Since living in France, Thanksgiving has always been an improvised affair. Some years I’ve gathered in the apartments of friends who are much braver than me – they hunt down the obscure cranberry, shove large turkeys into tiny Parisian ovens, spend small fortunes on the fixins’, many of which are foreign foods here.
I’ve been to lively potluck parties and more intimate dinners, and sometimes, not even celebrated at all. It is just another Thursday in L’Hexagone.
The past few years, Thanksgiving has unwittingly become an unofficial marker of my relationship, too, though my beau probably knows I think this only now that I write it. A couple years ago, we had only just started seeing each other, so new it was that when people at that Thanksgiving referred to him as my boyfriend, he gently corrected them (but since there’s no French word for dating, I’m not sure what term we were then. Just curious about the other, I guess).
Last year, I was with my family, a rare occasion, and I was grateful to have the time with them. Just before the holiday, though, I got to experience that special bittersweet twinge unique to romantic partings. When I left Paris, it wasn’t just to return home for the long weekend, but to go to a long writing residency at the Kerouac House; my beau and I were saying goodbye for 3 months. I was moved to feel how greatly we’d both miss each other.
This Thanksgiving, it was just the two of us. I’m no cook, which he knows well by now, so no feast was expected. Sweet potatoes were my only nod to tradition, though even those got the microwave treatment. As for the rest: chicken fingers from Picard and fresh salad and clementines from the market. My heart swelled over such a simple meal. It was enough. We were enough. I realized there was no one else in the world I’d rather be with.
It was a hard week last week. For many, it continues still.
On Monday night, I’d gone to hear the writer Eleanor Catton at the famed Shakespeare and Company bookshop near Notre Dame. Her novel, The Luminaries, won the Man Booker Prize last year. In person, she was brilliant, her enthusiasm and intelligence shining through and infectious. Catton described the astrological underpinnings that had set the story in motion and the mind-blowing structure of her novel. I loved her ambitious experiments, her delight at knowledge, her irrepressible excitement. It made me excited about writing, too.
The next morning I jotted a few notes for a new project on a legal pad, happily working away (happy and working usually a combo that’s hard to come by for me). Then I turned on the computer, logged into Facebook, and sadness pummeled me in the gut. I learned that while I’d been sleeping in Paris, my country had added another heartbreaking chapter to our history. I saw Ferguson, Missouri aflame.
I cried most of the day.
I am friends with many writers, and the quotes I saw as I scrolled through my timeline were apt. From Martin Luther King, Jr, and James Baldwin and W.E.B. Dubois. But words, no matter how thoughtful or true, don’t always seem enough.
And so, I will not try to unpack it all here, only to say that Thanksgiving was also a grieving. I thought about all I’m grateful for, as well as my country’s troubling legacies. Living across the ocean, I have more distance to see where I come from. My heart flies the thousands of miles home, but I also feel so far away.
French people ask me questions about the United States. Though I have more context to offer, really I share the dismay inherent in the questions: the rampant gun violence, the repeated killings of unarmed black men, health care proffered as a privilege, not a right, why some people seem to matter more.
I met one of my friends recently at the popular café in the Marais called Les Philosophes. Even the bathrooms there pose philosophical questions. The stall I entered at the end of the meal asked this: What may I hope?
It is one of Kant’s questions (and yes, I had to Google that).
It is naïve, but as I am filled with both love and heartbreak, I hope for peace, justice, compassion. And I hope for hope. So many are tired from these disillusioning cycles.
On Saturday, I had an(other) Thanksgiving dinner with 4 friends, this time an unconventional vegan feast.
Then 2 of us popped by a jazz ball in the 5th’s town hall, then another heart-to-heart next door in a cafe. These connections, these sharings, are the only way I know how to keep going in the world.
During the holiday season, meant to be jolly, so many are in pain. Hold tight to those you love. Look for light where you may.