A few days ago, I was sitting on the steps outside our apartment, and I heard a bird I’d never heard before. It had a restless call, full of fluster. And, just as I realized what it was, I spotted it’s huge dappled wings wafting down through the pine tree.
It was an owl.
The big bird echoed the kind of restlessness I’ve been feeling. Me, just hanging out, waiting to leave Switzerland, thinking about stuff.
We are finally coming home in late September, so that may be a part of it. Now that I know our time is up, I’m a bit antsy.
The word repatriation is used to describe the process of returning to one’s native country. From what I understand it isn’t easy. A lot has changed while I’ve been away, so things will look and feel a little off, like having only one contact lens in.
My friends have moved on to places I don’t know about. My dog prefers my daughter.
Essentially, I am a different person, and no one will really understand the ways my time abroad has shaped me.
And I will mourn the loss of my host country, having learned to love a lot of things about it. I will grieve for the memories, the good times, the spectacular sights.
And home will never truly be home again. And in a sense, I will always have one foot placed across the ocean.
I’ve read that people who live abroad never feel fully integrated again. It’s almost like once you’ve done it, you attain international citizenship. Your passport is stamped child of the world.
I’ve been watching the U.S. news – the violence, the gay marriage vote, the health care law – with a gimlet eye. But I’ve been holding back on the celebrating. I’m sort of suspending my criticism. I’m muting my pride. Because it isn’t completely mine to celebrate. It comes from a land that was once unabashedly mine, but doesn’t feel so anymore.
Because the world feels so much bigger to me now, and the news from home is just that – news – but from some foreign place.
Yes, I’m ecstatic for my gay friends who can now get married – but do you know how many countries throughout the world have been allowed that freedom for decades?
I’ve always felt like an outsider when it comes to American politics. My country has never felt ’tis of me. I’m sure I’m not the only one. But in so many ways I grew up isolated from my country’s sins.
Here’s a memory, a snapshot from 4th of July, 1973, a typically American one: I am ten, running through the yard with sparklers crackling and sputtering in the dusk. And feeling happy, and safe and loved. And never knowing anything different.
I’m wearing a silver bracelet on my pale wrist that bears the name of a P.O.W. and just feeling cool because of that. But not knowing anything about the Vietnam War, really.
And when I look back now, of course, I never made the connection between me lying on a blanket looking up at the sky, waiting for fireworks, sucking a popsicle, feeling free and alive – and a war fought all the way across the world. What did it have to do with me?
I still don’t know, really. And I am ashamed.
A few months ago, we went to see the movie American Sniper. It was showing at the foreign film cinema, and presented with Swiss-German and French subtitles. I know I’m sensitive, but I felt self-conscious sitting in my seat. I felt very Yankee Yucky Doodle.
And while it was a wonderful relief to hear my own language on the big screen, the pleasure was mixed. I felt self conscious. I felt like a sniper supporter. I felt almost like a proponent of murder. I half expected the Swiss people around me to start hissing. And if they had, I’d have understood.
Switzerland is a pacifist country, at least in name. And they have a very conservative approach to war, to firearms, to violence.
But to me, patriotism is not about war. It is a love for my country that sees the reality beneath the hype. It appreciates, but is critical of, our bitterly divided history – one that is full of tragic, blood-soaked mistakes and deep-seated problems.
Patriotism is dropping our blind pride so that we can actually figure out what we stand for. Patriotism isn’t a lock step with military allegiance, nor is it saluting a flag waved in support of prejudice and hate.
It isn’t synonymous with capitalism.
Loving my country means knowing full well its potential for violence and so never abusing that power.
And thinking back to American Sniper, I feel sad that one of the biggest narratives we have to offer the world is one saturated with violence and war. I’m ashamed when I try to explain why Chris Kyle is a hero. I’m not sure myself.
I only know that he killed a lot of people, some women and children. And because I’m a woman and a mother, I can never raise my hand to my heart in support of that.
And I’m ashamed.
And while I love my country, my world has expanded to so much more now. I’ve witnessed air and water in the mountains that is clear and drinkable. I’ve seen firsthand how vigorous crops can grow without pesticides and fertilizer. I know that glaciers truly exist, but they are melting.
I understand what a true democracy is (except I could never explain it). I’m absolutely certain that Swiss-German is the ugliest language ever spoken.
I know it is possible to limit household waste. And that taxes make for an amazing community. And it’s easy to live without a car.
