A Love Letter from a Realist


You know, it has always seemed to me (but what do I know?) that the best love is the mature love of a realist who is, yet, able to hold in her heart, at the same time, both the flaws and quirks of her beloved and that vision she once had of her beloved as perfect, heroic, full of every possibility, and capable of greatness. That’s how I’d like to be loved. That’s how I’ve loved when I’ve been at my best. And that’s how I love America.

I grew up on a steady diet of stories about America that, while they may have been true, were less than factual. I grew up really believing that America is the land of the free, the home of the brave, the meaning behind the inscription on the Statue (Mother of Exiles) of Liberty, a bendy spot on the arc of the moral universe. And even when some of her flaws became so obvious that I could no longer pretend, I saw them as blips, things that She’d surely correct in time, areas where I could put my shoulder to the wheel and help America’s true nature to shine through. Well, I was young.

Now, I’m old, and it seems to me, some days, that there isn’t a single area where my beloved America hasn’t disappointed me. We’ve stolen Native American land, despoiled the countryside, and deliberately killed Native American children with smallpox-infested blankets. And we still seem determined to treat Native Americans as badly as possible. From the beginning, we enslaved people, chained, whipped, and raped them, divided families, and fought, almost to the death, for our right to do so. And long, long, long after slavery was outlawed, America’s treatment of all people of color is still shameful, disgusting, evil. We treated women as property and, to this day, we still fight desperately to deny them even the “inalienable” right to control their own bodies. America sided with the bosses over labor. America sides with the capitalists over native peoples everywhere from Central America, to Hawaii, to Iraq. America uses up a hugely disproportionate share of the world’s resources, sans shame. America needs to grow the fuck up about sex. America has never punished a president for breaking the law. America spends more on its military than almost all the other countries on Earth put together. America is common, cheap, and too easily satisfied, spending her days and hours at horrible, tawdry, consumerist malls, in front of “reality” tv, consuming food that intelligent animals won’t eat, and sneering at culture, poetry, compassion, civic responsibility, and art.

And yet, what I want to say is that I grew up on stories of America. I know America. America is a friend of mine. And you, modern America, are no America. And I won’t give up on you, even when you’ve given up on yourself. I owe that much not to you, but to that earnest young girl who loved you.

I’m going to go, I’m fairly sure, to my grave, believing in the idea of America. I’m going to go believing the beautiful, true but not factual, stories that they told me when I was a serious young girl studying history to find out who I was and who I could be. (Pocahontas, Margaret Brent, Barbara Frietchie, Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, the Iron Jawed Angels, Mother Jones, Delores Huerta, Dorothy Day, Frances Perkins, Miss Parks, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, Robin Morgan, Zuzanna Budaphest, Starhawk, Hillary Clinton, echidne of the snakes, Elizabeth Warren. Represent.) I’m going to go, holding in my heart at the same time, both how bitterly disappointed I am in America and how desperately, beautifully, perfectly heroic She could be, can be, will be, is.

It’s traditional — and I think it’s a very good tradition — to read the Declaration of Independence today. I can’t read it (and in this I am my father’s daughter because he was a weeper, as well), I can’t read the Declaration of Independence without tearing up. But hell, I’ve never managed to go into, or out of, or past the Supreme Court — with the words “Equal Justice Under Law” (I’ll take those four words even above my favorite two words, “Know Thyself,” although it’s close)) chiseled above the door — without weeping. In front of clients, opposing counsel, amused policemen who’ve had to escort me down those blindingly-white marble steps when my tears made me unable to balance. It’s embarrassing. Well, get over yourself, America. I cry at dog food commercials and the lyrics to pop songs.

But I’m not going to reprint the Declaration of Independence today. I’m going to share a poem by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet about the hugely flawed human being who had to, all alone, sit down, pick up a pen, and write the Declaration of Independence. (If he could do that, flawed and evil as he was, then surely I . . . .) In the end, after all of those girlhood days spent reading biographies of Clara Barton, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Dorothea Dix, I spend my own days alone, in a room, picking up a virtual pen and trying to move the bramble bush of America’s law in the right direction. And sometimes, when I think that it just can’t be done, I think of flawed old TJ, who bore children on a slave and didn’t do right by them. I think of him sitting alone, in a room, alone with the law, with a candle, with some parchment, and some ink. And I believe that, to love America, flawed and tawdry as she is, is better than never to have loved at all. And I believe that I don’t owe her any less, illegitimate mistress that I may be, than did flawed TJ.

Come through for me, America. Wake up and remember yourself. Be who you were meant to be. I have a lot riding on you. My G/Son is here and, for him, America, I too am willing to pledge my life, my fortune, and my sacred Honor. They’re not much, but they’re all that I’ve got. Come on, America, wake up; do the same.

Thomas Jefferson
What do you say
Under the gravestone
Hidden away?

“I was a giver,
I was a molder,
I was a builder
With a strong shoulder.”

Six feet and over,
Large boned and ruddy,
The eyes grey-hazel
But bright with study.

The big hands clever
With pen and fiddle
And ready, ever,
For any riddle.

From buying empires
To planting ‘taters,
From Declarations
To trick dumb-waiters.

“I liked the people,
The sweat and crowd of them,
Trusted them always
And spoke aloud of them.

“I liked learning
And wished to share it
Abroad like pollen
For all who merit.

“I liked fine houses
With Greek pilasters,
And built them surely,
My touch a master’s.

“I liked queer gadgets
And secret shelves,
And helping nations
To rule themselves.

“Jealous of others?
Not always candid?
But huge of vision
And open-handed.

“A wild-goose chaser?
Now and again,
Build Monticello,
You little men!

“Design my plow, sirs,
They use it still,
Or found my college
At Charlottesville.

“And still go questing
New things and thinkers,
And keep as busy
As twenty thinkers.”

“While always guarding
The people’s freedom —
You need more hands, sir?
I didn’t need ’em.

“They call you rascal?
They called me worse.
You’d do grand things, sir,
But lack the purse?

“I got no riches.
I died a debtor.
I died free-hearted
And that was better.

“For life was freakish
But live was fervent,
And I was always
Life’s willing servant.

“Life, life’s too weighty?
To long a haul, sir?
I lived past eighty.
I liked it all, sir.”

You know, they could carve that on my gravestone and I’d be happy: “Life was freakish, but life was fervent, and I was always life’s willing servant.”

What I love about this poem is how it shows that, flawed as he was, Jefferson was still able to do good things. I abhor his ownership of other human beings, including a woman he may well have loved. And I stand inspired and in awe by what he was able to do for the law.

And ain’t that America?

They were all flawed, every one of them, every one of the people we look to and call to as American heroes. They all doubted, they were all petty, they all failed, as Rumi warned, over and over. And, yet, they all put their shoulder to the wheel and did what they could do. And I love that. I love the flawed beloved still showing sparks of hir promise, all these years later.

And, so, while, in many ways, as Langston Hughes said, America never was America to me, I can say what Ginsberg said:

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. . . . America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

I shan’t be gone long; you come, too.

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3 responses to “A Love Letter from a Realist

  1. Thank you, Hecate.
    Have you been to Independence Hall in Philadelphia? Where it all happened — both in 1776 and in 1787? I have to take extra hankies when I visit.

  2. Tante Fledermaus

    With all Her faults, I love Her still.

  3. Beautiful post and sums up quite genuinely my own feelings on the day and the nation. And I can’t hear the national anthem without ‘having something in my eye’.

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