Happy Thanksgiving Part 1

I have so much to be thankful for a sweet and loving family, my fiance and future in-laws included, and dear friends. I am thankful I’m in a great graduate program and almost done with coursework, at least from the perspective of Arkansas and Texas it looks like the economy is mostly recovering just in time for me to think about the job market, and that I live in a beautiful country that provides me, my family, and friends with more security, liberty, stability, comfort, and convince than many people around the world will ever know.

But all that said, I can’t help but feel like these grateful utterances once on “paper” (ie facebook post) look a little more like bragging especially if you consider that they are being broadcast throughout our social networks and into the global space of the Internet. Thanksgiving has always felt like a very American holiday to me, but pondering its origins and meaning leaves me somewhat unsatisfied with what we are celebrating. Gratitude aside, are we celebrating Gluttony and Manifest Destiny? And if Thanksgiving is the day of Gratitude, Gluttony, and Manifest Destiny … are we ok with that? After all they play a big role in America’s past and present.

This blog entry is an expansion of a facebook post I made earlier today.  I am going for time’s sake, I’m going to split it up into 3 posts.

As far as holidays (holy days) go Thanksgiving seems to be a new world take on the traditional European harvest festival.  Considering how few of modern North Americans are still involved or connected to agriculture it seems a little strange the holiday is still such a big deal, however, in the United States Thanksgivings continued relevance seems to be tied to its more recent association with commercialism.   In the days following Halloween, we decorate with fall leaves and turkeys dressed a pilgrims.  We coordinate with family and friends to ensure we each have our own massive feast fit for a medieval king, except they didn’t have turkey or mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie because they are new world foods.   I watched my mother fret over orchestrating this massive feast for my extended family for years.   Family members drive or fly very long distances to be together on Thanksgiving day.  By the time it is actually time to eat, at least half the people at the table are exhausted, annoyed or at their wits end.

For many, the meal itself is only second place to the Macy’s Day parade and the afternoon packed with football games. Overstuffed with mom’s best stuffing, everyone half-passes out in front of the TV.  While all of the family’s big shoppers get busy circling the Black Friday Ads and go to bed early so they can wake up at mid-night.

The big question I want to ask is what exactly are we celebrating here and what does it say about our culture.  How is a holiday designed to express gratitude also a celebration of Gluttony and Consumerism?  And in what ways is this holiday ritual vital to the American economy.

Nationalism, Communitas, and Spiderman…

Considering I was in Ireland for the 4th of July, I decided to get a little imaginative in the way I celebrated America’s Independence Day.  Greg and I went out to eat, I got a milk shake and we watched the late showing of the new Spiderman movie in 3D.  (The 3D is totally worth it on this movie)  Now, one important thing of interest to note is that in Ireland, the Irish celebrate the 4th of July.  Greg was actually a bit surprised by the depth to which the celebration extended beyond simply going out to the pub for a drink to celebrate.

We took the day off, had a relaxing meal at one of our favorite pubs and then headed into Castlebar (the nearest city with a movie theater).  However, it was in this “time-off” that I had a major realization about the connection between Nationalism and Communitas, and it is all thanks to The Amazing Spider-Man.

So what is communitas, you might be asking? The best way to explain it to people who grow up in a Western culture is to say it is that feeling in which your sense of self is fully united with your sense of community.  It is a moment in which your sense of individuality is overwhelmed by a strong feeling of community.  Communitas is in essence community spirit, but a sense of community spirit which deeply resonates within you.  It is found in those moments in which you deeply connect with others because you know in that moment you and a those other people are experiencing almost exactly the same thing.  Anthropologists describe this happening in rites of passage, pilgrimages, and moments of community action.

Communitas is the feeling of oneness, togetherness, solidarity, and deep sacred connection with others.  Now the community can be as small as your cohort growing up or as large a nation.

What does this have to do with the Amazing Spider-Man?  Well, not to give any spoilers, during a particular scene I was flooded with a feeling of communitas.  It was actually a pretty profound moment for me because it was the first time I realized that that perticular feeling was communitas.  I’ve had an intellectual understanding of the term for about four or five years now, and I’ve experienced the feeling numerous times throughout my life without putting a word to it.  Experiencing during a movie, and realizing it, however, opened up a large can of worms for me.

Wow I just felt communitas during a movie…

1) If communitas can be generated, felt, and shared through movies …  then it is possible to share through all forms of digital media I bet.  This reminded me of my friend Jacob Oliver’s honors thesis about music and how people today have come to experience as sense connection to particular pieces of music which were really important to them really hitting home to their situation in the moment in time.  Movies do this as well.  Like it or not, movies, TV, and music connected all of us digitally long before the internet.

2)   Nationalism…  Sitting in a theater in Western Ireland, in a room full of 50 or more people, Gerg and I were the only Americans.  I am not always the most patriotic person, but in that moment, I was an American.  I was filled with patriotic pride and an overwhelming sense of connection to America and Americans.  I argue this is how communitas functions to make self-identity and group-identity unite absolutely, even if it is only for one moment.  The implications for humans as a social species cannot be underestimated.

