Rachel Jamison Webster

Creative Nonfiction

Rachel Jamison Webster is author the full-length collection of poetry, September (TriQuarterly Press 2013) and the gross-genre book, The Endless Unbegun (Twelve Winters 2015). Her essays and poems appear in many journals and anthologies, including Tin House, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Paris Review and Narrative. She lives with her daughter Adele in Evanston, IL, where she teaches poetry and directs the Creative Writing Program at Northwestern University. You can read more about Rachel at www.racheljamisonwebster.com.

 

Independence Day

I grew up a flag-waving girl. My dad had an enormous extended family, and we all got together on my grandparent’s front lawn to watch the Independence Day Parade. We’d drive over in my dad’s bright blue Corvette, my parents in the front seats, and my brother and I strapped onto the nubby carpeted ledge behind them. All the cousins played a big game of softball in the side yard. We grilled hamburgers and ate salted tomatoes and buttered sweet corn from my grandparents’ garden, and afterward, my grandmother made strawberry shortcake. She’d cut out biscuits on the floured kitchen counter with a jelly jar, and when they were warm from the oven, she’d spoon strawberries over them—berries we had picked from my grandfather’s garden, sliced and mashed with sugar. Then she topped each with a dollop of Cool Whip.

Sometimes, my dad would put his record of John Philip Sousa marches on the turntable and give all of the kids little American flags. Then he’d have us march around and around the house to the swelling crescendos of that patriotic music. He’d clap and cheer for us, and tell us to lift our legs up high and keep our backs straight. It was the kind of thing my dad was always doing—inciting us to have fun with a little ritual simply because it was what we always did. I had a little drum that I played in time to the march, and I smiled brightly as I led the parade. I was proud to be my parents’ daughter, my grandparents’ granddaughter, proud to be what they told me we were: Americans.

I had marched with them all in the Bicentennial Parade of 1776 when I was 18 months old. My grandmother and aunts and mother had sewn us authentic outfits—long dresses, aprons and muffet bonnets for us,and knee-length breaches and tri-cornered hats for my dad and cousin. Later, I learned that there was a Revolutionary War musket in my mother’s family, that one of our Webster ancestors had written the first American dictionary, and another had been at the Continental Congress. That history existed as just a slight grace note, however, because we did not consider being American a birthright as much as a way of being. We lived with an earnest sense of what our country had been, and embedded in that was the promise of what the country would go on being, what it could become.

I was a sentimental child, often nostalgic for the moment I was in even as I was living it, as if somehow I sensed that my childhood already belonged to a past. It was, after all, an echo of my father’s childhood, something out of the annals of America. There was the white painted porch and my grandfather’s strawberry patch raked with shining straw. Pints of strawberries and bundles of sweet corn that we sold from the side of the road, set out in balsa wood baskets on the painted yellow table. Wicker furniture and a dark green glider on the porch, where we sat drinking iced tea and playing cards late into the summer evenings. My grandmother’s well-tended flower beds filled with black-eyed Susans, peonies, snapdragons and rosebushes that my grandmother had raised from sprigs, the red rose taken from her mother’s garden and the pink rose taken my grandfather’s mother’s garden. That was the way we all planted our flower beds then. People would bring cuttings from their own plants, and so you’d have gardens filled with nodding blooms that reminded you of your relatives, your ancestors.

My dad was a mailman, like his father before him, and we were able to afford a good life in a small town in Northeastern Ohio where our family had lived since it was declared the Western Reserve and allotted to soldiers who fought in the Revolution. Every morning, my dad raised the flag in front of our house, and every evening at dusk he carried it inside again, rolling it up around the flagpole with the golden eagle on the end. He wore an embroidered eagle on his uniform sleeve too, a connection to the tradition of the Pony Express, when the patriots rode fast on their horses to bring newspapers and pamphlets to every corner of the country, to make sure every citizen had access to information, regardless of class. He, like his father before him, read the newspaper every morning, and discussed it with us in the evenings, arguing and explaining politics. On summer evenings, he came home, changed out of his uniform, and took us out on Lake Erie in our little boat, a 14-foot bow-rider that he had bought secondhand from one of his Post Office friends. He had fitted the boat with a polished teak flagpole, and he raised an American flag out on the water too.

