I have moments when I realize the things for which I am thankful are merely components that add up to a more significant whole: My life is now and always has been laughably easy to navigate. My crankyfied list of the other day aside, I’m thankful for that whole. Last night I was watching Martin Scorsese’s excellent new documentary Public Speaking about Fran Lebowitz (sorry, it’s impossible to write that phrase without sounding insufferable) and in it she talks about the accidental luck of the circumstances into which we are born, and how that, more than anything else, determines our chances in life.
I had lunch this week with a friend who crossed into this country from Mexico when he was only 13. His first attempt failed after a guide, appropriately called a “coyote,” pocketed the $2,500 his family had saved for the crossing and left the boy and his brother stranded in a Nuevo Laredo motel with no money and no journey ahead to the family that waited in Kansas. (His mother had made her own journey into the United States through the desert on foot, carrying her 2-year-old child for two days.)
On his second attempt, my friend and his brother hustled as fast and as calmly as they could across a bridge left unguarded for only a few minutes in the dead of night, into El Paso. The boys walked into a plaza, empty and clean and orderly in the moonlight at 1 a.m., and he thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. In the days that followed, he boarded a bus and traveled nearly 800 miles to Kansas to find the rest of his family. In the years that followed, he taught himself English. He translated life for his parents. He applied for college and with scant documentation navigated university life under the constant threat of deportation. He became a legal citizen of the America he’d first entered at 1 a.m. in El Paso years earlier.
If you sat both him and I down and asked us what we’re thankful for we might say the same things. Loving spouses, beautiful children, supportive families and friends, great jobs. But the routes that brought us to our current lives are unrecognizable from each other. At 13, my toughest journey was to the mall.
There should be no guilt in living a life of relative ease, if it was obtained honestly. But in weeks like this one I give thanks for mine. I give thanks that on Thursday I’ll be sitting down to dinner surrounded by family and food and the trappings of a comfortable life, while thousands of miles away, men, women and children like my friend once was will be preparing to cross a desert, seeking those exact same things.