Lunar Refractions: I’ve Gone to Look for America

Oxbowlagoon00 I write you now from a sand dune in Michigan, an entirely new state for me. I’m on an oxbow-shaped lagoon near Saugatuck, and when I first heard that name the Simon and Garfunkel song America got immediately stuck in my head: “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw / I’ve gone to look for America…,” just replace Saginaw with Saugatuck (something a native Michiganer would likely never do).

I suppose I’ve been looking for America since childhood, and now that I go abroad for a few weeks each summer the search has taken on new forms. When I was a kid my brother and I collected state magnets on family trips; our refrigerator became quite full, but—symptom of being born on one of the coasts—there remained huge gaps in the middle, between the parentheses of the western and eastern coasts. I now call these magnets a part of my former “checklist” approach to looking for America.

Oxbowlagoon02On my travels I’ve encountered many others who are also looking for America. A teaching assistantship at a summer arts institute brought me to this particular sand dune, and last night I met the class; during introductions one of the students, Jeong-Suk, said her name but then explained that her name (her “other” name, her “real” name now) is Christin, pronounced “Kristin.” The professor I’m working with was highly bothered by this; I see it as an understandable attempt at assimilation, and Jeong-Suk/Christin is clearly well on her way to finding her America.

Oxbowlagoon03_3It’s a lot like the quintessentially American summer camp here; much like the one I went to as a kid, but without those weird songs that I never understood until years later, when I figured out they were religious—“Morning is here, the board is spread, thanks be to God, who gives us bread…”. It had never occurred to me that saying grace before a meal had to do with divine grace. I suppose such sayings predate the addition of “under God” to our hotly contested national pledge. In any case, the search for America cannot overlook its various religions, no matter how much you might prefer it to.

After being out of the country for six weeks, on the eight-hour flight home (after entertaining the idea of a movie, but declining because I was undecided between two US- and UK productions, Blades of Glory and 28 Weeks Later) I got to thinking about just why I’d followed such a crazy itinerary this summer, London–Sisteron–Milan–Palermo–Rome–Oxford–Saugatuck. Absorbing so much in so little time is absolutely impossible. There’s always the reason of work—clients to meet with, research to do, old texts to complete and new ones to begin—but it takes more than that to get me on a plane (or six) now that massive delays and lost luggage have become the norm. Aside from visiting friends, going to their weddings, and attending an annual papermakers’ conference, I realized this search was one of the things driving me.

Oxbowlagoon01_2The bell has just rung to begin the half-hour countdown to breakfast and class. It reminds me of the oversize, wrought iron triangle that hung on our back porch, which my mother would ring to call us in from summertime evening games in neighbors’ back yards. In the Simon and Garfunkel song, arriving in Pittsburgh Paul reflects on where he’s come from: “Michigan seems like a dream to me now…”. It does to me, too. I’ve never been happier to have gone looking for—and return, however temporarily to—America.

Previous Lunar Refractions can be read here.