One vulnerable risk led to my favorite Thanksgiving

I apologize ahead of time to my families: my favorite Thanksgiving was not with you. While I’ve had some lovely 4th Thursdays in November with you — eaten great food (including my triumph of a turkey last year), laughed, and even heard some good lines that have lived on (“You’re not my uncle, you’re just a random person,” and “Dong Wong’s thongs,” among others) — the Thanksgiving that shines the warmest in my memory was one from our early married, New York City, days.

It was our second non-family Thanksgiving. After we got married, the plan had been to spend Thanksgiving with one side and then Christmas with the other. It took only one season of that for us to realize how nuts that was, and we spent the November holiday in New York, with our friends. I know it was the second one, because I was working for a college textbook company, not the sexual-harrassing-stockbroker I worked for after quitting grad school.

On Wednesday, at the very end of the day, after everyone with clout was already gone and it was just recently-hired assistants and other down-in-the-pecking-order folks left, one of my co-workers approached my low wall. I don’t remember his name (because I’m a terrible person*), so let’s call him Guy. Let’s say it in our heads in the French pronunciation so it sounds less generic: Gee (still hard-g, people).

He spoke quietly, so I had to lean across my desk to hear him. His Thanksgiving plans had fallen through so he was wondering whether I had room at my celebration. We were friendly, but not particularly friends. What he had done was so vulnerable, so risky, that I immediately said there was room, even though the meal was not at my house and none of the other people knew him. A few minutes later, a mutual work friend told me the real deal: he’d planned to go to one of the editor’s houses, but the editor’s spouse had just found out/figured out that said editor had been having an affair with a co-worker (not Guy); Thanksgiving was no longer going to be a cozy, welcoming affair, and Guy was disinvited.

The place was in Williamsburg before it was gentrified, in a warehouse just a couple of blocks from the East River, in a neighborhood of warehouses. There was often a semi-truck rig idling outside. This was not a fancy converted warehouse, so get the visions from Dwell Magazine out of your heads. I was the only female person there. There were old rock-and-roll-band friends of my husband, one of the first friends I’d made after moving to NY for grad school, possibly another guy who lived there and maybe a friend of his, my husband, me, and Guy. The guys were in charge of all the food except for the pumpkin chiffon pie (a pie I bring every year, wherever I am; it is a ridiculous amount of work, but it is that good).

I may have had a moment or two of horror at how little cooking had been done when I got there, but, for once, I went with the flow. I believe I drank enough wine that I didn’t get too hangry (so hungry I was angry). One friend had recently bought a lovely and simple mezzaluna in Chinatown, and I happily rolled it back and forth over bunches of herbs. I tried really, really hard not to get all take-over-y in the kitchen. Not sure how successful I was, but I tried.

And laughed. My main memory of that day was of warmth and of laughter. We’d been at it awhile when Guy arrived (probably with more wine), so he got a good welcome. Not sure if we actively commiserated with his sucky situation or just folded him into the festivities, but the cooking and snacking and drinking went on for hours. This group of guys sometimes had some tension (anyone who’s been a band can probably relate), but I think having Guy there diffused all that; we were all our best selves, coming together for him.

Then we ate. And ate. It was all so delicious. After dinner we played the dictionary game — someone chose a word out of the actual dictionary and we all came up with definitions, which we shared and voted on before finding out what the real def. was. It was raucous. At the end of the evening we went for a walk by the East River. Happily, the molasses smell from the nearby sugar factory overwhelmed any other East River odors.¬†We stayed until the frigid wind blew through our remaining alcohol haze.

I smiled the whole way home on the subway. Actually, probably not. It took 45-60 minutes to get to Astoria from Williamsburg. But it was still good.

* It should be noted that my husband’s memory for names is so awesome that it’s almost a superpower, yet he can’t remember this guy’s name, either.

If things aren’t too hectic where you are, I’d love to know about your favorite Thanksgiving.

Allowing Yourself to Be Seen

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about loving those moments in a novel when a character is seen, truly seen for who they really are, by an unlikely character — those moments when there is evidence of deep and abiding love and understanding.

There’s a flipside to being seen, and that’s allowing yourself to be seen.

A TED talk by Brene Brown has been floating around a lot this weekend, shared on FB by multiple and unrelated friends. It’s about what a researcher was dragged, kicking and screaming by her research, to discovering was the bedrock of human connection: vulnerability.

She talks about how we are our own worst enemy when it comes to connection. We deny uncomfortable truths or emotions. We try to numb those things that make us feel vulnerable and wind up numbing all emotions. We work to perfect the imperfectible. We turn a mere vulnerability into an occasion for shame, which spirals us tighter and tighter into ourselves and farther and farther away from God and others. (This last one isn’t entirely from the talk, but from a book I read in college: Shame: The Power of Caring, by Gershen Kaufman.) We do not believe we are worthy of love and belonging.

I think back to every small group I’ve been involved with — whether it’s Bible study, house church, or book club — and I can pinpoint the moment someone was vulnerable enough to tell the truth about his or her life. Those moments changed each of those groups forever. After that, there was no need to put the shiny face on. No need to mince around and almost say what was going on. We could be real, because someone had the courage to be real first. Someone admitted that things weren’t perfect and were vulnerable enough to show that this bothered them without trying to laugh it off or put it into humorous context. Someone admitted that they made an error of judgment and asked forgiveness for it.

I can pinpoint that moment in a number of friendships. Someone who was really irritating the living daylights out of me told me she was lonely. Flat out. I was lonely, too. And we became friends in that instant, because she was, for the first time, a person to me. I took it as a sign that I told things about myself to my now-husband after two weeks of dating that I’d been afraid to tell a boyfriend of a year: I had the courage and the trust in him to let him see me.

None of those groups or relationships would have been so deep and meaningful if someone hadn’t had the courage to allow him/herself to be seen, bruises and warts and tears and snot running down the face and all. Those moments let the group live wholeheartedly.

That’s Brown’s phrase for how people live who do not deny or run away from their vulnerability. The wholehearted. They experience human connection because they believe they are worth of love and belonging. They love with their whole hearts, with no guarantees. They are compassionate both to others and to themselves. That sounds good. Really good.

I needed to hear this, need to practice allowing myself to be seen more often. I’d rather live wholeheartedly than half-assedly. I need to pray for courage.