[as of this posting it’s been nearly two months since the bombing at the Boston marathon, but I wanted to place my reaction here, so it was officially on my blog and not just languishing in facebookland, because as I get ready to leave the country I become more aware of my American-ness, and finally because these questions don’t just go away on their own]
Forgive me this post made in grief as I try to sort through these things.
Others have posted helpfully about “disaster fatigue” and trauma, and still others have posted – perhaps less helpfully – about how events similar to Boston are a much more regular occurrence in other countries, as though this makes us somehow better than or worse than, as though this says something about our capacity for empathy beyond our own borders or infers that our collective shock when these things happen at home is somehow disingenuous, because of course it can happen here.
In ‘Merica. In America. Of course it can happen here.
I don’t quite know what America means. I’m the West Coast-born child of a native Californian and an escapee from a dying mining town in Pennsylvania, my parents both many years removed themselves from their immigrant ancestors. We are babes in the eyes of history, we 20th Century born Californians, particularly those of European descent. We beg, borrow and steal our sense of place from the multicultured, diverse-tongued natives who came before; trace a late-developing spine out of El Camino Real and fashion eardrums of mission bells; cram a literary capital of sorts into an invisible, fog-swathed city at one pole and manufacture bright stars at the other; elevate moving pictures to an art even as we – willful children! – forget the flickering shadows on the cave wall that were their antecedents, forget that stories weren’t a matter of entertainment but a method of survival.
You see, though, how I know all these divisions by rote. Child of the south, the highway systems of Southern California are as familiar and inevitable as the lines of my palm and, at rush hour, more meaningful. I crossed town borders most days of my childhood just to attend a Christian elementary school, which is where I learned that most fundamental division you spend a good part of your adulthood trying to solder back together: the sinner from the saved. I don’t have to refer to maps to see the Atlantic crossing, the continental crossing of my ancestors in my mind. I know they were Irish. And Scottish. And English. And French. Family lore has contrived a whole nursery rhyme about these divisions and convergences in my blood. I can look in the mirror and tell you what feature comes from which side of the family, and whether my nose is from them Gauls or my lips from them Micks.
So ‘Merica or America? What does it look like? And which one is it? I don’t know. But I have been tutored to see differences and form opinions.
In ‘Merica (this is my division). In ‘Merica bad things simply can’t happen because we are the biggest and the best. That’s the story, right? We have some kind of moral imperative to greatness that found its full voice in the misguided theory of manifest destiny, and continues to crop up now and again in a seemingly more innocuous fashion: no longer a proclamation but an insidious, subliminal, white noise invocation of a profane scripture that keeps us always gnawing our own tail. The story of Us v. Them, of shadowy enemies made bigger because we can’t see where they end and we begin, the same old heroic tale brimming with a poisonously inflated sense of self and self-righteousness. “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”
“We are better,” it says. “We are better than everyone.”
In America (this is my distinction). The America that I’ve tried to see clearly, through the cherry trees and lie telling and slavery and suffrage and a million other manifest mistakes and triumphs. America the beautiful IDEA, like something precious that I’m trying to distill from tragedy – yes distilling is the process, for if I can just make all this liquid I can erase the lines and distinctions that separate us one from the other, can become infused with what is purest, what is true – I think I can find America, if it yet means anything, by distilling the best words of those who themselves have tried hardest, the words that make freedom irrevocable and equality the law (written in our hearts, not by any hand), words that ask you to ask, “What can I do?” rather than what can be done for you and words that make imperative that you dream, and that you love, and that you hope, still.
“We can be better,” that America croons to me. “We can be better than ourselves.”