On this Thanksgiving, I find myself reaching for John Steinbeck.
On this Thanksgiving, with so much uncertainty and anxiety in the air, I find myself reaching for John Steinbeck to help me figure out my own thoughts. There is so much happening, so fast around us this Thanksgiving--so much meaning beyond the political change that has occupied our daily routines for the past four years--that for the next few days I will try to sit back and listen.
The Grapes of Wrath is where I began, ducking back into a copy over the weekend and still there now. The feeling I get--the feeling of Steinbeck's voice mixing again with my own thoughts after 30 years--is the closest I have felt to comfort in a many weeks. Steinbeck wrote from inside the worst-case scenario of what we discussing now, what we are seeing unfold. While the economic collapse he captured was about farmers, dust, and migration, the humanity he found in those folks was the very thing we need to work hard to find again in our time. In particular, we need to understand again what it means for so many people to face down the struggle for fundamental needs and to retain our humanity in the process.
The challenge so many of us face in a time of economic storms is to recognize that each of us, no matter who we are, has become so ''use to a way a thinkin'" that "it's hard to leave." We get this point in a powerful scene early in the book, in which Tom, Casy, and Muley prepare a meal of rabbit meat roasted on a wire on the side of the road. We pick up on the three men as Muley explains what he felt when he was thrown off the land by the corporation that owns his tenant farm:
Muley continued, "Well, sir, it's a funny thing. Somepin went an' happened to me when they tol' me I had to get off the place. Fust I was gonna go in an' kill a whole flock a people. Then all my folks all went away out west. An' I got wanderin' aroun'. jus' walkin' aroun'. Never went far. Slep' wherever I was. I was gonna sleep here tonight. That's why I come. I'd tell myself, 'I'm lookin' after things so when all the folks come back it'l be all right.' But I knowed that wan't true. There ain't nothin' to look after. The folks ain't never comin' back. I'm jus' wanderin' aroun' like a damn ol' graveyard ghos'."
"Fella gets use' to a place, it's hard to go," said Casy. "Fella gets use' to a way a thinkin', it's hard to leave. I ain't a preacher no more, but all the time I find I'm prayin', not even thinkin' what I'm doin'."
Joad turned the pieces of meat over on the wire. The juice was dripping now, and every drop, as it fell in the fire, shot up a spurt of flame. The smooth surface of the meat was crinkling up and turning a faint brown. "Smell her," said Joad. "Jesus, look down an' jus' smell her!" (The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 6).
Muley, Casy, and Tom are three men struggling to cope with the struggles that have landed them in one spot. Muley is driven mad by the humiliation of being driven off the land literally blood-soaked with his family's memories (in another scene, he tells the story of a bull who gored his father to death on the farm). To lived for generations in one place and then suddenly to be shoved off by an accounting decision and a tractor--has left Muley trapped in the decaying orbit of humiliation. He understand and he is not able to understand all at the same time.
Casy is caught in a different bind: a cycle of remorse. Earlier Casey tells how he used to be a preacher for the community, but lost his faith after a series of sexual affairs. Now he is caught between feeling a connection to the Holy Spirit and feeling that he is not worthy as a preacher. Casy's is consumed by regret and self-doubt in a world whose collapse was set in motion by forces far greater than one man. He has a service to offer those around him--guidance in a time of great need--if only he can find a way to overcome his own guilt and anguish.
Tom's situation is the most basic of all: the obsession of hunger. After four years in prison for killing a man in self-defense, Tom had grown accustomed to the structured regularity of incarceration. The freedom he earned through early parole just two days prior, has dropped him into a vanished world where neat rows of corporate crops have replaced patchwork of family farms. Unaccustomed to finding his own meal, Tom's hunger overtakes him in an instant. While his two companions talk of remorse and loss, Tom's mind dissolves into his desire for the meat roasting on the wire.
Humiliation, guilt, hunger. There is not a single person in America who can afford to let Thanksgiving pass by without spending some time reflecting on the meaning of those three terms.
I will be spending my Thanksgiving in Michigan and wonder about the rising tide of hunger in that state. The Food Bank Council of Michigan is a great place to start for anyone who wants to donate money, food or time. But my thoughts will also be with the Food Bank Association of New York State, where I live when I am not visiting family. A simply Google search with the terms "food bank"+[your state] will take you and your family directly to the hunger resource pages closes to home. Some time between the drive or flight home, the arrival of guests, the carving off the turkey, the dishing of the pumpkin pie, and the soft sleep after dinner: consider donating money, food or time to the Food Banks in Michigan, New York, or your home state.
Beyond the basic needs of hunger, Steinbeck gives us pause to think about the fundamental importance of listening to each other in a time of deep, economic crisis. Muley, Casy and Tom have difficulty listening to each other's words, but in the end they manage to hear each other's need: the need to be heard, if only for a moment. "I wanta talk," Muley tells Tom. "I ain't talked to nobody."
There is no food bank we can contribute to as a way of ending a person's humiliation in a time of economic upheaval. There is no website we can click or number we can call to help a person find the path out of debilitating guilt. What we can do, Steinbeck suggests, is be there for someone who needs to talk. We may not have any advice to give. All we need to do is listen and let the person know it is OK to be lonely in a time of change.
Like Tom Joad returning to his home only to find his family gone and the house half covered by the encroaching rows of cotton, each of us this Thanksgiving will find something at home that we did not expect. We will find people in our lives who are facing fears that they never expected and that they feel illequiped to affront. At home this year, in this time of economic upheaval, we will find our communities not quite as they were, people not in the places they should be.
If you are like me, you might stand on the shoulders of someone who has seen these changes long before us, and share what you find with loved ones nearby. In a time about to be worn thin by some kind of storm--not of dust, but of something just as destructive--we should remember the value not just of gathering together, but of listening to the voices around us and of reaching out to those facing down the struggle for fundamental needs.