how to best act as an ally. I don’t even have a plan for next Thanksgiving. What I do know is that I am thankful for the pain of knowledge and for the opportunity to listen, and to do my part as an adult in working to set things straight.

For this I give thanks.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at heather@heatherdmartin.com.

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