We returned to the USA last week when we landed in Hawaii, but somehow still felt we weren’t fully in America yet. Though a large city, Honolulu, with its wonderful ethnic mix and tropical ambiance, is not quite like any other place we’ve been. Islanders enjoy the difference. They are proud to be Americans, they assure you, but they revel in being distinct from “the mainland.” So did we. We also luxuriated in the abundance of drinkable tap water and hot showers—and spoken English!
We’re now on the mainland. After a couple of days of re-entry adjustment in Albuquerque, New Mexico we moved on up to Santa Fe (altitude: 7500 ft) and are comfortably ensconced in our adobe-style home. We feel like natives. Here, too, we can speak and understand the language. We recognize the cuisine, drive on wide paved streets where traffic laws are observed, and have lapsed back into our familiar rituals: cereal for breakfast, popcorn in the evenings, writing and painting.
Joy gave up painting when we left Australia in early January. Carrying the art supplies overloaded her already overstuffed suitcase, so she left them behind. The day after we arrived here she went shopping for their replacements. Her studio is now the kitchen table, a familiar transformation. (Have I ever mentioned that artists are messy?)
We already miss the public transportation we enjoyed in most countries. In America, especially Western America, a car is a necessity. We rented one for our first two days here—shopping for groceries and other necessities demanded it. Today we’ll try the city bus. And Santa Fe boasts of both UBER and its worthy competitor, LYFT, which are successfully competing in a taxi industry grown complacent. When guests come we’ll rent a car; otherwise, we’ll see how well we can get along without one.
I said we feel like natives. That’s both a positive and a negative statement. Some initial observations on returning to the lower 48:
1) When you live in the States it’s easy to forget there’s a bigger world out there. These days Americans are all about America. “Make America Great Again” is not just a political slogan. It is, unfortunately, a cultural obsession. For the most part, we Americans live for ourselves, with little concern about the fate of the rest of the world. We are hugely contradictory. We glory in being the Leader of the Free World. But we don’t want to lead. We just want to prosper. Leading requires attending to the welfare of the led. It means sacrificing for the good of the whole, in this case the rest of the world. Lately we don’t seem to be up to it.
2) We miss world news. This is related to #1. In other countries, television regularly—and in some depth—reported what was going on in other countries, not just the one we happened to be in at the time. On American TV, viewers are barraged with a steady diet of sex scandals and vacuous entertainment and the political scheming of party-liners dedicated more to winning than governing. We’ve just been back a few days and already we are homesick for the bigger worldview we enjoyed out there.
3) We are living through a revolution. We watched the Academy Awards Sunday evening. Jimmy Kimmel remarked that the first ceremony 90 years ago was 15 minutes long. This one ran more than three hours. That was a minor difference, however, compared with the cultural sea change between then and now.
The stage setting was symbolic. Its massive too-muchness, thousands of reflecting crystals bedazzling the eye, struck this viewer as the epitome of opulent kitsch—and an unintended reminder that more is not always better. And the actors? The Academy paraded the greatest display of diversity I can recall in these annual shows, touting the rising empowerment of women, LGTBQs, Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, Indians, Pakistanis (the list goes on) and celebrating the triumph of artistic and moral freedom. As you know, I applaud the mutual acceptance of differences, but I can’t help pondering what this triumph bodes—and where we can find the glue to hold us all together.
4) It’s the revolutionary nature of these changes that has so unnerved the body politic. While Hollywood celebrates and magnifies the changes, Mid-America is mostly frightened by them. Old values seem trampled, old sureties destroyed. So in Washington and elsewhere the pros and cons are doing vicious battle. They agree only in their absolutism, their dividing everything into two camps, “those who are for me and those who are against me.” The fine art of compromise disappears; compromise feels too much like defeat when you’re scared.
5) Against this negativism we must state the positive. Just as we found good people all around the world, we have been impressed by the abundance of them here as well. Honolulu welcomed us; we’re already at home in Santa Fe. While the swamp grows swampier in Washington, ordinary citizens everywhere still live decent lives and cry out for decency in their elected representatives. The rise of unelected teenage leaders in Florida gives us hope; they are challenging the whole nation to come to our senses regarding the weapons of mass destruction that now so frequently mow down innocents, including school children. These kids bear listening to, since before long they’ll be writing the laws. In some ways they make the future look brighter than the present.
So I end on a positive note. It’s good to be back in the good old USA, if only for awhile before we take off again. I like the song, “It’s good to be an American.” I could also sing with equal gusto, “It’s good to be an Australian,” and it’s good to be a Brit and a Dane and a Cambodian and a Brazilian and a Kenyan. You get the idea. Our nomadic life has taught us to feel increasingly at home in this world—in all of this world. We aren’t content just to make America great again. We can boom out “God bless America” with our compatriots, but we also pray God will bless the whole world and not just us, the privileged few. I read somewhere, “God so loved the world that he gave…”
[Joy hasn’t had the opportunity to take many New Mexico pictures yet. Santa Fe, she says, is still too cold and brown. “When spring comes, I’ll be out there recording and sharing.” Below she offers a retrospective of some unforgettable faces she caught being themselves.]
JOY’S PICK OF THE PICKS: faces remembered