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A Country That Must Be Made New

My three-year-old daughter, Maya, spends up to an hour each evening before she finally falls asleep standing up in her crib and belting out patriotic songs — “God Bless America,” “This Land is My Land,” even the national anthem. She also recites the Pledge of Allegiance verbatim, though “republic” and “indivisible” are still a bit of a stretch.

We didn’t aim to raise a miniature patriot. Last Fourth of July, we wandered over to a neighborhood nearby and participated in an old-fashioned parade and sing-along. Ever since then, she’s been obsessed. Sure, like every toddler, she sings about itsy bitsy spiders and wheels on the bus, but it’s really the sweeping lyrics and ambitious melodies of these patriotic songs that have truly captured her imagination.

In the midst of this contentious election and all of its grave implications, I have often felt deeply out of sync with my sweet girl’s patriotism. A couple of nights ago we were sitting with some friends who are originally from France and had just been back for a visit, and I was compelled, though a little afraid, to ask, “What did your friends think about this election?”

They rolled their eyes and guffawed: “They think it’s crazy, of course.”

As I balance the car seat against a hip, my neighbor and I exchange worries: “I can’t even look at the polls.”

“What are we going to do if he is elected?” (It’s like we can’t even bear to say his name.)

I look down. My three-month-old is asleep, that pure peace written across her face. It helps me take a longer view.

The question, I realize, isn’t “What are we going to do if he is elected?” The question is, “What are we going to do? Period.”

This election has exposed this country at all of its broken places. An embittered working class left behind economically and spiritually. A media ecosystem that feeds off of controversy and leaves us all starving for informational and moral sustenance. An electoral process driven not by preparedness but by performance and money. A citizenry writhing fitfully as it faces its own internalized and institutionalized racism and sexism.

We are broken.

And let’s be real. We have always been broken — partly because we haven’t healed our history or fixed our systems, but partly because the beauty of our diversity is inevitably coupled with schisms.

But our brokenness has never been so visible, so painful, so gaping. At least not in my lifetime.

At first, I entertained a sort of open-mouthed disbelief:

How can this be the way we talk in this country? How can what matters be so sidelined by what sells?

But the longer the election went on, the more the disbelief dissipated. For a while I turned away — trying not to pay attention to every juke and pivot in the news cycle. It was as if I thought that if I didn’t feed the beast, he would die of starvation. Meanwhile, a whole country continued to fatten him up with its most precious resource: attention. Even my own husband couldn’t help but give me nightly updates on the latest histrionics influencing the polls and possessing the pundits.

As November 8 approaches, I’m no longer in disbelief. I’m no longer turning away. The reality has set into my bones. It’s making me ask questions of myself.

How did I not realize that there was this much frustration out there? What do I know, really, about NAFTA and ISIS and how policies actually get passed? Where do my supposedly highly informed opinions really come from? And why, oh, why do I shy away from political conversations with my neighbors and family when I expect that we disagree? What am I afraid of?

It’s like the whole thing has made me feel like I must return to where I began, be that little girl standing in footie pajamas belting out old songs about a country that must be made new. As I listen to my girl, I know in my heart that I do love this country. A stupid amount. I don’t love it because I think it’s superior, just as I don’t love my daughter based on some false hierarchy. I love it, as I love her, because it’s mine and it’s a miracle of sorts and it has the capacity to surprise me.

As of late, it’s mostly broken my heart. But that’s happened before and it will happen again. My privilege and responsibility, as a citizen, is to keep fighting for its improvement and keep returning my focus to the people that make it redeemable.

Because lest we forget, America is not the presidential election. America is our big-hearted sprite of a childcare provider who came to this country from Guatemala at 36, not speaking a word of English, and made a beautiful life. America is my 78-year-old neighbor who organizes anti-racist Buddhist sanghas and who dressed up as the good witch and handed out apples on Halloween, yelling “They’re organic!” to all the parents as they dragged sleepy, tantruming kids down the stairs. America is my sweet, round-faced father-in-law who likes to go to mass at least twice a week and cries easily because, well, he’s Irish, and wouldn’t having six kids and nine grandchildren make you feel vulnerable, too? America is that woman in the front row of the conference I was at last week who gave standing ovations and black power salutes for two days straight and never seemed to tire.

America is me — weary and worried and still, after all this, in love with America.

America is you.

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