However, beyond the importance of communitas to community building and group solidarity, I was also taken back at the notion of me feeling communitas while watching  Spiderman and people in New York City.  I was born and raised in rural Arkansas about as far from New York City as you can get and still be in the United States.  Both distance and culture separate me from these people.   I’ve never been to New York City outside of the airport, either.  And currently, I am not even in the United States.

Yet somehow, I was able to experience this deep-connection from Ireland.   Communitas at the national level was never something I considered before that moment, yet as I finished watching the movie it was staring me straight in the face.  Isn’t national communitas exactly what the nation as a whole had experienced in the wake of September 11th?

3)  Spiderman is a hero in American mythology.  Ok, ok… I knew this before but the profoundness of Spiderman as American mythology did not truly set-in until I realized there was a spiritual dimension beyond the “moral of the story.”  For me at least, “real” mythology has to not only guide its readers to culturally specific ideals and heroic behavior, but it also has to unite those readers on a deeper, spiritual level.  I suppose, in essence I am saying that while mythology from all over the world has lessons to teach us, it is the culturally specific mythology which holds the most power over the reader.  It gives us the cultural script of what it means to be heroic and villainous.  The aspect of mythology lost on many Modern Americans, is that the hero does not have to have actually lived to be REAL.  For a myth to truly be American, it must then speak to American culture and adhere to the Religion of America.

The concept of the Religion of America is something Religious Studies Professors and Theologians have put forward and it is something that my mind has toyed with since I took a course on Religion in the US with Dr. Jim Dietrich and Dr. Julia Winden-Fey.  The idea is that beyond the formalized religions and denominations of the United States, there is a separate and distinct Religion of America which is very much tied up with patriotism and matters of state.  The idea is that despite the separation of (a particular) Church and State, politicians, the government, and public events at large still very much acknowledge a form of spirituality which embodies American ideals and is devoid of the sectarianism that might indicate divine preference for one faith over the other.  In other words, the God of America is the God of liberty, equality, freedom of choice, and responsibility of freedom, but this God is no less Mormon than Catholic, no less Christian than Muslim.

Spiderman is an American hero and his story is a heroic epic of American mythology.  When his story is told well, it is capable of inspiring people to achieve the heroic ideals he stands for and it strengthens our connection to one another.

Questions to Ponder:

Did other people experience communitas while watching Spiderman?

Was this feeling of communitas limited to Americans?  How does nationality influence media’s ability to provoke communitas? 

What role does communitas play in social health?  Do moments of communitas impact our sense of social well-being? If so, what are the ramifications for our mental and physical health?

Where do people experience communitas on the national level?  What events, experiences, and media provoke communitas on such a grand-scale?

If you have an experience of communitas you’d like to share with me please feel free to email me at slyeager@smu.edu  I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences.

Also, please take a second and respond to my poll:

Insights from UCD

(I am still a bit behind on posting updates–this is from June 12-14)

Insights from University College Dublin

We took a bus to UCD and made a friend of a Canadian en route to the Folklore Library as the three of us wondered the campus lost.

Meeting with Dr. Moore

Even though he had a pretty busy day, Dr. Moore met with me for an hour before I went to the Folklore Library and about an hour afterwards.  He was extremely helpful and very interested in my project.  He recommends I focus my research on patients and their experiences with  using folk cures.  He sees the performance of the healing act itself and the role of the healer as periphery.  More over, the secretive nature of my subject suggest that the bulk of my data will be coming from patient’s stories of healing (their illness narratives) and that I may have very little opportunity to observe a cure take place.  Following his direction, I have altered my research site location avoiding the overly tourist locations in Western Ireland (possible).  Dr. Moore assures me that knowledge and use of folk cures is incredibly common throughout Ireland, the only complication is getting people to talk about it.  When people’s health is well, it seems people do not normally discuss charms and cures, which could prove problematic.  I hope this doesn’t mean that I will only be able to interview people once.  Our conversation provided me with great insight into folk cures which could never come for the words on a page alone.

Touring the Folklore Collection Library

UCD has an amazing folklore collection including transcriptions of folklore interviews dating back to the 1930s!  http://www.ucd.ie/irishfolklore/en/  This amazing collection of Irish oral traditions, family life, and folk arts includes a quite a sizable amount of entries on folk cures and charms as well as herbal remedies.  The staff was incredibly helpful and friendly.  I plan to spend some time doing a bit of research there again when I return to Dublin before I leave to come back to the States.

Plan Going Forward from Here                                                                             (Subject to Change as New Information come to Light)

  • Find a New Research Site
Find a small quite community with few or no tourist attractions.  Check out homestays, B&Bs, and self-catering and compare prices and locations.  Look for a smaller community in the County Galway and County Mayo area.
  • Who I am Interviewing
Primarily Patients –try to equally cover all demographics.  Collect stories of illness experiences, stories about cures used, and the person’s own explanatory model for the illness, cure and recovery.  Pay special attention to who refers the patient; what the cure itself requires: actions, ingredients, actors, time; patient’s specific experience and outcome.  Who is directing people to cures?  How are health decisions being made.
Also try to interview Bio-medical professional.  Determine the attitude of bio-medical professionals toward folk cure.
If the opportunity presents itself, interview any/all people I can find that have a cure or charm.
  • Determine what my research questions and what interview questions to ask to address them.
  • Conduct Ethnographic Analysis of the Community

 

Ireland Week 1

Week 1 Ireland – Dublin

Highlights from my first week in Ireland.

