America, the beautiful

It’s very confusing to be an American, at least for me. My awakening to who we are in the world came very late; it wasn’t that I was a rah-rah American, “We are the world’s best neighbor” like some people, it was more that I was completely apathetic. I just didn’t pay attention to politics, didn’t think it mattered, had zero interest in it. In graduate school I dated a Pakistani poet who would tell me with very red eyes about the cruelty and terribleness of the World Bank, the IMF, and who railed against the existence of political borders. Through him I learned what people actually go through when they come here, when they are immigrants, and that was an eye-opener because I simply had no idea. My understanding was a blank canvas; I didn’t think it was easy or hard, I simply had no ideas at all.

And then 9/11 happened and it all hit me, at once, when I was 42. The chickens were coming home to roost, that’s all. We were reaping what we had sowed. Then I met Marc and we started traveling to SEAsia, and I had to come face to face with my country in the world in a way I never had before. Vietnam was one thing, but going to Laos, the location of our Secret War that everyone knew about but the American people, and seeing all the bombs everywhere, and people missing limbs, and we refuse to do anything to help clean up the UXO because we won’t even acknowledge we did it? Well. Gutting.

Iroquois longhouse

But America is beautiful. And I was a little girl who LOVED school. I was dazzled by the stories, and probably listened with wide, glistening eyes. I probably leaned forward, sat on the edge of my seat. I gobbled up books and encyclopedia entries. Henry Hudson sailing up the river in a tall ship, and all the early explorers. Pioneers. Patriots. One if by land, two if by sea. The Boston Tea Party. Wild turkeys and porcupines, and buffalo stampeding across the plains, heat steaming off them in the winter. The various tribes and nations of Native Americans, and how they lived — Cherokee, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache. As a Texan I was most intimately familiar with the tribes who lived on the Plains, and so was most fascinated by the ones who lived in the other parts of the country. The Pacific Northwest tribes and nations. The Mohawk. The Seneca. The Iroquois, who lived in longhouses…which I know and remember so well because I made a construction paper model of one for a class project, probably in second or third grade.

And of course we were taught the nice clean version of history, a museum diorama version (oh! Remember making dioramas in shoe boxes?), no complications of our slaughter of native people, etc etc etc. I’ve come to understand that story more fully, and to be pained by it, to see the ongoing consequences, to wish I could do something about it, but you know, those elementary school stories are so vivid in me, still, and perhaps it’s more that child feeling of being dazzled that’s in me, but the dazzle remains. The first time I crossed the Hudson River, driving from Rochester, NY to see Marnie at Smith College in Massachusetts, I cried. I imagined Henry Hudson sailing up the river, in the wildness, Native Americans all around and nothing beyond their civilizations yet. Wild country, wild river, wild world. Sparkling water and sparkling clear blue skies, or hard winters. Tall ships, daring expeditions.

And the country itself truly is magnificent, from east to west. Low country to truly majestic mountains. Lush forests, swamplands, wide and flat prairies. Endless beautiful rivers, from slow meandering ones shaped into oxbows, to raging whitewater rivers. (The rivers always make me cry. Crossing the Brazos River when I went to Graham last month, I cried. Something about rivers, I don’t know.) Canyons, valleys, hollers. Wildlands, badlands. New York City, with its messy, glorious story.

The song America the Beautiful has more lyrics than most of us know; we are all probably familiar with the first:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

It goes on to talk about pilgrims’ feet, and liberating strife, and patriots’ dreams, and the politics of it get too complicated to sing with a straight face – but the beauty remains undeniable. Spacious skies. Amber waves of grain. Purple mountain majesties. Fruited plains. I don’t know why I get so choked up, why that makes me cry, except maybe it’s touching my little-girl wonder. My teacher’s felt board, with the felt shapes of mountains and clouds and grain; mimeographed pages to color, make those mountains purple, kids; dazzling stories of Apaches on horseback, and Seneca; and robins, which I thought were purely fictional birds that existed in children’s books only (ditto bluebirds, which surely existed only in cartoons).

And so I prepare to live in a place that holds so much of that history and beauty and wildness, and such a huge place in my imagination. I think it probably seems silly, but I’m so excited about seeing porcupines waddling around. Wild turkeys scuttling past. Bears lumbering by. Red and gray foxes dashing here and there. Bobcats. Crows and giant owls and eagles and robins. Herons and egrets and hawks. My creeks constantly shushing at me, and the quiet of the snowfall. Those ancient old soft mountains all around me — not the sharp, stony youth of the Rockies, but the forested, softened old age of the Catskills. Stories of the native people who used to live there — after all, I will be living in Big Indian, named for a specific Native American, a Munsee man named Winneesook.

one part of the trail on Slide Mountain

I prepare to live at the foot of the tallest mountain in the Catskills, Slide Mountain, with a 6.3-mile loop trail so near my house I’ll be able to walk (navigable January through October), and I’ll take my big camera and my lenses and search for the creatures that have lived in my imagination since elementary school.

America is beautiful. We are too easily dazzled by our songs and stories, and too many of us take our myths at face value, but the country itself is extraordinary, exceptional even, and there are ordinary American people who fulfill the promise. (Too bad none are politicians, that would be great.) (And too bad our politicians represent the very worst of us, the most craven, immature, bigly lie tellers possible, out to destroy us and everyone else.) When we travel around the world, it’s easy to spot Americans, and not just because of fanny packs and big white sneakers and inappropriate dress — it’s because there is a kind of openness in the face, a kind of almost goofy goodwill, too often borne of ignorance about what we have done in the world, but also borne of optimism that characterizes us too.

