In fairness, I never fully lived as if what was immediately around me was all-important. My focus was on the West, on such things as the need to protect wilderness and ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone and save old-growth trees. Along the way, I tried to understand the differences between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, Hamas and the PLO, Bosnians and Serbs.
But I learned those things the way I learned geography: dutifully rather than passionately. I never thought Pierre, S.D., would matter to me; it never has. And my teachers never taught me about the small western town that would eventually matter to me.
I used to object when people asked: "How did you end up in a town with an unpronounceable name?" as if it were an end-of-the-line place one arrives at out of lack of direction; as if "ending up" in Santa Fe or Portland bestowed virtues. That particular chip is gone from my shoulder. Today, I ask myself: "How did I end up in the violent, uncertain world formerly occupied mainly by the people of Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Somalia and Old Yugoslavia?"
In defense of not just me but most Americans, before 9/11 we knew we were fortunate. We set aside Thanksgiving to signify thankfulness. And unlike our other holidays, we have kept out commerce. We don't send each other Happy Thanksgiving cards; we don't give each other chocolate turkeys.
We honor the day by gathering with family and friends, and when we don't have wealth or health, we give thanks for what we do have. I've heard a man who was soon to die give thanks at the table for a love he had recently found, and was about to lose. The woman he loved cried and said she was happy for every last moment with him.
But I've never heard anyone be grateful for the essence of America: for being part of a nation that included country-club Republicans, inner-city blacks, religious conservatives in rural Georgia, and SUV liberals. Far from giving thanks, we saw them as enemies. America seemed so large and secure that we could struggle against each other, resent each other, bad-mouth each other. We stuck to our own kind. And if we could have had our way, we would have reduced "our own kind" to the irreducible minimum number: One.
We seem to worship the rich because they have what most of us want: a world of their own. They rub elbows with no one. They don't have to fly coach; they don't even have to fly First Class. They fly in their planes, to their gated worlds. Sept. 11, 2001, broke down our separateness. We felt at one with New York City, of all places. We saw, for those few months, that whatever divided us from other Americans was trivial compared to what divided us from those who hate us, no matter if we define ourselves as citizens of the world. Of course it takes more than a massive shock to change a course we have been sailing for 50 years. But we did momentarily see what it would be like to be a nation rather than warring tribes.
What else beside that glimpse of unity will I be thankful for this Thanksgiving? For two opposites. First, that we have been granted another year to live with the illusion of security. I'm grateful that we got in at least one last binge, in which we could buy gas-guzzling cars with nothing down and almost nothing-a-month, and that we could lose ourselves in another James Bond who has miraculously arrived to again save Western civilization, and that we could plan for another Christmas traveling far away or to the West's magnificent ski slopes. These are indulgences, of course. They are the things, we are told, many in the world hate us for.
The other thing I'm grateful for is the suspicion that the dream world we have constructed and lived is breaking apart. A man in robes living in a cave in a country I knew nothing about effortlessly ripped a huge hole in our dream world. Would I rather have kept on dreaming? Perhaps. But if it had to end, I'm thankful that when I'm fully awake, I will no longer be alone. I will be among my fellow Americans, as different from each other as night from day, who will also be awake, and who will join together as we did after September 11, and this time figure out what we need to do.
Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org) where he lives and works as the paper's senior writer.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.