I have plenty to be thankful for this year: for family and health, for successfully finishing my "violin" novel, for the muses that have allowed the violin and its music to remain in my heart (and my fingers) afterwards. What a mess I would be if I'd been forced to say goodbye to that, as well. On a more mercenary level, I'm thankful that my Thanksgiving essay got picked up by both the LA Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Check it out at Philadelphia Inquirer or read the original version, down below. And, if you're a US citizen (particularly one overseas, as the essay discusses the expatriate Thanksgiving experience), have a happy Thanksgiving!
Giving Thanks -- For the Art of Compromise
By Terez Rose
Thanksgiving, when you get down to it, is all about tradition. Year after year, we seek out (or avoid) family and familiar recipes, pull out Grandma’s china, and strive to create the same meal we’ve had every year. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie -- overeating, too, is part of the tradition.
The variables quickly change, however, when you’re 6000 miles from family, unable to return home for the holidays. Then, homesickness is what cramps your stomach. But perhaps this, too, is part of the tradition.
Consider the band of fifty survivors in Plymouth of 1621, who gathered to celebrate their harvest with their newfound native American friends. The Pilgrims-to-be had left extended family and a familiar world behind, and in the course of a year, had lost an alarming fifty percent of their compatriots to sickness. Now that’s a recipe for homesickness.
My first taste of a foreign Thanksgiving came in 1985 when I left my native Kansas for the Peace Corps in Gabon, Central Africa. The early months, amid Gabon’s heat, staggering humidity and unfamiliarity, were the hardest. At my provincial post where I taught high school English, my white skin stuck out like a beacon. Whispers and stares accompanied me everywhere I went. I persevered with a grim determination, teaching, dressing and acting like the American I was.
November brought with it dreams of the upcoming holiday. Back home on the Big Day, Mom would set the table early with linens, her delicate china and fine silverware. The rich smell of slow-roasting turkey would pervade the air as family members congregated throughout the day. Laughter would fill the dining room later as ravenous eaters stuffed themselves into a stupor.
Home. So very far away.
The only way to combat the homesickness, I decided, was to host my own traditional Thanksgiving dinner. My announcement to the other Peace Corps Volunteers, however, was met with skepticism
“Good luck finding the ingredients,” one said.
“Last year we just drank beer,” another offered. “Trust me—it’s the safest bet.”
Perusing the local store brought only further discouragement. No whole turkeys, only the wings (the good parts went to the U.S.). No fresh vegetables and no potatoes, only local tubers like manioc, taro and plantains. Not a chance of pumpkin. “Forget it, then,” I snapped at my friends. “No Thanksgiving dinner this year, then.”
“But why does it have to be a traditional dinner?” a Gabonese friend asked.
“Well that’s the point, to do it the way it’s always been done, with the turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.”
“Maybe if you compromised, you’d have better luck," he said.
Compromise. That action, so difficult for us to consider—politically, socially and personally. Why do we resist compromise? Maybe the Pilgrims would have fared better early on, had they compromised in myriad ways. Maybe I, too, would fare better in this foreign country if I tried embracing the culture instead of peddling my own.
The Thanksgiving feast I ended up serving was unlike any I’d had before. It included turkey wings, stuffing, mashed taro root and canned French peas. Flour biscuits became dinner rolls. For pumpkin pie, I boiled green papayas from the market, spiced them up with cinnamon and nutmeg, then proceeded with the traditional recipe. The guests, both American and Gabonese, were delighted.
“I’ve never had turkey wings baked this way before,” said one Gabonese man. Another reveled in the concept of biscuits with dinner. I thought back to the first Thanksgiving dinner, where the Pilgrims cooked unfamiliar food with familiar recipes. Maybe a Native American invited to the feast tasted a dish and said, “Hey, I never thought of doing that with corn before.”
When I served the green papaya pie, I watched the other Americans’ expression as they took the first bite, trepidation changing to amazement. “This tastes just like my Mom’s pumpkin pie!” one exclaimed. “How did you do it?”
Tears stung my eyes and at that moment I felt happier than I’d ever felt in Africa, more fulfilled by Thanksgiving dinner. For the first time, I truly gave thanks: for friends, for bounty, for opportunity. And for my newest lesson: the art of compromise. Not a bad addition to a traditional American celebration.
The idea for the novel comes to you during a random moment in the day and quickly takes shape in your mind. Eventually, you set it to paper. You research, you immerse. You dream and imagine. You fall in love and nurture this newfound character and story, the object of your affection, your obsession. You craft, you build, you tear down, you revise.
My violinist. Her violin world. Such a foreign land for me. Such a challenge, to learn as much as I can in fifteen months’ time. And yet, what an exquisite, sensual world I’ve discovered.
You polish. You distill. You set your baby aside to age. She re-emerges as a teenager. You start getting on each others’ nerves. You disagree. The work gets more painful. But you persevere. Then you polish some more. Distill some more. Until one day the story is perfect. It resonates and echoes with a geometric precision, like a Bach partita.
Your job is done. You open the doors to the sanctuary where you’ve holed up with your character for the past fifteen months and you nudge her out. For a few seconds, she flounders, unsure of what to do with so much space, so much freedom. Then she spreads her newly developed wings and takes off. Flies away with a call over her shoulder that she’ll be back to visit. Maybe. And you watch her until she is nothing but a speck in the sky. You turn back to regard your sanctuary, now empty, drained of color and warmth. Then all you can do is pick up the pieces and await the arrival of the next seed.
One thing alone soothes the soul. And fortunately I hold a ticket that allows me, two days later, to hunker in my symphony seat and listen to Midori play Britten’s Violin Concerto.
A “war requiem,” the program notes describe it, composed and completed on the eve of the outbreak of World War II. Britten was greatly influenced, as well, by the tragic events of the Spanish Civil War, which took the lives of 600,000 people. The violin concerto that has sounded mildly appealing to me in the past now springs to life with searing new significance.
The violin concerto as requiem. I couldn’t have been in more agreement. Never before has each passage of this music made so much sense. So much beauty and loss. The Spanish Civil War. World War II. The latter, in particular, has begun to creep into my heart with an unmistakable heaviness, and I know it will play a part in my next novel, whether I want to go there or not.
Midori is a genius with contemporary music. Britten’s intention fills the concert hall through her playing. You can feel it in the air. The violin’s lament becomes his; it becomes the 600,000 departed souls, the 23 million people who perished in World War II. Davies Symphony Hall is crowded with ghosts and patrons alike. Tears dribble down my face, unabashed and unabated. A requiem, I suppose, will do that to you.
But oh, how sweet, the violin concerto requiem. Helping me both celebrate and grieve that world which is now lost.
More entries: December 2006 October 2006
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