Photo: The American side of Niagara Falls. Taken during our first anniversary trip. We stayed on the Canadian side for most of the trip. ( I mean, have you seen that view?)
I’m feeling a little patriotic this week. I love history and politics, I love pomp and circumstance, and I have a deep appreciation for gravitas, so this week is always a big week for me. A fellow blogger of Canadian persuasion had the absolute audacity to send me a little list of why Canada is better than America. Or being Canadian is better than being an American, or whatever. And I was like, “Whaaaaa? For realsies!?!?!” I mean, I was probably going to write about the 4th of July anyway, but now? Now it’s just on! Can’t be having the northern neighbors talkin’ smack!
As a southern-raised woman, well versed in the genteel arts of respect and neighborly ways, it would simply be impolite to dissuade her of her adorable little notions. Indeed, her line about the virtues of the word “eh” was simply inspired.
I’m not big on lists. I don’t think that they tell a complete story. So you’ll have to indulge me this week, because I have a lot to say about the subject of our dear republic, and I feel like I’m going to need more than one blog post to get it done. I mean, what are you doing anyway? You know you aren’t working. Nobody gets anything done during the 3-day week.
I was watching 60 Minutes last night, and the program showed a repeat of a feature on David McCullough, a historian whom I love. I’ve read a lot of his work. Not all of it, but a lot of it, and I really enjoyed his take on the great men of our history and the great achievements of our country. Something poignant came during a later part of the feature, not when talking about Americans in America, but when talking about Americans in Paris. They were looking at a particular building in Paris, I’ve never been and I don’t recall the name. But the piece started talking about how Americans in the 1830s couldn’t fathom how old everything was in Paris. Indeed, the building featured at that moment was built “before Columbus even sailed across the ocean.
That really struck me. The oldness of the “old world.” That there are places on the planet that exist and have existed as long as there has been recorded civilization. That Rome is Rome, and that Rome is the same Rome that I’ve read about countless times in countless books. That Athens is Athens, and that it is the same Athens just as Rome is the same Rome. And that there are little places all over the European continent (and the Asian continent, as well) that are just so beautifully ancient.
I am often agog when I walk into buildings around here in Boston and a placard or framed sign tells me that it was built in 16whatever or even 15whatever. Every town here in Massachusetts has a little name sign that says “[town name here] establish [date here]” and that date generally starts with a 16 in front of it. I remind myself that Maryland has a similar “ancient” history. Frederick, Maryland, the town where I was born, was founded in 1745. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up, was founded in 1775. Maryland, of course, was one of the original 13 Colonies, with exploration as early as the 1498 and settlements starting in the 1600s. The East Coast is “old” to me. “Ancient” to me. Yet it is nothing compared to the world on the other side of the Atlantic.
My mother-in-law has traced her ancestry back to Edward the Confessor, and she loves to talk about it. Oh how wonderful it is to be related to royalty, she says, all the flippin’ time. It is asinine and obnoxious and I absolutely loathe it. But part of the reason why I loathe it is part of the same reason why Europe astounds me (and—I swear, I’m going to get to it—why I love America): She has a connection to the ancient. Her blood is old. It belongs somewhere else, and the bloodline is unbroken, traceable to ancient places and things. Her blood isn’t royal blood, and even if it was, it doesn’t do a damn thing to elevate her. But it connects her to something firm, like historical bedrock in my mind.
I was robbed of that. Somewhere, my bloodline is severed by the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean Sea. Yes, I know that there a couple of weird connections to Japan and Scotland on my Father’s side of the family, but I don’t know anything about that beyond random stories at random times. The connection to the color that I see in the mirror and the identity that I choose to embrace along with it is severed for me. This used to frustrate me, but like the republic that I love so much, I see the severing as an opportunity. I can never forget my connection, it is undeniable, but I get to reconstruct those connections and legacies in an image of my own choosing. I get to make unknown ancestors proud not by walking in their footsteps but, indeed, taking footsteps on their behalf. Distant castles and drops of royal blood do not burden me: I don’t wonder why I’m not a princess, I don’t long for some long lost plot of family land, I have no need for graves of names without faces. My tree is not a shackle—it is the shade from under which I can do my best thinking and dreaming.
America informs its legacy through its mother country and even its siblings, but it chooses its own destiny every day. We get to pick and choose the best of the ancient cultures that we chose to leave behind and rebuild them in an imagery of our own choosing. We can borrow the words, the architecture, the fashion, the food and then we get to destroy it and rebuild it in a way that we love. We say that we do it in homage to the cultures we steal from, but this is only partially true. We do it for our own pleasure and needs, then we sell it back to everyone else and say “well, it was inspired by you and your original.” When you watch us, you are watching growth happen. Just like as we watch our children grow, there is an amazement that comes with the day to day progress…the leaps and bounds…the “ah-ha” moments just as much as the “uh oh” moments. We are a nation that is growing still. That is learning still.
My husband, too, doesn’t have to be shackled to his bloodline. He gets to choose his future though he is informed by the past. Most of that ancestry bullshit just shows regular people doing regular things. The connections to “big names” means nothing that far back. He gets to choose. He has the most freedom of anyone in his bloodline. My boys get the greatest benefit of all—they are the perfect combination, the brilliant distilment of American history—a walking testimony to our history, our greatness, our potential.
And that brings me back to the larger concept of America. We aren’t old. Our grand experiment, in the context of other countries (many of them, the “mother” countries of many of our bloodlines) is in its infancy. Some have called earlier points of our history (the 1800s, even the early 1900s) our “adolescent” years. I would contend that we’re in that period now. We’re damned loud and ostentatious, we’re powerful yet nobody really wants to take us seriously (and we, sometimes, wield that power without grace). Others are proud of us when they see us do the right thing. They laud us as the future—the solution to all of the world’s problems, yet they also laud us as the cause of all of the world’s problems. We embarrass our parents when we do stupid things. We scare them when we do things unfathomable, imaginative and against the grain. We are unruly and unkempt. We’re quick to judge, scorn or tease when we see something we don’t like—generally without personal reflection and realization that we do the same thing. We are currently dying our hair ridiculously red in the middle and frosted blue on the edges. We’re wearing too tight jeans that show our butt crack when we sit, we’re showing our mid-drift out of the house, and we can’t decide what our sexuality is because we’re totally sleeping with everyone and it feels good.
And power is the best drug on earth, and we’re smokin’ it. The thing is, we totally poached it from Europe’s stash. You really should have found a better place than under the bed.
We are, as a country, the biggest, richest, most obnoxious adolescent that the universe has ever seen. And just like with every young person (let’s go with 20-something. Like a 23 year old) who is too bright and has too much potential: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Call me a rebel without a cause, but I’d much rather have people judge me for having an American flag sown on my backpack than to be wantonly welcomed wherever I go simply for having a maple leaf. It’s not that I want to be feared, but I appreciate that other parts of the world choose to pay attention to my country and government and then feel passionately enough about what we do to treat me one way or another. If I ever have the pleasure to travel Europe or Asia, I’ll be happy to dialogue with someone who wants to talk about my people and my government. I don’t love everything that my government does either, so let’s have a little chat.
And before my Canadian readers get all huffy, you should know that I absolutely love your country. The Husband and I have had the pleasure of visiting Niagara Falls (which resulted in a major life event for me) and Montreal. I have not a single bad word to say about our neighbors north of the border. Your country is beautiful, your people are sincerely kind, the cities that I’ve been to are beautiful. My husband and I would love to go to Vancouver one day. My reader had a very compelling list, full of wonderful things about a wonderful country. But is it really better to be of the north? Well… you know what I think.