This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 8)

VIII.

I cannot escape my Americanism. I’ve got that flat, American accent. American pragmatism and optimism inform how I approach the world. Though here I’m, “So, Where are you from? Certainly not from here.” Abroad, I was always gringo. Any disavowal of the nation that took in my immigrant ancestors from Scotland centuries ago, even though it then forced the children those ancestors had with southeastern tribes to uproot to Oklahoma, would be disingenuous. And even though, as the story goes, my father’s great-grandfather walked off the reservation as a teenager to become a West Texas cotton farmer, this was not a story we were told. Not, at least, until I was fifteen. Where you are from, West Texas, the Nation West, Puerto Rico, Scotland, southeastern Virginia, these places never really mattered.

What mattered was if you were on that train, heaven bound.

Despite my discomfort with the U.S., like a good American, something at the core of our national experiment attracts me. At the end of the 18th century, Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan land-owner and intellectual, traveled the original 13 states. How courts followed the rule of law, how the nation was structured around the small family farm, rather than the large plantation, amazed him. Neither rule of law nor small family farms existed in Spanish Colonial America, where large plantations were the norm and money and power bought you rights and privileges and placed you beyond the law. I think of de Miranda’s travels and think if only the cultivation of one’s garden were the national virtue, if rule of law was not a privilege principally afforded to the powerful, if all races, all creeds, all nations were always welcomed and given home.

After a life spent wandering from place to place in service of the church, my wife, kids, and I now live an hour from Cane Ridge, the very spot where our movement began. For four years we’ve called Kentucky home. I’ll always long for the Caribbean, always feel like moving after a year or two, always think the only real mountains in this world are the Sangre de Cristos.

But I’m happy to be here and know people who still cultivate the land for sustenance rather than profit.

I’m happy to eat vegetables grown here in this soil, on these rolling hills.

I pledge allegiance to the small country, to this earth that feeds me and to which I will return as dust.

Two years ago we planted asparagus root in our backyard. For two years, we’ve weeded and watered the plot, waiting for the root stock to establish itself. Anticipating that spring when we can harvest them.

Next year, when those first shoots appear and grow tall, we’ll have a feast.

The President and the Children: Don’t Think First, Just Feel. Then Think.

There are pictures, and then there are photographs. And then photographs evolve to portraits, and portraits speak to identity and soul in ways that are irrefutable and powerful.

With every President of the United States, there emerges a portrait that speaks to the American people.  That portrait, that eternal visual of identity and soul, enters our collective consciousness and stays there.  It tells us who our President is, but also who we want and need him to be.

Marvin Eugene Smith recently shared this photograph of President Barack Obama on Faceboook, and added these personal thoughts:

See? We need more interaction like this between youth and their “stars.” Simple little gestures like this last a lifetime. Back in the day it was quite common. I’ve seen pics of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sammy Davis, the Temptations, Count Basie and many others doing the same exact thing. No need for bodyguards to brush the young people aside who genuinely love you.

Mr. Smith is an African American man living in Chicago, and the series of social media connections that brought the President’s photo to his attention and then to a friend and then to me was made up of other African American men.  Some of you reading this immediately will jump on the defensive and say it doesn’t matter that black men see a portrait here, but you would be wrong.  Yes, anyone can identify with this image (I do), but the fact that it resonates and brings to mind other African American men and women who became children’s role models and heroes is critically important.

Look at those children.  Look at that man. Let yourself feel what it means, what it can mean, that magic moment of connection that clearly flows both ways across the fence.  He understands what they don’t yet, that who they dream they can become and how fiercely they believe in that vision is the lifeblood of this nation.  They just touched a man who leads the free world and who, figuratively, could be their father, their uncle, their brother, themselves.

As a mother and a child advocate, I now call this my portrait of Barack Obama.

(We do not all share the same portrait as “The One” that explained things to us about who the person was or is, and how his individual identity becomes part of our national identity. But we all know “our” image when we see it.  Following are some of my favorites, what are some of yours, and why?)

This is my top Kennedy portrait (I like this one because of the youthful energy and optimism, as well as the Jackie element in the bottom corner): 

This is my top Lincoln portrait, or others showing him literally in the battlefields of the Civil War (though frankly, any great photograph of that awesome craggy face works, too):

The pain here in President Johnson speaks to me about the agony of Vietnam, and the grief of a man who wanted to lead domestic policy and found himself drawn into an entirely other world.