On the heels of Jim’s post, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the “hope” message of late – guess we all have, not least because President Obama has come to office on the tide of our collective hope that he can bring us all together and make America stand for something in the world again. Which with a wide turn brings me to one of my big projects this year. Yes, me, the immigrant.
I think my brother and I both ended up here in America due to early conditioning at home. It wasn’t just the fact that my dad loved cowboy movies, or my mother’s stories of those lovely US airmen who bought her chocolates on her seventeenth birthday at a time when there were no chocolates to be had in London – it was pretty much one big bomb site at the time (I’ve told that story here before). There was a certain respect for America, a sense that without America, where would we be? America was the place where everyone wanted to know your name, where the cars were that big – and you should see the size of their refrigerators! They might be a bit parochial, and they don’t get our jokes (or we theirs), but those Yanks had pulled us all back from the brink more than once. Go west, kids – it’s a place where hard workers are appreciated. You can be anybody you want to be, in America.
But the truth isn’t always so cut and dried, is it? As soon as you see a bit more of the world, you realize that there’s good and bad everywhere and in everyone, that there’s as much to like in one place as there is in another, and as much to get under your skin too. Yet there was always something magical about America – the myth of America, if you like. Those wide open spaces were as big as the heart of the people, as wide as the eyes of boys who died on the beaches of Normandy, thousands of miles from home, and all for us. There was a certain innocence, a naiveté in America – this adolescent of a country, raring to go. During its darkest hours, it wasn’t as diminished as tired old Europe.
Yet even in the almost twenty years since I came to live in America, it seems to have grown up an awful lot, not always for the better, and I don’t mean since 9-11. Cynicism, selfishness and blind nationalism became bedfellows, and somewhere an insidious greed led to a hunger that could never be adequately fed as we gorged ourselves silly on whatever was our fancy, the cost and out-of-control debt be damned. And the rest of the world – no angels there, mind – saw America tumble from its pedestal.
About three years ago, my brother took the leap and became an American citizen. Actually, he really wanted to vote (gee – I wonder why?). Inspired, I downloaded the forms (lots and lots of paper) and the “Guide to Naturalization” (even more paper), and sat down to apply – I think I even wrote about it here on nakedauthors.com. Some questions seemed downright silly, but there you go – I am sure those same silly questions appear on similar forms in other countries. However, it was when asked if I would bear arms for the USA that I faltered. Quite apart from the fact that no one in their right mind would put a gun in my hand, I just couldn’t do it. I believe the “right to bear arms” has been stretched far beyond the range of possibilities envisioned by the Founding Fathers, and I am fiercely for gun control, and more of it. And, I realized, there was more to my faltering than that. I just couldn’t see myself swearing allegiance in the shadow of a man who I thought was bringing the America I had loved – the America my parents had put on that pedestal – to its knees.
I met Our Jim at the Virginia Festival Of The Book last year, and talked it over with him – I figured a man who carries a gun as part of his job, and who is highly trained to use that weapon, would have an opinion and could offer advice. He agreed – if you can’t swear to bear arms, you shouldn’t do it (even though I could have been like so many others – you know, just check the box and get on with it). It was clear I had to stick to my guns and be content with my “Permanent Resident” status.
But time marches on. On election night, I felt that old America stirring. Not a perfect America, not a spotless America, but that America with a big heart, an America with hope and optimism, where you feel you could be anybody you wanted to be (even if circumstances suggest that you can’t). A gifted US Airways pilot executed a perfect landing on water while the year was still young – oh yes, the old American magic was back, and we all wanted to keep it that way. And I knew that if, by a dictate of this new President - and all that he stands for - someone was silly enough to want short-sighted old me to bear arms for America, I probably would say, “OK, just show me how to use the thing.” And I would trust that they were asking for good reason. On Inauguration Day, watching Barack Obama being sworn into office and the colors and creeds of America gathering in great numbers to witness the event, it was with a heart full to bursting that I knew I could stand up, place my hand on my heart and say: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America ...”
Those endless pages full of questions that have been languishing on my desk? Bring ‘em on!
(... and I guess I’ll have to finally get to grips with the finer points of American sports. Could prove to be a bit of a sticky wicket for me).