Statue of Liberty at sunset

Letter to America, 2020

By Alison Hawthorne Deming

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Dear America,

A week or so ago I met via Zoom with a group of students in Texas to talk about this anthology and what was then the upcoming election. “What’s the difference between the candidates?” one student asked in that world-weary tone so common these days of a person who has little faith in our institutions. I thought for a moment of listing policies and ideologies, lies versus truth, science versus propaganda, but I knew that would sound like more drubbing of polarizing memes. So I said that in the simplest sense the election was a choice between kindness and cruelty. This administration has gone beyond cruel to being sadistic, insensitive to pain and suffering, actively pursuing policies that enhance pain and suffering in the form of disease, death, exclusion, injustice, poverty, and planetary peril. In my moments of lowest expectation, I thought, well, it would be good enough—considering the obstacles that will be thrown before a new administration—if we get a mask mandate and reenter the Paris Climate Accord. Naturally, I hoped for much more.

So, thank you, America, for turning us toward a kinder direction. We’ve earned a moment of joy and gratitude, joy spilling out into the streets as it does when tyrants fall. Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. filled with music and revelers within earshot of the White House. The Mayor of Paris, that City of Love, sent congratulations, saying “Welcome back, America.” Pots and pans banged in Brooklyn. And I swear on my morning desert walk I felt the planet take a sigh of relief.

Human beings have an unspeakable capacity for cruelty, but it is wrong and morally ugly to give cruelty free rein and invite it to exert sadistic power over people—equally true for the family and the state. We’re troubled by how many of us voted to continue the Trump regime. It will take time to understand that choice in the electorate. Trump will characteristically fail to honor the democratic process in transition, but he will very soon be as irrelevant as a scrappy parking lot wedged between a crematorium and sex shop. The citizens who voted for him will be with us, and we will have to engage in new conversations. Losing hurts, but the truth is that cruelty lost in this election, and we are now committed to becoming a kinder nation.

A lot of us have been weeping, privately and publicly. A lot of us have been surprised by our weeping. Tears of joy and gratitude, yes, tears releasing so much pain repressed over the past four years, and the generational pain of our violent history. The suffering of immigrants and people of color becomes less abstract when we see one another’s tears fall unabashedly. TV anchors, those staid purveyors of public persona weeping—Van Jones weeping to see the electorate’s acknowledgment that “character matters,” “being a good person matters.” Don Lemon weeping at how many times he’d been called “fag” or “nigger” during these past four years when our citizenry has been given a license for hatred.  But it was the POC-on-the-street interviews that really got me. “The lives of immigrants are no longer expendable,” one said. And another—an immigrant from India, if I recall, said “as if our presence is validated.” I found myself weeping, and whispering, let me weep by your side.  

Human beings have a profound need for a sense of belonging. We find it in family—not without argument and vexation and suffering—we find it in our home places, and we find it in a nation. A nation is, first, the land and, second, an idea of belonging. During the regime of cruelty, many of us felt we no longer belonged here—we felt orphaned by a nation veered away from its promise that we all belonged here together and that used violence to make literal orphans of those who sought refuge here.

So however rough the road ahead may be, I want to express my gratitude to you, America, for coming out to vote, and especially all the first-time voters, youth voters, African-American, Latinx, Native American, and all the rainbow of our people voters, who had the courage to step up during this pandemic while among them so many have suffered. Gratitude also for those white people—my people—who voted for Biden and Harris, though it saddens me to say that 57% of white people voted for Trump. I cannot claim to know why, but I will throw fear and propaganda down as my hypothesis. So white people, we have work to do. White youth, please help us get our people on the train heading toward a better future, an America the Beautiful that honors our magnificent natural heritage and the moral beauty of the ideas that we aspire to. Democracy is never realized but always strived for. And as for my “kin” in the 57%, please come talk to me (but, please, again, no guns or camo) and let’s try to decontaminate ourselves from the poison of distrust and obstructionism.

Gratitude also (because I am a partisan of the animal world) to the horses that carried some Navajo voters to the polls in the Navajo Nation and Latinx voters to the polls in Nevada. Let these horses stand in for all we love in the more-than-human world and our pledge to protect and honor the full evolutionary potential of our fellow creatures and of our generous, wounded, and resilient mother, the planet Earth.

So we’re posting pictures of Lady Liberty again as she lifts her lamp over New York Harbor. It’s a good time for us to remember that she came as a gift from France in celebration of America’s emancipation of enslaved Africans. We were late to that party, too, but we got there. And the world was watching, as they are watching now and celebrating that a democratic voting process has unseated an aspiring tyrant. It wasn’t until Emma Lazarus’s poem for Lady Liberty that the statue came to signify a welcome to immigrants (“the hungry, tempest tossed”) who sought a harbor among us. Maybe all democracy means is that we will try to care for one another. And that means, as Rev. Sharpton cautions, “we stop being so purist and judgmental.” America like nature is in a constant process of reinvention. This isn’t a video game or reality TV, this is real life or death, our struggle to live together with our differences. I will always take the side of this hope for justice and a beautiful America that takes care of its own and others, a smart nation in which we embrace the truth that we are all woven together in our suffering and compassion, that we hold each other accountable for our mistakes and cruelty, and, yes, for breaking our laws, and that we try in earnest to care where care is lacking.

So let’s raise our voices again as we try to reassemble into coherence the crazy quilt that is our nation. Unlike a log cabin or starburst quilt that has a predetermined pattern for the finished product, a crazy quilt is like nature. It takes the materials of what is given (for the quilt, that means scraps saved, inherited, foraged) and proceeds. The quilter is not quite certain how it’s going to turn out, but trusts that inherent in our nature there is an imperative to create order and beauty. With focus and labor, imagination and collaboration, the pieces come together just as if we knew what we were doing all along.

Yours truly,

Alison Hawthorne Deming

 

 

Alison Hawthorne DemingAlison Hawthorne Deming’s most recent books include Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit and the poetry collection Stairway to Heaven. Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and Walt Whitman Award, she is Regents Professor at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada. Her new nonfiction book A Woven World will be published by Counterpoint Press in August 2021.
 
Read additional work by Alison Hawthorne Deming appearing in Terrain.org: Letter to America poem: “Territory Drive,” our original “Letter to America,” “Spill Stories: Drag Racing to the End of the World,”The Cheetah Run,” “Ruin and Renewal,” three poems, plus an interview with Alison: “A More Encompassing View of Human Flourishing.”

Header photo by lunamarina, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Alison Hawthorne Deming by Cybele Knowles.

 

 

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.