MY LIFE AS A PATRIOT

 

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 If I hadn’t  dropped by Eeuzicasa‘s  blog today, I would, of course, never have known that today is Bunker Hill Day – and neither would you. I suppose that’s one reason George B. posted it.  More often than not, his bounty of information turns out to be something you didn’t know you might want to know.  I ended up writing a long comment, some of which is incorporated into this post. I figured I’d taken up more space than was polite – plus, I couldn’t figure out how to add photos to his blog (joke, hardy har). He was extremely hospitable, and suggested that I expand my comment into a post. And here it is.

Thanks, George!

How well I remember lounging around the Bunker Hill statue/memorial  (after I had worn out the statue on the Cambridge Common) when I was a kid – the trip to the tougher neighborhood of Charlestown was enough to qualify as something of an adventure, which is an indicator of how bored we were.

We had absolutely no appreciation of the monument’s  significance. When tourists came to look at it, we just couldn’t believe the license plates. But we were absolutely certain of one thing: if we ever had cars and vacations and choices, no force on earth could compel us to travel 800 miles to look at some stupid piece of rock. If nothing else proved that adults had no sense of direction, this national trek to a hulking hunk of rock in the unsentimental working-class Boston neighborhood of Charlestown settled the question.
Years later, as an American history major in San Francisco, I thought of Paul Revere’s house.

Yep. Three thousand miles away.

 

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I thought keenly of the (Old North?) church (above), Longfellow’s house, sitting big and yellow right there in Harvard Square, the 17th century cemetery with the bent iron railings, Old Iron Sides, the Lexington Green, the Transcendentalist Alcott community called Fruitlands, Walden Pond –

and was furiously gripped by the sheer idiocy of the modern child.

I had ignored all of them, except for Walden Pond, a fairly sizeable lake that I leaped into on hot summer afternoons when we were able to hijack a relative with a car. I had not set foot into Harvard’s exquisite free museums – I had only gotten stuck (several times) and hauled down from the lap of the huge statue of John Harvard. Also, kicked out of the music department for sneaking in with my friends to bang out Chopsticks on the practice pianos.

 

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Years later, as I made arrangements to move from San Francisco to the Midwest, I had a moment of perspective – and spent my last month riding cable cars, at Fisherman’s Wharf, in Little Italy, Chinatown, and North Beach (no beatniks had been seen there for to decades. I rode the ferry across the Bay and ate at the Cliff House. I did everything the tourists did – it was the first time for all of us, only I had been right there for 12 years.

 

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But I eventually learned the power of place. I had moved not 20 miles from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Without stopping to unpack, I drove straight to the crumbling town of Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro) Illinois. It had once been the pride of the Mississippi. My jaw dropped as I drove through town. I didn’t know I was in the northernmost Mississippi Delta. I didn’t know that I had arrived in the region that would teach me more about this nation than Boston, New York, and San Francisco combined. I had no idea that the poorest people in rural America lived here, or that the fragile shacks I passed were homes. I hadn’t yet heard the people speak, in  voices  that I still hear in my dreams,  a cadence that both sooths and pierces  the heart, and echos the mountains of Kentucky.

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Main Street, Cairo, Illinois

I climbed a modest observation tower, took one look, and lost my breath.
Boy, was that something to see. Yet most people never see it, because almost no one goes to Cairo, anymore.

I was standing at the tip of the triangle in the upper part of the photo below, on the southernmost tip of Illinois. That tip is almost eight hours from Chicago, and is essentially another country. To the right is the Ohio River, and the land on its eastern (right) bank is the northwesternmost border of Kentucky.  The Mississippi River flows in on the left. It’s western shore is Missouri’s eastern border. Just past the bottom of the photo lies the top of  Missouri’s Bootheel , which extends further south than a good chunk of Arkansas.

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When I got to my little apartment, paid for by a graduate fellowship, along with tuition and a stipend, I looked around and finally really knew what privilege was. I returned over and over to that old place where the upper South blends into the lower Midwest, but I always came back to another world, one that paid me to just learn. In the end, though, the people of the Delta were the road I chose. The stories they told me turned me into a  journalist, rather than a professor of history.
By the time I left graduate school five years later, the two great rivers located me like a compass. They still do, and they always will.

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That summer, I visited Paul Revere’s house, the Old North Church, Old Ironsides (don’t refer to them as ‘old – don’t refer to anything as old – to a European. They are unable to hide their amusement), Louisa May Alcott’s home, Fruitlands, and other colonial  structures that have meaning for many Americans. I was more interested in the material culture of working-class people – I had, after all, been to graduate school, recently survived the excruciating, prolonged ordeal of getting admitted to doctoral candidacy and was still feeling my oats. I’m over it now – but I derived a settled feeling from my patriotic tour. It’s not that I’m a patriot. I’m markedly fickle when it comes to the entire concept of nationalism. I just like to know where I am.

True, Boston was no Cairo, Illinoi. But I had come to love the whole American landscape. I had come to see the people whose anonymous lives had been documented after all, left written for those who knew where to look. It was there in what they had laid their hands on, in how they had created beauty, in the songs they sang and in the way they buried their dead.  I knew that America had another story made up of all the unimportant people who had struggled to understand what home meant in this land.

That’s as close as I’ll ever come to being a patriot.

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One if by land and two if by sea

Oh, and I dropped in on the Bunker Hill Monument. You know, it’s really quite interesting.

