[Note: this post expresses political opinions.]
And the three men I admire most – the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost – they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died. – Don McLean
It’s been a long, rough, crazy week. We’ve learned about “alternative facts.” We’ve watched branches of our government being put under gag orders, only to resurface as defiant rogue groups on Facebook and Twitter. (Bravo, @altUSEPA. Bravo, @RogueNASA.) We’ve seen sweeping and sudden legislation, the first winds of major – and for many of us, most unwelcome – changes coming. We’ve seen an amazing show of unity and determination from the women of this country and around the world. A lot of us have been caught in a swirl of worry and fear, trying to find a way forward, trying to decide how to put one foot in front of the other when we have no idea what the coming days are going to bring.
I’ve been on a seesaw. Sometimes I’m ready to work: either to get down to my own writing or music, or to jump into some kind of activism, however small. Other times, like the day I’m writing this, I feel drained, and wonder what I can possibly do about anything. I’ve signed countless petitions. I’ve donated to groups who will fight for the issues I care about most: the environment, civil rights and equality, the arts. I’ve done my own small project to try to support an organization that helps students in under-served communities: communities that, I have too much reason to fear, our new President and his administration will ignore. Every day, there’s a fresh load of bad news. I wonder how much any one of us – or even all of us together – can do to stop it.
I was driving home from work tonight and turned on the radio to catch the last couple of verses of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Truth be told (without alternative facts), I have no idea what that song is about, but singing along with it tonight was cathartic. Somehow it was exactly the right soundtrack.
And as I watched him on the stage, my hands were clenched in fists of rage…I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died.
American Pie. I belted out those lyrics, driving in the dark, and I thought about Satan laughing on the stage, and the fires rising, and I thought about the immigrants that our new administration wants to keep out, and the wall they want to build, and the new laws they want to pass.I thought about the day the music died and how those words could mean so many things: the end of an era, the loss of hope, the end of decency and truth and compassion. And I thought, for the first time in a long time, about that word American.
My great-grandparents came here from Lithuania and Hungary, from England and Wales. I’ve always identified most strongly with my Lithuanian family, because I know their story the best. I know that my great-grandmother Ona Dubinekas made the staggering decision, at age 16, to leave her family’s farm in Vilnius and cross the ocean alone to meet her brothers in New York. I know about the coal miner she married, how he died young of black lung disease, and how Ona was left alone to raise their four children, one of them my grandmother.
I’ve always been proud of my heritage. Tonight, though, I also started thinking about what it meant that my ancestors made the decisions they did. That they chose to come here, knowing that they would most likely never see their homes again. That, even if they never considered themselves “American,” which I know my great-grandmother never did, they knew their children would be, and all the generations after.
American Pie. I’m an eighties child, but those images from the fifties and sixties are part of my cultural memory. “American” is what I am. I haven’t thought too often about what that means, and lately, I haven’t found much reason to be proud of it. But when I think about that young woman leaving Lithuania, braving the ocean crossing by herself, coming to a new country to set down roots and raise her children: when I think of her, I think maybe I should honor the choice she made a little more.
My great-grandmother is buried in a cemetery outside Plains, Pennsylvania, the coal town where she and her husband lived. It’s in the Pocono Mountains.The wind is restless up there, often fierce. The Lithuanian immigrants in Plains chose to be buried there because the wind reminded them of home. I often think that for Ona, a rebel and adventurer in a time when women were supposed to be neither, the wind probably also reminded her of herself.
Where am I going with all this? It’s almost one in the morning, and I’m tired, and it’s been an overwhelming several days. I’m trying to figure out what to do next. It’s easy to feel lost.
I’m thinking, though, about that idea of American. About the Chevy and the levee, picket fences and apple pie, the American dream. My grandparents born on this side of the ocean, and my great-grandparents born on the other. About what it means to live in this country, to be one of its citizens, in these times.
Am I angry now? Yes. Am I scared? Absolutely. But I think about those words the day the music died, and I think about the woman who decided to come here, and the countless other men and women who have made the same choice, who are making the same choice, and who have made this country what it is.
To all of them, I say: we will find a way forward. We will not let the music die.