28 November 2008

The Ones Who Left

When I was in college, I once spent an afternoon with a British professor. He was a guest at our school and I was tasked with escorting him from place to place.

Naturally, we talked quite a bit. At first, we chatted about the differences between British and American colleges and universities. I was horrified to learn that, in Britain, changing majors was not just discouraged, it was frowned upon. In fact, according to him, after a certain point, if one decided to change their major, they had to go back and start at the very beginning, as if they were just starting school. Seeing as how, at the time, I was changing my mind, and my major on a weekly basis, I would have had a problem.

“What do you think is the biggest difference between Britain and America?” I asked, sincerely curious.

“Well, the one thing I have noticed when working with Americans is that, you decide to do something, and jump right in and start doing it. When you encounter a problem, you figure out a way over, under, or around it, and keep going. When you come to another problem, you figure out a way over, under, or around it, and keep going.”

“In Britain, what happens is, someone comes up with an idea, and we all sit around and think of all the potential problems we could possibly encounter if we did it. Eventually, if the list gets long enough, we give up.”

“The only thing I can attribute this to is, we are the ones that stayed behind.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, everyone here, no matter who they are or where they are originally from, at some point, either they themselves, or one of their ancestors, got on a boat or a plane, left everything and everyone they knew behind, and came here. We, who still live in Britain, and Europe and wherever else, went down to the dock, looked at the cramped, smelly ship and the wide open ocean, thought of all the bad things that could happen, turned around, and went home. We stayed behind.”

I had never thought of it quite that way, but it made perfect sense. It was true of course; all of us came from somewhere else. Whether we came ashore at Plymouth Rock, or Ellis Island, or LAX, we all can trace our lineage to “the Old Country” (except Native Americans of course. Sorry about the whole stealing your land and genocide thing. It wasn’t my idea, I swear).

Today, we fly back and forth over the world in record time, but for most of human history, the world was a lot bigger, travel took a lot longer, and was a lot more dangerous. For the Pilgrims, and folks like William Penn, who my ancestors came over with, the trip to America took six weeks at least, longer if they ran into bad weather. And, they could never be absolutely certain they would make it at all.

Even if the ship itself managed to avoid sinking or running aground, disease was rampant, especially on a cramped ship without modern plumbing (if you know what I mean). Even if they made it, they faced a vast untamed wilderness populated with lions and tigers and bears (well, bears anyway), not to mention Native Americans who, once they caught on, were not all that overjoyed to see them. It was the luck of the draw.

In her new bookThe Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell describes the Puritans gathered at Southampton, waiting to depart for the Massachusetts Bay Colony this way:

“These people...are scared. There's a boat in the harbor that just might sail them to their deaths. They may never see their friends again until heaven (or hell, depending how this dumb plan goes). For years they've grumbled that England is a cesspool governed by an immoral king under the spell of the Whore of Babylon, which is their cute nickname for the pope. But now that it's time to light out, their dear old mother country seems so cozy, all warm beds and warm beer and days of auld lang syne.”

They were scared. They were facing an uncertain voyage. They might die long before reaching the Promised Land. They might die all too soon after reaching the Promised Land. They could have stayed behind, but they didn’t. They overcame their fear. They boarded the ship. They left.

In Ireland, before an emigrant left for America, their family held what has come to be known as an "American Wake." It was a time for friends and family to gather and say goodbye to the soon to be departed, because, in all likelihood, they would never see each other again. It was one thing to leave, it was quite another to come back.

Even today, with planes, trains, and automobiles, cell phones, email and instant messenger, the move is a daunting one. It never ceases to amaze me how many people make the move to this country completely alone.

Sure the plane ride over here is pretty smooth, and once here, you can call your loved ones back home and tell them that you got here OK. You can post a journal on a blog and stay in contact with friends on facebook, but, when you hang up the phone, and shut off the computer, there is no escaping that you are thousands of miles from home, a stranger in a strange land, and you are on your own. It takes a certain type of person to do that. A brave one.

And let’s not forget those who are boarding homemade rafts and paddling 90 miles over open ocean, or dodging the Minutemen and the Border Patrol in the Mexican desert just to get here. We can debate what to do about it, how to stem the tide, but that doesn’t change the fact that it takes a certain kind of person to do that as well.

Seeing as how I live a work within 20 minutes of where I grew up, I am quite certain I would have stayed behind given the option. But I live where I live today because my ancestors boarded a ship and sailed from Holland never to return; because my great-grandfather left the family homestead in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and set out for the “Big City” of Chicago; because my grandfather left the mean streets of Chicago for the relative tranquility of suburban New Jersey;because my father left his hometown of Nutley, and moved an hour away to stake his claim in suburban New York. Change any part of that chain of events and my life would have turned out much different

Perhaps the one thing that truly unites us; that allows us to live in relative harmony despite our diversity of race and religion; our differences of opinion on politics, global warming, and Barry Manilow; the one thing that gives us all the right to call ourselves Americans, whatever our point of origin, is the fact that we are the ones who left.