I think I am a patriot. I am a patriot because I abhor the actions of this country, and I fight with everything I have against the government and what we do in the world. And I do that because I love America. I love the beauty of the land, and what we could be, what we could do, who we could become. Even if my love for it/us was seeded in first and second grade, in colorful stories of tall ships and longhouses, of incompletely told stories of fellowship between native people and pilgrims, of paper pilgrim hats worn at Thanksgiving. And that love is battered by bomb casing decorations in Laos, and smiling Vietnamese people, and of ignoring the suffering of others unless there’s something big in it for us, like oil. And that love is nourished by porcupines and great horned owls and wild rivers and very old mountains.

I can’t wait.


Without pointedly intending to do this, I’ve been heavily focused on race in America for the last few months. Like everyone in this country, for the last few years I’ve watched black people being slaughtered and their white murderers walking away with no consequence, and with the tacit approval of the institutions they belong to. I’ve listened to white people insist that “no, all lives matter” when black people assert that black lives matter.

I’ve read three books — Underground Railroad, Underground Airlines, and Between the World and Me — and I saw the extraordinary documentaries I Am Not Your Negro and 13th. Here is the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro:

The movie is quite powerful, in large part because of the forceful brilliance of James Baldwin, who was spontaneously eloquent and thoughtful and indicting and willing and able to name the truth of things no matter what was happening, or where he was. I want to read everything he ever wrote.

I grew up in Texas, among very racist people. I was not allowed to invite my best friend to my 6th birthday party in 1964 because “it’s not done.” Rhonda was black, and she attended my school most likely because her mother worked in the cafeteria. It made no sense at all to me, and no fuller explanation was given. My paternal grandmother, a nurse her whole working life, told me when I was an adult that black people “aren’t like us, when they die, gallons of oil pour out of their bodies.” WHAT??? She saw them as truly not human beings as we are. My stepfather and mother regularly called black people niggers, and I flinched when I heard the word, as much from a response to the venom they seemed to spit when they said it as from any real understanding of the potency of the word. (They were equal opportunity haters, and had only venom for Mexicans too, and for Muslims—I remember my stepfather calling Benazir Bhutto a cunt—and for gay people.)

My first two years of college were at the Huntsville, Alabama campus of the University of Alabama. Huntsville is interesting; it’s got a very educated population, and the campus feeds engineers to Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center. It’s in the far north of Alabama, butting up against the Tennessee border. In most of my classes, the majority of students were white but there were usually a small handful of black students. In my Philosophy 101 class we talked about racism and all the white students piped up saying it doesn’t exist any more. Nope, no more racism. That was then, it’s all gone now. After class, I walked alongside a couple of the black women who’d been silent in class and asked them what they thought and they busted out laughing. Right.

Like everyone else who was old enough at the time, I watched the OJ murder case unfold, from the very beginning with the slow car chase all the way through to the verdict. I was shocked and terribly upset, because it seemed so clear to me that he was guilty, that he murdered his ex-wife and her friend, and how could that jury let him off? Celebrity, I muttered. I remember so clearly how I felt. I remember seeing the split screen on television when the verdict was announced: white people in shock with their hands over their mouths, and black people rejoicing. I was bewildered. Then last week my husband and I watched The People vs OJ Simpson and I saw it so differently. I still believe he is guilty, but I completely understood why the jury made the decision they did. And I had to sit in the complexity of it, with no easy corner to sit in: I believe he murdered those people, and I understand why they let him off, why they probably even believed truly that he didn’t do it. A guilty man was set free, and the community was understandably and righteously thrilled that he was not convicted.

Those white kids in my philosophy class said that because they probably didn’t think they themselves were racist, and so therefore there was no more racism. WE ARE ALL RACIST. It’s the very dirt of this country. It’s the reason for the war we fought against each other. We are all racist. Period. If you can’t start by owning that, you are the problem. I am racist (but I am not racist). I was trained by racists in my childhood home, and I grew up in a racist society. How could I be anything but racist? I do not have to follow those ideas, implement them in behaviors, allow them to bloom or grow — be a racist — but they are in me as an American, without a doubt.

You have to start somewhere, and you cannot go wrong with any of the books or the Baldwin documentary or 13th. I have no idea how to fix the problem, how even to begin. The intransigence of so many white people in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, their complete unwillingness to give up insisting that no, all lives matter, leaves me bewildered. I’ve started replying that when black lives matter, then all lives will matter (but that leaves out Muslims and gay people and refugees and immigrants and all the others who are being shoved out by the Republican party that’s in power, and by far too many straight white people). When I attended a Black Lives Matter rally, and when I read pieces written by black writers who are addressing this issue, their anger is obvious and understandable, and I struggle when they aim it at me standing there trying to do better, trying to start changing whatever I can. It’s not their job to teach me anything, or tell me anything, and at the very same time I don’t know how to move forward together with them. I just don’t know.

This is not a sophisticated or in-depth post about such a huge topic, and I’m not claiming that it is. It’s a quivering start, and a hand reached out, and a plea for help. I welcome advice and other recommendations.