Thanksgiving: Remembering the Past, Embracing the Present

Like most of you, I have Thanksgiving memories rooted in tradition with my family. We watched football games, snuck chocolate turkeys that were meant for after the big meal, and grazed on handfuls of nuts and crackers until the full feast was finally served in the very late afternoon hours in a too-warm dining room.

As a kid, I was indoctrinated with Thanksgiving symbols of “Indians” and pilgrims through arts and crafts, many of which made their way to the white Frigidaire in the kitchen. We didn’t think much beyond the myths back then; we just went through the motions because, well, that’s what most of us did in America.

As I grew older, I realized that those iconic images of a family Thanksgiving immortalized by the idealistic artist Norman Rockwell and the stories we read in elementary school were hardly representative of the truths endured by our ancestors and early English settlers.

The traditions of “Thanksgiving” actually predate American colonies and served the Spaniards and the French as early as the 15th century. The celebrations were exactly as you might think: a time to be thankful for good crops and good health. We, as an American nation, spent centuries after Columbus so heroically sailed the ocean blue in 1492 (yes, I am rolling my eyes) trying to capture the “soul” of Thanksgiving’s origins to a 1621 gathering in Plymouth, where settlers celebrated their survival from a devastating winter and their first bountiful harvest later that year.

The trouble with that famous 3-day feast, however, is that it was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts while a most vicious and deadly battle with the Native Americans raged on in Virginia.

The origins of our relations with Native Americans could have turned out so differently. According to Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, “The Indians, Columbus reported in 1492, ‘…are so naive and so free with their possessions. . . .When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.”

These are the traits we so desperately wish upon ourselves, even now in the 21st Century.

Three years later, in 1495, Columbus had taken full advantage of this generosity and enslaved the Native Americans to find gold for him in Haiti. “When they brought [the gold],” Zinn writes, “they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. . . .In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead. . . .By the year 1515, there were perhaps 50,000 Indians left. By 1550, there were 500.”

Then, at the turn of the 17th Century, in the very early years of English settlements in Virginia, tensions heightened between the Native Americans and early settlers.

In 1607, Chief Powhaten addressed a plea to John Smith that, according to Zinn, was of the following sentiment:

“I have seen two generations of my people die. . . .I know the difference between peace and war better than any man in my country. I am now grown old, and must die soon; my authority must descend to my brothers, Opitchapan, Opechancanough and Catatough, then to my two sisters, and then to my two daughters. I wish them to know as much as I do, and that your love to them may be like mine to you. Why will you take by force what you have quietly by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war? We can hide our provisions and run into the woods; then you will starve for wronging your friends. Why are you jealous of us? We are unarmed, and willing to give you what you ask, if you come in a friendly manner, and not so simple as not to know that it is much better to eat good meat, sleep comfortably, live quietly with my wives and children, laugh and be merry with the English, and trade for their copper and hatchets, than to run away from them, and to lie cold in the woods, feed on acorns, roots and such trash, and be so hunted that I can neither eat or sleep. In these wars, my men must sit up watching, and if a twig break, they all cry out, “Here comes Captain Smith!” So I must end my miserable life. Take away your guns and swords, the cause of all our jealousy, or you may all die in the same manner.”

In 1620, following smaller back-and-forth attacks against each other in Virginia while peaceful relations continued in Plymouth, the Native Americans, anxious about the number of increasing English settlements, decided to go on the offensive and massacred 347 men, women, and children. This led to a full-on war between the two groups and eventual domination by the English settlers.

This is why the Thanksgiving images of that 1621 feast are so unsettling to me now. It’s an image of what should have been for both groups from the very beginning throughout the colonial settlements.

It wasn’t until 321 years later and following a series of proclamations that our US Congress passed a resolution in October 1941 recognizing the fourth Thursday in November to be a federal holiday celebrating Thanksgiving.

And here we are today.

For years, I have struggled with the discrepancies of this holiday stemming from some of the more general myths that we perpetuated in the second half of the 20th century. But to dwell too much on our past is, I think, a missed opportunity for us to return to the origins of being thankful long before our ancestors battled with the Native Americans and stole their land.

