To the Hoys

Dear Isabel and Calvin,

Riley here. I passed through Torrington on my way from Michigan to Oregon, and spent a night at the Tea Kettle Ranch back in the second week of June. Chinese-American kid in his mid-20’s. Drove a purple Kia SUV with Massachusetts license plates and a red bicycle strapped to the back.

The car no longer has Massachusetts license plates, by the way. I applied for an Oregon title and registration in August and my new plates finally arrived in the mail the week before last. I’m a real Oregonian now.

That’s a joke. On the same day that my new plates arrived, I received and filled out my ballot too. After I got through all the federal offices, I flipped the thing over and found myself staring at a bunch of names belonging to people I didn’t know the first thing about, names that I recognized only because I’d seen them on yard signs and banners scattered around town. What business did I have choosing, say, the next mayor of Philomath? I moved to this small town five months ago to attend graduate school at Oregon State University. And I’ll probably leave in two years, after I get my degree. My apartment complex is fairly new and large, and filled with students and transients like myself. All day and night, they go zooming in and out of the parking lot in their muscle cars, many of which sport out-of-state license plates too.

The Tetons.

Western Wyoming.

Western Nebraska.

The Grand.

Bison grazing.

I Googled some of those unfamiliar names. I thought about voting by party and being done with it. In the end, I just left all those local races blank. I’ve lived and worked in a lot of different places, but I guess I don’t really belong anywhere. I’m a nomad.

We didn’t talk politics that night in June. Nor did I get the impression that politics are something you usually discuss or enjoy discussing with your guests. I have no intention of testing that assumption either. Still, watching this election and its aftermath unfold brings up a thought that I distinctly remember having at your kitchen table, sipping tea and nibbling on cookies and ice cream.

What occurred to me is that we know so little about the lives of others. But we are so eager to fill that gap in knowledge that we will believe just about any story—especially one that makes us feel righteous and superior, or that agrees with our existing beliefs and values. And this in turn makes us especially vulnerable to anybody who would exploit our credulity and our tribalism for personal gain–who would feed us lies and stir up hatred if it were convenient or profitable to do so.

Ok, maybe I didn’t think all of that while in your company. I suspect I got as far as “we know so little about the lives of others” before I was just consumed by a knee-jerk desire to ask questions, engage in conversation, and show a genuine interest in your lives. I know I asked about haying and when it usually happens around your parts. But the truth is that I grew up in the suburbs and don’t know the first thing about farming. I remember admiring the saddles in the basement and perusing all the cattle brands printed on those paper napkins of yours, but I’ve never ridden or spent so much as a day on a cattle ranch in my life. I don’t mean to say that my curiosity was counterfeit—it wasn’t (though perhaps you found the extent of it bemusing, or amusing, coming from an East-coast city kid like myself). My point is simply that I was keenly aware of what different cultures, communities, climates, and landscapes we were respective products of—of what profoundly different lives we’ve led—and therefore of how much we might learn about each other in the span of a single evening. Of how much more we could not hope to learn about each other in that same amount of time.

Therein lies the paradox of being the nomad I described myself as earlier: constant movement gives me a chance to see just how many different kinds of people and places there are, but makes it hard to really get to know any of them. I recently read a magazine article whose author—a theology professor in Pennsylvania at the time—described people like me (and himself) like this:

They identify themselves by their skills, intellect, and work ethic, which they’re always ready to take to their next job, wherever it might be. In the cosmopolitan ideal, you belong to the world, equally at ease in Berlin or Bangkok, knowledgeable of local customs, ready to join a conversation anywhere, with anyone…

But it also means being equally ill-at-ease anywhere, including among citizens of your home country. The desire to belong is incongruous with the individualistic culture of America’s elite. To live out the cosmopolitan ideal means you know someone everywhere but have close ties nowhere, because you’ve moved so many times for work. It means you never realize the dream of the Cheers theme song. There’s no place you can go where everybody knows your name.

I am this way partly because of the education that my immigrant parents worked hard to make sure I got—that prepared me to uproot over and over again in pursuit of a career, credentialed me accordingly, and conditioned me to value said career over a sense of community. But I am also a nomad because some part of myself wants to confirm, beyond a shred of doubt, that the people I encounter along the way are not all doomed to separateness and do in fact share a common humanity—that they might all be brought together in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation, if only in the liminal space of my memories and imagination.

I say “if only” because reality often makes human solidarity feel so abstract and out-of-reach. But the truth is that this idea was never supposed to exist only in theory. It was always the thing that was supposed to guarantee our survival—not just as individuals, but as societies. America itself—this broad and beautiful land, this reason-defying republic, haunted by a history of cruelty and injustice, but promising equality and opportunity—was always supposed to be that liminal space in which people who are nothing alike are supposed to trust in each other’s essential goodness and regard each other as brothers and sisters. I know this not only by instinct, but because it is implied in the speech of our nation’s founders and leaders. George Washington wrote to John Jay in 1786: “We are either a United people, or we are not. If the former, let us in all matters of general concern act as a nation…If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending to it.” Abraham Lincoln said to a nation as divided as it’s ever been: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Eastern Wyoming.

Moose in the Tetons.

Bison crossing.

The Grand.

Of course, this country has never lived up to its promises. And it would be worse than naive to think that the human authors of those promises (to say nothing of those from within and without who have actively tried to sabotage this experiment in government of, by, and for the people and prove that democracy was nothing but a pipe dream all along) did much to help it keep them. But either those promises set a standard, or they don’t. Either the words of the framers mean what they say at a face value, or nothing at all. And in light of that standard and that meaning, it seems to me that the biggest threat to this, our American democracy, is not a bomb or a virus or an autocrat or a refugee, but a divided citizenry that doesn’t know what it’s signed up for—a self-interested electorate that doesn’t understand or appreciate the pluralism its forefathers perhaps unwittingly committed it to defending. (Reflecting on the experience of sitting in a whites-only movie theatre in 1941, E.B. White put it like this: “there [are] too many people in the world who think liberty and justice for all means liberty and justice for themselves and their friends.”) So many in this country clearly do not see the defense of pluralism as their common purpose and I’m afraid just as many would now scoff at the suggestion that it is. Some, because they are selfish and fearful (I would seek to educate them, convince them that their sense of dignity and worth does not depend on somebody else being on their knees). And some, because they have been ignored and trampled on for so long (I would seek to raise up their voices and let them speak for once).

So I ask my countrymen yet again. Are we going to be a united people or not? Are we still invested in being friends, our differences and passions notwithstanding? Do we understand that the “must” in “we must not be enemies” demands compromise and empathy—hard work from us all? And speaking of us all, is that whom we really want liberty and justice for? Everybody? Or just ourselves and our friends?

Simply put: should I still believe in America? Am I a fool to still believe that democracy, as White put it, “is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad?” White said that in 1943 in reply to the Writers’ War Board, which had asked him to write a statement on the “meaning of democracy.” And his response was so confident, so self-assured and brimming with faith:

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.

It’s becoming so hard to feel and keep that kind of faith, but I’m not willing to give up on it, and I don’t think I’m alone. It’s why I called up the Tea Kettle Ranch that night in June, instead of just pulling over at a roadside motel, and it’s why I’m writing to you now: because I still want to trust my fellow Americans and what Lincoln called their “better angels.” Because I want to know them better—to visit their homes, walk their lands, eat their food, and listen to their stories. And the fact that the Tea Kettle Ranch has become (whether you meant for it to or not) your way of sharing all those things—all those pieces of yourselves—makes me happier than I can probably make clear. Until next time. I’ll be wandering in the meanwhile.

With gratitude,
Riley

Philomath, OR
November 2020

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