If there is any tradition that I have observed throughout the past five years of my blogging life, it is that of hyperserious posts on annual momentous occasions (such as New Year’s, my birthday, and of course Thanksgiving). It is, therefore, in this attitude of annual sentimental retrospective that we turn ourselves to the task of being thankful.
I contemplated not observing Thanksgiving this year (partly because I was in a bitter mood about not being able to join my family for this the most “family” of all family holidays) on the basis of the excuse that it’s just so politically incorrect to observe a holiday that glorifies imperialism and the infantilizing of native peoples. But hey, I can’t get away from it: the world has fled campus, the only shop open in this entire town is Starbucks, I actually got a Thanksgiving dinner invitation at 2am last night, and in any case there is something alluring somewhere in that Low-Church Protestant “giving thanks” mentality. I’m not of the praying persuasion, but there is something to be said for counting the simplest of blessings and being grateful.
And so, which blessings shall I enumerate? I could do the obvious ones; I could rattle them off. I am thankful for my family and my friends, for never contracting swine flu, for the academic and financial resources of the best university in America (suck it, Harvard!). I am thankful for food and shelter, and in turn the Rocky dining hall and my 120 square feet over this archway. I am thankful for knowledge and books and thus being literate; for academia and my professors and my parents, who are professors. I am thankful for nighttime walks by Lake Carnegie and pre-Raphaelite portraitists, for October in New England and August in British Columbia, for road trips and train trips and feeling as if at the end of them I have a home, or any number of places to call home, to which it is worth returning. I am thankful that I am getting older and wiser, and learning more and seeing my world grow larger; I am thankful that someday I will not only be able to drink legally in this benighted country, but will be able to regard my professors as my equals. And yes, I am grateful that I had the chance at this life, that I was born into a middle-class family in the developed world with the chance at health and safety and women’s rights and the choice to leave my community and set out on my own.
But what I really wanted to talk about was something a bit more fundamental: I am grateful for life, for living, for being alive. And I know that sounds corny, and trite, and just something one says to try to be clever when everyone at your Thanksgiving table goes around and has to say what they’re thankful for. But I do not ever think that it’s corny to thank some deity whom you actually never think about except in circumstances like this for the fact that you have survived thus far, and that you continue to believe that it is worth doing so.
The day I graduated high school, I fought my last battle with its administration, threatening to sic the ACLU on my principal if she didn’t allow me to wear trousers instead of a dress under my regalia. When I walked, finally, into the San Diego State gymnasium, sweltering in my shirt and trousers and cap and gown and cords and tassels in the 85-degree weather of San Diego in June, I found myself, against all odds, trying desperately not to cry. I couldn’t believe I was there, finally. I couldn’t believe that I would in a few short minutes have that piece of paper proving I’d made it through, which no one could take away from me. I couldn’t believe I’d survived and come out the other end alive.
I mean that in its literal sense, of course—I have known those whom high school claimed as victims, whether through the much-publicized and much-martyred drunk-driving accident, or through the reprehensibly shushed-up suicide. But I also mean it more figuratively, because not everyone who walked that June day did so with soul intact. To venture once more into religious language, high school is a market where souls are bought and sold, where one loses oneself in popularity contests and rat races and blows to one’s self-esteem and the whole world’s desperate attempts to sand down every last piece of individuality sticking out from your soul. I fell prey to this; sure I did. I made choices for popularity’s and acceptance’s sake; I made choices for survival’s sake. I shut down thinking; I sometimes despaired, but I waited it out. To abuse the above metaphor, I wasn’t sanded: I just taped down the bits sticking out; I bound my individuality as I sometimes thought about binding my breasts. And I waited.
After I walked onto a stage—legs showing khaki, not flesh-colored stockings—and shook hands with my principal and had my picture taken in front of a garish American flag, I went home again and I put on a uniform and I worked eight-hour shifts serving popcorn and cleaning up vomit, having the quintessential suburban teenager experience you’re glad you had but you hope with all your heart and soul you will never have to endure again. And we can fast-forward, now, through a first semester of college insecurity, and a second semester of college flowering, and 13 weeks in our nation’s capital growing older and wiser and simultaneously discovering highbrow culture and cutthroat DC politics games, and another few months and here we are. Here we are, living, rediscovering, remembering the things I loved before I decided it wasn’t safe to love them. Books, and folk music, and swords, ships, and Scotland. Discovering, through hours spent in classrooms and reading more than I have since I was 12, my access to language that can describe my world and my thoughts and my desires, words with which to read and to react to the artists and the ordinary bystanders who have reacted to this world before me. Self-confidence and self-esteem are still so desperately hard to maintain; moving from one day to another and one week to another still does not come easily. But now I am setting the terms. Now I am making the rules. Now I have the power and the control. Now I am challenged by my classes, and I respond in kind with work worth doing. Now I sit at dining tables for hours talking about everything; now I take off on madcap road trips north or south. Now I walk into conference rooms and sit around tables and try to change this university. Now I sit in reading rooms in libraries and archives and study its history. Now I spend a lot of time learning, and reading, and following my intellectual passions—and I learn about people killed by AIDS and people killed by bigots and people killed by themselves in the face of an unresponsive state and civil society. Now I devote so much time and energy to stopping that dying, and to keeping a culture alive and a history alive and going out and celebrating being alive. Being healthy, being whole, being me and and all of us being us.
It is powerfully easy to feel insignificant and inadequate in this world. Now, instead of being frustrated and depressed by oppression, I am frustrated and depressed because I do not or cannot assert myself loudly enough or eloquently enough. If I care no longer for being “cool enough,” I now must care for being “smart enough.” The need to be taken seriously by my professors and friends has replaced the need to be seen as badass by my teenage peers, and yet it is if anything a more tortuous insecurity. I feel ignorant after every precept and seminar, after every dinner-table conversation. But I come home and I read more, I write more, I learn more. I go out into the world and I discover what it is like to be an independent person, on the verge of adulthood. I sense more of the world open to me than I ever thought possible when I was part of a newly-diploma’d mass of 500 white-and-blue mortarboards. And even if at times I feel undeserving of my grades and my good fortune, I feel as if I have the power to own the world, to change the things I want to change, to be of it and in it.
That is not a feeling easily won; it is not a feeling which can be bought or sold. It is the feeling of a soul which is living and which is thankful—so thankful!—to be alive. Oh, youth of America: leave your hometown. Take risks. Have adventures. Be of your world. No matter how challenging, no matter how exhausting or self-doubting or terrifying, I promise that you will be thankful for every minute of it.