Pilgrimage: Some Thoughts on Thanksgiving

IMG_6428I have always been ambivalent about Thanksgiving. My family did not celebrate it in any recognizable way when I was a child. No cranberries, turkey, stuffing, pies. We ate Indian food (which we just called food) with our family friends (also Gujarati) in Rochester, as our extended family lived several hours away in California and New Jersey. Most of these family friends, I realize now, also had no other blood relatives in Rochester. They were my local cousins, my family.

We often watched movies – the one I remember most clearly is Kramer vs. Kramer—which seems like an odd film to watch at Thanksgiving, with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep divorcing. I remember the sympathetic portrayal of Dustin Hoffman’s character, and how he was also so kind to Meryl Streep’s character when she was in the courtroom and was asked if she was a good mother. Yes, he said or mouthed or nodded. I think Meryl’s character was in tears and wordless, and I think sometimes I was, too.

After my brother married my sister-in-law, we (my parents and I) either spent Thanksgiving with them in Massachusetts or in New Jersey, home of my sister-in-law’s parents. The night often ended with our watching movies, including the video of my brother and sister-in-law’s amazing wedding, twenty-three years ago.

Before her father passed away, suddenly, six years ago, my sister-in-law’s parents hosted most often—delicious South Indian food from Edison, champagne, lots of extended family, kids, football on the large screen TV in the basement. I would brace myself for venturing into Penn Station, which was completely bonkers on Thanksgiving weekend—and keep my cousin or my brother posted about when I would arrive—which train into which station—Metuchen or Metro Park or Berkeley Heights.

I was always late, looking up the NJ Transit train schedule, dragging a suitcase and a backpack of papers to grade and trying to hail a cab over to the West Side to even get to Penn Station. You could feel that crazy buzz of the East Coast—people constantly in motion on the train or I-95. Everyone jostling for space, everyone trying to get ahead, to get there faster. Those days seem far away. Another era, really.

Since I returned to Rochester and my grandmother moved in with my parents, and especially since her stroke, we do not travel as much. Also: I got married this year to someone who grew up five minutes from me. My husband’s parents live in town, too. Two nights ago we had dinner with both sets of parents, my aunt (who moved here last year), and my grandmother – at Pizza Hut (all Indians love pizza)—to celebrate a lot of fall birthdays—my mom’s, mine, R’s.

Last night, R and I had a quiet dinner at his parents’ house. We had traditional American Thanksgiving food from our local grocery store—sweet potatoes with cranberries, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing. Turkey for my father-in-law and R. My father-in-law bought shrimp for me, since I don’t eat turkey. So very different from other years.


Still of my sister-in-law and me during the ceremony, taken from the wedding video. She and my brother worked before, during, and after the wedding, helping us. An Indian wedding is no joke.

We decided to watch the wedding video that night for the first time—and realized part way through that it was our five-month anniversary. It has taken some time to process the whole experience of the wedding. We laughed and cringed at the expressions on our faces—my wide eyes, his consternation, our not knowing what was going on (no rehearsal). We drove home after, no suitcases needed.


I want to share a little of the essay I wrote for my presentation on the lyric essay at the NonfictioNOW Conference in October—because it’s also a little bit about Thanksgiving—at least about the images I grew up with.  Title of the Presentation:  “The Lyric Moment – to be both Pilgrim and Indian / to be on Pilgrimage”:

 “In Anne Carson’s essay, “Kinds of Water,” the narrator and her companion are on a pilgrimage and each journal entry ends with a meditation on what it means to be on such a journey—a sentence or two defining what a pilgrim is. Carson writes, ‘Pilgrims were people who figured things out as they walked. On the road you can think forward, you can think back, you can make a list to remember to tell those at home.’ (185)

Pilgrim is a word I sometimes wince at—cowboys, Indians, pilgrims. I am one of these three and pilgrim is not it, but when I read Carson I forgot that. I remembered, even as the word felt awkward to me, the origin of the word / world—the pilgrimage, the undertaking beyond Columbus and Thanksgiving—holidays and history I feel alienated from, not the least because I came from a place where people are also called Indians, but we were not studied in school. We did not count. We were invisible and so were the Indians we studied. Writing is about making the invisible visible. Writing is about counting—steps, images, stories. In this way, as a writer and reader, we each sail onward, solitary pilgrims. We pilgrimage. We count.”

At the time I was working on the essay, I was thinking about the relationship between walking and writing. I read the book in which the essay is contained, Anne Carson’s Plainwater, while in Noy Holland’s graduate English class, Stylistics. My friend, Jim Foley, was in the class, too. I still think of him, walking in the desert, walking in Amherst, searching and thinking, as we all were, for our stories, for who would we become. Jim was captured in Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012, so I pause too, to remember him and his lively and loving spirit. (Thank you, Rilla Askew, for reminding me of the date.) I’ve been struggling with finishing an essay about him. Persist.

While working on my presentation, I had somehow forgotten about my friend Holly Wren Spaulding’s book, Pilgrim. (Buy this book– for yourself and it’s perfect for a stocking stuffer or an easy-to-pack gift for when you are visiting friends over the holidays.)