But every day when I look at the Swiss mountains, my heart sinks when I think of the Appalachian mountains where I grew up. And how they will never be as beautiful as these Alps. Because their majestic tops have been stripped and torn off, fracked and mined. They aren’t really mountains anymore. They are scorched hills full of buried lives that were sacrificed for greed. The mountains have gone the way of the glaciers.
But I also know that my hometown has the best food in the world, especially barbeque. And the friendliest people.
And on a sticky summer night, I can sit on my front porch and hear the cicadas sing. Those crazy-ass looking critters, ones I’ve never encountered anywhere else in the world.
And they scratch and chirp the lullabies of home – my American South, the divided land of guns and racism and religion and sweet tea, and big-hearted people who stop to talk to you on the street.
My home. The country I love. Oh, how I’ve missed you.
17 thoughts on “Re-patriot”
Mom, he has Stolkholm Syndrome. The second he sees you again he’s gonna realize his true loyalties.
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Ever since I read the diaries of Anais Nin, I am aware that I enjoy a deep satisfaction with my life as long as there is at least one person who knows me and knows what’s going on with me. It makes me feel both visible and valued. Along with all your mixed feelings about coming home to the U.S., you can reap the rewards of your blogging efforts. There are your readers who know you better now and value you more than ever if they’re anything like me. I’m no good with chronology, but I’m guessing you and I haven’t seen each other for more than thirty years and yet I feel closer to you than ever before. So you may feel strange upon your arrival here, but you’re no stranger to any one of us who’ve been reading your blog. Add to that the reality (not virtual) that you are returning to a community of kindreds who feel just as conflicted about the flag-waving Fourth of July as you do.
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Thank you, Dixie – and thank you for supporting my writing.
This post arrives at just the right time, the Fourth of July weekend. It is worthy of wide circulation. For anyone who has left our country and then reenters it, or for that matter, has had to move from one physical or emotional space to another, this piece captures the tensions inherent yet often neglected and avoided when patriotism is discussed. The Biblical cry firm the Psalmist says it in a way that begs for a response”: How do we sing a new song in a strange land?” Deliverance from the violence and ugliness in our world depends, as this piece reminds us, on the simple, close-at-hand, down-to-earth pleasures like sweet tea, the sound of cicadas, barbecue and the big-hearted people. This beautiful and honest piece of writing invites readers to acknowledge the joyful realities close at hand, close to the earth, that bring us good feeling about our homeland, and also puts us in touch with what are nation was meant to be.
From Jim Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org
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* I added a bit about the WV mountains, hope you like.
Beth, you pretty much captured how I have felt since Mr. Smith’s Western Civilization class at GW opened my eyes to the international world beyond. Trips aboard have only reinforced that. There is a whole big world out there and the USA seems more and more out of step with it. Some patriots would say that is a good thing. Some patriots would say that it is not. Some are happy being citizens of the USA. I think we need to be both citizens of the US and citizens of the world. We are all in this together. We owe it to ourselves and also to God and our planet. Speaking selfishly, I will be glad to have you home though! 🙂
Thanks, Rich – you’re the best.
So , so alsome ! Pure bad ass ! You have a beautiful way of seeing the world , love ya , your more than a bro Steve
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Beth, you will never be the same again, and you have, through your writings, also opened my eyes to new ways to view this big, beautiful world. In Switzerland you were often out of your comfort zone, and through those times of disequilibrium, you allowed yourself to grow, and you were able to make each day into an adventure. As you return home, my wish for you is that you will now see your former home with new eyes, and instead of settling into old routines, you will share new adventures with your readers. I want your writings to continue. I am not ready for your writings to stop. Please….keep sharing!
Thank you Suzanne, you’ve been with me from the beginning …
Ah, my beautiful Beth! Welcome to the Re-Pat Club, those of us who have humbly learned that the U.S. of A. is not the center of the universe! More later when I get a real computer set up. Much love!
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You’re the best Julie! Hope things are going well in these early days.
Just what I needed. Abit more encouragement to figure out how to live abroad soon. :).
Enjoy your blog!
Kudos to you.
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Be part of the time you still have there but rest assured that you will find what is familiar, lovely and comforting when you return. While change has occurred “home” will still be recognizable. Embrace the good and rejoice in the conflict. We are not a country that shies away from our troubles. We are country made up of differences; different ethnic groups, different religions, different political mindsets. These are the things that strengthen us and also mean we have to be constantly evolving. We do not have the luxury in our country of being stagnant.
I walk by your house almost every day and it awaits your return as do your friends and neighbors. We have missed you but have also loved being a part of your journey. While you may not be the same you also will be recognizable. Be gentle and kind with yourself.
Thanks for your eloquence, Deb. I so appreciate your generous thoughts.