"My ‘Tis of Thee Country – What It Means to Be an American," by Kathleen Stocking

Peter M. Leschak wrote the following in a review of Kathleen Stocking’s 1991 book, Letters from the Leelanau: Essays of People and Place: “All of us are watchers, but few are observers. Missing are the village elders and seers, the astute perceivers who interpreted life and effort through nature and the primal cycles. Kathleen Stocking is one of those seers, and she’s delightful.”

This blog post was first published in slightly different form in the Glen Arbor Sun, 7/3/2014. It is part of a work in progress, Global Village Field Guide – essays from Lake Leelanau, the center of the universe. Copyright Kathleen Stocking 2015.

Originally published by Quaker Universalist Conversations.

You don’t really know where you’re from until you’ve been somewhere else and come back. That’s because anything is only itself in relationship to some other thing. A day is only a day in relationship to the night. An apple stands for every fruit until you’ve tasted a mangosteen. America isn’t America until you’ve been to El Salvador.

Growing up above Sleeping Bear Bay I had some gut-level love of country that was mostly inarticulate and inchoate, the way you love a new puppy. My love of America had something to do with the beauty of Lake Michigan from the top of the dunes and the man who ran the barbershop in Empire, Mr. Lambkin, who did not know me except as a reckless nine-year-old out on horseback, risking hypothermia in a pelting April sleet storm.

He lifted me from my horse and put me into his old, blue, boiled-wool, World War II sweater to go back home to Glen Haven. The sweater weighed like iron and he must have thought, if nothing else, it would anchor me to the saddle. He said I could bring the sweater back sometime.

My childhood was lucky, with a freedom that in retrospect was unusual. I could go anywhere, anytime, and I did. I played in the ice caves alone. I read in the barn loft, thrilling to the sound of the rain on the tin roof and the lightning and thunder outside. The hidden, fragrant arbutus under its rust-spotted, leathery leaves, when the snow was barely melted, was magical since I discovered it when I was alone.

Daisies and wild strawberries come at the same time, and although you can’t usually see the wild strawberries hidden in the grass, you can see the daisies and you know. Day’s eyes, my father punned, and it might have been the first time I associated metaphor with discovery. I can still call up the taste of wild strawberries in the spring and the days picking them in the hills above the bay after the ice had melted, the wind off the water smelling like fresh-cut cucumbers.

I sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” in the old, redbrick Glen Arbor schoolhouse in Mrs. Andreson’s class, my heart swelling with emotion that came from I know not where. For years the song was conflated in my mind with “America, the Beautiful”, my imagination unconsciously substituting the pink arbutus and the blue-green waters of the lake for the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.

As I got older, I thought about what I was singing. When the “‘Tis of Thee” song got to “land of the pilgrim’s pride, land where our fathers died,” I thought about all the Indians who had been killed by all those pilgrims—and vice versa—and what about the black people who didn’t seem even to be in these songs? At first unconsciously and then consciously, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” became my alternative national anthem.

I didn’t leave the continent of North America until I went to El Salvador to teach at a private school for the children of the ruling oligarchs. Outside of San Salvador there was a place called Devil’s Doorway, a cave in the mountains that one got to by ascending steep, stone steps carved into the side of the mountain: on every step was the name of a dancer, teacher, writer, musician or doctor whose body had been dumped into the adjacent ravine, all killed during the Revolution run by the country’s richest families, the landed elite, many of whom had children enrolled in my school.

A fellow teacher, a handsome, green-eyed, intellectual, backwoods boy from Louisiana, took his students on a field trip to the Museum of the Revolution. He was fired the next week, allegedly for using Pictionary as a teaching tool.

Two tours in the Peace Corps, in Thailand and Romania, followed my time in El Salvador. There were no public libraries to speak of in any of these countries. The private school library in El Salvador was only for the wealthy; many of the poor couldn’t read and since the school only had biographies of Pinochet and cookbooks why would they want to?

There were no public libraries in Thailand and all unsanctioned biographies of the King of Thailand were banned; you could go to jail, or worse, if you were caught with one. I was a mile up on my flight to Thailand when I first learned that a book I hadn’t yet read, The King Never Smiles, a biography of the king by Paul Handley that I’d bought the day before at Border’s in San Francisco, was forbidden. I spent a frantic 30 minutes in the jet’s tiny toilet, somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, tearing out pages and flushing them, a terrible taste in my mouth, like something had died in my stomach.

