These have been a tough few weeks for me. Heck, things haven’t felt right since 2015, when the carnival atmosphere of the election kicked into gear and got progressively, excruciatingly darker as the days and months wore on. These days, I watch The Handmaid’s Tale as something akin more to speculative documentary than fictional drama. Recently, as we discussed the latest outrage on the immigration front, someone dear to me said, “I’m beginning to hate this country.” I don’t agree, but I understand. It’s hard to watch some of the callousness and vitriol and not wonder if I ever knew my countrymen and women, or at least a significant number of them, at all.
But the United States has been my dream for a long time, from the time its platinum sheets of Brady girl hair and the promise of its Halloween and Thanksgiving first captured my imagination as a little girl, nose pressed up against the glass. This is not a place I put on casually, like an outfit I’m trying on, but a place I’ve painstakingly tattooed on my skin, with swirls of history books and the ink of political shows, peppered over with the glitter of pop culture. It is me and I am it, and I am not giving up that easily.
I woke up on the 4th of July feeling despondent. How could I celebrate the accomplishments of 1776 this year? How could I connect with the awe-inspiring accomplishment of a band of rabble-rousers taking on the most powerful military in the world to craft an experiment so grand, so hopeful, as to be unmatched in its time? How could I think of that, and then remember where we are today? It was promising to be a depressing day.
But I didn’t want that to be the narrative. So I got up, and out of the blue remembered that, for a long time, I’ve wanted to visit The Tenement Museum in Manhattan. I had a free morning until my afternoon plans kicked in, so I made a hurried plan to go check it out.
The building that houses the museum was built in 1863, and became home to many new immigrants to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Recent arrivals from Germany, Ireland, Russian, Italy and many other places came in successive waves, mixed, drew water from the same well, fought, worked, held grudges, intermarried, loved and despised each other. In other words, it was the place where they became Americans.
I headed in, the patriotic angels clearing a path for me. In what is usually a day of bad traffic in New York City, as people angle for spots along the East River for the fireworks later that night, I made it way downtown in under a half hour. I found really cheap parking (another rare gift), and made it to my Irish Outsiders tour with time to spare. While I waited, I perused its exquisite bookstore, filled to the brim with books about the immigrant experience, the history of New York and of America, whimsical books, sad books, majestic books. I soaked the sight of them all in, buoyed by the reminder of the many stories to tell and yet to be told in this unique land. I went on the tour, and I won’t spoil it for you in case you ever visit, but I cried, and felt deep love for the family whose story I was told, plus for the millions of others like them.
Then, on Saturday, still not sated, I decided to go on a walking tour of Revolutionary Manhattan. When most people think of New York City, they think of skyscrapers and traffic, noise and fashion, Wall Street and greed. But what many fail to remember is that it’s one of the United States’ oldest settlements, and that the footprints of the original Dutch settlers can still be seen in some of the winding, narrow lanes of lower Manhattan, and that many important events in our country’s founding happened here. I’d been wanting to go on this tour for years, but had always waited for the “right time.” I am getting to the part of my life in which I want to stop waiting for that, so off I went.
The tour was wonderful, and there’s too much to recount. But as I walked the footsteps of rebels and spies, loyalists and natives, I felt my view of time expanding. I saw myself pulled out of the squabbles of today, and heard stories of the squabbles of yesterday. I was reminded that people have always been both heroic and base, greedy and giving. We are no worse now than before, and there have been many times when things have seemed bleak. But, somehow, this grand experiment has survived, and thrived, and gone on to remake the world.
The tour ended outside of Fraunces Tavern, the old Georgian building at 54 Pearl Street in which George Washington bade farewell to his troops in December of 1783, with these words:
With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.
The tour guide, a walking Revolutionary history book, reminded us of how extraordinary this moment was in human history. Never before had a man led a war, and at the end of it not grabbed the mantle of king for himself. He walked away from power not once, but twice, again after his second presidential term, believing more in the ideals of democracy than in his own importance and glory. I think sometimes we forget what a world-changing gift that was to the millions of us who have come after him. I let the moment soak in, then walked in Fraunces Tavern.
It’s still a working restaurant and bar, and I was tucked into a small corner to wait for my waitress. It was mid-afternoon. A jaunty little jazz ensemble played, and every stool by the bar, which spanned more than half of the dining room, was filled, as were most tables. It was full of life and raucous laughter. Old wooden beams were exposed, and the wooden floor was rustic and well-worn. My waitress came and asked me what I wanted in a thick Irish accent, clearly a recent transplant. I ordered a burger. I was happy in this liminal space between history and modernity, in this place where people once gathered to create something they could have scarcely imagined would turn out as big as all this.
There is an old, well-known book for creatives called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In it, she writes about how to feed your spirit to make space for creativity to grow. She suggests taking “artist’s dates,” going places alone to reconnect with wonder and beauty and hope. Artist’s dates can be as simple as a walk in the woods, or as grand as a visit to a museum. The point is to go someplace new in contemplation and openness, and let yourself experience it in full.
It occurred to me, sitting in George Washington’s old haunt, that maybe what I need these days are not just artist’s dates, but patriot’s dates. A little less lamenting about the present and a little more celebrating the gumption of the past, not to hide in it, but to draw strength from it. We are not alone, or out of time, trying to breathe life into a tired and cynical thing. We are the heirs to generations of sweat, and triumph. We are fortunate beyond measure, and come from a long line of rabble-rousers. Tyrants and knaves have tried to get the better of us before, and have always failed, even in the times when it looked like they might succeed.
Not everyone can spend an afternoon in Fraunces Tavern (although, if you can, I highly recommend it). But we can all remember that around us there is a proud and noble history, and it doesn’t belong to any one of us, but to all of us. We are Americans, full of hope and courage and ingenuity. Americans, nearly every one of us from somewhere else at some point (except, of course, for natives), brought both of our own will and not, here to roll up our sleeves and make something new. Our history is not perfect, and it hasn’t always moved in a straight line, but we have much to be proud of. For me, it is time to reconnect to that pride, to feed my patriotic spirit, to find the strength to help move us in the right direction again, in my own small way. I found that out in a little corner of Fraunces Tavern one random Saturday afternoon. If you feel tired, or sad about where our country is going, I hope you find your little spot too, and take a moment to run your fingers over the wonder that is this great American experiment. Because we need you, like we’ve needed the millions who came before you. We’ve got work to do.