Where the Sun Rises First

Tasha Graff
Nov 23, 2015 · 5 min read
Banner in Portland, Maine

There’s a famous saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” It originated because Maine’s gubernatorial election results predicted the presidential election with 73% accuracy from the 19th century into the early 20th century, or so says Wikipedia. This is no longer the case. On the one hand, I’m grateful. If Governor LePage’s 2010 election had been a bellwether, I’d be in a binder right now with all my female friends. On the other hand, I’m embarrassed. The fact that this regressive, racist and sexist governor won a second term in a state I love and call home is hard to comprehend. While he did earn Maine quite a few shout-outs on the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, he continues to debase the values of our state. From telling the NAACP to “kiss [his] butt” to saying President Obama could “go to hell” to comparing campaign finance reform to “giving your wife your checkbook,” the number of offensive and disparaging public statements he’s made is too long to document here.

Last Monday, LePage issued a statement saying he “adamantly opposed” allowing Syrian refugees into Maine. The next day, I went to a reception at The Telling Room, a Portland-based nonprofit writing center for children aged 6–18, which was one of 12 organizations in the country to win the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award on Tuesday. In addition to numerous programs at their center and in local schools, The Telling Room runs the now award-winning Young Writers and Leaders program, a free, year-long program for refugee students new to Maine hailing from all over the world, designed to help them share their stories, build confidence and open doors for their futures. The award reception was filled with teachers, writers, students and alums of the program. The energy was palpable and moving. Students spoke of The Telling Room being a safe space, a refuge, a home. We watched a live stream from Washington, DC as First Lady Michelle Obama hugged our very own Portlander, 19-year-old student Ibrahim Shkara, as he accepted the award on behalf of The Telling Room. The room hummed with excitement, pride, honor and community. We cheered and cried and celebrated together, not in spite of our differences but because of them, not as citizens or refugees of one country or another but as friends and neighbors, as writers, as Mainers.

LePage does not speak on behalf of Mainers in declaring he will shut our doors to refugees. Maine does not have such doors to shut. We are not a state of man-made doors, walls or locks. We are a state of natural beauty.

We have 230 miles of coastline. We have lakes and rivers and trees and mountains. We watch the sunrise before everyone else in America. We can see the stars at night. We have towns and cities. They may be small, but they are growing, and we have room to grow. While diversity has increased in recent years, Maine’s population is still the whitest and oldest in the nation; it is time to change this. We welcome new neighbors.

Despite the reputation of New Englanders having cold dispositions and casting aspersions at those who are “from away,” despite the impetuous comments of our governor, we Mainers have open arms and open hearts. We are happy to teach and learn, love, share our stories and to listen. In the winter, we will shovel snow together. We will walk on ice. If one of us falls, the other will extend a hand. Sometimes we will fall together. We know how to get up.

LePage is sadly not alone in his quest to overturn the very principles our country was founded upon. He is not alone in succumbing to the fear-mongering tactics of terrorism in closing his mind to the very people who are fleeing terror in the first place. Many governors and presidential candidates are leading the way. But our state motto, in Latin, is Dirigo — I direct — and we Mainers need to reclaim that motto. We need to re-direct our state.

The irony of LePage’s last name and family ancestry aside, Maine cannot allow his provincialism to overshadow the good work going on in our state. For the last year, I’ve had the privilege of volunteering at Portland Adult Education (PAE) in their night school classes for new Mainers learning English. Like the young writers at the Telling Room, the students at PAE are hardworking and kind. They are grateful. They have endured more than I can begin to comprehend. They are from Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Cambodia and many other places. They speak more languages than I do. They inspire me daily. They add depth, beauty, talent and culture to our community in Portland, our state and our country. They are us. We are Mainers.

In the poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus writes:

[…] Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome

[…]

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We have the opportunity in Maine to be mighty and uphold this principle. There is darkness in this world, but we have a shore full of lighthouses. We can be a beacon across troubled waters. There is struggle in our state, but we have the hearts and tenacity to choose unwavering kindness. It is our obligation to do so, not just as Mainers or Americans, but as humans.

On a walk this morning, I signed the banner welcoming refugees taped to the wall of one of my neighbor’s homes. One woman signed the banner saying she was the granddaughter of a refugee. So am I. So could any of us be.

This is the Maine I believe in. This is where the sun should rise.

Teacher. Traveler. Reader. Poet. Aspiring cook.

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