By Art McDonald
I thought last Sunday was a challenging time to preach; then I began to prepare for this Sunday and realized that there is no more challenging time to preach than on Sundays close to holidays. Not only are holidays often somewhat mixed for people, some of whom can’t wait til they are over, but holidays often bring up the question of family gatherings, for some, wonderful, for others difficult at best, or, worse, some simply choose to avoid them.
One of the most embellished stories of Thanksgiving and family for me and Melanie occurred in Pittsburgh, around 1995. The brother closest to me in age, whom I grew up pretty tight, and who died some 15 years ago, lived in Northern Virginia at the time and he called to say he, his wife and 3 of his four kids, then young adults, and a soon to be son-in-law, wanted to come to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving, stay til late Saturday afternoon, and see the City. Wonderful, we replied, can’t wait.
Melanie and I did great preparation and filled the refrigerator to last the weekend. We had a big house in Pittsburgh with high ceilings and we got accustomed to keeping the heat on the low side as we layered up with sweaters and, in my case, my usual knit hat. As they arrived on Thanksgiving Day and I opened the front door, I sensed some curious looks, especially to my wearing a knit hat in the house. At any rate, we had a great feast and lots of chatter, then went off to bed to be ready for a full day. Melanie and I had planned a great day for “Black Friday” that didn’t include any shopping sprees, just visiting great Pittsburgh Landmarks. However, as the coffee was percolating, didn’t my brother say “well, thanks for a great day yesterday, after breakfast we’ll be going home now, luv ya!” As they pulled away, Melanie and I looked at one another, a bit dumbfounded, wondering what we missed in the communication area. It was only years later, after my brother died, did we hear the full, somewhat embellished story, of what actually happened. Turns out they were used to a much warmer environment than we provided, though they didn’t say anything about shivering all night long while trying to sleep in what they considered Antarctica. Instead of asking us to turn up the heat, they decided to blast. On the way back home I think my brother had said to his kids, see, I told you, Uncle Art and Aunt Melanie are weird. Look how they live! Sadly, Jerry died at 56, in 2001. I spent a lot of time with him in the last months; we reconnected in a way that hadn’t happened since our youth.
Though Jerry and I grew up together, two years apart, as adults we drifted apart, our lives taking very different turns. Our social visions were fairly close together as we both were in college in the 60s, the first two in the family to go to 4 year colleges, but as his income rose he got increasingly more conservative, and as I took a vow of poverty and entered a religious community, my politics got increasingly radical. And his kids thought Melanie and I were just a bit daft; something had happened to us; we “beat to a very different drummer,” I suppose.
I was thinking about this experience, often now retold by my nieces and nephews whenever we need to have a good laugh, upon reading a Globe story this past week about families and Thanksgiving gatherings. It was entitled: “2016 politics may make Thanksgiving table feel uninviting.” (11/17/2016) The article is not humorous but actually interviews family members who are either thinking of skipping the annual gathering, or have already made alternate plans, unable or unwilling to deal with conflict at this annual event. Some are waiting til the last minute to come up with an excuse. Some have planned trips around the holidays just to avoid the decision. The article even cites a psychotherapist and family counselor who admitted she’s received lots of calls asking for advice on how to deal with this. One family host has already declared, there will be no political talk at all; if it happens, you will be asked to leave. Looks like Tom Brady’s family is taking that route! Emotions are running high, especially this Thanksgiving.
Maybe some of you are in this situation? I actually am, somewhat, though vowing to bring my best self to the table. Will I succeed? I’m practicing what one psychologist suggested in a tv interview, please pass the cranberry sauce.
For some of us blood families are an anchor, a source of unending joy and comfort. How great if that is the case. For others families present a challenge, full of land-mines, and for some only distance and estrangement have seemed like the best options. I’ve actually known all of these experiences.
When Melanie and I left our Catholic religious commitments in 1982, then married, there was same family turmoil on both sides. We decided we needed to distance from both Boston and New York, our family homes, and headed West, landing in Pittsburgh. The distance provided relief but some estrangement and anger, which took some years to overcome. Yet, it was an important step for us. In fact, we often say around holiday times, don’t we miss gatherings in Pittsburgh in which people with no families in the area, or local folks with strained family relationships, would come to our house for holiday gatherings. They were wonderful, joyful, full of song and storytelling among friends who made the choice to gather in a welcoming, loving and supportive context, free of any familial conflicts and negative patterns, and full of sentiments that we are reshaping our understanding of family as we gather.
As Irish philosopher and spiritual writer, John O’Donohue suggests, in a book entitled: ETERNAL ECHOES, sometimes we create “prisons we choose to live in.” And although some families are full of love and freedom, encouraging its members to become their best selves in their own way, some families become “cages” that are full of expectations and demands that all members conform, thus stifling individuality and, as the psychologist Carl Jung wrote about, individuation – becoming who each is meant to be. As British theologian, Rosemary Haughton, mother of 12, grandmother of many more, writes: “Families are wonderful and terrifying, the best and sometimes the worst human experience.”
