It is rare that I drive. Technically I haven’t had a car in nearly 8 years. Part financial choice, part environmental effort. I have the privilege of living and working along a rail track, in a country that has good mass transportation.
And I have access to borrow or rent cars when I “need” them.
But I have been driving quite a bit since the pandemic began and the government asked us not to use public transportation.
I can’t say I’ve missed driving. But I have missed being alone in a car. Having lived either in apartments or with other people all my life, it has been the only place I could belt out a “good” rendition of Cabaret in my fantasy production. Or have a really, really good cry.
I don’t cry enough anymore. But yesterday, on the way to work, I did. It took me by surprise. It usually does. It’s like an unpredictable spring well that needs emptying now and then, and you never know what’s going to tip it over the top.
Before Christmas, I did a bit of screaming. But that’s not the same thing at all.
Yesterday the principal asked all of the teachers to discuss the events in the United States with the students. I didn’t teach until after lunch, and I was still puffy-eyed when I got to class, so I was happy when they said they’d already talked about it in their morning classes.
But then one student asked me if it was emotionally difficult for me — since I no longer live there. I said it was emotionally difficult for me because I no longer live there.
I tried not to talk too much about my experience as an immigrant, but I did tell them about listening to the New Year’s speech last week. The king’s — my king’s — annual speech always begins with the choir singing God Save the King. Which, in my mind, has been hardwired from childhood as My Country, ’Tis of Thee. It is always extremely uncomfortable to hear. It’s like an accusation of treason. My grandfather fought in WWII and was involved in the Korean War. He served 25 years, then worked as a postman for another 25 years. He was angry when I said I was moving to Norway. On weekly phone calls, he did his share to keep me up to date on politics. Kept me informed on his senator’s dealings. Made sure I voted and would eventually “come home” to the “greatest country in the world”.
I have never regretted giving up my citizenship. I have seen enough of America to know that if I were to lose my job and Norway send me back (as they have some people) I would be without resources of any sort. A Ph.D. in a bloated field that, if I were lucky, would land me some adjunct positions that might pay the gas to get me back and forth and between gigs every day. But at my age — and with each year that passes, even that is not something I could count on.
I worked at shelters while I was an undergraduate in Texas. I’d lived brief periods of my childhood 4 adults and 3 children in a single-wide trailer. Slept on army cots in walk-in closets. At the age of 23, having no family, a professor kept me off the streets for six months while I found a new job and saved up a deposit for an apartment. I know what my situation would be as an older woman with no resources. I know the catch 22s of the system there. Once you fall out, it is nearly impossible to get back in without significant help.
I made a practical choice. I work my 9 to 5, pay 44% taxes, and have necessary health care and a secure-as-it-gets pension. I won’t risk that in the name of patriotism. No matter how guilty I feel.
When 9/11 happened, I didn’t feel guilty about being here. I was still a citizen, but I felt displaced. My friends still in the States, from California to Kentucky to Michigan all wrote to tell me about how “we” were feeling — assuming I was outside of the “we” affected. When Norwegians consoled me, it was difficult to shake the feeling of being some kind of fraud. I didn’t know how to feel. Which feelings were “legitimate” for me to have, and which I was appropriating. I kept hearing my grandmother calling me a drama queen.
When the children were murdered here on July 22nd, 2011 a lot of my students told me how “we” felt about it — sometimes describing the cultural framework of Utøya, not considering that I’ve lived longer in this country than they’ve been alive. Or that my own children were in that age group that was most intimately affected.
Recent years have been even more difficult. No longer holding legal citizenship, and no longer recognizing the culture I knew, it’s almost like having an out-of-body experience sometimes. Hovering over an old life. Like a character in Sartre’s No Exit. Or like watching loved ones heading for a car wreck, helpless to intercede.
Distance helps you find different perspectives. While different doesn’t mean more correct, but I do think it means more complex. It’s why there are grants for emerging American writers to live abroad a while before returning to write about their home country. I thought that having grown up in a white-trash dysfunctional family, I was savvy to the “real” America. But being here, I’ve learned things about the hidden realities of the culture I thought I knew.
But lately, I think I am having the same kind of epiphanies that so many Americans are: every myth I was taught in school — from the Cherry Tree to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — has been turned on end, toppled like theater scenography. Part of it is just a matter of maturing, I guess — a matter of crossing demographics and cultural boundaries. The fact that social media has made diversity more visible to many of us.
A huge part of it is the BLM movement.
I don’t think I am finished crying about Wednesday’s seizure of the Capitol Building. I don’t think the chapter has closed. The hand-wringing and helplessness seem both familiar and not. This out-of-body experience seems like something many of us are sharing right now.
There’s the scene in the Wizard of Oz: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
I feel like the curtain has been drawn back and I still am waiting for whatever is there to step out of the darkness.
And yet — here I am — at a safe distance. There’ll be shock waves, for certain, even so many miles away, with so many borders between. But still — too often it feels like self-conscious rubber-necking.
Is it my family? My friend? My colleague there? Is this my pain?
Once again your words resonate with me, “I feel like the curtain has been drawn back and I still am waiting for whatever is there to step out of the darkness.”
America is shrouded in darkness. It will be a glorious day when we feel safe and see daylight again.
Thank you for taking the time to say so. It is nice to know I am not feeling these things alone. May America (and by extension the rest of the world) feel safe again soon – and with cause!
[…] Ren Powell, Things I Do Alone in the Car […]
OK – so this both moving and brilliant. So many aspects to comment on but I’ll’ start with this: How, in retrospect, wise you were to choose a sane country with a strong social safety net and social welfare system. And how wise to do so while young enough to settle culturally into a new society and know the language and feel at home. Yes – there will always be that sense of dislocation, but you are in the good place, the good society, the good community that cares for its citizens. America does not, and never has, and probably never will. The forces of white supremacy run deep and they are so easily exploited by the forces of big money and unfettered capitalism to ensure there will never be systemic and lasting progress. It’s a combustible and toxic mix that sits like a weighty blanket on all the aspirations, efforts and decency of the majority. Until America finally comes to terms with the legacy of the crime and sin of slavery and settles the Civil War once and for good there will be no significant social growth
Yesterday my students were talking and one mentioned that this isn’t even about politics, it’s about “my side” and “your side”. And I agree with you – these sides seem to be rooted in racism. It’s all so horrible. Sending you warm thoughts and hope.