Thursday, 31 August 2017

Roots and Shoots: Or, Moving Forward by Looking Back

The week that Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S., I started writing this blog.

. . . or, tearing my hair
like a repressed '50s housewife?
Outside of throwing up, tearing my hair out like an Old Testament prophet, or remaining permanently in the fetal position I assumed on the morning of November 9, 2016, I couldn't think of what else to do. I am, after all, a writer. Why not try to write my way through the angst and grief I was feeling?

I didn't have much of a plan beyond that, but I did think this blog would focus on the present moment -- the present moment in U.S. politics, and the present moment in my life as a U.S. expatriate in England. While I gradually became more and more at home here in England, I thought I might have something to say about understanding and living with cultural differences. As someone who's spent time in various countries over the years, I thought I might also have something to say about tolerance, openness, seeing life from someone else's perspective.

Last November, I thought this might be the best response I could make to the fact that approximately half the voters in my native country thought Trump should be president.

But a strange thing happened along the way.

I meant to write about England -- about my present life here, about my future on this side of the Atlantic. But instead, nine times out of ten, I found myself looking back.

Many of these posts on "Wuthering Yankee" have been about my youth or my childhood. Or they've reached farther back, to my parents' lives -- or to the lives of my uncles and aunts, or to my grandparents' lives. None of this was part of the original vision, insofar as I had one.

I haven't been home since the 2016 elections, but in the past year the U.S. has become a wildly volatile and -- if I've reading the news from there correctly -- a wildly unhappy place. In some ways, my homeland has come unmoored. Jumped the tracks. Lost its center. All sorts of unsettling metaphors seem to apply, and for a cogent, thoughtful description of the sense of derealisation many of us have felt during these first months of the Trump presidency, I urge you to read my friend Emily Sinclair's brilliant essay in Empty Mirror.

A political moment like this one, in which many U.S. Americans no longer feel at home in their own country -- when we feel deeply opposed to many of our own government's policies, deeply opposed to the alliances and ideologies of our president -- is also, perhaps necessarily, a moment of reckoning. If we feel alienated from our own country, who are we, then? Where does our identity lie?

"Remember who you are and whose you are," my mother admonished me, all through my teens, whenever I walked out the front door. She said it so often, I heard the sentence sometimes in my sleep. As a very young woman striving for autonomy, I did not love this invocation. I wanted to move forward -- out into the ever broadening world -- and my mother, I thought, only wanted me to look back: Who were my people? How had they shaped me? As I moved further out and further away from my family of origin and my original community, how would their legacies inform my life choices?

My family, at about the time my mother
started telling me to remember.
These were questions I wasn't much interested in. Not till recently, anyway.

In the past 10 months of writing this blog, I see now that I've been doing essentially what my mother urged me to do, all those years ago as I left home. I've been remembering who I am, and whose I am.

In the midst of great political instability in the U.S., I've looked to ground or re-ground myself by remembering the place that I come from. By "place" I don't mean a physical place, necessarily. I mean more of a spiritual, or philosophical, one. A place where guests are always welcome at the dinner table, where lending a helping hand is second nature, and where traveling to different parts of the world is not so much an excuse to indulge yourself and your senses as it is a chance to meet people from and learn about those other parts of the world.
I'm still so grateful that my parents took me and my 
sister Linda to Nigeria when we were 3 and 5. 
It's one of my earliest and most formative memories.

Ten months after I started this blog, I see that what I most needed -- out of the volatile mix of rage and heartbrokenness that I felt after the U.S. elections -- was to celebrate the culture of love and acceptance that shaped me from before my birth.

It's not a terribly radical or politicized response to the troubling context in the U.S. I acknowledge that. But before we can speak truth to power, we have to know - to feel firmly grounded in -- to remember -- what our own truths are

I plan to end this blog soon, probably after my very next post, in early September. I may have come to the juncture where I've looked back enough -- at least for now -- and am ready to orient forward. One event that's pulling my attention forward right now is the publication of my first book, Day of All Saints, forthcoming from Miami University Press on November 1.

It's thrilling, of course, to see a book take shape -- to see your own messy manuscript pages become, well, a real thing, with a beautiful cover. I'm so grateful to Jeff Clark of Quemadura Designs for the thoughtful cover he created for Day of All Saints. Can you see, underneath the flowers, that there's a photograph -- somewhat ghostly? The photo is of a young guerrilla soldier in the Ixcán, the region of Guatemala where part of the story takes place.* 

I finished writing Day of All Saints in the final months of 2016. I revised it, with much help from the good people at Miami U.P., through the past winter and spring. In the background always was the despair-inducing news from the Trump White House. It's been enough, sometimes, to paralyze any sane, thinking person. And sometimes I've been paralyzed.

But delving back into the place I come from, as this blog allowed me to do, has been a way to draw strength for the day's work. Recalling the people I come from --  people who emphasize love of the Other, and being unafraid of the world's differences -- has been one way to keep pushing forward, even in the face of the anger and despair that news from my home country has stirred up routinely this year.

Remember who you are and whose you are. I'd never have guessed, decades ago -- as my mother shouted this sentence at my departing back, every time she got a chance -- that looking back in this way would give me energy when I most needed it. That it would re-ground me when I felt most ungrounded. This year of all years -- this first year of the Trump presidency -- I do remember my spiritual roots: Anabaptism, pacifism, activism for a more socially just world. I do remember my philosophical home: a place where I have no more or less right to sit down at the table than anyone else on this planet.

I look backward -- sometimes: like this -- to ultimately keep looking forward.

* I'm excited to talk about Day of All Saints and to share it with anyone who's interested. Early next winter, I'll return to the U.S. for a short book tour, and if you're in conversation with me on Facebook or Twitter, you'll hear plenty about it -- perhaps more than you want! -- over the coming months. And it's available now for pre-order at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Amazon UK.


  1. wow-- I hate for you to close this blog!! I have so enjoyed your memories -- and some great new ones since our trip to see you---in England this summer

    1. Thank you, Wally! I'm so glad to hear you've enjoyed this writing, even as I plan to draw it to an end. You've been a lovely supporter! Maybe I'll pick it up again later -- who knows? But for now I want to focus on my fiction writing.