I Am an American

Shot of three buildings taken looking upward. Behind them, you can see the blue sky with a few clouds. The building in the forefront is to the left of the screen, tan, and has large windows. On a pole strung from the side is an American flag. The flag hangs limply. To the right of the frame, a tall metallic looking building with cross-cross panels of light and dark fills the sky. Behind the flag, in the background, is a tiered building that has a turret and tower at the top.I refresh the page, I refresh the page, I turn away for a few minutes, I teach a class for seventy-five minutes, I sit in a meeting for sixty minutes, and on the way to the meeting, on the way back to my office from the class, with my iPhone in my palm, at the computer on my desk, I refresh the page, I refresh the page, looking for the latest news, hopping over to Facebook for reactions to the morning’s tweets, back to the Times for an update on the latest leak and his response to the leak, looking for the next lie, on alert for the latest outrageously offensive remark.

These are my days now, my nights.

Work is an interruption. A chat with a friend is a partial interruption—for it’s impossible to get through even a short chat without a sigh, without alarm, without reference to what he’s doing and who he’s doing it to now. Picking up my prescription, reading what I’ve assigned my class (Joy Harjo! The Buddha’s Brain!), FaceTime with my grandson—these are interruptions, distractions.

I am a citizen now. I turn my attention back to the news.

What am I doing? What am I doing with you, news, what are you doing with me, news, not the full range of news:  Travel, Arts & Leisure, Sunday Styles, but the single-pointed concentration on news and opinion pieces on that man?

Am I obsessively refreshing the page because there is some urgency now, breaking news is breaking news? Am I changing channels to chase the news from CNN to ABC because it’s moving so fast and I am desperate to keep up or risk being uninformed and unprepared when they come for the air I breathe, the water I drink, the very earth on which I walk, stand, and hope to lie down in, one day, for my final rest—when they come to turn it into money for themselves, a pittance for us?

Ah, at last my fears of phantom threats have been replaced with fear of a genuine threat to creation, one man and his loyalists, but who is the one man, who is the loyalist? Is Trump the man and are Bannon and Miller the loyalists? Or are Bannon-Miller the one man and is Trump the loyalist? Whatever.

The threat is real, the threat to creation, to all of creation, from grammar to imagination, from fMRI to choice to compassion.

I learned long ago never to be angry. I learned that if I ever were angry, I shouldn’t express it. Good boy that I am, good sixty-three-year-old boy that I am, I have done what I’ve been told. When, from time to time, anger has arisen, I’ve tried to reason it away without letting it leak out, and when I couldn’t reason the anger away, I scolded, battered myself, my heart, for my misbehaving inner life.

Now, he’s given me a reason to let the anger live, let it grow. Somehow, letting it be inside me has been making me feel more complete, more whole. I am large enough to contain it. And when I let it move me to speak, to act, I act and speak not out of anger but out of love, which, after all, is the flower that justified, righteous, holy anger becomes when it’s given the soil and nutrients which it needs to grow.

Sadness, too. Thanks to what I hear on NPR, what I read in The New York Times, that’s alive in me, too, a sadness that I have never before experienced.

Saddened, most recently, by the way the man who holds the highest office in the United States of America treated Jake Turx, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish reporter, at a press conference. Turx respectfully asked the President if the government had plans to respond to an “uptick in anti-Semitism.” “There are people committing anti-Semitic acts or threatening to…”

That’s where our President cut the young reporter off, saying Turx’s question was unfair, then ordering him to sit down, stating “I understand the rest of your question.” When Turx tried to clarify that he wasn’t suggesting that the President is anti-Semitic, the President shouted over him, “Quiet, quiet, quiet.”

I’m sad, just sad, that this behavior, this man’s rudeness, this man’s refusal to listen, to hear anyone other than himself, is rewarded with power, a certain kind of power, a power that empowers others to behave in the same unkind, disrespectful way.

I am a man of uncertainty. Of reluctance to question or challenge “authority.” Am I cured of this disease by finding proof on every page, every screen, on every American street at every hour that this man, this “official,” is crude, cruel, corrupt, and filled with contempt?

Or am I sick, infected with this moment’s story?

Am I being eaten alive from within by this story, this story that devours every story—the story of every child born to undocumented immigrants and educated here growing up here and contributing to the well-being of our country, the story of every world leader who must suffer the limited attention and impulsive mouth and badly wired mind of this man, the story of every stream in America, the story of every hope for escape from horror to a place where, with the help of a few friendly neighbors, a family can piece together a decent life, a life of decency?

I read the news. I speak and listen to others. And here’s what I know, what I’ve never seen as clearly in my sixty-three years as I do now: I am American. This man has made me an American. An American: I think. I protest. I resist. I work to make things fair and equal to all.

I welcome all to my home, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my nation. I love. I vote.

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Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Door-post (forthcoming in March 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the De-sert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poet-ry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spir-itual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at www.richardchess.com

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