First, I think I left out one tiny detail in explaining my plans for Ireland.  I guess I should mention that assisting me in doing all that stuff I mentioned in previous posts, is my travel companion Greg Wright: part-time research assistant, part-time body guard (my mom thinks I need one?), part-time 2 am sounding board, and full-time boyfriend.

We arrived in Dublin around 8 am on Thursday June 7.   While I was still smiling then, I definitely would not advise arriving in a new country in the morning hours if it can be helped.  Unfortunately for me, the cheapest airfare didn’t really give me any options on timing.  If you do arrive in the morning, make sure you’ve worked it out in advance so that you have bed upon arrival.  Everyone may not need a place to crash after a 13 plus hour flight, but honestly it is a good safety precaution either way because even if you don’t pass out you need a safe place for your luggage.  No one wants to be dragging a suitcase any further than necessary.

That said, we got a great deal on a hostel in Dublin and were able to rest up and try to coop with the jet lag.  It was situated in the older part of the city which had lots of interesting things to see while getting adjusted to the country.

We stayed in Dublin near the River Liffey, while I met with a professor at the University College Dublin and explored the UCD’s Folklore Collection as a potential resource for my research.

I spoke with Dr. Ronnie Moore and got clear direction about the possibilities of my research.  These meetings were immensely informative for my research.  Perhaps, the biggest take away for me from our talks was a realization that focusing on “healers” per-say is not really the way to go.  In regard to Irish folk cures, the people who “have a cure” for the most part possess it because of unusual characteristic or circumstance or as a birth right of sorts.  Instead, I think I will give my attention to the knowledge of folk medicine and the use of folk healing by the average person.  More on the contemplation of this talk later.

Ireland 2012

Preliminary Fieldwork/Pilot Study in Western Ireland 

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, this summer I am going to be in Ireland conducting an 8 week preliminary investigation of Irish Folk Medicine (a subject which is far more complex than that description might led you to think).  Irish folk healing insects my two academic areas of specialization medical anthropology and the anthropology of religion.   I am particularly interested in the impact of belief (as an action/neurophysiological process) and beliefs (body of knowledge) on wellness- health maintenance and illness recovery.  I hope to investigate this in the context of Irish folk medicine.  So in short, this 8 week long trip to Ireland will hopefully let me meet and discuss my topic with Irish anthropologists and folklorists; interview Irish people about their experiences and knowledge of Irish folk medicine; determine an appropriate location/locations for me to conduct my research; and establish the significance of my research within the local context.  Here’s hoping!

Before I Go….

Things to Consider Before I Go…

As I finish packing, send last minute emails and meetings with professors, and antagonize over the finer details of the unplannable aspects of my two month long visit to Ireland, I am simultaneously faced with all the complications of anthropological fieldwork and international travel.

Even if I’ve managed to find all the cheapest but still safe places to stay means to travel (which I probably haven’t despite my best efforts), I am still left pondering all the hard anthropological questions of preliminary fieldwork …

Is my project going to be community focused, multi-sited, regional based, or somehow encompass the whole of Ireland?

I have my research topic and population, but what is my research issue?  In other words, how do I really sell my project as worthy of completing.  Sure it interests me, but as my dad puts it “why does it matter”?

How can I utilize my time as efficiently and effectively as possible?  I’ve written a project proposal and an IRB, so I have been contemplating this question for at least the past six months.  But it is definitely something I should ask myself everyday while I am in the field.

Finally, there are all those nagging questions of self-doubt, once I get there will I be able to find the people I am looking for?  Will people be willing to talk to me? Here’s hoping my natural charm and sweet disposition, not to mention the years of training, is enough to pull this off.

UpDate on Graduate School Progess

I just completed my 2nd year of graduate school.  I passed my comprehensive masters exam and graduated with my Masters of Arts in Cultural Anthropology.  This fall I am continuing in the Southern Methodist University’s PhD program for Cultural Anthropology.

(I am at the point where I am still having to remind myself I actually have my masters and then proceeding to do a little happy dance)

Massive hurdle overcome, I am currently preparing to go into the field and conduct my preliminary fieldwork.  This means two months in Ireland beginning my hands on research.  The healers I plan to work with don’t advertise to the public or have their numbers listed in the yellow pages so this summer’s research is going to begin by covering a lot of ground and investigating the project’s potential.

I am both incredibly excited and nervous at the same time.

I was very lucky to receive funding from an endowment to the Anthropology Department at SMU for my summer research.  I have my expedited IRB all but approved.  (I only needed to add three small details).  But somehow, I still feel like there is some key piece of advice or preparation I am missing.  However, I am guessing this is just nerves and anticipation.  After all, I was lucky enough to have an entire course of anthropology methods this spring.

One more week of preparation….  I leave June 6 and I plan to keep my blog up to date with photos and posts about my research while it is happening.

Wish Me Luck!