On being American 

 

I am back in America and am in language rehab, trying to practice US pronunciation (to-MAY-to)  and to remember to say sweater instead of jumper. I have landed not far from Plymouth Rock and am staying with a descendant of the Winslow brothers,pilgrims from the U.K. who came over on the Mayflower and the Speedwell.  There is no better place to consider what it means to be an American, and the responsibilities of any settler or citizen to shape the future of this country.

My US passport is just a year old. If I were to tell a parent from Honduras, or a PhD student from India, or a Syrian escapee that I was eligible for US citizenship for fully 10 years before I applied, they would feel my head, and hold theirs in their hands. I have what many have died for, fought for, dreamed of, and been denied.  What took me so long? It’s a reasonable question for the benefits are easy to see:  free access to the most powerful country in the world (at time of writing). Entitlement (ditto) to social security, and Medicare.  The chance to live in a country founded on the principle, if not yet the everyday practice, that all are created equal, and have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Additionally citizens have the right to vote in what has been one of the world’s most admired democracies. So really, why did it take me so long?

I was born in Northern Ireland, a UK citizen also entitled to an Irish passport. All through my childhood people fought over flags and nationality. I came to see national allegiance as an ugly, divisive thing. Ask continually what your country can do for you, and slag it off forbye. Deny history and geography and people’s sense of themselves. Impose identity. I fled from it all and was glad to have a European passport that offered a bloodless, bureaucratic way of showing up in the world. Then I came to America sixteen years ago. I immediately loved the newness of the country, the in-built Constitutional focus on creating the future, not defending the past, the sense of possibility and the scale and brightness of the big, blue sky in Washington DC.   That was in 2000. So what took me so long to become an all-in American?

I am a notorious commitmentaphobe. I lurked in the shadows of American life, developing  something of the accent and eating the food,  but never asking what I could do for the country that gave me a home, children and all sorts of opportunity. What was it about last year that gave me the kick up the backside necessary to write my check, get my photos taken and swot for my citizenship exam?

First, my work brought me into close contact with uniformed leaders from the US Department of Homeland Security. As part of their on-boarding, like every federal government employee, they must swear an oath to support and defend the US Constitution. Not the President. Not the Congress. Not the courts, nor the police, nor the military. I observed that the best of those I worked with did not leave their responsibilities behind when they took off their work shirts. What America stands for and looks like today and tomorrow they see as their business, morning, noon and night. Their views on what and how can differ, but each of them sees it as their ongoing and individual responsibility to be part of a collective citizenry that will”form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”. They take the idea of America seriously and the best of them agonize over the tensions and ambiguities inherent in the preamble to the Constitution They seek to play their part in the ongoing story of America. They weigh competing interpretations of constitutional values constantly and carefully.  They see value in dissent.  On many issues, I almost certainly do not interpret the Founders’ vision exactly the way they do, but I am forever grateful to those  (mostly) Republican, (mostly) men with  (mostly) guns for showing me value of productive, positive, participatory patriotism.  The Americans I worked with were future-focused, inclusive, grateful, and mindful of their role and responsibilities in service of their own country, with their international neighbors, and in the wider world. To keep themselves ‘honest’ they use the frame for government crafted the best part of 250 years ago to guide their decisions and action. They appreciate that the country has built-in checks and balances demanding ongoing consensus-building, and respect for difference, in order to prevent a return to the old days when a despot ruled.  I was moved and inspired by the faithfulness of these whole-hearted citizens to making the dream of America come true.

Then a vote became important to me.  In my case, I hoped to be part of a movement propelling the first woman into the role of President. I wanted to try to conserve what I see as progress in the last eight years. I was disappointed this time. I will have other votes to cast. I respect the electoral process and the views of voters that don’t match mine. I really do. I am glad though that the Bill of Rights gives me the opportunity to get out, stand up and speak out for the America I want tomorrow– and in defense of those foundational and enduring Constitutional safeguards that can be threatened when, as now, one party has dominion in the administration and legislative branch, and thus control over the composition of the Judiciary too.

Then there were my children and their children –American through and through. My tendrils are supported by a trellis that is both starred and spangled.  Now it matters less where I came from than where and how my new shoots take root.

So I am American. An American who thinks that the temperature of (we) the people must be constantly taken and heeded to ensure the “consent of the governed”, so important to Washington and his troops.  An American for whom the words on the Statue of Liberty still have resonance.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door”.

Emma Lazarus, 1883–The Statue of Liberty

As Americans we are to be part of ongoing change– leading it, campaigning for it, challenging it, shaping it, supporting it and enacting it. The last 240 years have seen new states added to the original 13, new groups of voters enfranchised, and millions of new citizens from all over the world. Ignorant mistakes have been corrected and bad laws repealed. Just as the country is changing now, it will change again, zig zagging toward that more perfect union. America will be 250 years old just two Presidential terms from now. It is our Republic, if we can keep it. I’m in. This is something worth fighting for.

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