Thursday, November 22, 2007

`A Strange Vacancy in the Afternoon Light'

A French computational and applied mathematics professor whose office is down the hall stopped me on Monday and asked if I could explain Thanksgiving Day. Over the last year I have become his unofficial interpreter – not of language, for his English is flawless, but of American culture and folkways. I began with a digression on religious persecution, the Pilgrims, the Wampanoags, tough New England winters and the proto-Thanksgiving gorgefest, and from there the conversation ranged from cranberry sauce to genocide.

“So, the Indians saved the Pilgrims’ lives and the Indians are killed and this is why you have a holiday with large meals?” Jean-David asked, reasonably.

“The short answer is yes,” I said. “The long answer is, everything Americans do is riddled with contradiction. Don’t look for purity.”

My friend scratched his crewcut, wished me “Happy Thanksgiving,” and walked back to his office – another triumph for international relations. Despite sentimentality and the poultry lobby, Thanksgiving will always remain a second-tier holiday, one that has not fared well in a secular age, and for these reasons I work hard to enjoy it. A day off from work, yes. Good food and lots of it, yes. An occasion for formally reviewing one’s reasons for gratitude, of course. But I dislike parades, football and ersatz bonhomie, so what does that leave me?

A writer I admire, Verlyn Klinkenborg, has a partial answer. Since I read his first book, Making Hay, more than 20 years ago, I’ve loyally followed his work, which nicely balances the poetic and the journalistic, Thoreau and A.J. Liebling. He is E.B. White without the ickiness. In 1991, I wrote an enthusiastic review of The Last Fine Time. Since 1997 he has been a member of the editorial board at The New York Times. Klinkenborg lives in rural Columbia County, not far from where I lived in upstate New York for almost 19 years. In 2003 he published The Rural Life, a collection of Times pieces about life on his farm, arranged around the cycle of the seasons. Here’s Klinkenborg on Thanksgiving Day:

“Sitting down to the big meal seems like the crux of Thanksgiving, but it really comes a couple of hours later. The pumpkin pie is gone, the dishes are done, the dogs and overnight guests are napping, and there’s a strange vacancy in the afternoon light. For a moment the year halts, a moment when the wakeful aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. In that instant, that hollow in time, you find yourself listening to the unnatural stillness of the afternoon, pausing to look closely at the world around you. That’s all the celebration necessary on this most modest, most poignant of days.”

Klinkenborg is refreshingly accepting of Thanksgiving as it’s sold to us – no sermons on materialism and overindulgence. Without a mention of giving thanks, he suggests – “pausing to look closely at the world around you” – that counting our blessings might be in order. And when he writes of “a strange vacancy in the afternoon light,” I recognize it because I’ve seen it and because I’ve read Emily Dickinson:

“There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.”

On Wednesday, Joseph Epstein had a good piece about Thanksgiving in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s a taste, which I heartily second:

“I wish the poet W. H. Auden were still alive, so that he might be at the same table where I eat my Thanksgiving dinner. Auden, I think, nicely captured the spirit of Thanksgiving when he wrote that, in prayer, it is best to get the begging part over with quickly and get on to the gratitude part. He also wrote, `let all your thinks be thanks.’

“To be living in a prosperous and boundlessly interesting country, at a time of high technological achievement, and of widening tolerance -- much to be thankful for here. ‘Wystan,’ I'd like to tell the poet, `you got it right, kid. Now how about a drumstick.’”


Art Durkee said...

This is the best analysis of Thanksgiving I've read in years.

Thank you!

Pete said...

Lovely Klinkenborg quote. Incidentally, the very next book on my list is The Last Fine Time, one I'm really looking forward to.