As an only child whose parents—are deceased, gone, in heaven? have shaken off this mortal coil? have passed away? passed through the veil? when, oh, when will I find an easy way to say this? whose parents are dead—I am evermore grateful for those dear ones I call family on this earth. This circle of kinship widens and contracts, widens and contracts, but it is present, thriving, I’ve come to believe, if only I will embrace it. If only I will wrap my arms around the circle and hold it close, let the circle hold me close. I’m learning how to do just that.
This Thanksgiving, Greg, the kids, and I were drawn into the circles of two of our chosen families, who, God Bless Them, Every One, also choose us.
Thursday we shared with Magdalena and Teo’s godparents. We’ve spent this holiday together as families for over twenty years, long before children, in various cabins and way stations, apartments and domains. We’ve known each other longer than that. These two people cook like nobody’s business, and they understand loyalty, conviviality, and laughter, the circle, and they help me understand these things, too. Greg made bread. I made chutney and sauce from the cranberries our CSA farmer dropped in a box by our backdoor. The place cards were made by the kids years ago. We read Robert Herrick’s poem, “A Thanksgiving to God, for his house.” We feasted.
This Thanksgiving Friday, my family was drawn again into another family where a great feast was also shared, and much laughter and good conversation. When Greg and I were in the process of adopting M & T, the woman of this family said she would be my mid-wife, having adopted two children of her own, and she was with me, this friend, through that long process in a way that at times simply helped, and at other times saved my sanity and my well-being. Oh, how grateful I am for her, for her family, and for the game of charades last night, where (only child again) I got to play. I laughed until my gut hurt.
These were great, good days—Thanksgivings to remember for a life-time, with my family around me, healthy and whole, at least for these shared hours, and please, God, many more hours to come. Days, weeks, months, years to come. All goodness, even when it appears otherwise. All good.
Then why did I come home and dream last night that I had lost my mind?
A long dream in which I taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago again, and another teacher was a woman I had decades ago worked with at an advertising agency, and the neighborhood around UIC wasn’t gentrified as it is now. It was dicey–dicier even than when I attended in the 1990s. And I couldn’t remember how to take the train to observe the woman teach from the ad agency. I couldn’t remember how to lift my feet and legs up the stairs to the platform, and President Obama wouldn’t help me (because he was there, too, elegantly, soberly waiting and watching for the next train), so I got on a bike and I road through fields and snow that had suddenly sprung up around UIC, rows upon rows of shorn cornstalks and bent, brown grass, streams to ford, bridges to cross, over the river and through the woods, to . . . where was I going again? To observe Christine, the copywriter turned teacher in my dream, and in reality, I realize now. But I couldn’t remember in my dream how to push the pedals on the bike. My legs were like blocks of lead. And worse, oh, so much worse, I couldn’t find the words to ask for help. It wasn’t just President Obama who left me struck dumb. It was the train station attendant. The ticket-taker. The woman on the bike beside me. The man speeding ahead.
It was very like when my father stood in the Wynn Dixie holding a can of chili, shaking it in the air like a fist, laughing, but teary-eyed, too, saying, “What is the word for this?”
Can of Chili.
Horrible dream. I awoke frightened. And hungry.
I went into the kitchen and Greg (already up and at church, hanging a big, blue branch of a Jesse Tree from the beams for Advent, and panels of blue–a blue heaven come to earth) my Greg had left a bowl of steelcut oatmeal on the counter, chockfull of blueberries and bananas. I knew the words for each of these things, and my husband’s name, too. I reheated the oatmeal, made coffee, opened my computer and saw this:
Worker dies at Long Island Wal-Mart after being trampled in Black Friday stampede
(Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/worker-dies-long-island-wal-mart-trampled-black-friday-stampede-article-1.334059#ixzz2m9iLdPk7)
Fear opened inside me, a black hole.
There was my oatmeal, steelcut, made by my husband, a man whose name I still remembered. Greg.
I ate my oatmeal. While I ate, I searched for other peoples’ responses to this event on Facebook. There I saw that a dear friend of mine, another chosen family member, Tim Yeager, had spent Thanksgiving Friday protesting at a local Wal-Mart. I saw pictures of Tim there in the cold, this man who takes his faith and his politics so deeply to heart, who remembers, oh, so clearly, what’s what.
Tim Yeager, a union lawyer, has become a priest in this season of his life. Thinking of Tim in his collar at the lecturn, of TIm in his winter cap before the Wal-Mart, makes me reflect on Thanksgiving Thursday night again, maybe 10 pm, and I am home and satisfied with life and full of life, and what do I do?
