The New American

The next few posts will be about ideas of home – this ubiquitous and all-important idea, this thing that is meant to define us, this thing we run from and sometimes reject, this thing that conjures ideas of the hearthside, food, warmth, safety. This thing that is supposed to offer refuge and connection.

I’ve long felt without an anchor, felt the unmoored feeling of having moved around a lot; of having lost too many things – ‘my last, or /next-to-last, of three loved houses went’ – of having felt unsure as to the meaning of this word, home. This experience is a common one; it distinguishes me only in that it joins me, in some way, to the millions of displaced people who must feel these losses far more acutely than I can imagine.

I had a direct experience of this idea – of displacement, of finding somewhere new, of claiming losses and gains – on 24 February 2017, when I became a naturalized American. But what hit home, that day – both in the address of the judge who performed the naturalization ceremony for me and 48 other people – was not only that we are a nation of immigrants (we are, and we all know this), but, also, how much people want to come here. I really didn’t appreciate that before – Canadians, maybe, don’t appreciate that for a whole host of reasons.

But the other 48 people in that room were so, so happy. As we waited to be checked in, people smiled at *everyone*, shyly, openly. There were new suits with the threads as yet uncut (you know, the ones holding the slits in the suit jacket together. I’m sure they have a name; I don’t know it). There were price stickers on the bottoms of new high-heeled shoes.

These people were from Thailand, Burma, Mexico, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, El Salvador, Honduras, and other countries I can’t remember. The judge was compassionate, incisive, thoughtful in his remarks, offering both congratulations and sympathy – because leaving one country for another is always, he said, bittersweet. He pointed out that many of these people may have been fleeing situations that were intolerable. I will never know their individual stories. But on 24 February, we all became each other’s people, as it were – we all became a new thing, at the same time. That is surely a rare occurrence.

Even so, as the judge reminded us all that we are as much citizens as any other American – and don’t let anyone tell you differently, he said – I was acutely aware that *I* won’t have to tell anyone differently, that until I say ‘eh’ or ‘house’ (or ‘hoser’, or ‘toque’), everyone will assume that I’m American. Even my accent is changing, my sister tells me, much to my dismay. I’m not a threat; I can be one of us. But all of these people are one of us. What makes an American, the judge said, is the desire to be one.

Which surely applies as much to undocumented immigrants as it does to the ones who, somehow, make it through the system. A few times the judge commented on how difficult our journeys to arrive at this point may have been. I was only too aware that my journey to citizenship has not been difficult at all. I came here in 2002. Eventually, I had a green card. In August 2016, because I was exhausted, I hired a lawyer, and a few months later, I sat in South Bend. It means something to me. But I can’t imagine it means as much as it might to the others in my ‘class’ (as the judge called it – I guess we are the naturalization class of 24 February 2017).

I’m an immigrant, but I’m a lucky one. I have resources at my disposal; I came here as an academic, not a refugee.

And this should be too obvious to say, but I’m not better because I’m not a refugee. I don’t contribute more; I contribute differently (and this is to say nothing of immigrants who work in fields far removed from what they are qualified to do).

The dream of America is a contradictory and conflicted one. In theory, it rests on a foundation of interconnectedness and common zeal: for what is creative, excellent, and good. In practice, it is sometimes those things: the dream of America inheres in the hum of imaginative production, too often yoked to capitalistic gain, but a creative vibe all the same. One that infuses the work I do here in ways that were never possible, for me, in my home country.

And in practice, it is often none of those things, having been built on slavery and abuse, its thriving economy owed to the forced labor of kidnapped peoples. Its very idea of interconnectedness undercut by the tyranny of the individual: that you can bootstrap it, do it by yourself. The dangerous paradox that we need everyone but also need no one.

And the paradox is dangerous because – we need everyone.

To see the joy and hope in the eyes of my naturalization classmates, two years ago, and to think of the callous dismissal of their very personhood by the policies currently being enacted. To think of the contrast between this and what I have experienced here: the ease of making friends, the intellectual vibrancy and curiosity, the appreciation for community, the desire to help.

America is all of the bad things and then some. People are dying at the border and living in camps even as I write this. What are we becoming; what have we become?

Because the beauty of America – the ideal of America – is to be found in its flexibility and openness. It is to be found in the proverbial circle that is never quite closed. It is to be found in our connections to each other and to everyone – what binds us together, not what keeps us apart.

Facebook Likes

In my last post, I wrote about new things coming from old things. This post is also, in a way, about that – about a New Year’s resolution that I might actually achieve. It doesn’t matter that it’s the middle of February.

