Thursday, 26 May 2011

Why I Choose Here: Why I might Choose There

One of the things you never see in England is forever. Here in Bath, it's difficult to see even a quarter of the way to infinity.  I used to live in Fairbanks, a northern town also made a fortress by the quick rise of the surrounding earth. And so when one of my sisters and I landed in Denver, the first thing we showed her son were America's Great Plains.
My Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, and Great Uncle on the Great Plains

We leaned into him as the plane landed pointing out how the eastern horizon didn't change no matter how low to the ground we got.  He told us about the airplanes and trucks that soon surrounded us on the tarmac. When we deboarded, he didn't want to look out the giant windows or to be lifted onto one of our hips. He wanted to say hello to every person we encountered on the long walk to baggage claim.

My nephew was born in the South. The towns of his two-year life are bordered by masses of water and what remains of once impenetrable forests. For now, he doesn't mind how far his eyes can see. When we turned the rental car west, he didn't notice the Rocky Mountains. He wanted to sing the song we'd taught him about five little ducks. When I was small and singing car songs, I thought the Rockies were the beginning of the world and heaven resided just beyond I-70 somewhere towards Kansas. I had never been to Kansas.

When people ask me, I tell them the half-truths of my own family's diaspora. I say that one June 10th, my parents packed my sister and I into a U-haul and 1975 Dodge Dart. For five days we headed, opposite our western bound ancestors, toward America's bible belt. Eighteen months later my sister left first for Paris and then for college. My mother died and the next year, my father packed up and moved north toward Chicago on the same Friday that I left for college. My grandmother followed him north and the two of them headed south before Dad went north then south again. My sister headed west, then east, and finally southeast. And I came to England via Texas, Florida, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska.

My sister said to her son, "This is where Mommy and Auntie Rachael grew up." Except that too is a half truth. I stayed in our bible-belt state for nine years. It is as much a part of me as the Rocky Mountains, as the Alaska range, as Solsbury Hill. But it is also true, that I learned my values, my sense of place, my desire for fairness and silent fishing and clean air in the Colorado foothills. My desire to go, to travel, to live a thousand possible lives grew up in a tiny rental house just west of Denver. It's where I saw my first red fox, touched a snapping turtle, and ate icecream bars sitting on the stoop. Denver is the last place--the only place--that I remember my family being happy. It is also no longer home.

The narrative of my family's parting is the story of a false diaspora, in part because over seventeen years we've come together and separated in various permutations. It's a half truth I tell. I have two more sisters who remained in Colorado, who are raising their children there, who live very near their own mother with whom they share a huge extended family. They rarely go beyond the point where I-70 meets Kansas.

It took me too many years to realize that we are all half-truths. The academic in me names these selves we present to the world personas, but the culture of calling a thing by another name exists in England as much as it does in Indiana or Oregon or Florida. Being our 'Authentic,' 'Best,' 'Unrevealed Millionaire' selves are all personas (sold for a price too high) behind which we hide our perfect humanness.  It is a mistake to think that the English or the Nigerians or the Americans are somehow more authentic than we each are in our own cultures. If I am more honest than I want to be here, I will acknowledge that in my expatriation I thought I'd find a better, more real people.

But the English are only what they are. The stoicism I so admired in them, and they in me, breaks the human body in the same way that the American propensity for back-breaking work for pay far too low breaks the human spirit. They are silent, like the Americans, when their voices should ring out. They, like the Americans, mistake pride for charity. They, like the Americans, still struggle to see past their own visions of history.

I was raised at the foot of the Rocky Mountains where I tried to say the words of the Pledge of Allegiance with more passion than any of my classmates. I prayed the same way, as though my fervor obliged God and America to make my path of gold. I know a handful of people who still believe that patriotism and religion entitle them to a blessed life. I know many, who like me, believed that heaven could be found by following I-70 east. I kept going turning northeast at the Atlantic.

My mother used to make perfectly outlined grocery lists that began at the door of the supermarket and ended in its very last aisle. In the same way, she attempted to teach me to organize my thoughts into pros and cons, into practical and impractical, into truths and fictions. Once when I was very small, we watched a very young woman marry a prince. Maybe, my mother told me, I grow up to be a princess. My sister tells another story. If I were to say that I am like my mother, it would be half of a fiction.

I could write you a laundry list of England's imperfections. Every item on it would make an academic text of cultural identity. When I teach students to write argumentative papers, I tell them that they are absolutely obliged to challenge the underlying assumptions of their theses. I find it difficult to say that, given the choice, I choose to live out my life in Britain because my underlying assumption just might be a rejection of what America is rather than what I had hoped it would be.

The Tuesday before I flew back to the States, I found a benign growth in my right breast. What I felt was annoyance. I'd been to the GP on the Monday for a referral for knee surgery. I really didn't want to spend another morning at the doctor's office. Despite the fact that I knew from experience what I was feeling, I was aware that as a matter of course the thing needed to be poked, smooshed, and ultrasounded to confirm its status as a non-threat to life. My second reaction was sheer relief that this time I wouldn't not doing this in America.

I do not want to live in a system that does not see good, timely healthcare as a human right. I reject a system which prioritizes share prices above human life. I can live without miles of branded laundry detergent. I, single and without children, want to live in a country that sees the need for a parent to be with a child in its first year. I want to support a system which sees the difficulties caring for a loved one presents and which makes that possible. I want to work in a system which requires me to rest and insists on liveable pay. I want the women who surround me to not worry about estrogen in the food chain. And I want cows and sheep roaming in my countryside. I want my neighbors to see the unfairness of the world in which they live rather than labeling their underemployed brethren as failures. I want a country in which one can do poorly in school and still grow up to be successful. I want to live in a land of opportunity, rather than one of fairy dust. I know too that Britain only almost offers my brand of heaven. I know too that Britain doesn't look like it once did.

My sister tells me that when they returned home, my nephew went to look for me in the spare bedroom. He won't remember this visit. He'll see forever after landing in Denver once or twice a year through his childhood, and he'll look at Paddington Bear each morning from his cot. Everyday that I wake up and still choose to make a life here, I will find it difficult to know that he is the choice that I am not making.


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