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23 thoughts on “MY LIFE AS A PATRIOT

  1. Your last paragraph brought tears to my eyes and captured so much of what Bruce (my husband – through a luminary lens blogger) and I have felt, travelling in the US. We come across the border with our CND identity all tucked up tight around our ears – you know how it is with us CND’s – defined by what we are sure we aren’t and one of the things we are darn tooting sure we’re not is American. And then we fall in love with so much of what we see and we are bowled over by the monuments and the National Parks and the small towns and the people and the little cafes and bizarre (at times) roadside stops. We go away echoing your words – there is another story to be told in this land. Thanks for such a wonderful post.

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    1. Thanks so much Frances. It’s heartening to know that your gaze is true – not only because it warms me personally, but because it gives me hope: that is, if the world lumps all Americans together, we don’t stand a chance of stopping our government/corporate rulers. You may live off the grid, but you act as a world citizen, because your perspective is one of interconnectedness. So is Bruce’s, come to think of it, even though your blogs are quite different. That’s why you can see the stories of the other America.

      Thanks for bringing your own lovely Location alive for us.

      O H C A N A D A !

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  2. You give me hope, Claire. This glimpse into your journey tied to “place” (America) is revelatory. And that without borders. . . your sense of patriotism being the land and the people. Thank you, my good American cousin. 🙂

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    1. Just what are you wily Canadians up to now? Does Homeland Security know you have technology that can read hearts as well as minds?

      I didn’t realize that a message from beyond the empire gates connecting me with hope would bring hope to me.

      “Good American cousin !” I’m honored.
      We don’t hear that too often around here. If only, if ONLYpeople would stand up and say “Enough!”
      in front of the world. Just pour into D.C., and keep pouring in, day after day:

      “We are the Muslims! We are the good American cousins! We give back the world we stole”

      Welcome to Spring!

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  3. You would have made as good a history professor as you do a journalist. Of course, the history taught in the public schools isn’t always the same one you’ve learned.

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    1. Thanks, Jeff. Maybe…but only in a community college serving a low income area, or a community-controlled educational center. I know I’d be good in a prison too. But no one will ever hire me again for anything, because I only have the one work history, terminating with my big ‘lie” announced via the Associated Press’ national wire.
      Oh, you know what else I dream of? A newspaper produced by kids in a high school with test scores so low, they will never, ever reach the standard because its the way its rigged

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  4. Thanks so much for crediting the idea of this wonderfully crafted post: You were right to point out my desire I to bring back things from the past, to which we are both the time traveler and machine, Doctors Who like: How else could we be able to have a grasp on reality and be objective about our present and future?

    “..I climbed a modest observation tower, took one look, and lost my breath. Boy, was that something to see. Yet most people never see it, because almost no one goes to Cairo, anymore…”**

    This phrase affected my fillings of patriotism, and saddened me with the deep revelation of my own experiences: Today I fly the stars and spangles high in my heart, concerned about the present and future of…our selves, of our communities, of our deep need to make these feelings fly, in the breeze of our resolve to bring America back in every home, community, city, and state. Union is best served when in fact, not in political fiction! To bring America back where it started, back where it always belong!

    Your post Claire Marie did for me today, and I know it will do the same for many others, and it should!

    Thanks for your kind and grounded feelings expressed in your post!

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    1. George,
      I learned something very important today – that genuine expression of the heart can transcend literal use of the words employed..
      I had a bit of concern that our political differences (you pray for the return of a past America, while I cannot even promise to recognize its borders) But your greater heart saw the essence of a shared yearning, It is not often that people recognize the context and form with which I sing songs of love to this aching country and its people,
      A heart may burst privately for a town in ruins which still stands straight for the great rivers – and he who responds “I’ll fly stars and spangles in my heart, concerned about…our deep need to make these feelings fly “-

      Let him give patriotism its name

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      1. I understand the yerning in our hearts of finding places unchanged, as they were in the reality that transgressed into memory, only to become deeply idealized: I always tell my traveling friends not to expect to find the places long since revisited the same as their magical almost memory of said places. as usually reality is most of the time deceptive, as no reality can reach same statusas the distilled memory does, is best to fall on safety of knowing that. But at the pace at which things deteriorate here, one can se everything changing at thtreir doorstep…not seeying that would be unpatriotic, an unamerican: We are raised to think and achieve, and that is our major responsibility, for the sake of us, not for its imparilment!
        I created a post awhile back ablout the ravages of defrancizing of a technologic place, Downey and the replacement of high technology with a mall with lots of 99 cents stores! It hurt my deepest feeling of love for my town to see how easily was to move rockwell intenational to Arcansas and elsewhere for the no kmor ethan the brick that when detached from the termal shield brought down the shuttle…
        With that 80+ years or aeronautics when under, to the cheepest and meaningless way of existance 99 cents stores, stapples, best buys, ross, etc.: please search in my search engine for Downey Landings, to view that post when you have some tim eon your hans! and thanks again.

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  5. Hi Claire, that’s beautiful. Do you ever miss going on to be a professor of history? Journalism seems to call to the most brilliant and reflexive of people, and those are the ones who do such a lot of good quality work. But journalism seems a hard path.

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    1. Thanks, Nicci, I missed it while I was making the decision , but the odd reversal of enrolling as a first year student in a technical college disappeared on the first day – when I walked into my first newsroom. A crabby old retired editor told me academics make the worst reporters , appointed me copy editor and sent me to the darkroom , When I emerged six hours later, reeking of split chemicals, I knew where my life would be spent. For the next 15 years, home was any newsroom I walked into ,and every beat I covered was where I wanted to be.

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