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I lack the words, and my message is muddy, but I will try nevertheless.
This summer I took advantage of a two-week trial of Ancestry.com to discover my heritage, once and for all. I signed up for the most expansive record-keeping option available, full access to birth certificates and death certificates and marriage licenses from Ireland and employment rolls from every city in America dating back several decades. It's a cool site. I recommend it highly, very user-friendly.
I discovered a few things about my family, both on my dad's line and my mom's, some of which I didn't expect. I found that my mom's side settled in San Francisco after my great-great-grandfather ran away from Pennsylvania, desperate to escape life in coal country, to run cable cars in California. (That story courtesy of my great-aunt via my mother, but corroborated in records.)
I found that both sides have deeply German roots, though we've all been Americans pre-World War I (a relief beyond what I can tell you). I even found that records of my German heritage date back as far as 1500, assuming everything I found was accurate. And wow, those German Catholics were, ahem, prolific.
I found that all the Midwestern farmers were in northern states during the Civil War. Another relief. The Pittengers somehow drifted to the right side of history, by chance or by choice? I will never know.
I found French people from Alsace. I found Irish people of such common names that they disappeared into the fog of Irish counties, indistinguishable from the many other Twyfords who left Ireland during the potato famine.
I found a Civil War solider.
I found a REVOLUTIONARY soldier (fighting for Virginia). I could join the DAR. Emily Gilmore, here I come.
I found countless unnamed women, mothers, who had dozens of kids and who sustained their families in ways that probably aren't written down anywhere at all.
One of the most interesting things I noted, though, was that the Dutch side of my dad's line pre-dates America itself. They arrived in Haarlem (two A's) in the 1600s and eventually migrated inward. Pre-USA. THERE WAS NO USA YET.
I can only hope and pray that my ancestors were good people. I am almost certain that they harbored some of the biases and prejudices of their time and even those of our own. I am grateful to them for bonding together so that I could be here with you today, writing on Facebook, day in and day out, trying to scratch out some meaningful words. I'm sure they're looking down on me right now, wondering why I've wasted my childbearing hips by moving away from the farmland they so desperately tried to cobble together and returning to New York to work in the theater, no better than prostitution, they dare say. But I digress.
What I felt upon reading these results was this: for the first time, I understood how I got here. To America, that is. A lot of people I knew growing up had a strong sense of some Euro-cultural identity and I only knew that I was a mutt, from someplace, mostly German, probably Dutch. But now, I KNOW. I don't need to speculate anymore. The gaps that remain will probably never be filled, but an entire world has opened up to me - the world of the past.
And I realized that in the truest sense of the word, more than any other country-based identity, I am an American. Period. No part of me can claim I am anything but, given how far back my family's history in this country goes. For better or for worse, we are HERE and we HAVE BEEN. I confess to finding some odd, possibly misplaced, joy in that.
But I have been deeply troubled this past week.
Because despite this newfound sense of American identify, I find I am no more inclined to defend it as a cultural identity than I was before knowing how long my family has been in this country. I am not inclined at all to say what is American and what is not, and especially not WHO is American and who is not.
What is American?, I ask myself.
What could that possibly even mean?
I tend to think that Americans are those who wish to be.
I think the law would tend to agree. At least the law as it stands right now.
There is a scripture in the New Testament. Jesus is telling his disciples a parable, or a story, about workers in a vineyard. The landlord hires workers to work in the field throughout the course of a single day, and at the end of the day, regardless of when the men started working, he pays them all the exact same wage for their time. The early workers who were there since morning are pissed. And the landowner tells them, basically, "Don't I have the right to do what I want to do with my money? You agreed to this wage, same as them. How is that unfair? Are you just envious that I am generous?" And Jesus concludes by saying that the last will be first, and the first will be last.
So it is with America.
An American can be someone here for 300 years or 5 minutes. And I welcome them. I welcome them not because I own America in some way for having been here for 400 years, but precisely because I do NOT own it. I never have.
I have no claim to this land other than that I was born here. I cannot tell you whether you are or are not an American. I cannot define it. I don't know that it can be defined. All I can tell you is that I'm here.
I'm here, and you are here, and we are America, and that is all that I know.
So I don't take kindly to this un-American business, this "let's take our country back" business. As Jon Stewart so wisely pointed out months ago, "This country isn't yours. You don't own it. It never was. There is no real America."
All I can tell you is that even when I don't agree with you, fellow American, even when I want to scream in your face and tell you how much your ideas suck, I still respect the fact that you share a country with me. I will not deny you that. I have no right.
And sometimes I'm sorry that I can't see eye to eye with you, America. But I've never thought this country derived strength from being some kind of unilateral monolith. We who have maintained this identity consciously will just have to keep going at it until we come to solutions and come to new ones and keep fighting and growing and changing and moving.
So keep on arguing, America, but remember that you are ALL America.
Because we all said so.
I'll let Norah Jones play me out.
"'Twas Halloween and the ghosts were out,
And everywhere they'd go, they shout,
And though I covered my eyes I knew,
They'd go away.
But fear's the only thing I saw,
And three days later 'twas clear to all,
That nothing is as scary as election day.
But the day after is darker,
And darker and darker it goes,
Who knows, maybe the plans will change,
Who knows, maybe he's not deranged.
The news men know what they know, but they,
Know even less than what they say,
And I don't know who I can trust,
For they come what may.
'cause we believed in our candidate,
But even more it's the one we hate,
I needed someone I could shake,
On election day.
But the day after is darker,
And deeper and deeper we go,
Who knows, maybe it's all a dream,
Who knows if I'll wake up and scream.
I love the things that you've given me,
I cherish you my dear country,
But sometimes I don't understand,
The way we play.
I love the things that you've given me,
And most of all that I am free,
To have a song that I can sing,
On election day."
- My Dear Country, Norah Jones, 2007