Here you are in all your splendor. We, the peripatetic children of this land, meet you once again after a long absence that brings both the clarity of a fresh look and the bewilderment of being out-of-sync.
So here are some thoughts on the first weeks back.
Friendliness. This is one good rep that America has in the world, and deserves. I noticed it as soon as we boarded the United flight in Amsterdam. Our stewardess served our meals with such cheer, greeted us with such warmth. The Atlanta airport, even in immigration, exuded can-do hearty welcome. Strangers smiled at us. And I noticed that most of this good will came from African-Americans (we landed in the South), which is remarkable given the state of tension and injustice we are reading about.
Rural life. We are based this year in rural West Virginia, and an extension of the point above is the friendliness of the Baptist itinerant pastor down the road recalling stories from MY childhood in his sermon as we were spotted in the pew, and insisting we stay for the potluck lunch, held in tension with the natural suspicion of mountain folk. Sago is for me a soul-anchor of the familiar, the birthplace of my ancestors, the site of many of the best memories of my childhood. It is also a foreign land, and I know more about rural Bundibugyo than rural West Virginia at this point, but I’m learning. We have had our neighbors for lunch, and had long conversations with the mail-carrier, the UPS man, the Southern-states gas tank trucker, the guys who maintain the electric right-of-way, the water co-op . . it's small-town and wonderful.
Recycling. Recycling is big. The rules are obscure and local. In our new home we can separate plastic, cardboard, paper, cans, and garbage. But there’s no place for glass. Who knew something like trash could come with such a heavy set of expectations? If you want to be helpful in someone’s home, you have to ask for directions.
Sweet Potatoes. Sweet potatoes are IN. And personally I think sweet potato fries are a triumph of the 21rst century. I could live on them.
Ice. I don’t think I’ve seen a fridge yet, besides our own, that doesn’t dispense ice right from the door. In the short forays into the heat between air-conditioned car and air-conditioned building, we survive on ice. Everyone has huge cups with straws. There is a mass fear of dehydration; a drink must be always within arm’s reach, and tap water is suspect. Vitamins, flavors, fizz, packaging all make the water special. And it’s gluten-free. I am not making this up, water is labeled as such.
The doggy aisle. Throwing this one in for fun . .We stopped in REI and were perplexed by this display. Then realized it is rain coats and winter boots. For DOGS.
The Moral Majority. To me this conjured images of self-righteous politically-conservative so-called Christians, desperately laying claim to their birthright of dominating the culture. For some good causes like speaking for the unborn, but mostly not really Jesus’ agenda of justice and mercy so much as protecting privilege. A democracy only stays Christian in value if the majority of people agree, and in America the mainstream has flowed on. We landed in the midst of major shifts in marriage legality for same-sex partners, controversy over the use of fetal tissue obtained from Planned Parenthood, and shocked horror over the killing of Cecil the lion. The media buzzed with opinions. We just listened. Not so much to who is right and who is wrong, but to the Moral-Majority tone of the discourse. Ever since the Puritans pushed out the American Indians, our tone of voice hasn’t changed. Scathing shame heaped on those who step out of line, which most recently would be a dentist who paid for a hunting permit, or anything the majority finds deviant or unacceptable. Yesterday’s Salem Witch trials are today’s Twitter explosions.
Exhaustion. This is a tired country. If you come at life with the same passion for right and wrong as our heritage embraced, but with no agreed upon text to draw the lines, life becomes a very tiring process of figuring out what to be incensed about. When everything is up for grabs, when there are no givens, it takes a lot of energy to organize a life. Perhaps the college/20’s crowd feels this most acutely, leaving whatever rules their home or high school enforced and (except for Caleb) entering institutions that pride themselves upon anything-goes, then finding out the hard way it doesn’t.
Violence. The friendliest nation, and the most armed one. What an American paradox. We have actually seen people carrying guns in the grocery store. Yesterday a disgruntled employee shot a reporter and cameraman from his former station, on the air, not far from us. Increasingly, the friction of human life sparks into fatality. We have lived overseas with rebels, war, terrorism, but those countries have clear lines between the illegal gun-toting bad guys and the rest of the citizens. In America, anyone can be armed and dangerous.
Generosity. We are here, after all, to thank our supporters, who do not fall into that strident shame-flinging social media frenzy, nor the gun-toting vigilantes. American individuals give, and give, to people they have never met. They are willing to sacrifice, and we are thankful.
Roads. Enough said. The roads are awesome.
Safety. Yes, America is still safety-obsessed and risk-averse, and the culture of blame and liability drives a lot of our behavior. Some warnings are helpful. Some are laughable. Don’t drop this toaster on your toe. Don’t try to eat this packaging. On the other hand, Julia's defunct phone slipped in under warranty so we got a free new one at the Apple store. Yeah.
Absurdity. To end on a lighter note, this is my favorite so far. The microwavable potato. As if all potatoes are not microwavable, now you can buy them individually wrapped in plastic.