As you know, I’m working on a new musical adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. I thought I’d have hours to write lyrics and make up tunes, alone at the house all day while C and my in-laws fry like hushpuppies in the mid-day sun at the beach, but I’ve mostly been reading, and thinking, and gazing. Lots of gazing. And snoozing. What could be sweeter than dozing off in the middle of a paragraph, sitting on a plastic Adirondack chair on the roof of a rented house at the top of a hill with a view of the blue, blue ocean?
The book I’m reading is Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, which, if I’d come across it a few months ago, might have derailed (which is not to say that I wouldn’t have loved it, because it’s a book made for me to love) might have derailed my own sort of fast and loose line (but less like a line and more like a quilt or a pair of darned socks) of thought connecting the Puritans to the mid-19th century and to Reagan and then on to America’s various current wars in the Middle East along with the latest peck-peck-pecking of assorted so-called Christians against women and anyone else they think is being treated too kindly.
It’s a beautiful book, funny and at times very moving (in that American Studies way) and almost too eerily on the nose, as I said. (There’s a photo of Ms. Vowell on the dust jacket, and I kept looking at it trying to remember where I’d seen it and why I felt strangely irritated by it when suddenly yesterday afternoon I remembered that the same photo had accompanied a New York Times op-ed piece I had kind of hated a couple months ago. I had liked the writing but hated the conclusion, which at the time I felt was a bit cowardly. So, remembering my first impression of her writing made me feel even more fond of the book. I’m glad I didn’t realize it was her book before I was way into it and loving it, or I may have either had a chip on my shoulder and been unmoved or possibly not read the book at all.
Anyway, great book. I recommend it, even to those who aren’t already lovers of Puritan trivia and America’s founding ideas.
So, Puerto Rico. One big point on which I diverge with Vowell is that she, despite the harsh criticism she levels, retains a love and faith and optimism regarding America’s uniqueness and promise. I’m struggling. This year I’m really struggling. I’ve always till now felt like the ideal of American democracy could be set apart from all the monstrous things, like slavery, like the slaughter of the indigenous people, like the horrific way we treat our poor and sick, that even though we are flawed and stunted we aspire to justice and equality. Even through the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions I kept hope. Since I discovered Thoreau in 8th grade I’ve thought of my impulse to dissent as the most “American” thing about me. Americans are people who become aware of injustice and they protest. That’s what I thought, and that’s how, even in the face of Vietnam, Reagan, Nicaragua, the government’s response to AIDS, NAFTA, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, I never lost faith.
What’s caused me to lose my grip is the Senate’s torture report – and not the report but the response to it, the bleak news that most Americans are really kind of okay with torturing people. It’s hard to ignore what seems so incredibly clear: that this is who we are, a people who want people whom we feel threatened by to suffer the most intense pain we can imagine and implement.
My life is pretty near perfect, so should I be complaining? I’ve quit my day job. I’m a full-time, independent artist now. I’m only 53, so I hope I have at least a couple decades left to get some work done faster than ever before now that I have suddenly so many more hours in a day. My mother’s health is worlds better this holiday season than last. C’s parents, in lieu of presents and decorating and baking treated us all to a week here in this transportingly and unexpectedly gorgeous place. Until yesterday I would have said I didn’t much care for the ocean, but it turns out it was only the Atlantic (which is trying only to do one thing and that is to kill you) that was my enemy. Here the water beckons, warm and cerulean and softly rolling onto the shore. It wants to lick your face, not bite it off.
The whole family has been piling into the rented SUV with piles of beach chairs and sandwiches, leaving me here to my own devices until 3, when C comes back to fetch me and ice and happy hour bourbon and cokes, so I can enjoy paradise on my own terms -- which means avoiding the blazing mid-day sun and the unpleasantness of my head swelling up like the Goodyear Blimp and then slowly over the course of a week draining out through my sinuses.
Maybe it doesn’t help that I’m doing this year-end reckoning in a place not only beautiful but also so directly connected to 1) Spain’s first voyages to this part of the world and their prompt slaughter and enslavement of the native people they encountered and looting of the land’s resources, and 2) the United States’s first all-out imperial war at the turn of the 20th century. The landscape is prettier than the history.
But maybe I should take heart. The island of Vieques, where I am spending a week with my in-laws in a rented house at the top of a hill with a view of the blue, blue ocean is also the site of one of the most inspiring protests in the history of civil disobedience, where the United States Navy, who had seized most of the island, wrecked the local economy, and left the already poor farmers homeless and even poorer, was after decades of protest forced to leave. Now the land they had used for test bombing and war training is a protected wilderness.