Wednesday, November 21, 2012

`I Hope That You Won't Think Me Plain Ungrateful'

If, in June, I were to think of Thanksgiving Day, the train of associations would run from snow, to the warmth of the kitchen, to the smells of cooking, to the living room couch, to everyone with a book on/in his/her chest/lap. On this quintessential American holiday, let’s give thanks for the luxury of fat books, stocking feet and no obligations except not drying out the turkey. The day commemorates our foundational myth, of course, but it’s also a reminder that the harvest is in. Already, a month before Christmas, we have all the gifts we’ll ever need and more than we deserve. The day gently reminds us not to whine, to share the plenty, to know gratitude and cast out self-pity as unworthy of “the better angels of our nature.” In his Dictionary, Johnson defines “thanksgiving” as “celebration of mercy.” 

The Thanksgiving associations I described are a memory-collage, sixty years of scraps superimposed on a single canvas. There’s no snow in Houston and we’ll read on Thursday – what a gift, midday reading on a weekday! – but also watch a movie or two. This, too, is a ceremony – of comfort, closeness and no need to worry. Dana Gioia reminds us in “Autumn Inaugural” (Pity the Beautiful, 2012) that change is inevitable and not always to be feared or scorned:  

“Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,
Old robes worn for new beginnings,
Solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
Surrounded by ancient experience, grows
Young in the imagination's white dress.” 

Of all Thanksgiving poems, my favorite is Anthony Hecht’s “The Transparent Man” (The Transparent Man, 1990), a dramatic monologue spoken by a thirty-year-old woman hospitalized with leukemia. Whenever I reread the poem I think: I wish I could have known her. She recognizes the impact her fatal illness has on others and doesn’t wish to burden them. 

“…I feel
A little conspicuous and in the way.
It's mainly because of Thanksgiving.  All these mothers
And wives and husbands gaze at me soulfully
And feel they should break up their box of chocolates
For a donation, or hand me a chunk of fruitcake.
What they don't understand and never guess
Is that it's better for me without a family;
It's a great blessing.  Though I mean no harm.” 

“Donation” gently, politely camouflages scorn, and that last sentence is heartbreaking. She thinks of the difficulty her illness causes her father, who doesn’t visit. Is she making excuses for him? Hecht leaves it unresolved. His nameless speaker, in what might be mistaken for self-pity, redefines gratitude: 

“I care about fewer things; I'm more selective.
It's got so I can't even bring myself
To read through any of your books these days.
It's partly weariness, and partly the fact
That I seem not to care much about the endings,
How things work out, or whether they even do.” 

Instead, she studies the winter trees visible outside the window in her hospital room. There’s a Southern cast to some of her phrasing. She meditates not on her illness but on the world. She seeks clarity, knowing it’s not likely to come: 

“It set me on to wondering how to deal
With such a thickness of particulars,
Deal with it faithfully, you understand,
Without blurring the issue.” 

She concludes, a little indirectly, which is her way, with thanksgiving: 

“So I hope that you won't think me plain ungrateful
For not selecting one of your fine books,
And I take it very kindly that you came
And sat here and let me rattle on this way.”

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