On Sunday afternoon, I joined a hundred or so women in Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland. What began as an invitation to a small gathering in a friend’s living-room had expanded, within a week, into this bigger, sprawling, holy-seeming space with a stage and a ballroom, a balcony and curtained side-rooms, where we broke out into smaller groups to talk and listen and think and feel and share and organize.
A common cause connected us but, within that cause, our various and differing concerns and motivations nested like so many matryoshka dolls within the single, steeple-roofed space and, indeed, within our very selves. I helped at the check-in table and explained that, for logistical reasons, and to facilitate focused and meaningful conversation, everyone would have to select a single topic to participate in that day: Education, Gun Control, Immigration, LGBTQ rights, Healthcare and Reproductive Rights, and Energy and the Environment.
Their faces said it all as their pens hovered over the sign-up sheets. How to choose? Where to begin? How to prioritize when there is so much at stake and everything, everything, is so vital and urgent and cannot, cannot, wait?
Those who know me know that, these past couple of years, I have been grappling with Time: the ways in which I squander it and how, knowing those ways, will I live my days from here? Few would argue that ‘activism’ is a poor use of one’s time but, accepting that we cannot do everything there is to do, how do we decide what our activism will be and look like, how do we choose what to do, where do we place our time and energy, to which people, and in which place?
In which place?
I am not from here.
I am a Permanent Resident of the United States, though the cynic or Buddhist in me smiles whenever I hear the word ‘permanent’ or ‘united’. I sometimes think of myself as an Alien, feeling, as I often do, as though I am living on a strange planet, trying in vain and in pain and in anger and frustration to understand.
I was born and raised in Dublin. I am Irish. European. I am white. A few weeks ago, an older white woman engaged me on the bus. She was planning on voting for Trump and spoke at length about “those immigrants” and “those people”. I didn’t say much. I live in a progressive, tolerant, loving, echo chamber and was, frankly, fascinated to be talking to one of “those people,” but eventually I must have said something because she noticed my accent and asked me where I’m from. “I’m Irish,” I said. “Ohhhhh!” she said, her face lighting up the way people often do here when they hear that. “Yes,” I said, “I’m an immigrant.”
The woman’s smile faded and her eyes flickered in recognition at the trap I’d laid for her, a trap she stammered and stuttered her way out of, or tried to. A Latino man to our left smiled. It was a sweetish moment, in the moment, but I wonder now what he was smiling at. The old white woman and her racism and inconsistent thinking. Or the younger white woman and her cleverness and privilege. Both he and I know that I am not and never will be an ‘Immigrant’, and all that word implies.
In the days following the election results, unlike so many citizens, so many Americans, this pale alien could walk freely down the street and nobody was telling me to go home or that my time here was up. Unlike so many Americans, I was not harassed or intimidated or violently assaulted. Nobody looks at my face, my skin, my body and wants to end it, wills or wishes me out of existence. I get to make wry comments about permanence and the phrasing of my status but my status remains unquestioned and intact. I can play at being E.T., pointing my finger and saying, “America. Beeeee goooooood,” and pretend that I’m outside it all when, in fact, I am terribly within it and blend in all too well.
I get to say who and what I am. I have at least a dozen identities at my disposal. We all contain multitudes, but I get to live them and can be this thing before breakfast and this other thing after lunch and who will I be tomorrow and what will I do and where will I go?
I thought about it. I hunted out my Irish passport, put it in a safe spot.
It is an option, and it comforts me to know I have a place to run away to but then I think of Virginia Woolf and her words in the essay, Three Guineas.
“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
Woolf was writing about the connection between patriarchy, war and fascism, and a patriotism that fights and kills for rights and freedoms that she, as a women, had not shared and probably would never share. But when I read it now in this globalized, highly interconnected world, it takes on another meaning and I see that there is no place to run to: that there is a link between America and that little Syrian boy and his face in the sand on a beach in Turkey; that there is a farmer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland who is under threat of being forcibly removed from his land to make way for the Orange Man’s luxury golf resort; that rising seas and famine and drought will come for all of us; that there is no place on earth that is untouched by the same forces of hatred and injustice and denial that we face in this place.
So, no. No going home. Going home is not an option because wherever I am, I am already there. And there is work to do inside of myself and right outside my front door.