We have spent most of this summer taking a long vacation that the State Department requires all Foreign Service families to take in between tours of duty. The Foreign Affairs Manual states that “the purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” We have been on the road for six weeks, visited 18 states, and seen a lot. This short series is my effort to tell you what I learned during the reorientation.
It’s awfully easy to read the news about America and feel a sense of hopelessness. Hurricanes hit, floods rise, mobs take up torches to preach hatred, and nothing seems to improve. The news is full of noise, and that noise does not often make America look like a wonderful place.
But what I saw in America this summer does not match what I see on the news. I saw a big, beautiful country, full of hardworking and hard-playing people who are making the best of what they have.
I saw people of all ages at the Iowa State Fair, showing off and admiring all manner of cow, pig, sheep, horse, and goat. I saw creativity exhibited in handmade quilts, furniture, dollhouses, and foods. The whole place, miles and miles of it, was an utterly unpretentious celebration of a big community and their hard work. I saw the pride that they take in what they do, and it inspired me to take pride in my own undertakings.
I listened to a four year old girl, the child of dear friends, passionately boast about the beauty of her backyard chickens. She reminded me of how important it is to love fearlessly and without shame.
I saw kids, black, white, and Latino, playing tag on a splash-pad at a park in Wisconsin. They were seeking escape from the heat, and finding a sense of community that we should all aspire to. They gave me hope that community can be built, despite our troubled history and present.
I saw entrepreneurs at work, at a deli in Rhinelander, a donut shop in Grand Rapids, and a daycare in Ames. People with remarkable gifts who are turning their talent into something that benefits their community.
I listened to a brass band on the street in New Orleans, playing tunes of such heart rending foot stomping joy that I thought the dead might jump up out of their graves and start dancing. They kept playing, even as a thunderstorm came rolling in. Celebration is among the most important things that we do.
I saw a crowd of people pack onto a beach and sit on the cold ground in South Haven, MI, to watch the sun setting over Lake Michigan. No music or fireworks. Just the simple rotation of our planet through space, creating an incredible show. A few days earlier the country had paused to look upward as the moon blocked out the sun. A moment of peace, reminding us of how small we really are. I remembered that I am not the center of the universe, and that realization is liberating.
I watched video of citizens knocking over a statue of a Confederate soldier, removing a symbol of a time when African American people were told, directly and indirectly, that they belonged at the edge of our society. I am called to love my neighbor, and sometimes love requires us to rip down idols of the past that prevent unity in the present.
There were moments of fear and pain this summer. We saw Nazis march in Virginia, and hurricanes rush across warming oceans and destroy lives. Yet always, in the wake of human and natural destruction, there followed armies of people responding in love. Nazis are met by those fighting for justice. Storm victims are offered shelter, and help rebuilding. America is full of people who refuse to turn tail when things get hard, but rather run forward, into the mess, hoping to help. I want to be like them, because it is right, and because we’ve got a heck of a lot of work to do.
The news may be full of noise, but it doesn’t reflect the America I saw this summer. I’m glad I took the time to look.