Let us embrace this holiday for its origins rooted in real gratitude and humble thanks for our most basic blessings: food, life, and community. Today, we are offered the chance to share this land with a beautiful and diverse population that comprises a society built on compassion, kindness, and love. Give to your neighbors, lift love and prayer for those in need, and be grateful for those who have lifted their own love to you.

In these times of tension and division within our own nation, let us make the choice to put all of that behind us and embrace the opportunities of our present to love one another more humbly, unconditionally, and for many months after the holidays come to an end for this solitary year.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. May your hours spent with loved ones be genuine, heartfelt, and long-lasting.

A Declaration

When I was much younger, I would stand on the side of the road watching the fireworks being launched off of “Luskin’s Hill” just about a mile from my home. With each new sonic boom and brilliant blast of color, amidst the chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” that weaved through the crowd like the ripples of the American flag, I was the kid thinking about those “bombs bursting in air” and if they really looked like the fireworks that were exploding in front of me.

It was always impressed on me that the fourth of July was about what we went through to earn our freedoms, the sacrifices we made and the gutsy courage we displayed to build the foundation of a democratic, independent nation. I wasn’t ignorant to the fact that it has often been ugly. I had read Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. I knew we weren’t the Rockwellian image we’ve always hoped we might be. But what I extracted from these fireworks was a responsibility, a duty to those who gave us these freedoms, this independence; we owed it to the men and women who established a foundation of comfort, compassion, and opportunity for all within our United States.

Even as a kid, I felt obligated to uphold the legacy of what it means to be an American 200-plus years after the bursting of those bombs and the defiant red, white, and blue still waving in that dawn’s early light.

None of this has changed for me as I have gotten older, especially as I have learned more about the horrors of assimilation, the ugly demonstrations of cultural appropriation, and the despicable existence of racism still today. Yet, we believe that this is a time for us to boast our mighty strength and freedoms to the world, as the bodies of immigrants washing up on shores goes largely ignored.

Maybe that’s why things seem a little, oh, hollow these days when it comes to waving and praising that good old red white and blue. When I revisit the Declaration of Independence, I am reminded of why we broke free from Great Britain, and how we opened our arms for those in greatest need. The words of Emma Lazarus, who penned “A New Collosus” that is etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty, ring true:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she / With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

Have we forgotten this? Have we forgotten the actual text of the Declaration of Independence that outlines, very clearly, what we were breaking free from?

I offer you the complete text of the Declaration of Independence, below. Please read every word. Every single word.

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

On this day of independence, on this day that we celebrate everything that America stands for, I offer a Declaration that is a little less of the grandiose and a little more of the introspective contemplation of what it means to be “American.”

  • I declare that, as an American, I respect the rights of my neighbors, regardless of political affiliation.
  • I declare that, as an American, I open my arms to the homeless, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses. 
  • I declare that, as an American, I embrace the independence and individuality of my neighbors as long as that independence and individuality does not bring harm or injustice to others.
  • I declare that, as an American, I shout my encouraging words, my art, my music, my ideas, my beliefs of what is right for all to the world regardless of the risk of suppression or judgment.
  • I declare that, as an American, I work hard to support my community, to be honorable in my efforts, and to offer good will toward others who contribute to the wellness of our country.
  • I declare that, as an American, I embrace inclusion, not exclusion, and my words and efforts shall carry opportunities instead of consequences. 

These declarations do not hinder or dampen our parades, our fireworks, our backyard picnics; instead, they shift our focus to what really makes America a united, independent nation that was once revered as the greatest place for opportunity and freedom.

Instead of excluding political opponents, instead of casting blame on each other, instead of beating our chests with mighty tanks and powerful flyovers, instead of using bellicose language and building ourselves up by putting others down, instead of turning away those in need, instead of abhorrent tweets and social media bullying, choose the essential elements upon which our country was founded: Life. Liberty. Happiness. For All.

Focus on One Thing

I made some pretty bold moves this weekend, and I’m a lot better off this Sunday night than I was just 48 hours ago. It’s because of some advice that I received last week, on something totally unrelated to what I just discovered.

A little backstory here is necessary. Since the 2016 presidential election, I, like millions of others, have been pretty gripped with the polarizing politics here in the United States. It doesn’t matter what side you are on; it’s been emotionally draining for everyone. Relationships of all kinds have been strained, and I’ve acknowledged several times here and on social media how I have been overwhelmed by it all. It has affected my writing, my art, my love for music, my everything. I’ve been passionate about fighting for what I believe is right, and as a result, so much around me has suffered.

