⇒ See also: This week's Gallery
Today, I stood in a room full of immigrants, their friends and families, and federal government bureaucrats to watch my wife, Icepick, become an American citizen. A naturalized citizen—somewhere between a homogenized and a pasteurized citizen, I guess. It was a curious and wonderful experience standing with our son looking across the room at so many flavors of the world joining our family and bringing us tools to heal this nation and put it on a better and wiser track.
What a room full of stories—the refugee and the scholar sitting just in front of my wife, she quietly sobbing with joy to have escaped rape and torture, he working on footnotes to the research that brought him to a university post in Durham. Just standing and listening to the names being called was a lesson in linguistics and geography.
I have been many things as an American, but never complacent or particularly compliant. I have a couple of files from my political interests in the past and as recently as two years ago spent time on the terrorist watch list after voicing my opinion about the PATRIOT Act, the administration and the Department of Justice. I was an anti-war activist during Vietnam, but when I got my draft notice I went to the induction center in Detroit to serve the army of a country I was ashamed of, under a commander in chief I hated beyond words. I was given a medical deferral, but I know I would not have made the five-minute trip across the Ambassador Bridge to asylum when the time came to get back on the bus.
I despise nationalism born of willful ignorance and I despise what the powerful do when in control of a state—self-interest in the name of whatever "ism" they are selling. I especially despise it in my own country.
But, today, for the people in the federal building with high and bright windows, there was only hope and joy and a sense of the future—feelings that I can now share.
The field director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stood in front of the new citizens and asked what this moment meant to them.
"The right to vote," spilled from half the smiling mouths in the room. Even Icepick's very loyal Canadian grandmother chastised her for not becoming a citizen and voting in her adopted country.
"Loyalty," said a woman in a headscarf holding a young, wide-eyed child.
"Freedom," said a beaming man, his African-patterned shirt buttoned at the neck and his letter of greetings from the White House held aloft.
But the best moment came from an elderly woman sitting in the front row. Her face was creased with a life lived somewhere else—a hard life—but her eyes were as clear as the water from a deep spring.
"Does anyone else want to tell us what this means to them?" asked the field director.
She leaned forward and quietly answered, "Everything."