I Dream of America
I had spent nearly a week without minute-to-minute access to the internet and phone during the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. It was refreshing to be away from the barrage of news from Washington, D.C., where I currently dwell. As I looked at the French Broad river, steps from my tent, one thing was clear to me:
I was completely devoid of any desire to return to the United States Capital. When asked why I was obligated to go back, I replied that “it’s where all my stuff is, and there is someone there I love…” so I was duty-bound to return.
Before the sun rose I packed up my tent, loaded the rental car, and scribbled off a note to someone wonderful I’d met — apologizing for leaving without saying goodbye but declaring that I had to run. I cancelled my flight, re-rented a car and headed further south.
This was my second sojourn South this year. It’s not my favorite place but I found myself enveloped in the hot, humid air and drowsily swept away from the endless noise coming from a big white house down the street from my District apartment. The South felt like the quiet twilight right before sleep, where you’re not sure if you’re awake or dreaming.
But the things I saw there, the souls I met, stayed with me even after I awoke. During my thousand miles I saw big plantation mansions — beautifully restored and fittingly surrounded by the poverty and shame of the era to which their former glory belongs. The South is risen, indeed.
Driving through one town, I saw my name on a headstone. COPELAND screamed at me from the cemetery — kind of like a billboard for eternity. I pulled off, wondering who it was — a family of saints or sinners or somewhere in between? I found my answer in the form of a beautiful, expansive and new church — the church my family name had married into, and helped establish. It was the nicest structure in town, surrounded by decay and heat and dust. Sing the Opulent Gospel.
I saw empty main streets and drove on crumbling roads and across bridges that spanned black and brown water. I passed dilapidated shacks that folks call ‘home,’ and walled neighborhoods, and empty and disintegrating schools. I encountered endless soulless sprawl that led to congested cities of towering cranes and monuments to capital and the empire of illness.
I spoke with a man who sat across from the quiet, small town tracks. “I sure wish” he grieved when asked if the trains still run. The young people with an active storefront, making a go of it, trying to decode a way, a formula, to make their little town Great Again.
I paced up and down the desolate street where my hotel sat — a Main Street held hostage by those who kept their storefronts closed. But not because of waning opportunity — because their owners had low to no rents and had inhabited the buildings forever. The main draw of this place kept shuttered by the old guard, keeping the entire community from taking in new breath. How many jobs could be created if these elite business owners and stacked town councils simply recommitted to work or stepped aside for a New Generation of Americans?
I learned about the car manufacturer, once heralded as a job creator but really just another long con. “They keep their wages low for the workers,” my new friend said. “But all the manager and high class positions are sent overseas.”
“The good kids, the ones we want to stay and make this place something — they always leave,” she said. She’d known a few of those kids and had been an educator in the local school system for decades. In the 1960’s, she said, all the “well-to-do” folks started their own private schools. The public schools were abandoned and willed to those who couldn’t escape, who barely had a chance to begin with. Because to the victor goes the spoils.
I saw eager hope in the eyes of one woman who worked to revitalize her town. Opening art galleries, commissioning murals to welcome those to the city — murals that asked those interlopers to stop and take a walk and maybe buy something.
I spoke to someone newly diagnosed with cancer, and saw the shame and agony of having to start a Go Fund Me account to pay for treatment. It seems as if my Facebook Newsfeed is filled with similar pleas these days. I saw men who couldn’t walk, but threw themselves along anyway. I saw Confederate flags, hanging limp in the suffocating afternoons.
I saw two men, entirely different, trying to rent a car together so they could travel to a job they’d been hired for up north. But they didn’t have a car and couldn’t rent one because Hertz refused to give it to them without a credit card. The fee for using a debit card — many times over the price of actually renting a car — pinned them to where they fell.
I spoke to people about their dashed hopes, listened to tales of withered crops, failed families, and dead dreams. One of my new friendships was cut short because he had to go — for when you’re “offered a free meal, you take it and get there early.”
And, in a little white house, I met a woman who had met a President — a president who had given her father, the nation, the world, just a little bit of hope and the ability to dream just a little longer.
What I didn’t hear, and yet could not escape, were words like ‘Russia’ and names like ‘Jared Kushner.’ These topics, although important, never came up — not once. I’m assuming that it was because it wasn’t of their concern and because they don’t really know or care who the holy fuck Jared Kushner is — why would they know? They may live in small towns, but they no longer even know their neighbors.
After one thousand miles, I drove into a city occupied. Occupied by people who want Americans to believe that this government is not their own. That we’re not one nation, but rather a nation of ‘me’ forced to stand in line with all these other undeserving bastards.
I dream of America — not one made up of two parties, but one people. Not of personal problems, but community challenges. We have been taught to believe that every American is an island — defined by their own choices. If the hurricane comes, they should have taught themselves how to swim.
We are ashamed to admit we need each other and believe that asking for help makes us weak. At the same time, we think offering assistance makes us superior. We berate those who ‘vote against their own best interests’ who ‘deserve what they voted for’ without the realization that these people believe it was in their own best interest. We fail to have the grace to admit that we’ve all been conned.
If we look beyond our feet, we’d see that this island is actually a desert dune — a hill atop which to die. If only we’d meet each other down in the valley by the river.
We pretend that politics is an old orthodoxy, that it’s a set of issues to which we cannot — and must not — find common ground. It’s a set of unmoving principles — made for us to enslave each other. The big con is that we’ve been told this is a nation of me — that this government of us is actually a foreign occupier, impeding on our turf.
I hope to see my friends again but know, like specters from a dream, we likely will never meet again.
But when I dream of America, I can still see their faces.