Every other Wednesday in Cool Takes, S. D. Kelly offers a fresh reflection on hot topics by exploring the intersection of faith with high and low culture.
And now comes the lull between the two biggest holidays in the United States, the inter-turkey period between Thanksgiving and Christmas that leaves one feeling bloated in the wake of one giant meal while eagerly anticipating the giant meal yet to come—the already-not yet of holiday feasting. We have already taken part in the family revelry, but have not yet seen its fulfillment, roughly scheduled for January 1, 2016. Like many of my fellow Americans, I spent Thanksgiving traveling lo, these many miles to converge at a single point—in this case, the table of my cousin, who lives just outside of Washington D.C., and who hosted nearly three dozen of us for the weekend.
The usual Thanksgiving table-talk ensued, made manageable by the fact that we were all going to be together for nearly four days and needed to pace ourselves. As far as I could tell, nobody dominated the conversation or said anything worthy of a Facebook post (not that this is a deterrent to posting). My brother told me that his only goal for the weekend was to smile pleasantly and avoid ranting about trigger-happy cops. A worthy goal. There was one uncomfortable moment when the Holocaust came up and a dispute arose over how many Jews were killed. Six million? Nine million? A few members of my family had just visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. that day and, visibly shaken, were not up to the conversation…which thankfully petered out just after someone brought up the shocking number of Ukrainian deaths during World War II, wondering why we weren’t also concerned about the carnage there. “Apples and oranges,” someone else helpfully pointed out—which seemed to be about the moment we all realized it was time for a new topic. My nephew got this before the rest of us, heading down to the basement where the little kids were piled on the couch, lazily watching Night at the Museum and leaving crumbs for my cousin to find later. “At least no one is talking about the Holocaust down here,” he reportedly told another adult seeking refuge.
The holidays have an epic reputation for bringing out the worst in families. Spending several days surrounded by people with whom you spent your entire childhood brings it all up again, like a rotten piece of leftover turkey. From birth order to breastfeeding, everything that nature or nurture visited upon us in our youth reemerges—usually just after a second helping of mashed potatoes, when the digestive system is in rebellion and the humors are unaligned.
Stopping to celebrate the holidays with our families can feel like, at best, an impediment to the real work of our lives. We perceive gathering together as an obligation, acknowledging the ties that bind without acknowledging the people to whom we are bound. When trying to answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” we don’t think to answer “my third cousin.” The same hippie cousin who does a really terrible cover of “Horse with No Name” and lets his little daughter run around naked at family reunions. But he is my neighbor, with apologies to Neil Young—and there is no substitute for sitting with him, elbow to elbow, at the table in all good grace.
I am reminded of something I read by Matthew Loftus, published just after the holidays last year, about loving obnoxious family members:
We live in an age when we have the power to minimize our proximity to the vulnerable more than ever before. In order to steward this power, we will have to surrender it to other forces and let the ties of family or neighborhood exert more power over us.
As Loftus points out elsewhere in the piece, physical proximity leads to greater compassion, not only for people so obviously in need of it, but also for ones whose need is not so obvious. So why do we excuse our families from that equation? It’s much easier to think of need in terms of the stranger. The familiar becomes as much the over-familiar as anything else.
Khloe Kardashian comes to mind. I’ve been thinking about her for a while now—about the way she rushed to the side of Lamar Odom, former NBA star and her estranged husband, when he nearly died after overdosing at a brothel a few months ago. “All I knew was I had to get there,” Kardashian is quoted as saying in People magazine. “I had to get to him and make sure he was okay. I hate that he was in that situation. I wouldn’t want anybody in that situation, especially someone I love and care about.”
It doesn’t get more obnoxious than the Kardashian clan, who have made a fortune out of being a public family—one whose members compete with ever-more-extreme ways of alienating each other, from infidelity to drug addiction to changing gender mid-marriage. Yet they don’t seem to alienate each other to the point of no return. Overdosing in the company of prostitutes is not too much for Khloe Kardashian; she still manages to make family out of the man she married, no matter how broken the marriage itself is. She still manages to make her husband her neighbor.
I can only hope I do the same—minus the drama of reality TV plot-lines and drugs. I hope that I am just as willing to be in close proximity to people who may deviate from the path of correct thinking. Advent approaches, the culmination of the season. At Christmas, I will join my family again around the table. I want to come to it fully present, ready to serve my family, the most vulnerable within arm’s reach. And not just serve them with that omnipresent green bean casserole that emerges out of nearly every oven in America—the only time anyone eats that stuff—but with a sense of acceptance, of love. I’m obnoxious, you’re obnoxious—we’re only human after all. Yet here we are, in close proximity to one another, during this parenthetical set of days—days in which we leave off our work and eat and thank God for his abundance, for the gift of redemption, for the gift of God being made flesh, just like us.
“The Feast of Light”
He gives to life the most who loves the most;
for life is love in action, and the host
of heaven itself is server of the feast,
the feast of light, where he who has released
the greatest love becomes the honored guest,
the inwardness of grace made manifest.
Oh shining I AM Presence, Holy Ghost,
the substance of the feast, the guest, the host,
he gives Thee back the most who loves the most.
— Louise Ayres Garnett