Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

The Light of Remembrance


Holidays in the so-called United States — and doubtless, elsewhere too — are treacherous to navigate if one is remotely critical of hierarchy and domination, and remotely self-reflective. There are the ties that often don’t bind of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and biology urging one to go “home for the holidays,” or making one feel lonely, isolated, and perhaps unloved if one has nowhere holiday-oriented to go. There’s the genocide of humans and stealing of lands that fail to appear in the origin stories of these celebrations, or are reimagined as peaceful coexistence or portrayed via racist caricatures. Factory farming, consumerism, religious fundamentalism, deplorable wage and work conditions, and social injustice, among other outrages, are the seamy underbelly of the holiday dinner, among other festivities.

What’s a poor anticapitalist to do? We remember. We make visible. And we hope that our efforts change some minds and, better yet, lead to some tangible social change. But we also seem to twist ourselves into knots — different ones, to match our differing cultural backgrounds and life experiences — within those transparent remembrances of terrible things past and present. We fall over ourselves attempting to say and do the right thing around the holidays, to be politically correct in all the new ways that emerge each year. This is evidenced by the dramatic uptick in Facebook posts, for one, revealing all the truths about the day we call “thanksgiving”; renaming the holiday itself as, say, “friendsgiving” (not to be confused with the advertisers’ delight at this year’s “thanksnukkah”); and dedicating or re-dedicating ourselves to various solidarity-not-charity projects or actions, such as backing up strikers (or striking!) at a port or participating in a noise demo outside (and inside) a prison.

On the other hand, what’s a poor anticapitalist to do who is also, after all, a person with their own individual memories, some of them painful and some of them fond, and own traditions? Forget? Make invisible? Hope no one discovers our secret pleasures — and/or how we work through our bittersweet feelings — in our holiday practices, most of which have little or nothing to do with politics, or specifically, our politics (many of us have one of those relatives who utter racial slurs casually, acceptably, in between mouthfuls of turkey and pumpkin pie).

As I was lighting the candles on this first night of Hanukkah this evening — simultaneously multitasking by stirring homemade maple cranberry sauce on the stove for tomorrow’s non-bio-family gathering at a picture-perfect rural setting north of New York City, snapping a photo with my smartphone of my inherited bio-family menorah, and refreshing my Facebook newsfeed for the latest holiday horror story — I paused.

What’s a poor anticapitalist who is also a person with individual memories who is also, for the first time in their lifetime, living through this holiday period without both parents, who both died recently, and without many other things that got lost along the way throughout the past year?

I can envision so many better ways to make, create, and celebrate holidays, far outside the confines of what’s considered almost compulsory or simply “the way it is.” So mostly, the “big” holidays that “everyone” celebrates feel awful and merely highlight various forms of suffering. But I can pretty much envision so many better ways to do everything — from housing and health care, to food and culture, to life and death and caretaking, to education and play, and on and on. That’s sort of our “job” as rebels, isn’t it? Dreaming up and experimenting with the impossibly possible, even when — or precisely because — most of this world feels awful and seems structured to increase suffering.

This year, as I paused in my own mini “festival of lights” at this dark time in human history, I saw visions of Hanukkah two years ago. A simple, silly, spontaneous convergence of one of my sisters and I at my parents’ house of many decades in Michigan. I hadn’t been “home for Hanukkah” in a long time, so we lit candles together and sat in their glow, laughing at some moments, arguing about politics at others, spinning a cheap plastic dreidel from our youth for fun not religion, sharing lives and memories that were mixed — like all lives and memories. It was nothing special, nothing spectacular, nothing to celebrate per se. Just the multifaceted interactions that occur with people you’ve known and loved, sometimes disliked and sometimes appreciated, felt misunderstood and/or encouraged by, experienced so many joys and turning points with for the whole of your life. The same people who, whether they meant to or not, passed along their ethics in such a way that it seemed to me appropriate to later call them “anarchism.”

The dualist model we radicals seem to box ourselves into during this holiday season now, on this particular Hanukkah and Thanksgiving convergence, feels wholly inadequate to me — that is, in terms of who we could and should be as those striving toward social transformation, and as those who are, after all, human beings too. I was reminded of this last Friday night, when a religiously Jewish anarchist(ic) friend of mine invited me to Shabbat dinner; not being religious, I’d never thought to do this before, yet as we sat down to first sing and then eat, my friend explained that the notion of not working on Shabbat was intended to give us a glimpse of what a utopic society might be like. This, in turn, underscored that I have too often placed myself in the camp of taking a one-sided stance on holidays (not to mention such rituals as Shabbat) — until now, I hope, when the memories of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, especially, are wholly tied up with my parents, but also the values, politics, history, and underdog stories of resistance that I learned from them, or was taught by them to seek out for myself with others through education and “trying to always do good in the world” (the basis of what they understood as their faith).

Maybe the real meaning in holidays is not only what we make of them for ourselves and others, outside all we’re told to feel about them, but also, more important, how we relate to them as times of remembrance — remembrances of many varieties, shedding the light of truths of all kinds on to an impoverished world that we long to be far different, filled with a rich sense and practice of social goodness, with far less suffering.

What are we to do?

Remember. Everything. The grand inequalities and the tiniest of intimacies. And share those remembrances far and wide. That in and of itself is a bold, rebellious act these gray days in the history of humanity, when forgetting and erasing is part of the toolkit for ensuring social control and personal unwellness of all sorts. If we can’t remember what happened earlier, and especially what we’ve loved and lost, how can we possibly know what to struggle for in the future, or dream about?

Remember. Histories global and local, political and personal, and the tightly interwoven range of experiences within them from theft and loss to cooperation and community — and oh so much more. Contemporary wins and failures and dilemmas; people who are forgotten; tales that never get told or really listened to; how we all could be so much more to each other and our selves and the nonhuman world. Remember the distant pasts and near-at-hand presents in all their complicated, troubling, contradictory, beautiful and beautifully hurtful, poignant, honest, pleasing — and oh so much more — fullness. And make those ever-changing remembrances visible to oneself and others, in all their nonbinary brilliance and heartache, as the stuff of potentially nudging us toward a far better future, in which memory might not cause so many of us quite so much grief, in which memory might even hold out a flicker of hope.

* * *

If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photo by Cindy Milstein, Brooklyn, November 27, 2013)


One comment on “The Light of Remembrance

  1. Pingback: Random Not-so-Random Acts of Kindness | Outside the Circle

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This entry was posted on November 28, 2013 by in Dispatches from Life.
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