After reading the last chapter, “Askew”, one of my sons who doesn’t live with me wrote and said, “Why are you so down on the US? Sure it’s got problems, but I’ve built a good life here and in many ways it’s still the land of opportunity.” We talked later via Facebook chat and I explained to him that first of all, that chapter was more about me than about the States. My sons’ reactions to the States cannot be the same as mine, as they do not have my background. They didn’t grow up in the explosive period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They didn’t spend their formative years in the shadow of the Vietnam War. They didn’t initiate their awareness in this culture, leave, and then look on it again from the outside. Instead, they did the opposite. They spent their childhood and youth abroad and only entered the US to begin a life here when they were young men. They were faced with limited opportunities in Greece, where they grew up, where they were discriminated against, bullied at school, and denied access to the best the country had to offer because they were half-American. Don’t get me wrong – they had wonderful childhoods in Greece, and they look back on those days with nostalgia. But there was a limit to the possibilities of their growth there; the box was too small; eventually they had to burst out. And when they went to the States, yes, I must admit, for them it was one wide open door after another. Their lives changed. I’m talking about my two oldest here, who have lived in the States for years. And it has turned out to be the same for the next two, who I brought here from Greece recently. There is no comparison between what they had there and what they have here. The United States is far superior for them. The unemployment rate in Greece for young people is well over fifty percent. My third son could not find a job; there were none, least of all for him, half-foreigner as he was with no ties to family-owned businesses. Here he hit the streets and found a job inside of a week. He’s off and running, working six days a week and loving it, loving being here. My fourth son has entered twelfth grade in high school, and also joined the football team, and in every comparison he makes between the US and Greek school system the US comes out far ahead. I have to agree with him about that. Yes, there is much positive, much to be thankful for here.
My case is considerably more complex. I am not coming here for the first time. I have a history here, and it is a history of angst, of inner turmoil, of lack of fulfillment, of an unrequited search that in the end led me overseas seeking answers I couldn’t find here. Geography, of course, had little to do with it, but as I quote Thoreau in my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search”: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some ‘Symmes Hole’ to get to the inside at last.” This is in the last chapter of “Walden”. He goes on to say: “If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travelers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve.” If I had had the clear head and steady heart required, I would not have had to leave this land to go and seek my destiny in another, but I was a confused jumble of other people’s ideas and expectations, and until I got myself out into the farthest corner of the world I couldn’t think clearly and find my own voice.
Now, having returned, I realize that I can live anywhere, even here. But that doesn’t mean that my old ghosts don’t come back and attempt to haunt me. I can exorcise them, though; I have found my voice as a writer and if the old ghosts try to pull their tricks I will cast them into my keyboard and give them a sound flaying. They have no more power over me.
I have returned to a United States that is new and different, but at the same time is the same old same old. Though to me the thirty-five years I have been away is more than half my life, even to a fledgling country like the United States it is a mere wink of an eye. A lot has happened, yes. Circumstances have changed, of course. But many of those old spirits with which I struggled remain, and it is to this I eluded in the last chapter. Maybe if my sons return to Greece after thirty-five years they might have an idea of what I have been talking about – but no, it is not a valid comparison. Greece, important though it is in the evolution of western thought, is a tiny country now. Its Olympic gods are dead, and it founders in identity crisis, caught up in the very large ocean of the European Union. The United States, on the other hand, is a vast entity with fingers in multitudes of pies all over the world.
Despite what I wrote in “Askew” and my own reservations about the US, which is much harder to define in its complexity than simply good or evil, for the time being I am meant to be here and I accept that. It’s good for my sons and I am thankful for that. It’s good for me too, and I am only just beginning to realize the many ways that that is true. Great good abounds, yes, as I have said before, but so does great evil. Just as there is every sort of terrain imaginable: mountain, desert, forest, prairie, tundra, and frozen waste; just as there is every possible assemblage of humankind, from tiny village to overwhelming metropolis; so there is also every imaginable spiritual entity, from saints, sages, and intellectual geniuses to child beaters, robbers of the poor, and mass murderers.
The US itself is not good or bad; it just is. It’s not just the sum of every individual in the country; it’s also the laws, customs, culture, and creeds by which they live; it’s also the land itself from which through its scars we can read its history, a history that goes much farther back than the founding of this particular country which at the moment claims it.
Each person is on their own quest for truth. Well, let me qualify that. Some have abandoned the quest; some have got sidetracked, thinking they have found their goal though they have only dug up fool’s gold; some have got trapped by their bad choices along the way and find it difficult to extricate themselves. But we are all searching. My boys see this country one way; I see it another. But we are all meant to be here for now. Our destinies have brought us here. Whether eventually they will lead us elsewhere again, who can say? For now, though, this is the place where we make our stand.
Whether this has answered my son’s question or not, I am unsure. Even in my own mind it’s an ongoing topic for rumination.