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.
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!
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.
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.