Holly and I have spoken often about what it meant to leave the lives we had made—leaving home and place and academic perch, for the unknown—except we knew we wanted to put art / writing, a mindful approach to living and to love, at the center of it. I’ll share the title poem of Holly’s book here. Her poem, “Pilgrim,” (along with Carson’s essay) gives me a different and more nuanced sense of the word.


I’ll rewrite some lines from the poem again, for emphasis:


October is to fall


all things die back


varieties of brittle

tannic smoke


where are you from

now that you’re not

from there

~Holly Wren Spaulding

This Thanksgiving weekend, I am thankful for family—near and far—and for the friends I grew up with in Rochester. I’m thankful for memories of watching movies on the VCR, Tootsie (we must have liked Dustin Hoffman) and Octopussy (James Bond and set in India, to boot!). I am relieved and sad I can celebrate Thanksgiving without running the gauntlet of either I-95 or Penn Station on a holiday weekend. I miss my sister-in-law’s father, a kind, quiet man. I’m grateful for friends I met as an adult—in particular today, for Jim, for Holly, and for my husband, who all walked into my life and made it better.









What Comes Next and How to Like It

Last week at Blue Mountain Center, where I was invited to take part in a mini residency, I finally delved into Abigail Thomas‘ new memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. It came out earlier this year and I bought it months ago and it has sat while we slowly moved into our new place and got used to too many changes. New apartment, new husband, working from home, etc.  I did something while away I used to do a lot—just recopied passages from her book and other things I read there. I’d fallen out of the habit of doing that, but at BMC, I just settled into the book and reading at a table next to my friend, Holly. Hours passed.


I admired that Abby wrote about failure. It’s something I have thought about a lot—how to deal with it, why my students and their parents struggled with it, why I do, and how to write about it.  Everyone fails at something, at some time. So why is it so hard to accept it? I do think half of life is showing up, but do we need participation awards?  I got a D in calculus in college and most likely should have failed. I was horrified, and life went on.  I’ve failed at much larger things with far greater stakes than that, too. Everyone has. It’s what comes next that says something.  What did I do with it?  What am I doing with it?

Here’s something Abby wrote in What Comes Next and How to Like It:

“I am trying to convince myself that failure is interesting. I look the word up in the American Heritage Dictionary to find its earliest incarnation, but it has always been just ‘failure.’ There’s no Indo-European root meaning originally ‘to dare’ or ‘mercy’ or ‘hummingbird’ to make of the whole mess a mysterious poem. I can find no other fossilized remains in the word. Humility comes along on its own dime.”

One of the many things I love about Abby’s writing is short chapters.  Suits my way of thinking—these interconnected fragments. I loved her various two-page assignments (I took a four or six week class with her at the 92nd Street Y in TriBeCa, the last year I lived in NY) and I used them sometimes in my classes—and I love how she has composed whole books (like one of her memoirs, Safekeeping) in these segments. Here’s one for today from What Comes Next:


“Late Fall”

“Late fall, and the color is gone. This is the season of bare trees, the kinds of trees my sister Judy describes as looking as if they died of fright.  A perfect description. Judy should be a writer, I nag her all the time. ‘If you’re not going to use it, I am,’ I say, but I’m careful to give credit.

The leaves were glorious yellows and reds and browns, but a few along Tinker Street (and one you could see only from Cumberland Farms) were a deep shade of rose. Rose! You had to gasp. But except for those moments of painfully beautiful color, I haven’t felt anything like shouting, can’t think of anything to write or paint (I don’t know how to do autumn), and nothing more has occurred to me recently about failure, except that it’s failure.

But when it gets dark, I’m off the hook. The day is officially rolled up and put away. I’m free to watch movies or stare at the wall, no longer holding myself accountable for what I might or might not have gotten done because the time for getting something done is over until tomorrow.” —Abigail Thomas

Thank you, Abby.  It’s nearly time to stop working.





Assay@NFN15: “The Lyric Moments”

I had a wonderful time attending the NonfictioNOW 2015 Conference at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Here’s a write-up of the panel I was on — about “the lyric moment” in both lyric poems and the lyric essay.  I wrote poetry first and still think of myself (in many ways) as a poet who happens to work mostly in prose these days. Thank you, Heidi Czerwiec, for blogging about so many of the terrific creative nonfiction panels for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies — a true example of literary citizenship.

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

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Matthew Olzmann, Justin Bigos, Sejal Shah, Bojan Louis

Panel description: When Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off in pursuit of “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” the phrase “suspension of disbelief” entered the poetic lexicon. It can be argued that an equivalent poetic faith is at the heart of the lyric essay. However, despite sharing similar impulses and effects, the lyric essay and the lyric poem handle, develop, and court poetic faith in different manners. There is a distinct difference between the suspension of disbelief in poetry and the development or maintenance of actual belief in the essay. This panel of poets, essayists, and editors will discuss the lyric essay in relation to the lyric poem, and consider what constitutes a “poetic faith” in nonfiction.

Matthew Olzmann: This is a panel of…

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