I’m not sure how many people know that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I was standing on deck earlier leaning over the railing and staring at the open sea trying to figure out why that is; I’ve discovered that staring blankly into a few thousand miles of ocean feeds my brooding mind. I went out there on this grand mission to spot whales, sharks, porpoises, or dolphins, but I only saw some seaweed and a whole flight school of flying fish.
I did manage to decide, however, that of all the emotions I could think of, the one I’m most connected to and understand the best is gratitude. And I think that’s why I like Thanksgiving so much.
Mostly, right now at least, I’m just thankful that I successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in one piece. I know Mom is happy about that. Although, I should add – boat lag… is definitely a thing. I wake up at 4:00 am ready to go, and I’m exhausted midway through dinner. For the past four consecutive days, my time zone changed each night, making the last four days 25-hour days. Weird, right?
But with all there is to be thankful for, I think this year is a special Thanksgiving for several reasons. Maybe part of it is that I’m technically retracing Columbus’ (and other voyagers’) routes seeking the West Indies on the open ocean. Not exactly same as the Pilgrims but close enough, right?
Or maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I chose to return to America by boat the same way my grandfather returned from French Morocco after World War II. When I told that to the Brits at our dinner table, John kinda laughed and said, “I bet your grandfather didn’t travel in this luxury.” Nah. But it’s the same ocean. And now that this story is coming to a close, I think I’ve got this incredible sense of gratitude for him and the impact he left on me. I catch myself at times smiling the same way he smiled, turning my lips just so and making an almost impish grin that no one else in the world could make the way he could. I’m thankful for that.
It also occurred to me that much of my last two years was a lot like that first Thanksgiving. Maybe that’s another reason I find this one so special. Two wildly different cultures coming together and feasting – both with so much to learn from the other. That was every day for me for the past few years.
[I realize, of course, that in the years that followed the first Thanksgiving, the natives lost their land, and for many, their lives to some strange notion of divine entitlement among the white settlers. Sadly, that story was a history lesson we never learned, as even today, the idea that God favors some more than others prevails almost everywhere. So, it’s worth a mention that I don’t believe any divine force could work that way, you know, favoring Europeans over natives or Israelis over Palestinians or the wealthiest 1% over the 99 below it. When things work out that way, I don’t find anything godly in all that violence whether it’s physical or financial or emotional violence. Of course, the irony is not lost on me that, as an American aboard a cruise ship, I’m an incredibly privileged bloke talking about how much privilege disturbs me. I’m so friggin’ privileged, I even have the education to critique my own privilege. I guess if you spend two years living in the developing world, and a lot of that time is spent fighting the perception that you’re just a bank, it can be easy to (want to) forget about that privilege, strangely enough. I remember working really hard to be viewed as my own person and not as just “an American.” When I realized that one of the families I grew close to, toward the end, really just saw me as a bank, I mentioned to Jon, “I just don’t get it. They understood what Peace Corps was; they knew I wasn’t wealthy, that I was a volunteer; I even explained to them that I had all these loans waiting for me when I got back to America.” Jon’s reply was probably one of the wisest things I’d heard in a while, something to the effect of, “Yeah, well, they also understand that you had the opportunity to take out money to go to a really good American school, and eventually, you’ll have opportunities to pay off all those loans.” That’s when it hit me: there was no use in pretending like we weren’t banks. We were. We’re Americans, and we’re privileged, and while we’re encouraged to “live at the level of the people” on a volunteer salary, it made complete sense why we’d never fully overcome that image of being wealthy with opportunities and money. Because maybe we never should. It’s better to be honest about who we are, even if that honesty might cause cultural conflict of some kind. But. However it’s handled, I won’t ever believe that the opportunities that were handed to me were God’s choosing, as though God chose me over all my Moroccan friends who would kill for the chance to be traipsing across the Atlantic Ocean (or anywhere) like this. Nor would I ever believe that I, by my own ability to “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” earned or deserve this in any way. I don’t. I have it; I took it, because I was privileged enough to be born with an American passport and raised in what really is a land of opportunity. It’s that simple. And it’s something I wish I could give everyone, but I can’t. I can only give up a little bit of my time and my energy to give back, and sadly, even then, I gain more than I could ever hope to give.]
I guess I’m still learning that it’s hard to go from living in the developing world to eating some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had in my life on a luxury cruise ship that has its own gym, theater, casino, cigar shop, wine bar, jacuzzi and pools. I’ve heard a lot of complaints and conversations in the last two weeks that were pretty shocking – especially shocking when you consider that nearly all the staff are Asian and seem overworked and underpaid. In some ways, it makes me feel guilty, like I’m somehow contributing to slave labor, and I apologize if that’s an offensive metaphor, but it scares me to think it may not be a metaphor at all.
I’ve also noticed that people who are wealthy, particularly wealthy, love to talk about their wealth. Or maybe they just don’t know how to talk about anything else. Or maybe they don’t even realize that not everyone else has been to Barbados four times or can gamble $50K away like it’s no big deal. I don’t know how to connect with someone like that at all. I just stare at them blankly or in awe and think fondly of sitting on a wool rug with one little table and one plate where we break bread together and share a communal cup.
My point is that it’s all kind of disjointing. I look at my plate of food (e.g. tonight’s menu included “rose of prosciutto and kiwi fruit on a pineapple carpaccio, cream of potato soup with baby shrimp and chives, and turkey served with candied sweet potatoes and buttered scallops over an old-fashioned bread stuffing and giblet gravy), and the first shock, of course, is that I have my own plate of food. It’s my plate, and we’re not all sharing one. The lines between poverty and wealth are confusing to me. And for as good as the food here may be, I feel weird thinking that I already miss being… poor. Or pretending like I was. Or maybe I actually am poor and right now I’m just pretending like I’m rich? See, I can’t even keep it all straight. It’s just plain disjointing. But I think that’s a good thing, maybe even something worth being thankful for: those little disjointed moments keep us on our toes, force us to ask tough questions about who we are and what, if anything, anyone is “entitled” to – it keeps us… thankful.
I had several little moments today where I thought, “This is absolutely ridiculous. I’m swimming in the Caribbean; the water is crystal clear. There is a friggin’ sea turtle right there. Woah. Duuude. It’s a sea turtle, dude.” Right now, back home, my parents are setting up the Christmas tree in what I imagine is considerably cooler temperatures. Meanwhile, I’m swimming with turtles and chatting it up with Brits and Barbadians in 93 degree heat with a sunburn. Life can be strange sometimes. Crazy even.
But whether we’ve come from the poorest of the poor or the wealthiest 1%, whether we’re layered up in a chilly Tennessee winter prepping for Christmas or turning beet red in Barbados, we all have some little voice crying forth a quiet “thank you.” We might sound that in our different ways or to different folks, but it’s there across every culture. I’d like to think that our varied ways of saying thank you, despite their tonal differences, come together like a harmony of sorts, where we’re all really driving the same point home.
Anyhow, we set sail for Guadeloupe a few hours ago and arrive there in the morning. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.