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  • Writer's pictureRosalind Kaplan, MD

Is There Turkey in your Baggage?

                                             or Baggage in Your Turkey?

By Rosalind Kaplan


Thanksgiving is coming, a holiday beloved by many for family, food and football.  According to AAA, 55.4 MILLION Americans will travel more than 50 miles over this Thanksgiving week, testament to the importance of this holiday in our country. 


Thanksgiving is, though, also a holiday that carries a lot of baggage, beyond the suitcases of those travelers. 


Recent years have brought a reckoning with our colonialist past. The displacement of indigenous peoples with attempted dismantling of Native American culture and attendant illness and death brought by the settlers has led many of us to question whether celebrating Thanksgiving is appropriate or moral.  Sure, we can reframe it as a ‘harvest’ holiday or just a time to gather with loved ones, but a wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf, isn’t it? And yet, a time for families to gather, for traditions to be built and kept, can’t be a bad thing. Nor can expression of gratitude for what is good in each of our lives. 


Experts say that acknowledging gratitude, naming the positive, improves our physical and mental health.  Health, of course, is something to be grateful for, so the gratitude begets more gratitude, in theory.  But shouldn’t we also acknowledge that we are not all healthy, and we are not all happy? Perhaps this year has brought more pain than grace; perhaps there have been deep losses, and it’s hard to feel grateful.  What if there are no family or friends with whom to celebrate, or no money for food to put on the table. What if there’s no  table, no heat.  No roof, no floor, or the roof has fallen in, or you’ve fallen through the floor? What of those who are, right now, living in a war zone, trying to survive living alongside a neighbor who has come to hate you and want you dead?  Worse, what of those who have already lost everyone they love to that hatred?


Comparatively, I live a life of great fortune and privilege.  Same for most everyone I know.  We live in our 70-degree homes with our families, shop at the market where anything we want to eat can be procured.  We go about our lives, protected from the elements, from climate change, from hatred and death and the worst kinds of loss.  Our only connection to it all is the news, from which we know about the wars and the wildfires and mass shootings that are happening somewhere else, to someone else…and we can always turn the TV or the radio off when it all feels like too much. 


So yes, I have a lot to be grateful for, and I can use Thanksgiving as a day to explore that, to put it in words, verbal or written or both.  As I sit here right now, thinking that I ought to do that, I also feel like the Grinch must feel on Christmas. I also see a lot of negatives, and I need to name these, too, because they are too important to push aside. 


From a global perspective, I’m very worried- about the warming earth, the melting glaciers and drying riverbeds, and about the never-ending Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for which there seems no solution. As antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment rises in the US, a country founded on religious freedom, it seems that hatred, rather than tolerance, has once again become the path of least resistance. 


On a personal level, this fall has also been rough for me. My husband’s bike accident in September left me shell-shocked. I watched helplessly as his multiple fractures led to a spiral of complications that kept him in the ICU for two weeks and hospitalized for a month.  Some of the sequelae weren’t even listed in the ‘common complications of thoracic injury’ list in the surgical textbooks.  Ten weeks out, and he’s back to work part-time only, and still in physical therapy. The possibility of losing him dredged up the slew of other losses in my life, really throwing me off my emotional balance, and severely testing the resilience that I prided myself on as I bounced back from each one.


 I’m having trouble turning off the news these days, because I’ve been forced to see that bad stuff doesn’t only happen somewhere else, to someone else.  I’m not feeling lucky.  I’m feeling how fragile this privileged life of mine is, and how it can be so easily derailed by the events of a single moment- an unseen obstacle, an unpressed brake pedal, an unlocked trigger.  A clogged artery, a missed step. A flash of lightning igniting dry brush, forgotten common humanity igniting a maelstrom. 


So—Thanksgiving holiday or no Thanksgiving holiday?  If yes, do I force myself into an exercise in expressing gratitude or allow my Grinch-ness this year, given the circumstances?


The more I live (translation: the older I get), the more I see that few decisions are truly binary.

If I don’t like the options offered, there’s often another, less obvious one, and I might have to create it myself.


I’m celebrating Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023, with friends and family AND I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving.  I’m going to express gratitude AND acknowledge sadness, loss and worry.


We’re skipping the big turkey dinner gathering this year; it’s an event at which the polished, shiny, smooth version of self is demanded, and would require hours of travel and the ability to tell the group what I’m thankful for while holding the Grinch-y part of myself back.


Instead, we will gather with a rag-tag group of friends, all of us admittedly weathered and beaten and battered, in our most comfortable clothing.  Sharp edges are welcome, as are cracks in both the exterior and interior.  Dinner will be pot luck, and will not include turkey or anything pumpkin-spice flavored.


We’ll gather around the fire pit with lists of our travails and misfortunes since last Thanksgiving.  When we’re ready to symbolically let them go, we’ll throw those lists in the fire. We’ll spend a few minutes in silence for the distressed, displaced and disaffected. Then we’ll write our sources of gratitude, each item on a separate little piece of origami paper, fold the paper into origami cranes, and release them into the wind, spreading the good beyond the boundaries of our own yard. 


Perhaps this gathering will be a hokey one-off.  Maybe we’ll all hate it and go back to turkey and stuffing with our families.  Or maybe it will turn into a new tradition, honoring the love of chosen family along with the complicated, contradictory nature not just of Thanksgiving, but of our authentic selves living our real lives. 


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