Gone to Look for America

When I woke up this morning, I immediately recalled that it was 9/11. I still remember that morning nineteen years ago. Michael had already left for school. My daughter was away at college, attending a volleyball retreat for her team in advance of the fall season, at a lodge somewhere in the wilds of Wisconsin. I was scrambling around, trying to get ready for work while attempting to motivate my glacially slow son to get himself together so I could get him to school on time. I was listening to the Today Show in the background as I scurried around, in that time before Matt Lauer was outed as a misogynistic wretch. I set breakfast on the table before my kid and ran off for a quick shower. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the bathroom door. My son hollered out that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I yelled back that it was probably an attack by Osama bin Laden and that he should finish eating. I just knew it wasn’t an accident. When I got dressed and came out my son said he was afraid and wanted to stay home for the day. I told him we couldn’t change our habits because of potential terrorism and drove him off to school. Once at the office, I along with my coworkers sat glued to a small television set, watching the impossible unfold for hours. My daughter and my husband, away from news both called for details. This was one of those moments you never forget, like the Kennedy assassinations, the King assassination, the Malcolm X assassination. The Challenger explosion on live tv.

The first song I heard today was Simon and Garfunkel’s Gone to Look for America. As soon as it began, I started to cry. I wasn’t prepared to be weeping in my car. Maybe it happened partly because of this endless Covid isolation. I’m certainly feeling the effects of these past six months, so many hours alone, with no real end in sight. But it’s also the message of the song and its relevance to me after these 53 years. I was sixteen when that song came out and in today’s parlance, getting woke. I was thinking about civil rights and the Vietnam War. I was trying to understand that you could be a patriot and a critic of your government at the same time. The lyrics of that song spoke to me because I knew that even though I was a little younger than Paul Simon, he was evoking the obvious disconnect between what we were told was America versus what it really was.

A year later, I was off to college and swept into the counterculture movement with a strong political bent. I read a lot and got over any doubts I had about the validity of being a patriotic dissenter. Women’s rights and the environment were added to my ever-burgeoning recognition of everything I thought needed fixing in this country. That place in time wasn’t a temporary state for me, something I outgrew when I left school. To this day, I don’t expect to ever have the government of my country reflect my political preferences. Those are the same as the ardently held views of my youth. But I’ve learned to navigate life without getting exactly what I want and can live with that. Mostly.

Fast forward to 2001. That was a big year for me. Michael had left his business of 27 years to switch careers, acquire a teaching degree and a Master’s in U.S. history to become a high school social studies teacher. Although we’d been living together for 29 years, we’d been married for 25 and took off for an anniversary cruise to the Caribbean in the beginning of May.

At the end of the month, I had my 50th birthday. That was followed by a trip to Washington, D.C., courtesy of my son’s second consecutive appearance in the National Spelling Bee. Our daughter joined us and we had a wonderful time watching our kid come in third while enjoying travel through historic sites in the Virginia/Maryland area. Life was challenging but rich and good.

The summer passed quickly and suddenly, it was that dark, terrifying September morning. As was typical of me during any time of crisis, I read and watched everything. As hard as it was and still is for me, I can’t look away. I don’t like surprises. I wasn’t a fan of the Bush/Cheney administration and it didn’t take long for the “war on terrorism” to begin taking on political tones that raised my ideological hackles. I’m not a hawk by nature and the hawks were certainly leading the charge with what later was exposed as false intelligence and a profound generalized anti-Muslim bent. I was no fan of terrorism but what I saw was going too far. The tragedy of 9/11 was muddied by those subsequent years of endless war and an aimlessness which still drags on nineteen years later.

Eventually the Bush years came to an end and the Obama election burst forth like a rush of fresh air. He brought hope and promise though I knew that the odds of sweeping change would be obstructed by the complexities of our glacial, lumbering legislative process. His presidency would certainly not be like sweeping a magic wand over all the pressing issues facing this country and having the world turn rosy. But there’s no doubt that after eight years of George Bush, life for someone of my ilk became infinitely more livable than it had been for a long time.

In Obamas second term, a lot had changed in my life. I’d retired from my job and become a caregiver for my firstborn grandson. I’d moved my aging mother into my home. Michael had gotten diagnosed with his rare Merkel cell carcinoma. I was incredibly busy. But never too busy to ignore politics. I was frustrated with the Republican Tea Party and their obstructionism. I thought Obama had become too centrist although I understood he was in a tough spot. In 2015, I experienced three significant deaths and thought Michael was ready to go. He made a comeback and our family had the opportunity to focus on what was shaping up to be a wild election in the fall of 2016. There was Hilary Clinton, not my personal choice for a candidate but at least and at last, finally, a woman candidate. The Republican field was huge and pathetic. I read my journal from 2016 recently and despite Michael’s remission being the center of my focus, the Trump candidacy and its absurdity make frequent appearances throughout the narrative. I well recall the night of November 8th, 2016.

We watched the returns as a family. The hours passed and although the popular vote was clearly a Clinton victory, the antiquated electoral college system bestowed the presidency on Trump. From my journal:

November 8th, 2016

“I sit numb. It appears that by morning, there will be President Trump. A racist, misogynistic crude buffoon who has never served a minute in public office. He will be our representative on the international stage. His presidency will unravel the progress of years. Our Supreme Court. My god. What will happen to women and blacks, latinos, muslims and jews? What will happen to the planet?

Our family ached that night and kept on aching. Within a few weeks, Trump was sworn in and Michael’s cancer was manifesting itself in bewildering, confused behavior. One night in late January, 2017, Trump had announced his Muslim ban. I was watching the news when Michael appeared, upset and disturbed. He came and sat beside me and asked what was going on. I told him there were demonstrations at airports about the ban and he innocently asked, “what’s a Muslim ban?” The beginning of his end and the beginning of the death spiral of democracy as I and millions of others knew it. Throughout the next several months, watching my beloved husband fail with my children in despair beside me, we were all unable to stop looking at our phones, watching each unbelievable bit of news flash before us. To this day, I have wondered what Michael’s decline and ultimate demise would have felt like absent Trump’s appalling tenure as president. After he died in May of 2017, Trump still loomed, every day, each one bringing jaw dropping news stories.

There are numerous ways of describing Trump’s presidency. In this year, what I hope will be his last in office,we have the addition of the pandemic which he has mishandled from the beginning of its presence. He has lied and dissembled, essentially making himself responsible for the illness and deaths of thousands of citizens. He admires the behavior of dictators and autocrats. I truly believe he has damaged every institution he has touched during his tenure and that democracy has bowed beneath the weight of his reckless, narcissistic behavior. I’ve thought of how time has made George Bush look so much better to me on a relative scale. It brought to mind a photo we took in D.C. back in 2001.

“The Heritage of the Past is the Seed That Brings Forth the Harvest of the Future.“ Indeed.

If Trump is defeated, I think I won’t live long enough for the repair and recovery of this country, flawed as it may have been before he trampled it with his arrogant disregard for the Constitution. I feel that a huge swath of the population is suffering severe emotional fatigue from his relentless assault on the basic tenets of our society. So here we are. On the nineteenth anniversary of 9/11, considered the worst assault on our nation in history.

Until now. As I listened to Simon and Garfunkel this morning, I realized I felt just as desolate as I did when I was a young girl, trying to find my way through the murk of our wounded culture, trying to make my way to the America of my ideals. So I wept in my car. And then wiped my eyes, gave myself a good shake and vowed to keep railing on, doing whatever I can to make sure this president gets ousted from his job in November. So that the generations coming behind me will not have to spend their lifetimes looking for America.

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