Fast forward to last week, when I turned in my article to my Catholic Review editor. After he had a chance to read it, we had a phone conference about the story. His bottom line: Focus on one thing, and then write about that one thing.

Let me repeat that:

Focus on one thing.

In the context of writing, it is a fairly rigid rule to keep it simple and be direct. It’s good advice that I’ve heard, and shared, over the years. My editor was spot on.

So fast forward five days, and here I am, still struggling with fluctuating polls, vitriolic tweets, hypocritical rants from all sides, and paralyzing gridlock in my newsfeed. I texted a friend of mine that I had lost my love for reading, for listening to music, for going on photo shoots. It was as if I had picked up a handful of crayons and had scribbled relentlessly through my thoughts, scrambling any coherent idea or passion that was possible.

No passion. No focus.

Then, for whatever reason, my editor’s words popped into my head: Focus on one thing.

It would be easy for me to apply this advice by ridding my life of the distractions that are keeping me from my art. Delete the politics, and the focus returns. That would certainly work, at least in the short term.

But when I meditated on my editor’s advice, I realized something a little deeper.

If I focus my energy on my own gifts, and how I can make a change in this world through deliberate acts, then I will no longer be paralyzed by the things I cannot control.

I immediately thought of my mentors, including my patron saint Francis de Sales, and Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Thich Nhat Hanh. While each of them might have been political, all of them were driven by their gifts of benevolence, peace, and charity. They looked for the common ground and not the things that divide us.

In other words, it’s not enough to delete the politics from our lives. I’m actually suggesting just the opposite. We need to, first and foremost, focus on the one thing that we are best at when it comes to making our communities healthy. Once we do that, everything else will take care of itself.

For me, these acts are done for – and through – God. And if I can offer contributions to my community that improve its overall health and wellness, then we are shielded from the things that are tearing others apart. In fact, it diminishes that contentious hold on us and begins to return us to a higher ground of respect toward all.

So as we navigate our energies through these turbulent times, focus on that one thing that you do well for others, and don’t worry so much about the things you can’t control. I believe that if more of us contribute kindness to others in our own communities, we will begin to feel a shift in our country’s larger energy for the values we believe are essential, not only for today but for our children’s future.

Our actions today are developing their focus for tomorrow; let’s make sure they focus on one thing: benevolence toward all.

 

Paralyzing Times for Creatives

Raw Thoughts of a Creative: November 2017 Edition

At the beginning of the year, I set some very realistic goals of submitting six unique pieces in competitions or for publication in new markets, an average of about one every other month. I thought this was setting the bar a little low, to be honest with you. I had just come off a phenomenal end to 2016, hitting the Amazon best-seller list with my Christmas anthology of fiction, essays, and assorted ponderings.

So here we are just days away from December 2017, and a quick check at the submission checklist leaves little room for interpretation of how this year has gone:

Submissions: 7. Rejections: 7.

As if that isn’t bad enough, my journaling has dried up to a wandering banter of nothingness, stale air of words that, when pushed together on the page, signify nothing.

Depressing, to say the least.

I’m wondering if other creatives are feeling the same way, experiencing the same funk, and questioning the quantity of quality work still in the creative well.

I’m certainly not short of assumptions why this might be. The situation in our country has polarized most of us, and nothing is shocking us anymore. Terrorists are killing Americans on our own soil by the dozens per incident, and we are tired of lifting thoughts and prayers, angry that our efforts in action are not enough, furious of the partisan politics that comes into the double-standard ways of American Life here in 2017.

There have been paralyzing challenges within my own family and friend circle, and that’s enough to strangle the creative quill from budging across the page.

It seems like everything I want to write about I can’t, or won’t, because I don’t want to deal with the politicization of it.

These are indeed paralyzing times for creatives.

So what do we do? I feel like I just need to keep writing, push through it. But the truth is that I don’t even have a passion anymore for what’s on the other side of the product. I’m not interested in marketing my work, making a point, even changing a life.

I’m just so angry and fed up with where we all are. It seems like the older I get, the more I see so transparently how exhaustive the battle is just to keep things at status quo.

I want to make a difference, but I wonder if that’s possible anymore.

