So, this is Thanksgiving week here in the US. This Thursday is Thanksgiving, that celebration of consumption, that re-memorying of our national origins. Many of us will be with family, and it will be a struggle. Many of us will not be with family, and that will also be a struggle. Many of us will want more connection, more intimacy, more honesty. Some of us will be right where we want to be. And many of us will, in spite of this national holiday’s ostensible and onerous origins, use this time for reflection and gratitude practice.
There have been years when I raged at anyone who asked me to be grateful, who invited me to remember that in spite of my oppression, I had plenty to be thankful for. Fuck you, I thought. I spent ten years having to lie beneath the hands and body of a man who threatened to kill everyone I loved if I didn’t do what he wanted, a man who brainwashed my whole family, and stole from me both my adolescence and my sexuality. Don’t tell me to be thankful. I am not grateful. I resisted the relentlessly cheerful aspect of survivor culture that wanted me to only focus on the positive. When I heard leaders in the movement telling me that I had to couch all my thoughts in positive terms lest I draw negativity to myself, I simply heard them engaging in victim-blaming; I also heard the sort of brainwashing language that my stepfather used, claiming even my thoughts, and the structure of my thoughts, as his own to manipulate.
I slowly came into my own relationship with gratitude, as we all do, I think. For awhile, whenever I went out to open mics where I would often read about both sex and sexual violation, I wore a t-shirt that read “Lucky.” It was ironic, sure, but also intended to complicate my listeners’ experiences — how could someone who went through sexual trauma be lucky? It was a question I began to ask myself more and more as well.
I began to find that I was grateful for having survived, grateful for having lived through the violence, grateful for the capacity to write and reflect and revision and move forward. This is tender work, this experience of gratitude: I am thankful for the capacity to develop empathy and compassion in the aftermath of my experience of trauma — and I am also not grateful for having been violated. It’s not what doesn’t kill us that makes us stronger; that saying always worked my nerves a little bit. I don’t believe that my stepfather’s violence, or our community’s negligence, made me stronger. Instead, I believe that the strength I manifested in the wake of his awfulness was always in me — as the strength that manifested in the wake of your own experience of violence was always in you. And I am grateful for that strength — as well as for the capacity to feel rage and sorrow and disappointment and joy and desire and compassion and love. I am grateful that I have lived long enough to experience enough healing that I can experience these emotions more fully, more openly, both more messily and more gracefully. I am grateful for the years when I raged against gratitude; it was (and may be again) a necessary part of my process. I am grateful for words, for language, for writing. I am grateful that my body continues to work with me and teach me its stories. I am grateful to continually be cracked open by the beauty of the morning sky, a joyful dog, an enormous love, a new writer’s words, and more and more and more, every single day. I am grateful to have made it this far. I am grateful for another day to try again.
One of my favorite poems is this one from W.S. Merwin, which I hand out to my workshops annually at this time of the year. In it, the poet describes the beautiful ludicrousness of our gratitude: we are thankful even though the sky is falling, even though children are still being harmed in their beds at night and bullied at school, even though our country continues to try to control everyone around the world, even though corporate interests trump natural and human interests everyday. We are thankful even though we are surrounded by pain and violence. We are thankful even though that can’t change what was done to us or to the people and planet that we love.
I am not one to pray, but I do say thank you.
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What is your relationship with gratitude? Let that be your prompt today — what’s your response to the word or concept? How do you feel when someone asks or invites you to be thankful? Give yourself twenty minutes, and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.
You know this already, but I am grateful for you today, and I am grateful, today as every day, for your words.