I go online to look at the Thanksgiving Friday specials.
I look for electronic devices for my children because money is tight, and anyway we are saving for something special in the months to come, and everybody’s birthday’s except T’s fall within a month’s time, which is also Christmas time, and they want electronic devices, and Greg and I can’t think how we’ll afford them. And everybody’s doing it. Everybody’s Blacking Out, aren’t they?
Black out. Black hole.
I find that Wal-Mart is offering *GREAT DEALS* on this and that, but you might find them at Target, too, if you go into the store. And then there’s all the shops that offer the jeans that my daughter can actually wear and in which she feels comfortable–2 for 1 deals–and, plus, the kids needs socks. Also Alzheimer’s is a concern in both Greg’s family and mine, and we’re still using nonstick surfaces. Never mind that for over 8 years, we’ve been a drop site for the organic farmer who brings the cranberries. We’re killing ourselves softly and not-so slowly in other ways. Just look at those cast iron pans online! Free shipping! On such heavy items! Try Amazon Prime free for 30 days!
So I tried it. I did. Not all of that. Not even most of it. But some of it.
I had feasted. I was full. But I wanted more. I must have imagined I was hungry. Or perhaps I was, in fact, hungry, in a way that would never be satisfied.
I am surprising myself in this very moment because I am suddenly thinking about a student I had at UIC in the early 1990s. She was originally from Poland, the first person in her family to go to college. She met with me regularly, struggling as she was to translate her thoughts from Polish to English, and her words from her mind to the page. She was such a bright, young woman. I can still see the shape of her jaw, the flush spreading across her fair cheek as she struggled to find the right word. Her handwriting on the page was distinctly exotic, to me, at least. So thin and exacting, the marks she made with her carefully sharpened pencil lead, the elegant, restrained flourishes at the ends of words. Certain letters reminded me of nothing so much as vases I’d like to set on a shelf, empty of everything but meaning.
Why is this coming to me this morning, Thanksgiving Saturday? Why, last night in my dream, couldn’t I remember how to ride a bike (something we’re never supposed to forget, right?) or climb a ladder or catch a train? And as for can of chili? Well, last night those words would have been as illusive to me as that bright, young woman’s name is to me today.
But the shape of her jaw and her letters. These things I remember. And she took to the train to school. And she lived with her parents in a six-flat near Bucktown. I remember this too.
The young woman wrote a paper about hunger. I remember this as well. She wrote about being a child in Poland, and waiting with her mother, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting in long lines for bread. She wrote about the market in her small town (the name of which I can’t remember). She wrote that the shelves in the store were often mostly empty. Canned goods. There might be a few of those. Dusty canned goods. Nothing anybody wanted or needed, or at least not the girl and her mother, or the rest of their family. They stood in lines for the things they needed. Milk, bread, cheese, eggs. They waited. Nobody pushed. Nobody yelled. The girl wrote this in her paper. “We waited like patient cows,” she wrote.
In her conclusion, she wrote that this waiting is just one of the many reasons her parents decided to come to the United States. Those lines. The shortage of food. The dusty cans, sparse on the market shelves. Oh, how they missed Poland! But look at all that they have here. Never a shortage of anything.
This was in the early ’90s, of course, when this bright, young woman sat beside me, struggling to find the right words. Struggling until her fair cheeks flushed pink, and then when she’d formed her beautiful script, each precise letter like a fragile vase full of new meaning, she looked up at me, eyes brimming with laughter and sometimes tears, remembering, understanding, remembering more.
Last night at midnight, as Thanksgiving Friday turned over into today, satisfied and full from the expansive family feast we’d shared with our friends, I opened my laptop to a slew of new offers for this and that, EXTENDED! I clicked on a few. (“Just click it!” This was the joke at the ad agency where I recently worked, shared by a team of Creatives who’d grown more than a bit weary of driving the sale.)
I shut my laptop.
But still I dreamed I’d lost my mind. This morning, remembering myself, raised by loving parents to value many good and meaningful things, but also to value things, to value the way things fill up the hole that sometimes expands inside, when good and meaning are not embraced, expands and contracts, expands and contracts, like the elements, like the seasons, like circles and families and life on this earth, I realized that there but for the grace of God go I. I, too, might find myself in front of a Wal-Mart at an ungodly hour, full and yet not satisfied, pressing, pressing at the door, wanting only to be let in. Wanting only. Wanting. Bread, butter, milk, and eggs, a few dusty cans on the shelves? No. That is not what I want. I want that and that and that. No. I can’t remember what I want. Get the hell out of my way.