Wednesday, May 10, 2017

View from the Bridge

I grew up pledging allegiance to my country’s flag every morning in nursery school where few of us even understood the words we mostly mispronounced.  We put our hands on our hearts and swore things and then we sang about God and other things.  These repetitions were part of our daily ritual, like a mantra.  At sleepaway camp I sang the Doxology at lunch; another repetition.  I liked recitations; I liked music.  I liked the sound of girls' and boys' voices in unison, like a choir.

Later on we questioned things, we refused to repeat words we didn’t believe in, we found the exceptions to every rule and that became a temporary raison d’etre.  By the time I was an adult, no one was mouthing things in school anymore; no one was pledging-by-rote or reciting things about God except in church.

I traveled out of the country for the first time as a young teenager; I was an exchange student in a totally rural village in Mexico which was an education in itself.  But it was the first time I became aware of being American, with all the advantages—and of the envy and the bitterness of people in a poor culture where plumbing was a luxury and electricity a rarity; where they’d experienced the well-meaning efforts of things like the Peace Corps which too often came off like smug imperialist elitism. Bleeding heart US liberals, rich kids wearing their overalls and charitable deeds like badges of honor.  My Mexican family had seen them digging ditches in their backyards with their transistor radios and their rock-band messaged T-shirts and didn’t much care for them.

This month I’ve been to 4 countries in a short space.  On the trip to Oslo I realized it was the first time I’d left the US since the election.  My SAS plane was packed with Norwegians; they didn’t even bother making announcements in English.  They handed out the required boarding cards the US began issuing after 9/11 because they wanted to know where you were traveling and on what plane in case of some incident.  But this time no one collected them at Passport control.  Maybe it was an oversight, but I felt as if we were downgraded to second-rate status and our priorities no longer have respect or meaning.  Besides, Donald Trump couldn’t give a shit about me or anyone else who is not going to line his gilded pockets.

My friends here in Stockholm have visited New York as often as they could; they’ve always been interested in tracing the origins of contemporary pop culture, like a pilgrimage.  They come to see where Bob Dylan lived, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, where Nancy stabbed Sid and where Thomas Wolfe came to produce his thick volumes of prose. I’ve always had a certain ‘currency’, being a native New Yorker; I witnessed things they read about and brushed shoulders with their idols before they were famous.  My love for Stockholm is known; it’s my ‘holm away from home.  I’ve played and sang here, recorded music, been loved, appreciated and entertained.  It is maybe the most beautiful city in the world… and still, I’ve always still had the underlying longing to return to my New York.

Today there’s a photo of not-my-president on the front of one of the daily Swedish papers; this is a social democracy—it’s a liberal and fair society; in the place I’m staying, owned by a middle-class older couple, a sticker on the washing machine shows Michael Moore’s face with the caption ‘Take Back the White House!’  Stockholm suffered a terrorist attack recently but they go on as the free society they are.  I realize I don't feel quite the same as an American… I'm sick of apologizing for a massive political error and an incompetent administration.  I'm tired of the jokes; they're wearing thin.

One of the things I love most about Stockholm is its geography.  The islands all have their own character and are navigable by foot.  Crossing the various bridges is not just breathtaking but gives a unique sense of perspective on the city.  I have always loved bridges; in New York, my son and I walked the 59th Street, the Brooklyn—even the Hell Gate Bridge.  There is always a moment—half way maybe, where you feel ungrounded…suspended… free, in a way, but with that crossroads thing in your head—knowing on every bridge, everywhere, someone has stood and thought about the jump.  It adds another dimension to my bridge-crossing metaphor.

Today I was on an especially high crossing, where I could see the water beneath my feet—the blackish, still-wintry, restless current.  I thought about going home—the end of my stay coming up.. and suddenly I realized going back to my country at this moment of political chaos, shame… provided no comfort.  The gap between going and coming home is significant; this time I feel I’m returning, but not to a place of belonging or security.  It’s like the national rug has been pulled out from under us and replaced with a blanket of golf-course turf.  For the first time in my life, I feel vaguely homeless.  I can only imagine how our US immigrants are suffering—standing on their bridge, with nowhere to return to, nowhere to enter… ‘Send these, the homeless tempest- tossed to me…’ the poem says… but no longer.  I will go home, in name only, like an immigrant, hoping to find my old dream in a place where the symptoms of greed and selfish Titanism are consuming the heart of my city.  Not the world that produced me; not the world of any godly version of society.  Holding the return portion of my roundtrip ticket, I feel duped and stranded rather than safe and welcome.  Fortunately I still have a day to two to contemplate my view from the bridge.  Not so for everyone.

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