I'm in southeast Michigan, celebrating Thanksgiving with my family a week early, because it's cheaper and easier for all of us, with our jobs and the kids who all have "broad" families — we don't say "broken"; our divorces didn't break us and the "other parents" are also valuable and deserve time — to split the holiday among.
I'm awake before everyone, even more determinedly than usual, because I feel like without a few hours to myself to process, I'll freak out. It's not them, really; they're hard but not acutely so; it's just here. In Michigan, for the thirty years I lived here full-time, I always felt like I was on the edge of freaking out, and when I come back here, several times a year, it's always the same.
I'm out walking. It's snowing; not the first snow, either. There's no sidewalk in this apartment complex; I trudge through a watery, crumbling parking-lot, the line of cars on my left and the identical buildings on my right. Everything that isn't white is grey. The occasional color of a blue car's peeking bumper, or the fire-hydrant, only make the whole of it look more grey. I see a few people, bundled up, universally overweight, their heads bowed by poverty and their eyes dull from jobs that drain them. There are no joggers, no bicycles. There are trees and grass, but not because we planned to have a nice space there for people to enjoy; in Michigan (at least this quarter of it), the forest is just what happens when you let the land go. It's beautiful, but not friendly. Beautiful ruins are our thing. And everywhere I look, things are either peopled and sad, or beautiful and abandoned.
This sensation, of anywhere my eyes rest causing stress, bringing up bad thoughts, is so familiar, and yet, since I've lived in Boston for eight years now, it's also unfamiliar and I have to get re-used to it for a week or so at a time whenever I come home. It took almost two years of living in a vibrant, generally healthy place, without the everpresent Midwestern pain and judginess in everyone's eyes, to get used to not doing it. Now I do it again, my old second-by-second coping mechanism: I focus on a leaf. On a bird. On a crack in the grey sky. And I force myself to be grateful. To see the beauty, where I can, and to be thankful for it.
Or to see the horrors that don't touch me (yet) and be grateful for that: I see a handicapped license-plate and I remember to be grateful that I can walk. (My brother can't right now, due to health problems, so that's easy to remember.) I step wrong, my iffy knee lights up with pain, and I remember to adjust my hip-tilt and to be grateful that I know how to do that; I have had kungfu and training, a rare gift, even if it's one I bought myself with intention and work — it's still intention and work that most people I'll see here have never had the option to even consider. (Partly because anyone who has has, like me, left this place if they could.)
This time of year, I always hear from my people, and there's always a lot of hard / bad news. Always. It may seem like time is getting harder on us, but really, it's just that when I was very young, I was protected — like we protect the kids now — from feeling the whole force of it; if I didn't "need to know" I wasn't told, and of course that didn't feel like a gift then, but it was one. It let me get used to gratitude, before I knew how difficult it was to manufacture. Just like we feed kids but we don't make them cook yet. You'll find out soon enough how much work it is to eat three meals, and even more, to make sure those around you do too.
Gratitude, thankfulness, is not automatic, and it does not "just grow" in most climates: It takes manufacture. It takes resources — often rare ones — and hard work, and what you get out the end is not nearly as much as you put in to get there.
But this doesn't make it not worth the effort: What you get out of it may have cost a lot, but it'll also carry you a while, and you can share it, and trade for it, and live off it in lean times.
In a place like Southeast Michigan, you either learn to make gratitude out of very thin resources, burning a whole lot of time and energy on it, or you starve. I got by for a long time, being very deliberate about it, but eventually — and it's hard to admit this, still — I just couldn't anymore. The effort was killing me, and the constant draining away of hope by everything I laid my eyes and ears on was running me dry. I think a lot of people here, and maybe everywhere, are, or become, immune to the underlying messages of what they see: A freeway is just a freeway; an abandoned strip-mall is just a building. And I was never able to do that: Every single thing I saw, the pain and ugliness underneath hit me right in the face, every time. To live in a place, now, with bike-paths and small businesses and joggers and colleges, it gives me fuel every single day, ingredients I can use to make enough gratitude, more than enough usually, to get by and to share. But out here, in the shadow of our post-modern Mordor, I feel like I'm taking punches every time I rest my gaze on anything.
I go home — home to a place that, while far from perfect, still has big visible veins of hope and helpfulness everywhere — tonight. I love my family fiercely and will miss them like crazy, but I also know that I can't not go, that this is a place I cannot exist in the long-term and be any kind of okay. Because we all NEED gratitude, and what I can scrape from the concrete here is not enough.
I'm smoking, as I walk. I shouldn't smoke; in Boston I'm pretty good about not doing it, unless I'm super stupid stressed, and even then, my vape-pen is usually enough to calm down with. But I come home-home, and all the things that trained me to it from a young age come rushing back — "eh, you're sucking on a tailpipe all day anyway," we say in Detroit; or "pffft, I don't trust air I can't see anyway" — plus I'm cooped up and uncomfortable and I know I need all my energy to be there for my family while I see them, so I take my moments alone and I inhale smoke. I agree with the locals, that something about doing it deliberately feels a little better. Like, fuck you Mo-Town, I'll die faster, I'll eat extra poison, as long as it's my own choice. You gotta admire that reaction, in a way; and I do admire it — but I wish I wasn't doing it, and I'll leave the cigarettes I bought here, hidden in Mom's house for the next time. In-between sneaky "walks" to dose myself with numbing drugs, I'll lecture the kids about how awful and stupid it is, and yes, I'll take cognitive damage from that hypocrisy: But it's damage I'd rather take myself, then let them see me defending it, and learning what I learned.
Gratitude is a manufactured good. That's true everywhere, for everyone, and the lesson we take from it should be "Okay, so let's get to work" — because it's worth the work, and it's always work. I still have to work at it in Boston; it's never free. But I guess my point of view, being a philosophically-minded person raised in a philosophically-brutal place, has taught me some good hard truths about how that meat is really made, you know? I'm not so dumb as to stall the factory during good times: I work even harder when there are a lot of raw materials to be had, and I stash my stores for later. I know I'll need them to go home with during the holidays, for one thing.
I haven't quite worked out how to make enough extra to bring back plenty for myself and all the hungry ones here, but I have figured out how to have enough while I'm not feeling actively oppressed by my environment, and I have learned how to keep my eyes on the supply, which is a skill I see a lot of people (in both cities) lacking. I have some good information on hand about what makes good, long-lasting thankfulness, and what will poison it, and what can be used in a pinch to make some when you're on empty and starving.
We wish each other "Happy" Thanksgiving, but I think that bears more looking-at. A "Happy" Thanksgiving is a time of harvest; and you don't eat your harvest; you get together and you process it into stuff that you can share and keep each other alive with through the year. Yes, make a great meal together; yes, share stories and empathy; yes, find the good things and hold them close — but not for a happy now. For later. For the kids, who can't cook their own yet.
If you live or know somewhere that sucks your resources away and makes gratitude hard, pay attention: Maybe you have to be there a while, and get damn good at manufacturing with slim resources; or maybe, like me now, you have to make hay where the sun shines, and ship it back to your blasted home in as much quantity as you can manage. Remember that we all need it, just like we all need food, and that it's more efficient to cook for many than to cook for one. And don't just feed people: teach them how to make that shit.
…I think I might take another walk. :)