Later, wedged into a seat the size of a coffin, with no room to move without infringing on the space of the people on either side of me, my perspiration began to smell to me like cat urine and I was sure it smelled like that to my seatmates. It was a long flight. There was nowhere to get away from the smell of my own fear.

You’d walk into a school in any of these places and ask, “Where’s the library?” and like as not, if they even had one, you’d be shown to a small, dirty room with moldy books in heaps on the floor and mostly the books were in some language other than the one spoken by the people there, books that were not interesting even in the other language, which was of course incomprehensible to the children who were supposed to be the grateful recipients of the books. Romania had a few threadbare public libraries but the books in them were often leftovers from the Communists and propaganda left by Christian missionaries.

People talk about the horrifying poverty in third world countries, but it’s not the poverty that’s scary, it’s the lack of easy talking and thinking. When you’re used to a country where you can read whatever you want and say whatever you think, and then you’re in a place where it’s too dangerous to do that, the mind shuts down.

This happened to everyone, even Americans who were just visiting, and so of course it was worse for the people who grew up there. You’d ask someone what they thought about something and get a blank stare: they had never thought about it, ever, and were not about to begin. Thinking could lead to speaking and speaking could get you killed.

The United States has all too often been complicit, unfortunately, with tyrants and bad governments; we seem to like freedom at home but to like dictators in other places, perhaps because they’re easier to control. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, with the help of our CIA, replaced a democratically elected man, something that was a secret at the time but is now well-documented.

Tito, Gaddafi, Somoza, Saddam Hussein. The list is long. The suffering of innocent people, of women and children, was sometimes set in motion by events orchestrated by agents of our government. Do we think we’re separate from the actions of our government? Do we think we’re separate from the children in foreign places?

There were rumors that the United States government had covert sites for dark operations, called black-op sites, in both Romania and Thailand, when I was in the Peace Corps in those countries between 2006 and 2012. We whispered it among ourselves late at night, reassuring each other as we fell asleep that it was only our fears talking, nothing could be proven, telling ourselves that in the morning it would all be as inconsequential as talk of a boogeyman in the tent at summer camp.

Now those rumors have been confirmed. In the black-op sites in those countries, according to the United States Senate Intelligence Committee’s “tor..., our government did terrible things to suspected terrorists, some of whom turned out to be innocent.

The problem with torture by our government isn’t just the torture. It’s other things that our government does, good things like the Peace Corps, that then become suspect. It’s about our government being hypocritical and secretive, untrustworthy, in a word, not something you want your government to be, especially when it comes to torture and killing, not something you want to have any part of if you’re thinking straight.

In El Salvador in the 1980s, according to Noam Chomsky in an interview with David Barsamian in the International Socialist Review in 2004, the United States took the side of the rich against the poor, supposedly in the fight against communism. “Robert White,” the American Ambassador to El Salvador in the 1980s, it was reported in the Washington Post on the eve of White’s death from cancer on January 14, 2015, “became a controversial, outspoken critic of assassinations and massacres being carried out by American-trained military units and private right-wing death squads.”

Father Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest who grew up in a working class family in Mississippi, is among those who have protested the U.S. involvement in El Salvador. I heard Bourgeois speak in Traverse City, Michigan back in the 1990s. He was a low-key, articulate man with an ineffable air of sadness.

The book Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas, by James Hodge and Linda Cooper with a foreword by Martin Sheen, documents his story. There were many Americans like White and like Bourgeois who spoke out against the injustices in El Salvador. White lost his job at the State Department and Bourgeois was kicked out of the church and spent more than four years in American prisons for his non-violent protest.

Money, corporate money, whether it’s the Rockefeller money at their Colorado Ludlow Mine in what was then virtually another country, the American wild west of 100 years ago, or the United Fruit Company in Guatemala 70 years ago, or the American money tangled up in the international oil companies in Iraq 15 years ago, is often behind our government’s direct or indirect murder of innocent people.

Alexis de Tocqueville admired our civil society, but even in 1830 when he visited and did the research for his nine-hundred-and-fifty-two-page tome, Democracy in America, he was worried about our “avidity,” as he called it, “our restless passion [for] prosperity,” and thought that if left uncurbed, if codified in law, as it was in the government of England at the time, where the rich had all the power and naturally took advantage of the poor, it could spell our undoing.

