Opening Up

I have been thinking more about patriotism.  After my last blog post, my cousin Amy asked me “what if you could never care about what a single person thought about you or your country again?”  I immediately thought I could love more freely, more openly.  It is such a simple answer, yet my mind still swirls with the enormous ideas of citizenship, country, love, and identity.

The subject of patriotism is a complicated one for me.  It seems  that to be a patriot one must close part of oneself off to the people and land that stretches out past the borders and thus attain an attitude that one’s own country is the supreme power.  This mindset requires defence and offence, but it has little use for neutrality or a deep questioning of actions.  While exploring the subject of patriotism in her essay “Jabberwocky”, Barbara Kingsolver criticizes the Smithsonian for cancelling an exhibit on the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and placing emotions over analysis.  “I’m offended by the presumption that my honor as a citizen will crumple unless I’m protected from the knowledge of my country’s mistakes,” Kingsolver writes.  She goes on to ask, “What kind of love is patriotism if it evaporates in the face of uncomfortable truths?  What kind of honor sits quietly by while a nation’s conscience flies south for a long, long winter?”  This question challenges the blindness that I often associate with patriotism, at least the form of it that has risen in the US since 9/11 and the fear tactics employed by the Bush administration.  Given the choice between a sweet dream and a hard truth, however, I’ll take the truth.

According to the Collins New Zealand English Dictionary, the definition of patriot is “one that loves his country and maintains its interests,” and patriotism is “inspired by love of one’s country.”  How can love maintain wars?  How can I hold the love I have for my home next to the violence that the US commits on the environment, in Iraq and Afghanistan?

My friend Sam once described to me how he learned to let go of something without losing the parts of it he cherished.  Holding a penny in a closed fist, he then turned the back of his hand toward the ground and, stretching his fingers out, revealed the penny in his open palm.  I understood then that it is not about clasping to love in order to defend it, but rather it is learning to hold it freely so it can be shared.  By letting go I risk the chance of losing, but I cannot let that deter me because I know the tremendous possibility of growth appears to the things and people who are not constrained.

What is patriotism but a way to express love?  There are many things about Karamea that remind me of the North Country: chopping wood, cows in pasture, the community that working the land fosters.  These things make me feel close to home even though I’m far away, and I’ve found that what matters most are not the borders I stand behind, but  what I love and how I express that love.

At the end of her essay, Kingsolver concludes, “A country can be flawed as a marriage or a family or a person is flawed, but ‘Love it or Leave it’ is a coward’s slogan.  There’s more honor in ‘Love it and get it right.’  Love it. Love it.  Love it and never shut up.”  So I will love the US and the world, and hold that love in an open palm.  I will continue to look further than immediate presumptions (including mine) and extend peace to all I interact with.  It may not always be easy, but I do not imagine that it is easy for the seed to spring its first stem through the soil.  When it does, though, the sun is waiting, already extending its warmth to the first tiny leaves.

Discovering Patriotism

What does it mean to be an American abroad?

When Obama became President I thought oh good, the world will like us again, but I wasn’t completely right.  Since I’ve been in New Zealand, I ‘ve had several reactions to the phrase “I’m from the States,” one of them being “Oh, I’m sorry!”

When I first arrived I was quick to concede to America’s failures and faults.  I found myself describing Vermont’s location by its proximity to Canada and joking (sort of) about the desires of some Vermonters to secede and become a part of Canada.  It was difficult for me to defend a country that re-elected Bush; a country with politicians that ignore separation of church and state and spend more energy trying to make abortion illegal than they do making sure schools have enough funding for an arts department, let alone a sex ed. program; a country that consumes, wastes and pollutes at a fantastic rate.  While looking at the US from afar has allowed me to understand the tremendous impact the country has on the rest of the world, the longer I am here the slower I am to concede to the negativities without balancing the score between good and evil.  As Erin points out, there are 300 million of us, and just as not all Kiwis are friendly and environmentally conscious, not all Americans are money-driven, corrupt media-drones.

The first day Erin and I worked with Gary, our WWOOF host, we were in the middle of a conversation about agriculture, the States, and environmental problems when he said to us, “some people say the world would be better off if we just killed all [Americans],” and if the US disappeared.  Hitler thought the same thing about the Jews.  How can more violence make anything better, though?  If the United States were to disappear what would happen to the countries receiving aid, or who have trade agreements with us, or who depend on Peace Corps volunteers?

Since this conversation we have had many more about Americans and our problems, and Gary does admit that he’s met some great Americans (Erin and I included).  How many “good” citizens does it take to outshine the “bad” ones, though?

When we were in Wellington, we met a Canadian girl named Caroline who said to me, “When I look at you I see a kind, loving, informed person–not a typical American.”  What is a “typical” American?  When I look at my community I see passionate, motivated, caring, intelligent people.  Yes I grew up blessed with a supportive family, with parents who could afford to send my brother and me to private universities and still put organic food on the table, but I do not take for granted the comforts and advantages I enjoy.  I want Caroline, and all the people I meet, to look at me and not see and ugly red-white-and-blue stain on my shirt, but to recognise that I am who I am in large part because of where I grew up.

I will not defend big business, environmental ruin, or war tactics, but I will point out grassroots movements, sustainable initiatives, peace-workers and vast tracts of wilderness.  This trip has opened up a way for me to look at the US with pride again, and looking home I see the countless American communities of people who live with respect, care and love.  For the first time in my life, I say this without flinching or feeling cheesy: I am proud to be an American.