What is America to Me?
Amid expanding global conflicts, 79.5 million people are now displaced worldwide… UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)
Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia?
Jenny Erpenbeck, "Go Went Gone"
I met an acquaintance as I was walking in New Paltz this morning. Masks on, we stopped to talk, always a pleasure in these more isolated times. I'd heard from a mutual friend that she'd had a rough time, lost a good friend to COVID, and taken a fall some weeks ago, her knees and back slow to heal. Now she was out on the trail again, but her partner was feeling frustrated, she said, because they wouldn't be able to travel anytime soon and get away from what will surely be a harsh winter, especially if the virus spikes. I thought about the word frustration after we said goodbye, about the privilege it implies, and I tried to feel sympathetic, but couldn't. This is a family with money, a beautiful house, a pantry brimming with delectable food, access to the best medical care. How dare they complain, I thought to myself, when so many people are suffering here and all over the world? What is wrong with this country? What is wrong with us?
America. God Bless. When I received an offer of Austrian citizenship recently it suddenly dawned that I could go "home," that "home" was somewhere else, the country of my parents' birth, and childhood, and education. I fantasized the last quadrant of my life—if I am fortunate enough to have a quadrant—with an EU passport, universal health care, daily writing sessions at my favorite Viennese café, and nightly indulgence in the opera. My mother grew up standing room only; I'd treat myself to a loge seat.
I filled out the preliminary Austrian citizenship application. I sent it back and had a return email from the Austrian Consulate in New York. Oddly, I couldn't remember my father's birthday and had to look it up on the internet. I'd blanked. It was not surprising considering the fugue state I was in. What about my daughter? What about my husband? Was I planning to escape to Europe on my own? Never mind that I cannot speak German and have always refused to speak German even during and after I took a (free for me) German class at NYU. English is the lingua franca all over the world, I told myself, extending the fantasy to every detail of an imagined life in Vienna or, with an EU passport, Paris or Madrid.
I called my sensible cousin, Peggy, the creator of the American flag illustrating this blog post. But she was angry with me. I paraphrase and extrapolate: Have you forgotten what they did? Have you forgotten about the right wing surge in the EU right now? Have you forgotten what America meant to our parents? A bit late, nicht? Didn't the Germans offer repatriation to survivors and descendants a long time ago. And so on.
I woke up. And let the application slide.
I don't think I would have even been tempted if I wasn't feeling worried about the election, the crypto-fascist in the White House, and what will happen to all the people I know who have been laid off, and all the undocumented students I've had and what will happen to them, and how the migrant workers in the orchard will survive the winter, and whether or not those near and dear and near and far will survive the winter. COVID crazy. I laugh hysterically when I hear all the suggestions for grounding and breath counting and goodness knows what to manage our grief, our anxiety, our day-to- day coping, the necessity of continuing vigilance to stay safe. Always the words, "stay safe," at the end of every email, every conversation. Bizarre, indeed. But amidst all this bizarreness and uncertainty, I do know this: If artists and writers lose connection to pain as well as joy, we'd might as well quit working.