I keep thinking about America today, in a sort of absent-minded way. I've been editing my lesson for this week, which is to be another version of the lesson I've taught already about the cities and towns where I have lived. I'm debating whether to include the slide about prairies when I teach the seventh-graders about Red Wing. A prairie is not the easiest thing to explain to an audience with very limited English, and if you asked most people from Red Wing what it's like there, they might mention the river and the bluffs and the shoe factory but would probably not tell you it was on the prairie. But I keep thinking about the prairie anyway, as if it were a song stuck in my head. The things I miss the most about home as a place--leaving aside the people that I miss and the cultural differences, etc.--are open space, and clear fresh air, and stars, and quiet, and seeing the sun set. Things that a prairie can give you.
Besides, what's more American than a prairie? It's not a moor or a steppe. Its breadth gives you those spacious skies we like to sing about. Plow it up and plant it and there you have your amber waves of grain.
I won't go on like this, but I could
, which tells you something about the note of homesick patriotism that has crept into my oddball expat Christmas cheer. Of course Christmas makes anyone think of home, or at least that's my excuse for the fact that I've listened to Simon and Garfunkel's "America"
in the past few days as much as any actual Christmas music.
Cathy I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all come to look for America
I love this song for its combination of goofiness and melancholy, and for the way you know the two characters have walked off to look for America but you have no idea where they're going. They've been to Michigan, Pittsburgh, and the New Jersey turnpike
. America is still somewhere else.
Meanwhile, Christmas happened. I was thinking, especially on Christmas Day, about the way we generally put a huge emphasis on looking forward to Christmas, waiting for Christmas, counting down the days with Advent calendars. We've all come to look for Christmas, and sometimes when you open the last door on the Advent calendar, Christmas still seems like it's somewhere else. What are we waiting for, exactly?
It can be good to have an expectant and hopeful mindset. But I guess we need to do more than hope and wait for things, especially things like joy, to happen on their own. Knowing that there wouldn't be very much Christmas for me this year--I didn't get the day off, in fact--I grabbed at what Christmas I could get, where I could get it. I think it's a strategy I'll keep. I don't really want to make a habit of going to work on Christmas Day to achieve this end, but they were good, those little moments of cheer, lighting candles and hanging tinsel on my windows and mirrors. I cooked a Western dinner in the apartment, with the help of a shipment from home of pumpkin and stuffing and instant mashed potatoes. Five of us crowded around my little table to eat together until two of the the five had to dash off again. It wasn't grand, but it was good, and it was what there was, and we made it cozy. You take what bits of Christmas you can find.
I've gotten this far without deciding whether I can make the same recommendation about America. What on earth is Paul Simon looking for? Not "the real America," and I'd like to get through this post without saying "American dream" outside of quotes, but the idea of America, the fact of America, whatever it is Tom Jefferson was after when he outlined those self-evident truths. The fact that the United States was basically dreamed up, invented by a lot of people whose names we know, has for much of American history tended to a sense that we citizens are obligated to finish the job. Rob MacDougall, a Canadian historian of the U.S., wrote beautifully about this
after the 2008 election:
The promises made in the Declaration and the Constitution are so great that their betrayal is an inevitable part of the promise. And that’s what makes them work. . . . The “more perfect union” is a limit approaching infinity. As each generation discovers–inevitably!–that the promises made to them were false, they battle to make them a little more true.
He's writing about America as a political idea; Paul Simon, I think, is after something even more elusive, nothing more or less than a tangible, realized American-ness, something like what Robert Pinsky is trying to explain in his long poem "An Explanation of America." Pinsky tells us that "a country is the things it wants to see," which is a good start, but over the course of the poem he locates "the country" in many more things than that, like in his daughter's school play and his own reaction to the word "Vietnam."
That real existence of a country is something one might happily never think about, or one might choose to wait for it, or try to create it, or hop on a Greyhound bus to look for it, hoping it'll be around the next corner or maybe just sort of floating in the air over a prairie somewhere in Iowa.
There are times, here in China, when I say something about the U.S., and I use the word "we" and I think I know what it means. Then it's gone again. I am the only American here--not just the only United States citizen but the only person from the Americas--and I can't really represent a hemisphere. I just try to offer the students and teachers here the little bits of America I can dig out of my pockets in the form of my vocabulary and accent, my ideas about how a teacher relates to a classroom, my very foreign sense--asserted gently, I hope--of personal space.
That's what I've got for the time being. To my friends who are actually in the States, who may have been hit by the storms of the last few days, will you step outside and smell the snow for me? Failing that, just blow a kiss at the nearest prairie.
A late Merry Christmas for those who celebrate it, and an early Happy New Year for the whole bunch of you.