O’Donohue goes on to cite the great novel by the Russian author Dostoevsky, BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, in which the Cardinal Inquisitor, representing the institutional church, says to Jesus, who has been incarcerated, that he overestimated human beings and the church was created to “correct” the situation, i.e., people don’t really want to be free, it is too frightening, people prefer authority and structure – what O’Donohue refers to as “cages” or “prisons.” At their worst, families can be such.
I will never forget when Melanie and I married in Pittsburgh and only a few members of each family attended. On my side the women came: my mother, sister and one sister-in-law. As they were getting off the plane, my mother in the middle, being held up by her daughter and daughter-in-law on either side, each having had a drink on the plane, my mother, who got silly when merely sniffing alcohol, with the biggest smile on her face I can ever recall, uttered the words: “I feel like a bird out of a cage!” Later, as she began to experience a bit of dementia, she would get most angry when someone tried to tell her what to do – she would say something like: “I’m tired of being told what to do.” The family, husband, children and grandchildren, though a source of great joy for her, were also a kind of “prison” which stymied her from reaching her full potential, I’m guessing. As O’Donohue suggests, sometimes our “…complicity with other people’s images and expectations of (us) allows them to box (us) in completely. It takes a long time to recognize how some key people on (our) life’s journey exercise so much control over (our) minds, behavior, and actions.” Through this, they can sometimes “claim you.” Sometimes family “expectations” become “resentment waiting to happen…we were sent here to live life to the full,” he concludes.
Rosemary Haughton, who writes lovingly and in a very appreciative way about her 12 kids, grandkids, and family, and how grateful she is for them, nevertheless, suggests that there is something else to consider that is “linked to families yet, perhaps, ultimately more important: friendship… (it – friendship) makes good families. What makes families good is not the blood relationship but the friendship that develops-the shared memories, griefs and jokes, the common experiences and values. Friendship is what makes a marriage or a partnership last…Friendship binds siblings together, and lack of it separates them. Friendship integrates new members-foster children, and the partners and spouses of the next generation-into the family. Without friendship a family drifts apart and lives with alienation, even hostility. Friendships, also, can help heal the wounds of family divisions and disputes…Friendship can be family, beyond blood ties…Families are what you come from, for good or ill, but friendship is what you choose (and) real friendship is, of all relationships, perhaps the most divine because it’s pure gift.” (Haughton, GIFTS in RUIN).
For O’Donohue : “Real friendship is a powerful presence in helping you to see the prisons within which you live…friendship (can) liberate you.” (ETERNAL ECHOES)
As a community, I believe, a group like First UU Essex, is family redefined, or can be. It is full of friendships, kindred spirits, something we have freely chosen; sacred gifts. If it works well, we can even trust enough and feel safe enough to talk through differences in worldviews, ever listening and desiring to understand.
But I also love the notion that family members can become friends, in fact, must, if Haughton is right, in order to stay together and strong. Family members who are also friends, in fact, want for us to become our best selves and give us space and encouragement to do just that. What a gift when it happens, but if it doesn’t we still must seek it outside the family structures.
In my family there is much love, despite significant differences in social perspective. Living away for over 30 years helped me individuate, you could say. It’s work to continue to make it freeing for all concerned. My oldest brother, 10 years my senior loves me and I him. We party together, have traveled together to find cousins in Ireland, encouraged one another in our personal endeavors, but our worldviews differ greatly. One night in Ireland, after a slow, smooth taste of Tullamore Dew, he asked me to explain how exactly I had become a socialist. It was inquiring not attacking. He was trying to understand. I said it all began when I read the bible, especially the Acts of the Apostles where the early Christian community shared all goods-early communism some have called it. As a good Catholic he had never really heard that. I think it’s one of the reasons the church leadership didn’t want people reading the bible on their own. This week he and I spoke about the election and we acknowledged being on different sides. All he said was: I understand your position, you grew up and came of age in a different time and have been influenced by different ideas. I get that, he said, can’t wait to see you Thanksgiving Day. I think I’ll try some more Tullamore Dew this Thursday. There is much I love about my family. But I also revel in being part of this community, this family of faith and when I go to Pittsburgh, I love being part of that chosen community of family and friendships that renew my spirit. As Haughton suggests, the experience is “divine, a pure gift.”
Melanie and I will gather with family this week; we’ll likely hear, once again, about the Thanksgiving Day in Pittsburgh when we froze out the family trying to lower our carbon footprint. I have much to be grateful for this day, this week. I hope you do as well. If you lock your keys in the car, I hope you are aided by a professional. But if it is a difficult time for you, if you find yourself like some in the Globe article, I hope for you friendships that give you solace and encouragement, that want you to be free to become all you have been sent here to be. Happy Thanksgiving, not just this Thursday, but each day. And thanks for helping to make this community a place of holiness and joy, laughter and song.