The Gratitude Train

25 Feb 2011

First, a quick explanation of the image you see here: I took that photo of the side of a train car at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin, this past summer, when I was there with the mate and the kid. The “Gratitude Train” was a train full of gifts sent by the people of France to the people of the U.S. after World War II, in thanks for a train full of relief supplies the American people had previously sent the French.

So, why that train here and now?

A few months ago my friend Smitty, who runs a small local live music series, asked me if we would host a house concert for Nathan Bell, an extraordinarily talented singer-songwriter who was going to be coming through town. Smitty explained that the idea was that I’d invite a bunch of my friends, give them dinner, we’d hear a set or two from Nathan, and then everyone would toss in cash to give straight to Nathan.

We looked at the calendar, and I realized the only date that would work (given my insane travel schedule this time of year) was Valentine’s Day. But then that seemed like a perfect option. Long ago, I learned that long-lasting love feels just like deep gratitude, and so what better way to spend Valentine’s Day with my long-lasting mate than to get us together with people for whom we both feel grateful--people who I knew, in turn, would be grateful for the company, for my lamb stew and stuffed vegetarian peppers, and for Nathan’s music.

As we were setting up the details, I emailed Nathan to ask him what he’d like me to be sure to have on hand. A special drink? A special type of chair? He wrote back that pretty much any old chair would be fine, and he’d just like a glass of tap water. I replied that, on my gigs, I usually asked the hosts to supply me with dairy-free, gluten-free pink M&Ms that say “Fuck breast cancer, pay attention to me!” Nathan wrote back that I was insane, and I replied that maybe that was why that part of the contract never seemed to be fulfilled. (Yes, I was kidding. I actually ask for a glass of tap water and time for Q&A after my talk.)

Anyway, when Nathan showed up, and truly wanted just a chair and a glass of water, and I made a sympathetic reference to his having too many gigs in too few days, he asked me what I do. I didn’t know what to answer. The mate took a swig of beer and said, with a grin, “Alice makes a good story.” We both laughed at the pun, a joke on how I seem to keep getting in trouble and then writing it up.

Nathan asked what Aron meant, though, and I said, “I guess you could say I piss people off, but only in the most professional sense.” I explained that, for example, I had an article coming out soon about a controversy in anthropology, and that, in it, I was exposing the rather unseemly deeds of the American Anthropological Association.

As I was telling Nathan about this, I found myself again caught in the weird situation where I seem to be giving someone the impression that I actually enjoy pissing people off. I don’t, really. I actually don’t enjoy it at all. I kind of hate it.

I literally sometimes curl up in a ball talking to myself about how much I’m disliking myself for it. In fact, just a few weeks before my article was due to come online in Human Nature, I found myself having profound feelings of guilt at making certain people look really bad in my work. I confessed this to various trusted advisor-friends, who in turn just got pissed off at me. They told me my sympathy seemed to be borne of some kind of transient amnesia, because I must be forgetting that these people chose to do the very problematic things they’d done.

But I really don’t enjoy pissing people off. I don’t enjoy them coming after me online, I don’t enjoy them sending me hate mail, I don’t enjoy the foggy fear of retribution.

I especially don’t enjoy the thoughts I have of how I might be making them suffer. I feel like a total jerk when I imagine them suffering. I imagine them curled up in a ball talking to themselves like I do.

So why keep doing it? Well, it seems wrong not to help people, if I can. And if you’re going to do justice-related work of the kind I do, sometimes you’re going to have to make people uncomfortable by outing unethical behaviors.

It’s also true that, when I do this kind of work, people (people who were and sometimes still are strangers to me) often thank me for it.  There’s a kind of “thank you” that comes from a person who has been the subject of injustice that is different than an ordinarily thank you. And I feel like that thanks is a sign I’m doing something worthwhile. It gives me a good feeling.

I also get a warm feeling from the deep gratitude I in turn feel towards the people who help me in this work: the people who give me source material, the people who share with me their histories, the people who help me understand complex problems, the people who help me know humanity, and the friends who uncurl me from my ball. There’s nothing like really being grateful to someone for being reminded of just how un-alone you are in the world.

All that stuff psychologists say about gratitude--giving or receiving gratitude--about how it can take you from a dark and paralyzing funk to feeling like the sun is on your face? Consider me Exhibit A.

(...which sometimes makes me wonder if my entire career is a form of self-medication...)

So Nathan came, and he was terrific. Two of his songs made me cry: one about gay marriage, and the other about his son’s thoughtful atheism. (“Damn, my kid’s gonna be OK.”) Another song made me laugh, namely a ditty about being in love with beer. And a lot of them just made me feel like I wish I could write poetry like Nathan does. And made me wish I had stuck with the guitar and not given up after learning one Beatles’ song.

By the time it was over, we all felt grateful to Nathan, he felt grateful to us, people were grateful for the food, grateful for each other’s company another year gone by. The mate was grateful I had agreed, out of character, to use paper plates, since we both had to work the next morning. And you know how, in this day and age, no one sends you a thanks even after you have them to a nice dinner party? After this one, served on freakin’ paper plates, with paper napkins even!, my email box flooded with thanks.

And then, exactly a week later, my paper on the anthropology controversy went live at Human Nature. And it shot up quickly to become the most downloaded article of the journal. And although I had literally fact-checked every word of that paper (indeed, I had checked most words twice), I still felt like I was mentally donning one of those suits karate instructors put on when a student is told to try to beat the shit out of the instructor. I found myself slugging back two Bard’s beers at a time, with double lime....

One guy did write to tell me I am “a fucking idiot.” But then my box flooded with mail of praise. Some even from really, really big scientists. And you know what was super interesting? Almost to a one, they said: “thank you.”

I found myself talking to an anthropologist friend about this, about how very weird it is to get mail responding to a scholarly article in which people who aren’t even directly implicated say “thank you.” But it was obvious, in all this mail, that so many people had felt angry, frustrated, and at some level personally scarred (and scared) by what the AAA had done, such that I had done them each a little bit of justice.

In the midst of all this, I was communicating with Nathan. He had written an email of thanks after we hosted his concert, and had added, “I should apologize for asking you more than once the ridiculous question, ‘so what do you write about?’ I should know better. I have absolutely no answer to the question, ‘what kind of music do you play?’ Next time some idiot asks you what you write, you are free to say ‘words.’”

Nathan told me he’d been reading my first book, on the history of intersex people, and so I sent him a new blog I somehow had managed to write in the middle of all this, about a man I had recently met who has a disorder of sex development. Nathan said:

“I understand why you scare people. People like to cling even tighter to their fears than they do to their false idols. You obviously like to walk around separating people from those fears. You should probably have some kind of flashing light or recognizable sound that lets people know you’re coming.”

I laughed reading that. He ended:

“Your family helped me mitigate missing my family, and for that I am very grateful.” His message immediately conjured up in my mind the image of the Gratitude Train, the way one carload of gratitude magically causes the materialization of another, and another, and another.

These days, I feel sometimes as if I am sitting peacefully behind the steering wheel of my car, at a railroad crossing, watching that endless gratitude train roll by before me. I feel this way whenever I reflect upon something else: that my fears really do separate from me in the hushed and sacred moments of shared gratitude. The lights of the crossing gate blink sleepily, like a big dog in the night just barely waking to the sound of a distant train horn. And I uncurl.