Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Letters Home

This letter is from a friend of Brenda's. Pat Puia, her friend, is a Principal/Teacher overseas. She has been in several locations and is currently a principal in Kiev. She sent this email after her yearly visit to the states this summer. Enjoy!!

It’s an election year in America, which means that my Facebook page is filled with commentary, photos, quotes and media links – all indicating a general malaise. It doesn’t matter whether my friends are on the far left or the far right. Everyone is worried that America is headed in the wrong direction. So it probably was a funny summer to spend my holiday in the three cities that are at the heart of American history – New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. I didn’t go out of any great sense of patriotism, or any search for my American roots. But I rediscovered a bit of both of those anyway. I don’t doubt that American has problems and that what’s happening there is often disheartening, or even scary. But it’s also true that the qualities for which America is known – its vitality, its diversity, and its sincere reverence – are also still there – or so it seemed to me during this blisteringly hot summer that I spent on its eastern shore.

First and foremost, I was struck again and again by the pure energy of America. It’s true that we’re short on history. We can’t point to the grandeur of European castles or the exotic pull of Asian temples. We make up for that with an incredible burst of vitality. Surely, New York is the epitome of America’s driving rhythm. My friend Gary and I had lots of opportunity to be part of that – from the bustling crowds on Times Square to the busy pizzerias of Brooklyn, from the sounds of traffic pushing up to the top of the Empire State Building to the crowded beach at Coney Island.

The New York skyline as seen from Brooklyn; the “tall masts of Manhattan” is from a Walt Whitman poem

It isn’t just the sheer number of people in New York or other American cities; it’s the sense that everyone has someplace important to go. But it’s also about something else, something even less tangible. It’s about a decidedly quirky sense of humor, and a kind of openness. I’ve felt it in many places in the US, and decidedly so in New York, especially since 9-11. It’s, “Hey you look lost. Can I help?” It’s, “Isn’t this the greatest city? Have you been to Staten Island/Central Park/The Lion King yet?” It even showed up while we waited on line for half price tickets on Times Square. Hawkers stand along the rope line passing it out flyers for dozens of shows, but when we’d say, “No, thanks, we’re seeing…..tonight,” they’d tell us that they’d seen it and it was great, or their friends had seen it and loved it, or that it was a great choice. Forget about hawking their own shows. They just wanted to talk about the theatre, and it didn’t matter that we were strangers and tourists. That kind of casual but passionate connection doesn’t often happen on the streets of Paris, and never on the streets of Beijing. It’s a uniquely American thing.

I was also struck over and over again by the diversity of all three American cities – and diversity in just about every way imaginable. Certainly, it’s about human diversity. Every race and creed is represented – among cab drivers alone. I was delighted to see the emblematic rainbow flags on street signs in Philly, designating an area affectionately called the “Gay-borhood.” Gays, lesbians and transgenders seemed to be out – truly “out” – on the streets and in the subways. I can tell you that in nine years in Asia and three in Kyiv, I never stood on a subway listening to two drag queens plan their day off. Only in America. We walked along one street in Philly that seemed to be its own United Nations, with restaurants offering Korean, Italian, Japanese, German, and Mexican food. We lost track of the number of languages we heard spoken everywhere – tourists and natives alike.

It’s artistic diversity as well. I’ve got a ton of pictures from all three cities of contrasts of great architecture – 200 year old churches squeezed between modern high rises, classical Roman columns sharing space with hot dog stands. It’s art from every country and time period – a Rodin museum in Philadelphia, the incomparable Guggenheim in New York, the many branches of the Smithsonian in Washington. It’s not all American art, but it is a celebration of the art that’s worth seeing.

And the range of American art and artists consistently blew us away. We saw two remarkable American plays in New York. Clybourne Park is meant to be a modern-day companion piece to the classic American play, A Raisin in the Sun. Smartly written and impeccably performed, it is a story about the struggle to accept diversity – first in an all-white neighborhood about to receive its first black family in the 1950s, and then 50 years later, when that same house is up for sale to a white family about to “reclaim” an all-black neighborhood. We also saw a terrific production of Porgy and Bess, a brilliant jazz score from one of America’s great composers, George Gershwin, as reimagined and remounted by a stellar cast. It’s themes of disenfranchisement and poverty are as true now as they were in the 1930s, and its music as potent and engaging. (The third show we saw was a British import – hilarious and engaging to its American audience.)

In Philadelphia, we happened upon some truly breath-taking murals. A little bit of on-line research (what DID we do before Google?!) told us that 20 years ago, Philadelphia started the mural program to combat the profusion of graffiti all over the city. Today, the city proudly displays more than 3000 murals, covering the walls of homes and businesses, covering spaces in parking lots and civic buildings. Themes ranged from Gay Pride to the Theatre of Life, from African American history to household pets. In the one-mile self-tour that we took, we saw only 20 or so examples of this remarkable project, each one a grand artistic statement told in a city that has embraced both artistic and human diversity with pride.