I have resolved to “like” more of the posts I see on Facebook. This is not the most salutary resolution in the History of Time; but I’ve already seen most of my New Year’s resolutions pass me by (what were they, again?) – and this one seems achievable. And it does not require me resolving to use social media less – which is part of its charm. Because I do, continually, resolve to use it less; I do, always, have mixed feelings about its utility and its complex effects on modern politics. But I don’t quit it, and so I’d like to use it better than I do (which is, lately, to post pictures of my kitten, which trend apparently everyone has noticed. Yes, I like him; yes, it will stop eventually).

Let me explain. People talk about “likes”; I’ve heard them do so, anyway. Certainly my students do. (See what I did there? Distanced this phenomenon – wanting likes – from me by a certain number of decades, as though I, too, were not a party to it.) People talk about which posts garner the most likes; people craft their online personas in order to collect and display, as if in a glass case, virtual affection.

People seem to focus, sometimes anyway, on this phenomenon more than on life – the live blogging of an event, posting pictures to Facebook of the person when you’re with the person. Messaging back and forth on social media, also when you are literally with the person. I know of what I speak – I have done this, occasionally. It is a truism that we think too carefully and too much about our selves, the crafting of our selves, our brands. It is a truism that the contrast between the shiny picture on social media and the patina of real life can breed discontent and even depression, to say nothing of envy.

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New Things, Old Things

In my first two posts, I wrote about interconnection, loneliness, and what brings us together: life just sucking, sometimes; humaning being hard.

Here, I want to introduce another idea central to this blog: that we are connected to the past, too, whether or not any of you know Chaucer (or any other old poet). We don’t earn this connection: it is ours because we are here, and it links us to other people who have lived, and to the ideas that circulate in the world – all of them.

I love the tree I’ve chosen for this post’s image. It sits – lies, really – in a bird sanctuary in Chicago. I paid it no attention at first, until a friend pointed out that it wasn’t dead; I’m not sure I would have noticed, otherwise, the stubborn new saplings growing from its hefty and broken trunk.

They are wee, after all, and in the picture it’s hard to spot them. We photographed the tree from multiple angles, and each time the camera seemed defiant, the branches incognito.

It was hard to tell, in the pictures, that the saplings were connected to the old tree at all.

As it so often is, I think, with new things.

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Humaning Is Hard

I recently came across this meme: “Humaning is hard until one day you decide it isn’t. When you change your mind, you change your life.”

Memes like this are, if not antithetical to connection, disruptive of it. Memes like this keep us separate – from each other and from ourselves.

Here’s why.

First. This meme takes it for granted that your mind governs your relationship to reality. That difficulty is always and only a matter of perspective – that difficulty is a decision that we all make.

Of course, as scientists have been showing us, our minds do kind of govern our relationship to reality. But that neurological complexity is not what this meme is after here.

Instead, the idea draws on the cult of positive thinking: that no matter the trouble, if we change our attitudes – or “change” our very minds, whatever that may mean – we will, literally, alter the environments we inhabit.

I understand the basic impulse underlying this sentiment: that cultivating gratitude and rejecting negativity for its own sake are pathways to, if not happiness, then peace, equilibrium. That we sometimes complain too much; that many of us have more privilege than we can hold. I know I do. And an emphasis on gratitude is right, and good: gratitude has indeed been shown to increase general well-being and compassion, lower blood pressure, and help us feel more connected.

But what I take to be the meme’s intentions, as it were, do not square with what the meme literally says: that we all decide on difficulty. For so many of us, that is not the case: our circumstances are real, and they are present. The disjointed and broken state of the world is real, and it is present. Not having enough to eat, not having health care, dealing with violent discrimination, with being poor, or abused, or marginalized, or cripplingly depressed – these all constitute real hardships that cannot be chosen.

There are many ways to respond even to intractable challenges, of course – but the upshot of this meme is that, if you are suffering, if some days, or even all of them, feel hard, you are doing it wrong, you are not making the right choices.

(And you’re not doing it wrong; and not everything is a choice.)

Second. This meme relies on the idea that things – life, being human – shouldn’t be hard. That we make things hard; that if we’re doing it right, life just – well, it just won’t be.

In other words, this meme assumes it is bad to think that humaning is hard – and, also, that what is difficult should somehow be avoided or, in this case, changed with the power of positive thinking. (A far different enterprise from cultivating gratitude.)

But what if we embraced the difficulties inherent in humaning: that the imperfections, the cracks in the teacup are what make us human in the first place? There is beauty and authenticity to be found in in this “hardness.” We don’t have to make life’s challenges go away. And we don’t have to pretend these challenges aren’t exhausting, mind-numbingly so, sometimes.

Because some things really are hard. Suffering is endemic to the human condition. Sometimes, no matter how “rightly” you do a thing, it will turn out wrongly. There is horror in that knowledge; and there is also creativity and beauty in accepting it.

Third. This meme assumes that change is uncomplicated and easy – it happens “one day” when you decide that humaning is not hard.