It is important to say something here. Sometimes people I’ve talked to about this get confused, and so it is important to be clear: my government is not the same thing as my country. They are not interchangeable. They are related, but not identical. My country is in my heart, where love is; my government is how things are done.

A government, any government, but especially my own, is a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy with different policies at different times, depending on who gets in and who’s shoved out. It can depend even on whims. A government bureaucracy is a thing where the left hand often does not know what the right hand is doing. My government is not my country.

My country is the American people. It’s Sojourner Truth and Johnny Appleseed, Anne Hutchinson and Chief Joseph, Alexander Graham Bell and Steve Jobs, Leonard Peltier and William James, Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe, Richie Havens and Susan B. Anthony, Robert White and Roy Bourgeois, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

It’s all of us. It’s people standing up for what’s right and those of us who honor them. It’s people who invent things and the rest of us who cheer them on.

It’s the single mom working at Walmart and her co-workers who make her laugh during her break. It’s people going to work at their lowly jobs and the friends and neighbors who show them respect. It’s people trying to make things better.

It’s Big Annie Clemenc of Calumet, Michigan who, according to Jerry Stanley in his book about her, wrapped herself in the American flag and, during the strike of the copper miners there in 1913, walked out to the soldiers sent by the government and said, “Shoot this, boys, if you need to shoot something.”

My country is the young man from Louisiana taking his students to the Museum of the Revolution, getting fired and crying, not because he got fired but because El Salvador was so messed up. The night before he goes back to New Orleans, I find him standing outside my door. He’s holding his pillow, and proffering it toward me. “I want you to have this,” he says, laughing. “In case you need a pillow to cry on.”

My country is some scrawny old man standing by the side of the road outside Poughkeepsie with a sign that protests the war in Iraq and nobody even knows the old man is Pete Seeger.

When Seeger was before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, he said, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of those private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such a compulsion as this.” A lot of people named names and gave up their friends including some people you’d never expect like Frank Capra and Elia Kazan. They were afraid.

Of course Pete Seeger was afraid, too. During the Civil Rights movement when southern sheriffs turned dogs and fire hoses on children, Seeger was teaching an audience how to sing, “We Are Not Afraid” and he said, “Of course you are afraid, but you sing it, ‘We are not afraid’.” Being afraid and doing the right thing anyway is called courage.

Seeger paid a big price for his courage; he and his music were black-listed for decades. Sixty years later, at Madison Square Gardens in a celebration of Seeger’s ninetieth birthday hosted by all his fellow musicians, Bruce Springsteen said, “You outlived the bastards, Pete.”

America is the way people talk. It’s the young man fixing my roof who says he needs “a phoneless cord” and could I hand one up to him? It’s the old lady in Tom’s West Bay supermarket in northern Michigan who offers me the empty cart she’s returning, in place of the one I’m stubbornly trying to wrestle loose. I finally succeed and say, feeling a bit foolish because she’s been watching me the whole time, “It would have been smarter to take yours right away.” And she says kindly, in the same kind way she’d offered me her cart, “Peoples are always late getting smart.”

During the Second World War, out in the French countryside near Lyons, Gertrude Stein wasn’t homesick until the American soldiers came by and she couldn’t get enough of their American talk. And it wasn’t just their talk, it was their American-ness, their saying anything they wanted to with their humble backwoods grammar and a sweet unselfconsciousness.

It’s the self-deprecating sense of humor. It’s Gary Snyder at a poetry reading in northern Michigan in 1977, talking about how he and his friend, Peter Blue Cloud, were in the High Sierras on a hot summer day painting the one-room school house in their little mountain community, and Gary says, “Peter, why are we doing this?” And Blue Cloud answers, deadpan, never looking up from where he’s dipping his brush into the paint bucket, “Noblesse oblige.”

Americans volunteer. Americans are generous. Americans pay for the person behind them at Wendy’s. Sometimes they call this noblesse oblige. They think it’s hilarious.

Walt Whitman figured it out, and he didn’t even have to leave the country to do it. “This then, is what you shall do,” he wrote. “Stand up for the stupid and crazy, give alms to everyone who asks, love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, devote your income and labors to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families….”

I love my country and I’m not ashamed to say that.

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