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What Thanksgiving Means to Me or: How I Learned to Love the End of the World By Margaret Hawkins

I left my husband alone with the dog on Thanksgiving morning and flew from Chicago to Raleigh, North Carolina. I fully expected the whole trip to be a nightmare. My brother was in the hospital. I had a few days off from work and this was my one chance to spend some time with him. My plan was to offer moral support and give my sister-in-law a little time off. 

He was supposed to be home by then. Instead, he was getting worse by the hour. I didn’t know that yet. My immediate, selfish concern was travel — navigating the airport, the flight, the lines, the rental car, the hotel, the hospital. Finding something to eat mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving in a Southern city. I’d imagined a nice turkey sandwich at a convivial roadside tavern with a few other holiday loners so as not to arrive in low-blood-sugar delirium, but nothing was open.

Photo courtesy of Josep Lago/AFP/Getty for CNN

It wasn’t discomfort and logistical screw-ups that I dreaded most, though. It was human conflict. The potential for violence seethed in every sad and impatient traveler I’d be standing in lines with. We’ve all read the stories; some of us have lived them. Guns and weirder weapons slip past the TSA. Punches fly, people are tied screaming to airline seats lest they kill a flight attendant, entire planeloads of passengers sit stranded for hours without access to food and water. They defecate in the airplane aisles, are dragged off planes by police. And that’s before you even arrive, if you ever do, at the rental car place to find a wait longer than your entire flight time.


Instead, my trip unfurled like the petals of a flower under a dome of grace. I’m still trying to figure out why. I suppose good behavior on Thanksgiving Day might be chalked up to holiday bonhomie, but this mood of subdued cooperation continued for days.

Photo courtesy of Green Light Limited for CNN

It doesn’t match what I know about our world. I like to consider that radical change is possible, but I don’t expect it. I am not reflexively optimistic. The fact that people are trying to numb themselves in airport bars seems not decadent but reasonable to me. I agree with the pundits who say we are more divided than ever. Coarser, meaner, ruder, greedier. That the haves are ever more indifferent to the needs of the have nots. That the only people who share are the ones with the least stuff. I increasingly suspect that Martin Luther King’s promise about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice is more hopeful than true. I agree with my student who summed it up this way: it’s theoretically possible but we’ll never see it because humans are very, very bad and it will take a very, very long time.


But the people I interacted with for those five days — thousands of them — seemed to be trying to hold back the darkness. This wasn’t just one lucky bubble of warmth I happened into. It happened everywhere. People offered each other places in line. Stood back so others could run for planes. Engaged in respectful conversations with strangers who didn’t look a bit like them. People were kind, even to beleaguered employees, even to lost visitors from Chicago.

Frida Kahlo, “The Two Fridas,” 1939, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Frida Kahlo Museum, Coyoacan, Mexico.

I got up at 4:30am under a full moon to catch the first flight on Monday. It didn’t occur to me the airport would already be crowded with people rushing back to work. Or rather, already working. A young woman stuffed into a business suit and heels madly tapped on her laptop, working out sales figures. Tech guys behind me in the hours-long security line discussed the conference one was heading to in Vegas, the plane to which he was clearly going to miss. The veterinarian crammed into the middle seat next to me, whose phone was basically in my lap, texted encouragement to a prospective dog adopter. I know these details because quarters were so close that I couldn’t help but see and hear them. No one complained.


I know the world hasn’t suddenly become kind and civilized. If anything, it seems to be getting worse by the day, in ways we can no longer control even when we bother to try. I’m wondering if this strange peace I observed is a mass response to the end of the world. Maybe some of us have been stunned into good behavior by the bleakness of what we have wrought. Maybe the realization that we have engineered our own demise is beginning to sink in and some of us, at least, are trying to make amends before it’s too late.

Gordon Parks, “At Segregated Drinking Foutain, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956, photograph.
Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation.

I taught art to rich children for a year when I was very young. I presided over the making of some gorgeous things, but otherwise I was terrible at it. I couldn’t maintain order. The school included deaf children in my class. Those kids mostly kept to themselves, signing animatedly with each other. One day the hearing kids went especially wild and started to make fun of the deaf kids’ hand motions. I’d tolerated months of glue fights and the throwing of art supplies out the window, but this time I lost it. I don’t remember what I said exactly but somehow I communicated what I felt, which was that they were not only cruel but unlikable and stupid, and that I deeply disliked them. I may have added that at this rate they would grow up to be despicable adults. I didn’t care if I got fired. I hoped I would be. The funny thing is, the kids got all wide-eyed and quiet. For the first time, they looked truly interested in what I had to say. 

JR, “Inside Out Project, At the Pantheon, Inside the Pantheon, Paris, France,” 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

I thought of those kids at the airport as stories of human idiocy scrolled across screens large and small and we thousands dragged our rolling boxes of clothing through the halls of travel. I like to think we were all feeling a little sorry for the mess we’d made. Maybe like those kids, we were finally starting to pay attention. Maybe it was too late but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe those kids turned out fine.

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