I went to bed sad the night before thanksgiving one year. Iʼm single and my 16 year old son was going with his dad for the day. I imagined showing up alone, at this big family event with married happy people and their children.
A friend of mine suggested that I bring a camera and a guitar. “ Your date can be your Art,” she said. “It really works.”
She is right of course. I always bring my guitar and I use my phone as a camera. Art can be your date anywhere.
You can bring it with you on a walk and choose to look at the clouds and get that just right picture at sunset, or take it along on a car ride on a freezing winter drive and notice the icy trees on the side of the road, just standing there, looking gorgeous. If youʼre feeling uncomfortable or bored at a party, Art is there, just waiting for you to see the way that person is sitting and then wow you with the story behind his eyes. Art makes the worn spot on the living room carpet interesting and tones down a shrill voice with a fascinating reason for the loudness.
Art is great company at work too, when you take a minute and notice the girl running, hunched over in the rainstorm outside your window, or listen to computer hums and keyboard clicks as people engage in creating money out of thin air.
You are an artist, even if you donʼt dabble in any specific medium that people call Art. You are creating your experience of Your Life.
There is no greater Art, no activity that takes more talent, no thing that is more precious or more valuable, than the creation of your life, right now.
So I brought Art with me that Thanksgiving. I didnʼt want to. I was committed to being unhappy, convinced that I was right, that I would feel less then wherever I went. But then the day started with a fabulous hike in my favorite park. I couldnʼt help but see the tall brown grasses swaying in the fall winds and three leaping young deer with bright white tails as Art, Appreciated Real Things.
Then I got an unexpected invitation to a “grateful giving” party.
The day kept getting better. That morning, my son and I ended up at the health club, where I did a full body workout for the first time in months.
Sitting in the steam room and the sauna, deep breathing, while the people around me moved around and sighed and came and left, I felt at peace, happy to be alone.
My sonʼs father came right on time, and I threw my guitar and some music into the back of the car and left for my first solo holiday party. It was perfect. At one point, we all sat in a big circle and expressed our gratitude for people and experiences in their life. I was overwhelmed when 4 people named me.
I headed to my family celebration after that. I asked two of my favorite little girls there to come with me after dinner to get my guitar out of my car in the driveway. There were boots and hats and excitement, as if we were going on a big adventure.
We ran down the driveway to my car, opened the hatch and unloaded the guitar and the songbooks. I gave each of them two songbooks to carry back inside and they said, “ Thank you so much for letting us help you!”
I played Christmas songs, mostly Jingle Bells, and they sang along. The 4 year old made up words as she sang softly, periodically asking me if we were done yet, cheerfully singing some more when the answer was no.
I tried to help them sing louder, by telling them to shout out Jingle Bells with me. “Just yell it!”, I yelled, like this! JINGLE BELLS!” They giggled in response, saying they shouldnʼt shout at a party.
“Can I sing this alone?,” the 5 year old would lean over and whisper in my ear. “Of course,” I would whisper back, and play the music for a few minutes, waiting for her to start. Then she would whisper again, “ Can you help?,” and I would start to sing. We did the same songs 2 or 3 times, really rockin it out with Jingle Bell Rock. We played “My Favorite Things” and I substituted their favorite things for the lyrics: “ Mommy and Daddy and Charlie and Kenny:” instead of “Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens.”
I stopped at a local store on the way home. I didnʼt want to, but I really needed some milk. I had the idea that it was awful that they were open on Thanksgiving. I told myself the employees should have the day off, that Americans were addicted to comsumerism, and that we were all losers for shopping on a holiday. To top it off, I noticed a line for the neighboring electronics store, with people camping and sitting in chairs, bundled up against the cold. I took pictures with my phone and texted them to a friend. He and I shared some cynical comments.
What kind of losers stand in line on Thanksgiving?
I got what I needed and drove home, feeling superior to those poor idiots out in the cold. As I pulled into my driveway and opened my door to step out of the car, I suddenly stopped. I remembered Art.
Iʼm a writer. I enjoy writing about the relationships formed between people and money. The experience of people camping out in a store parking lot at 10 PM on Black Friday Eve was perfect fodder for my blog.
I texted my friend that I was going out my first journalistic assignment, to interview these people, and drove back to that parking lot. The line was twice as long as before. Some people had pup tents. I recalled a Facebook post:
“Let’s all dress up as bears and rip down the tents of the people in line on Thanksgiving.” I had liked it, laughing at the idea.
I took a deep breath, got out of my car and walked right past the line, straight into the store I was in before. I was nervous. I had no idea what I’d say. I had to walk around for a few minutes, pick up a few things, and gather my courage.
When I was ready, I walked up to a man in line and told him I was a writer.
“I write about people and money and I am just fascinated by this and wondering, can you tell me what brings you here?”
He smiled at me, showing straight white teeth. “ Iʼm here for the TV, for my kids.”
“The TV? Can you tell me about that?”
“Yep, 200 bucks for a 42 inch TV. Itʼs like 400 dollars off. Big deal.”
“Oh, so you planned for this? “
He nodded. “Iʼve been saving, yep. I hope they have enough of ʻem. The papers said there were only 10 at each store.”
I smiled and shook my head. We both looked at the 50 people in front of him in the line.
He smiled and looked down at the ground, kicked his foot along and sighed. He raised his eyebrows as he looked at me,
“Well, Iʼm just hopinʼ, you know? Itʼs the only way I can get it for the family this year. Been a tough one.”
“Ya, I know.” And I do know. Every day then, in my job as a mortgage banker, at least one person in financial crisis called me, crying and losing hope.
I breathed out. One down.
