Letter to America by David Oates

Letter to America

By David Oates

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Dear America,

What do I do with this grief I’m still feeling? This grief that returns to me each morning with that pit-of-the-stomach dread, that sudden remembering: Yes, it really happened. This is the after-time. Everything is changed: It can never go back.

I guess this is a condolence letter, America. To me, to you, to all of us. I’d get a card if I could find one big enough, with flowers and some pious nonsectarian words. But it would have to be big, this card, because this is a big feeling. So big I almost can’t handle it. There are tears in the corners of my eyes too often (right now, for instance).

It confuses me because we are supposed to believe only the private life is real: Make money, follow your bliss, be the change you seek. Find love and success. Only that. “Stronger together” sounded nice but it didn’t win. What won is “I made a buncha money and my wife is a model.” The rugged individual. Cowboy if possible, but billionaire (or pseudo-billionaire) screw-you tycoon will do. After all, we’re America.

But I can’t shake that big feeling. I’m strange in my own skin these days, edgy, having a hard time concentrating.

Because there’s another reality, one which we are virtually forbidden to see. It’s the us part of living. The way we are, after all, hardly real except together. Each of us is half mirror, half mystery: what we know of ourselves, we mostly find in struggling and loving and collaborating with each other.

Each of us wants his or her own way. But we are unhappy–lonely, abandoned, miserable–unless we are profoundly woven in with others. The tearfulness and sorrow of our present moment come from a feeling that in this dimension we have received a profound wound. And we’re all bleeding. David James Duncan calls it our civic grief.

There is a certain way to walk when you are grieving. I know it well from other seasons of loss. Neither tears nor forgetfulness can help so it’s simply: Forward.

Grief has a physicality, oddly literal, tangible, felt in the body. It is like walking with a burden under which you dare not move rashly–like those African women wrapped in gorgeous cloth, balancing that astonishing urn on top of their heads. There is a dignity in this gait, a competence. It says: Commit to nothing but necessity.

This I adopt when I must. For a year or two I will make no sudden moves, carrying that cup over-full that will spill, I know it will, if I am not poised, quiet, unoriginal. In time–long time, due time–the body’s calm comes at last to the heart. In time, something else becomes possible. But not yet.

I am walking this way now.

Democracy is mostly a city invention. While farmers and their lordlings held to tradition and subservience to old gods, in towns and walled cities arose this glory, this misery–civic love and grief. In the polis, the place of politics.

To be an Athenian, a Roman, a Florentine, a Bostonian was to know a larger self. Under the colonnades and statues, in the agora, forum, piazza, and eventually the tavern and coffeehouse, citizens knew each other not merely as diners and schemers of self-enrichment, but as fellow creators of a shared fate. Fiery and passionate, yes; right or wrong, yes; but not petty. In this realm virtue was truthspeaking, clarity of voice, and courage. Nothing less.

Here we aim for possibility, a more perfect union. Here in our striving and imagining we know vulnerability, this heartbreak, this civic grief.

Come then let us share it. We need a funeral banquet, tables groaning, all invited to the common fête. Let us drink and make orations: This was America, this was us. Let us miss it so fiercely that we become real again, re-inhabit our skins, our plazas and public places, our words that once rose above us like a phalanx of bright spearpoints. Let us grieve as long as necessary and remember as hard as we can.

And then act.

With sincerest condolences,




David OatesDavid Oates writes about nature and urban life from Portland, Oregon. He is author of five books of nonfiction, including Paradise Wild: Reimagining American Nature. The Heron Place won the 2015 Poetry Award from Swan Scythe Press. He teaches the Wild Writer Seminars as well as graduate classes in the United States and Europe.
Read excerpts from The Heron Place in Terrain.org.

Header photo of U.S. flag on brick wall by Public_Domain_Photography, courtesy Pixabay.


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