What I Love About America

Sometimes I feel like I grew up in Manhattan. I didn’t – I grew up in suburban Philadelphia and the city of St. Louis – but some of my most formative memories are of clinging to my father’s hand as we walked the streets of New York. He worked at a trade magazine and commuted from our house in the suburbs a few days a week. Once every six months or so, he would take me into work with him. We’d spend a half-day at the office, where his co-workers would indulge me by paying me fantastic sums of money (a $20 bill is massive wealth to a six-year-old) to write “articles for the magazine” on why I loved horses or my latest favorite book. (In retrospect, it’s easy to see where I obtained the delusion that writing could be a profitable career path.)

In the afternoon, we’d go out on the town. We went to the Natural History Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’d walk around Central Park. Inevitably, we’d get a slice of pizza or a hot dog. Dad would fold his slice over and eat the whole thing, grease and all. I’d dab the grease off mine with a paper towel. If it was hot dogs we were after, we’d eat them on the grand steps of the museums I loved.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

We’d walk hand-in-hand and try to guess what languages people were speaking as they passed by. We heard a lot of Spanish, French, and Chinese. Sometimes Japanese, Dutch, German, Ethiopian, or French. I’m sure there were more. I’d marvel at the different clothes people wore. Some of the men had long strands of hair on either side of their faces and wore all black. Some men wore beards and colorful turbans. Some women wore bright, woven fabrics and had red dots in between their eyebrows. Some looked exactly like the models on the mounted billboards in the sky, pale-skinned with bright red lipstick and high cheekbones.

I was a picky eater, so mostly we ate hot dogs and pizza. But there was food everywhere. In food carts, in streetside grocery stores, in restaurants. We were surrounded by the most amazing smells. Turmeric and cumin, roasted meat on kebabs, fried chickpea balls, hoisin and sesame. I didn’t know what these things were, but I fell in love all the same.

The first thing I loved about America was that it was colorful, vibrant, wild, and strange. There was more to see on that tiny little island than I could explore in a lifetime. I lived in a mostly-white suburb, but that wasn’t America. America was New York. America was the world. America was everything.

The second thing I love about America – and I mean the word love in the deep, devoted, unconditional sense – I learned to love later. Although I grew up outdoors, playing sports on our boulevard and in our city parks, hiking in southern Illinois, going on camping trips with my family in the summer, and kayaking through lakes and ponds of the great Midwest, it wasn’t until I first moved to Oregon at 21 years old that I found myself breathless, stopped short by the beauty of the mountains, rivers, and forests.

In Oregon, and later in California, I was surrounded by people who walked through forests and across mountains as easily as I navigated city streets and public transit systems. The first woman I met was nicknamed Pathfinder, who took me riding and hiking through the kind of terrain I had previously believed was extinct in the real world, or was merely imaginative fantasies from novelists and ancient mythology. I had an on-again, off-again relationship with a man who had spent a summer climbing almost every significant peak in the Cascade range. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. “Take me up the mountains,” I begged.

We climbed Mt. Lassen together, but our adventures ended there. Still, I know there are many more to come.

Top of Mount Lassen
Atop Mt. Lassen. It was hard for me to believe that places like this existed outside of National Geographic.

The second thing I fell in love with about America is the land itself. But I had to make a pilgrimage to the West to fall in love with the natural beauty of the land, because where I grew up, it’s unrecognizably different from what it was before European colonizers arrived. What forests exist are almost all new growth. The grand, old forests were logged in centuries past, unprotected by modern regulations intended to conserve and protect the land itself. Many of the lakes are man-made. The rivers are dammed or polluted. The rest is devoted to agriculture, human habitation, or urban spaces. The land the indigenous peoples prized and protected has been pillaged and destroyed. Ironically, the places where I felt closest to nature were in urban parks, like Central Park in New York, or Tower Grove and Forest Park in St. Louis.

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This isn’t from a fantasy novel? Until recently, I wouldn’t have believed I could witness with my own eyes scenes like this one from San Luis Obispo.

These two great loves have defined my relationship with my country in adulthood. One, an urban, man-made vision of diversity, richness, education, and edification. Later in life I would learn how mytholgical that vision is – how America’s perception of diversity is tainted by implicit and explicit racism – but even today I hold to that childlike vision for inspiration as I seek to remake this country in that image. The second, a vision created neither by nor for humans but by geological time, carving canyons, raising mountains, and birthing forests and oceans. A vision where the world we live in is not for us to exploit but to worship.

Twin loves. Parallel visions. One man-made, one nature-made. Both idyllic and innocent but cognizant that America is a country founded on racism, theft, and destruction. Cognizant that to make those visions a reality there is healing, undoing, and remaking, to be done. It’s difficult to say how important these two visions are to my understanding of this country: one where everyone is welcomed, protected, and appreciated regardless of skin color, ethnicity, gender, or nationality, and where human lifestyles complement and preserve the world we live in.

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A photo from Manhattan I took on a trip in 2015

Today, on September 11, 2017, I state publicly what patriotism means to me. I affirm the value of these twin visions of America. I commit to using all my skills to move them toward reality. I pledge allegiance to a nation where civil rights and liberties are guaranteed to all who choose to make their lives here, and until that nation becomes a reality, I pledge to defend the rights of those who are currently unprotected and marginalized. I commit to protecting the land in which we live as sacred and intrinsically valuable. I commit to integrating human lifestyles into a sustainable and nourishing world for all species, flora and fauna, that live and breathe with us.

Though I know today is not that day, it is my sincere hope that one day in the future, everyone in this country will join me in this pledge.