This week, we’re sharing stories from Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan, Claire Dederer, Dale Maharidge, Leslie Jamison, and Nina Coomes.
Most years, my husband and I celebrate Thanksgiving twice: first on the actual holiday with my family on Long Island, then again that Saturday, in the Hudson Valley, with his. While there are nice aspects to both celebrations, it can also feel like an exhausting hustle.
This year it all seems particularly overwhelming. Maybe the non-stop onslaught of upsetting news is to blame — from our president’s efforts to dismantle our democracy, to the barrage of necessary but demoralizing reports about men in power sexually assaulting and harassing women and men — or the prospect of discussions about these horrors with people at different ranges of the political spectrum; but I feel as if I’m already experiencing the tryptophan effect, and I’m still a good 24 hours away from consuming any turkey.
Next year, I would like to do what Nina Coomes’ family used to do on Thanksgiving: take a silent retreat.
At Catapult, Coomes reflects in a personal essay on those times with her family at St. Mary’s of the Lake, a Catholic seminary in Illinois. There, Coomes and her Japanese-American family engaged in extreme unplugging — no reading, talking, using digital devices, and listening to music; they were allowed to write, draw and play the piano.
The retreat gave us all time away from the bewilderment we tended to experience around American holidays. By the time we first visited St. Mary’s, we had lived in the US for almost five years, but holidays and the surrounding sociocultural expectations were still a source of stress for us. Spending the weekend in silent contemplation and companionship proved a good way for my family to ease into the American holiday season; to take what we appreciated and understood—quality time together, to reflect and feel grateful—and leave what we didn’t, such as football, Black Friday shopping, and the white-meat portion of the turkey. Silence provided us with a touchstone to return to what we held dear as we continued to acclimate to a new country and culture.
While it was initially difficult for the family to acclimate to the silence, once they got used to it, they came to like it.
On our first Thanksgiving retreat, I was a seventh-grade bookworm of the highest order and had just received my own textbook-sized laptop. I was sure I would be bored to death with no one to keep me company but my little sister and newly uncool Mom and Dad. And at first the silent gesturing seemed infuriatingly slow; communication of the simplest ideas took minutes, minutes that slid by in what felt like an eternity. But after the initial frustration, the silence around us seemed to deepen and warm. Moments when one of us might have snapped at the other over a dropped piece of pie or a hand in an almost-slammed door were smoothed over more quickly, because the expression of frustration and anger had been relegated to facial expression.
To express affection or care without words, we sat close to each other, took long walks together, or fell asleep in overstuffed armchairs, side-by-side in puddles of late-afternoon sun. Silence made us more patient, more creaturely, somehow truer to ourselves. We did not have words to give thanks, but somehow gratitude remained, flourishing and becoming all the more tangible. On Sunday morning following that first retreat, even after we pulled away from the gates of St. Mary’s, our quietude persisted. It was with a lingering sadness that we slowly eased back into verbal communication, reluctant to return to the world of sound.
There are countless things to love in Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work — from the lushness of the drawing to the subtle ways in which his films reference and comment on earlier literary texts. What I admire the most, though, is the way his movies typically revolve around a crossing of a threshold between worlds — and how these worlds resist any easy binary split. There’s cruelty and kindness, beauty and horror, reality and fantasy in both. Characters have to make tough ethical decisions and work hard (often through grueling physical labor) before they find any semblance of harmony within (and between) the worlds they occupy.
In her Catapult essay on growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. and Japan, Nina Coomes finds inspiration in Miyazaki’s films to come to terms with her own personal narrative — one that resists clear-cut definitions and predictable plot twists just as the stories of the young girls at the center of movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Spirited Away. Chihiro, the protagonist of the latter, spends the bulk of the movie in a labyrinthine, monster-and-spirit-frequented bathhouse. In a powerful sequence in her essay, Coomes recounts her own experiences as a kid in Japanese bathhouses, and how her visits there, both before and after her family had moved to the U.S., highlighted her growing doubts about where she belonged and who she truly was.
Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.
After her move to Chicago — a threshold crossed — things get complicated.
That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?
A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.