I’ll end this post with an encouraging (I hope) thought:

We all get tired from time to time, worn and beaten down by the frustration, the attacks against us, the bewilderment over how we can get to where we are as a society. I think all creatives, for centuries, go through this. We end up lying on the mat, bloodied, tired, near resignation. We’ve been here so many times. Is it really worth it to get up one more time?

The answer: Yes. It is always worth it. Push your bloody knuckles into the sweat-covered mat and push yourself up. Grab hold of the rope and lift yourself to stare all that fights you squarely in the face, and carry on, whether it is with a pen, a brush, or a guitar pick. We are still alive, and we are still here. We are still commanded to do our work and capture this time as only we can.

So reject me another seven times. I don’t really care. And another seven. And maybe even another seven. Go right ahead. Because one of these times, I’m going to break through, and you are going to know what this relentless Creative is all about.

No. I will not go gently. And to all the other creatives out there struggling: Hang in there. I believe in you as I know you believe in me. Together, we cannot be silenced.

Understanding Our Frustrations And Realizing New Pathways To Resolutions

America is facing its greatest crisis in my lifetime, and I am realizing that each of us is called to react and act in ways that define our communities, large and small.

In the simplest of terms, here’s how I see it.

In our lifetimes, we are presented with scenarios that are not always directly related to our actions. In other words, we didn’t ask for the things that are bringing us stress. In such moments, we are presented with options of how we can react. Some of us turn inward; others seek spiritual guidance; many seek out advice from others. On some level, we combine these approaches to understand our frustrations.

Keeping this in its simplest terms, we have ourselves, we have spirituality, we have books, and we have others to guide us.

Most of the things that frustrate us are fleeting events where our reactions are governed by basic morals. Somebody has 30 items in the “fast lane” checkout at the grocery store, and we make a choice to wait or seek out a faster lane. We can control an immediate action and solve the problem to our satisfaction.

But with the things that frustrate us longer, such as socioeconomics, health benefits, or the conditions of our communities, we don’t have quick answers, and we seek comfort and camaraderie in the time we are frustrated. This, too, is natural.

We create websites, social media groups, attend meetings, and seek out leaders who understand us and who can help us with our frustrations.

This is where each of us matters in how we handle our frustrations and how we choose the leaders we listen to.

Over time, an energy is created out of our frustrations. if we spend more of that energy seeking out acknowledgment and justification, rather than working individually and collaboratively on solving those frustrations, the energy focuses on the problem and not on the solution. It becomes easy to accept the acknowledgment and the rhetoric used to make you believe you are heard and understood.

This is what political campaigns usually do. They rally an understanding of frustration and say, “Believe in me. I am the only person who can fix your problems and relieve your frustrations.” There is a promise made built on the energy manifested in that emotion and that frustration.

This is common in all sides of politics: something isn’t working; I can fix it. It isn’t Democrat, Republican, or any one individual; it’s the nature of politics when we have elections.

The problem we face today is that the pre-election frustration that was manifested into energy still exists, and it continues to manifest into something dangerous. It has momentum; it was given promises, it was given compassion and recognition, and now it is taking on a life of its own with the very people who justified it and are doing nothing to stop it.

Here’s the point. When protesters showed up in Charlottesville armed with weapons and shields, they personified the manifestation of that energy’s breaking point. When an individual made the decision to drive his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, he, too, was a manifestation of that energy.

But that is all that it is: energy. The very simple thing I know is that the only way to stop energy such as this is to cease feeding into it. Release the energy that fuels the frustration and make the choice – today – to return to the origins of your frustration and start again.

We can turn inward, we can counsel spiritual guidance, we can read books, we can seek solace and understanding in a community.

But this time, we must let our morals, our ethics, our spiritual compass, guide us in a direction of peace. Let there be a manifestation of energy that does not require physical weapons and shields, that the only daggers we use are words to slay the hatred and give peace a chance to manifest in a new way for all.

Dare to strike a new path, a new approach toward resolving the things that frustrate us. What we are doing is not working.

It’s not too late. May we come together to recognize our frustrations. May we work together to resolve them. May we all stay together as we forge a new era of peace here in these United States of America, and across the globe.

Rus VanWestervelt (@rusvw13, rus.vanwestervelt@gmail.com)