“Well, Good luck to you.”
I walked further up the line and stopped at a woman leaning up against a cement support pillar, shivering in the cold, next to a girl who was talking on her cell phone.
I breathed in, and smiled. The woman had long messy hair and a big smile in an unmade up, wrinkled face.
“Hi, Iʼm a writer and Iʼm curious, what are you doing here tonight?”
“Iʼve been here every year for about 5 years. I didnʼt wanna come this year, but my daughter, sheʼs been wanting a TV now for awhile and I didnʼt want her standin’ out here alone, you know?”
“I do. I really do,” I said as I looked down the line at so many groups of men, hanging out in the cold.
Her daughter hung up her cell phone and looked at me, eyes squinted with suspicion. She was very pretty. She stood up a little straighter and backed away from me, creating more space between us.
I directed my question to her anyway. “ So, did you save to buy this TV?”
One word answers were familiar to me. I lived with a 16 year old. “Well, why are you buying it tonight?”
“Iʼm saving like 400 dollars.”
I looked back at the mom.
We were all silent for a beat and then the mom joked about the idea that you save money by buying a TV.
“I’m a saver. I wish I could convince her.”
I would not have thought of the people in the line as conscious parents, or savers, or people who were responsible with their money.
I said thank you so much and good luck and left them, a mom and her daughter, talking with the now friendly group behind them about the questions I was asking. Everyone was starting to chat.
I walked further up the line and stopped at a group of people who seemed to be in their twenties, sitting in folding chairs wrapped up in blankets. I was comfortable with this now. I felt safe.
I directed my first question to a girl, sitting in her chair, holding her hood tight underneath her chin. “Hi, Iʼm a writer. Can I ask you why youʼre here?”
Four people answered me, interrupting each other. They wanted to talk.
“ A TV, a tablet, a laptop, a great sale.”
Everyone was talking at once. I smiled bigger, and shook my head a little.
“ Well, let me start with you,” I said, looking at the girl I initially asked. “Youʼre buying a laptop, ri-”
The young man next to her cut me off.
“With this economy, you gotta take advantage, ya know?”
“Yep, I do. So, what are you buying?”
“A tablet. Itʼs pretty awesome.”
“ and thatʼll help you? In this economy?”
“Well, I mean the savings will. I can only get it this cheap if I wait in this line, you know?”
“Yep, I know.” I turned back to the girl.
“ How much does the laptop cost?”
“ Well, itʼs like 500 dollars cheaper than it would be normally. 500 bucks.”
“ Thatʼs a pretty big deal.”
“Yea, Iʼm pretty excited. And my friend here is getting that TV deal.”
Her friend, a young man sitting next to her on my left, chimed in. “ Yeah, I heard they only have like 20.”
I addressed him. “Someone a little further back told me they only had 10.”
A man in front of him turned around.
“No, thatʼs not right. The ad said that each store had a minimum of twenty. A minimum, not a maximum. “
His two friends turned around too.
“The employees come out at like 11 and they give you numbers.”
I looked at them and took a few steps closer.
“Do you think theyʼre afraid of some kind of mob thing, when the doors open?” The man who was buying the tablet talked next.
“You mean like that stuff at WalMart, where that guy was killed?”
A girl, a few people back, talked next. “God, I forgot about that. Remember, that guy was trampled, when they opened the doors? What was it that was on sale?”
Someone spoke behind her. “It was this toy, that, um, you know, that doll”
Nobody could remember the name of the toy. I did.
Tickle me, Elmo.
The man who told us about the 20 TV minimum said that he was at Target last year and he got pretty banged up when the doors opened.
His friend grinned, “ Yeah, you gotta have a plan. See, we mapped it out tonight.
We know exactly where the TVs are, in the back on the right. We run back there as fast as we can when the doors open, Iʼll tell ya, and it works. Ya gotta know where youʼre goin.”
The girl who was buying the laptop spoke up, suddenly animated. “Heʼs right, ya know, ya gotta have a plan for real. Two years ago, my girlfriend and I waited for a whole night outside and it was freezing! Remember that weather two years ago? That big freeze? “
Someone answered her, “Oh yeah, God that was a cold night!”
The girls started to talk again. “ Well, my girlfriend sprained her finger in the crush of people tryin to get in the store and weʼd never done this before, so we didnʼt even know where we were going! We didnʼt even get anything! God!”
I asked her if she was planning on doing this every year, and the tablet buying guy answered,
“Of course! Donʼt you see? Itʼs kind of like tailgating, itʼs fun!” He laughed.
I stood there, a witness to their battle with the prices of things, to their sense of community, to their willingness to help each other.
“Thanks so much- Good luck with all of this,” I said. There was a crowd now, saying good bye to me, wishing me luck with my writing.
I turned to walk back to my car, amazed at their generosity.
The man who was buying the tablet, shouted out to me, “ Donʼt forget my name! Remember to mention me! Where should I look?”
I mentioned a local paper and walked back to my car, shaking my head a little, trying to process all that happened.
The Art, the Appreciated Real Things for me that day, were the people. It was the dad standing in the hopeless reality of ten TVs with 50 others, waiting anyway, for even the slight chance to make his family happier on Christmas morning, the mom committed to protecting her daughter, the young man who wanted his name in the paper.
It was seeing my son work out, hearing my name included in a gratitude list, feeling the whispered breath of a five year old girl as she asked to go it alone, then asked for help, then tried again.
We are all at war with prices, or our dependence. We wage battle with consumerism in a gratitude circle. We are connected all the time.
The people in the parking lot, the little girl trying to do it herself, and the people in the circle, are all connected, by the hope for better, for lasting, for real.