One of the many remarkable murals in Philadelphia – a stunning way to revitalize the look of the city

And in Washington, I was moved to tears by the Holocaust Museum, a profoundly moving journey through the ugliest period in modern history that ends – poignantly and optimistically – with the list of those who helped, sheltered and supported Jews throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Conversely, we also enjoyed the tail end of the Theatre Fringe Festival by seeing a one-man show about a man so enamored with Kate Winslett that he feels compelled to re-enact Titanic, playing every role himself (including the iceberg). We followed that up with a touring company of Second City, the improv group that spawned Stephen Colbert, John Belushi and many others.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, I was struck again and again by a kind of reverence for America. Please know that when people say stuff like that, I generally get really nervous. If I were to give you my list of “What’s Wrong with America,” I would put “flag-waving” pretty near the top. Since 9-11 especially, there has been a kind of “America first” mentality that I find both frightening and depressing. As a result, I tend to downplay my citizenship, both at home and abroad. So I was doubly moved that I found a different tone on my travels this summer – not the hysterical patriotism based on America’s greatness and power, but more a respect for our unique and often troubled history.

In New York, we visited the 9-11 Memorial. At the place where the towers fell, two squares of waterfalls now sit, surrounded by the engraved names of all of those who lost their lives on that terrible day. Despite a crush of people waiting to get in, there was a hush in this space, a kind of peaceful quiet as people wandered through the space. And even in this space that commemorates what we lost, we are still building. The new twin towers are nearing completion, and will be – once again – the tallest building in the New York skyline. The symbolism of that gesture may speak of arrogance to you. Having been there, it speaks more of optimism to me.

The 9-11 Memorial in New York, a sobering tribute to those who lost their lives that day

Philadelphia, of course, is the home of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence was written here, and the Constitution. They’re remarkable documents; I sometimes forget that. It amazes me that it was the first time in history that someone used the phrase “inalienable rights:” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (I want you to know that I did that from memory, something else that surprises me.)

Those stirring words, that call to arms, were followed by the Constitution, which attempted (and still attempts!) to codify exactly how we can meet those lofty goals. It is at the heart of American democracy (and America’s tumultuous past) that the country stands so firmly for the right of all of its citizens to be free. There’s no question that we haven’t quite figured it all out yet, but the visit to Philadelphia was a reminder that what we started 250 years ago is still important and still worth the fight.

And then there’s Washington, DC, of course. As we always do, Gary and I started our trip to Washington with a double-decker bus ride to get ourselves acclimated. We passed (and stopped to visit) virtually every iconic image of America – the White House, the Capitol Building, Lincoln’s Memorial, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, John F. Kennedy’s tomb at Arlington. Because the recorded commentary on the buses was designed for tourists from all over, we got a sometimes painstaking review of how Congress works (if it ever does…), the three branches of government, and the importance of figures from Lincoln to FDR to Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, it was another example of this wild experiment that we call America.

There was reverence of another kind, too. We arrived in Washington the day after the shooting in Colorado. We quickly tired of the hype from CNN and the networks, but I found myself surprisingly moved by the sight of flags flying at half-mast all around the city. It’s such a small thing, really, but important to me that in the nation’s capital, we found a way to honor citizens who will never have their own memorials built in marble or find their way into America’s history books.

Flags flew at half-mast at the Washington Memorial in honor of the shooting victims in Colorado.

And so I must admit that after this whirlwind two weeks, I found myself feeling better about America than I have in a while. I haven’t turned into a flag waver, exactly. And I haven’t turned a blind eye to the incredible problems that the country faces on every front. I’m still scared about the elections and about how hard it is to get any forward momentum from government officials elected by us but owned by corporations.

But two weeks in three great American cities reminded me that we have a compelling story to tell about our young nation. It’s a story about ideals and valor, about welcoming newcomers to our shores, and honoring what they add to our lives. It’s about art and theatre, laughter and compassion. As we head into November elections, it seems important to remember that stuff, too. I am not sure that we are “the greatest nation in the world.” But I am sure that we have greatness in us. And I have three amazing cities to thank for that reminder.

Lady Liberty welcomes visitors to America’s shores.


hannah said...

It's good to see you back. I tried to call over the weekend, but the phone was always busy. Must have been getting fixed.

puddle said...

Ya, dialup's like that, lol! Thanks for trying. Combo, modems, bad phone lines, and uncompatiblity of 64 bit with other stuff (I think).