Monday, November 10, 2008

Election Night: The View from Abroad

I watched the election returns from a cozy townhouse in North Vancouver, BC. A Canadian couple from our church had invited in all their American friends to share the evening.

Eight years of Bush has been an impossibly hard burden for all Americans. For those of us who've spend these years abroad, some of the heaviest lifting has been answering the constant demands to explain American insanity to the rest of the world; and continuing to hold ourselves out an existence proof for that other, marginalized America that was trying so fiercely to resist the madness. Sometimes, it was all so impossible that all you could do is look sorrowfully at the sad, confused faces of our fellow planetary travelers and shrug:

Yeah, well. That's why I'm here, and not there.

Tuesday night was the first time in five years that I wished with all my heart I was there. I missed something important, not being there to dance in the streets with the rest of you, being too far away to touch you and hold you and simply silently stand arm-in-arm, the way I stood in LM's arms while watching Obama's acceptance speech in Denver. History rolled over us like a wave that night, and holding on to each other was all we could do. Tuesday night, that wave turned into a tsunami, and it took the whole country holding on together just to keep everyone upright and breathing. Who would have thought that 30 long years of dark, sticky, putrifying conservative "you're on your own" bullshit could be washed right out of our souls, leaving them shining and clean, all in one night? But it was. There is no question that from here on out, we're all in this together; and that this fact will become one of the great joys of our time on this earth.

Though I missed being part of the national party, the most important part of my Election Night was watching it transform my kids. I agreed to leave the US mostly because I couldn't bring myself to trust their precious futures to G. W. Bush -- and, even more, to the willful fear and ignorance of the tens of millions of Americans who could follow such a man as their president. My kids are old enough to have vague memories of Clinton (they were seven and ten when he left office); but Bush ruled through their first years of dawning political awareness; and his stupidity soured too many of their interactions with their Canadian peers. As long as America stood for Bush and his policies, my children wanted no part of their American birthright.

And who could blame them? I mean, really?

Over the years, I have, of course, done what I could to change this. I told them the stories of their own ancestors, the ones who died in the Revolution and led Union troops at Vicksburg and had ships shot out from under them in the South Pacific during WWII; the ones who wandered the Ohio and Kentucky frontier as circuit-riding preachers, hid north-bound slaves in their barns, and survived the horrors of Andersonville; and the ones who designed rockets and tested warplanes and inspired the children of black, brown, and white migrant farm workers to reach for college. Through me, they are the living descendants of that America; and it's a flesh-and-blood part of who they are. I brought home movies, and sat them through PBS specials. I took them to museums, battlefields, and historic sites. I found old people for them to talk to.

But if you've parented teenagers, you know just how well that went down. No, thanks, Mom. We get that being American is important to you. But that's not our history, and not our future --we're Canadians now.

The thing of it is: like all the truest stories, you can't just tell patriotism. It's something people have to see for themselves, and feel in their own bones. And on Tuesday night, through the magic of cable and in the shining, quiet, brimming eyes of the gentle Canadians who sat with us, the whole world rose up in one big voice to finally it all home to my kids. By the end of the night, they understood exactly what Mama'd been talking about.

My 18-year-old daughter, born on the Fourth of July in 1990, cast her first vote for Obama. They may or may not pay attention when it's Keith and Rachel time at the house; but Election Night, she and her brother sat in front of the TV, engrossed in the coverage, captivated by what was happening, knowing that that first vote of hers made it all happen. It was the first time she'd felt the entire power of America pulsing in her own hands. This week, I think we're all a little amazed at how that feels. None of us will forget it, not for the rest of our lives. Let's hope it's a long and healthy addiction, for my daughter and for the rest of us, too.

All those people dancing in the streets -- not just in New York, but in India and Kenya and Germany and Australia -- brought home to my kids the full extent of America's global reach and power. No other country on the planet inspires that kind of fear, awe, and jubilation. As I often tell expats who've taken a pass on voting: 130 million of us get to make this choice. All 6.6 billion of us will have to live with the results. To us, it's a few moments in a voting booth. For billions of others who hae no say at all, the outcome of that decision will be a literal matter of life and death. That came home to two kids stretched out on a carpet in BC, too.

And the people in Grant Park -- I remember Obama's words, but any memory of his own face was completely overwritten by the tear-stained faces of the people listening, nodding, lost in their hope. Big, tough Jesse Jackson, his face screwed up in streaming tears. Oprah. And all the other ones -- especially them -- wordlessly proclaiming with their nodding smiles what words could not begin to say.

Pouring yourself into your hopes without reservation, cynicism, or regret; giving yourself heart and soul to an impossible dream and then going out and making it so. That, my darling children, is what it means to be American. This is the thing we bring to the world that nobody else does.

In everything we saw that night, both on the TV screen and in the room around us, my kids finally saw with their own eyes how much America The Great and Good matters to the whole world; and began to understand the sacred obligation they have as Americans to live up to that impossibly high expectation. And that larger context also enabled them to see, really for the first time, why people (including Canadians) are so angry with us when we misuse our power; and how desperately hungry they are for us to wield it wisely and well.

For the first time in a long, long time, Americans did it right. What astonishes me is not only how eager the rest of the planet is to believe; but how eager my children are now to take up that burden.

Yesterday, my son asked me when we're moving home. And I found myself smiling, remembering how much I wanted to be there among you Tuesday night, and told him: Maybe someday soon.