It’s stating the obvious to say that change doesn’t happen in “one day.” It takes a lifetime; we grow, develop, backslide, learn, forget, re-learn, forget some more. We don’t ever arrive at the end goal. Some days, I get up early and write because that makes me happy and makes me feel whole. Other days – even though I know this to be true – I sleep because I’m tired, get a later start, feel like I am losing and like a loser. Not writing is hard. But getting up is also, sometimes, hard.

And part of what makes humaning hard is this relationship with ourselves, this dance with our own natures, our habits, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and whether we count.

But the corollary is a lovely one: part of what makes this dance easier is accepting and even reveling in how hard it is, having a sense of humor about how hard it is. Denying the hardship in the first place denies us this connection, this joy.

So: what if, instead of striving to change our minds we accepted that to live is to suffer, that humaning is hard? Would we be more patient? (Would I be?) Would we regard the faults of earth’s other inhabitants with more compassion and lovingkindness? Would we cultivate self-compassion, too?

I guess I think we just might. I guess I think that this compassion, these imperfections, these difficulties bind us all together, every single one.

I guess I think that the more we let go of the idea that we can control the outcome, the easier embracing life in its hardness – and its occasional ease – might be.

For from the hardness of being human arises interconnection, our care for each other, our relaxing into a warm embrace, even – maybe especially – when that embrace is one we give ourselves.

Whale, Puppy, Tornado

Mary Oliver died just over a week ago, and it seems like as good a time as any to start a blog about the connective tissue binding us all together. Not a blog about the “banal idea of ‘oneness’,” as Rachel Syme puts it in the New Yorker– but, rather, about the “mutual acknolwedgment of pain.”

Of course interconnectedness is more than that, too, at least it is to me. It’s the pain that I share with Oliver – but it is also the common bond I have with her simply because she was here, because I am here, because for most of my life, until she died, we shared the same planet. In a manner of speaking, we still do; in her interview with Krista Tippett, she emphasizes the idea that matter does not dissipate: that we are neither made from nor become nothing after we are gone.

That is to say, the idea of oneness is hardly banal, even though I speak of it so earnestly. It’s a heavy, weighted thing; I belong here, in this world, because I am here. That is all – but that is also everything. It has cost me more than I can say to get to a place where I believe that I am not a solitary creature; at least, not really.

I was married for ten years; I’ve lived alone again for three. The first year after I separated from my ex, I had a cancer scare, which entailed solitary trips to the doctor, and mostly solitary tests. I was thankful to have a friend to list as my emergency contact; I felt bereft, nonetheless. But my sense of separateness did not begin with my divorce; it began when I hid outside, under the trees in my backyard as a child. I once wrote – to myself – that loneliness is being encased in skin. In a way, it began when I was born.

This separation is true, in many ways, for all of us; I don’t mean that I’m special or different. It is a cliché, and an annoying one, that we all die alone. There are new books on being alone (even when we don’t want to be); the UK has a Minister of Loneliness; there are hashtags drawing together those of us who have nowhere to go at the holidays (or who feel alienated from where we are). There are so terribly many of us, in our modern culture, who live alone, work alone, sleep alone. The flip side of a culture obsessed with individuality, innovation, newness, difference. We spend so much time trying to be distinct that we forget the ties that bind us. We spend so much time trying to be apart that we forget how to be together.

I chose the title Whale, Puppy, Tornado because these are a series of emojis I used for a while – I thought they were funny, all in a row. And I used them, in a way, to communicate a certain kind of togetherness to my friends, to my siblings: I delighted in knowing that they would know, seeing that combination, that the text was from me, even if they didn’t see my name. Whale, puppy, tornado became evidence of things unseen: connection forged from mutual understanding, kindred spirits, presence.

And, also, I thought: whale, puppy, tornado. It’s random, disparate. And yet – interconnected.

At the same time, I – and the poets I love most, Chaucer among them – am all too aware of how difficult it often is to bridge the gaps between people, between things. To believe in what you can’t see: that we’re not alone. That we have inner lives worthy of the universe – and that our inner lives are worthy simply because we are here.

That we do not have to be intelligent. We do not have to have deep thoughts. The imprints we all leave are lasting, whether we are buried with pomp and circumstance or rest in unvisited tombs.

Again and again, Chaucer’s poetry meditates on our desire to tell the world who we are, to pull back the veil, to expose our innards – and again and again, his poetry reveals what is only too true: we don’t do this very well. It is difficult enough to articulate my own thoughts to myself, let alone convey them in clear terms to someone else. Language is instrumental to human connection, and it is also, often, our downfall. Language can’t always bridge the gap between the seen and unseen, between what is outside and what is inside.

But language is not all there is. There are also: atoms, breath, sitting quietly, a smile. There are also: connections across history, time, and space. This blog will take up, variously, all of these ideas, and other ideas, too – the desire to be a part of something, the difficulty of achieving that.

But the necessity of trying, all the same.