“Enough with the bullshit,” my mentor said to me. I was in a dingy bar bathroom in Chicago, the year after I had left that small town in Ohio. I was a student at DePaul University and had accepted an internship with her, an editor of a local ‘zine, and she’d decided that we would meet at the bar instead of her house. “When you talk about your childhood, it just sounds fake,” she said. “It couldn’t have been that good. No writer has had such a happy childhood. You’re just not being honest.”

It is probably true that happiness does not incite us into writing as often as discomfort, that inner chaffing that rubs us up into to language, into a heightened perception of what is—and what is off kilter. And yet there is another kind of awareness, less articulate but full of feeling, awareness of one’s own fleeting life in time and how quickly that life is changing, going extinct, moment by moment. We writers begin to believe that we have been wounded into language, forgetting that we need no other wound than mortality—that bald and shocking truth that we will lose everyone and everything we love, and ourselves besides. I did not have a perfect childhood, but I did have one in which I inhabited a feeling of wonder, a heightened attention to what was there, because I loved it and I understood that someday it would not exist. That was true of those people I loved and love still, the places I loved and love still, and, I realize now, it was also true of the country we had all believed in.

When I was at the lake with my family, I sometimes felt a sense of life’s preciousness that was so sharp that it choked me, flipped me into a grief that tasted like the sweetwater of the lake. As I swam the rippled undersides of the waves, I’d open my eyes to joy’s other side—the awareness that this perfect moment would end, and I would miss it. I’d feel a throbbing at the roots of my eyes, and would dive deeper, harder against the waves, until my chest burned for air and I surfaced, shining, hoping that no one could tell that I’d been crying.

And why was I always crying? Maybe someone had hurt my feelings, maybe I had experienced some harsh comment, or petty challenge of being one of many in a large family. And so there is something dishonest about framing my childhood as only happy, and something dishonest if not downright sinister about the American obsession with happiness, which seems too often like a false front, even a kind of national brand. I was happy as a child, and I was also uncomfortable, because I was a child in a family, because I was trying to come awake in a nation that was cultivating ignorance and complacency more than honesty, that was encouraging childishness more than the difficult work of growing up. I happy and also uncomfortable because I was alive, and to be alive is to be alive to the vagaries of time and fate, to feel othered and misunderstood, and—if you’re sensitive—ashamed for the ways you’ve othered and misunderstood others.

I left the home and town where I grew up, and it is only now, 20 years later, in 2017, after that Middle America of my childhood has broken my heart and infuriated me, that I can begin to examine the country I come from, to examine my stories not because they are exceptional, but because they are ordinary, not because they are evidence of grave personal injustice or wounding, but because they exemplify a more confused and commonplace mix of American privilege, American falsehood and American disappointment.

We were washing our hands, looking into a grimy mirror in Chicago, and I was bleary eyed, drunk. Usually when I came to her house to help with the ‘zine, my mentor smoked pot and talked while I entered hundreds of names in a database. That day, I was trying to look further into my own eyes, wondering how I could become more honest, what it was in my self and my past that I still couldn’t see.

~

How do we wake from the dream of our childhoods? How will our country wake from the dream of its childhood? The United States is one of the oldest countries in the world—with a government that has remained intact, clearly descended from the design of its founders, for more than 240 years. But it is one of the youngest cultures in the world, it seems to me—in part because it has always been and ideally always will be, an amalgam of cultures, a constantly changing remix of people’s beliefs, backgrounds and stories, and in part, because it reveres youth and newness, change and innovation more than history and continuity. It is a country of people, and the descendants of people, who gave up the past for the future, who risked their lives just to be here. And so, from the beginning, our notions of the past have been imagined, self-created, a little drunk on bravado, and hastily depicted through our cultural products.

As a kid, I had to work very hard to wheedle my grandparents into telling me stories about their childhoods. They were always more invested in the present moment, and found my fascination with the past a little too melancholic and sedentary. And when I asked my parents about their grandparents’ ancestry and migrations, my mom said, “You have to understand. No one told us anything when we were kids, nobody was all that interested in talking about the past. People just wanted to be here, to be Americans.”

However, in my own generation, nostalgia has taken a constant, campy hold on us, evidenced in the Little House on the Prairie bonnet and skirts that I donned throughout my childhood and then the thrift store dresses I wore for years afterward, in the Spiderman cake my mom made for my brother when he turned, yes, 30, the baby pictures of everyone posts of themselves on Facebook, this essay. Everyone seems to be romanticizing their own childhoods, those years when we didn’t have to grapple with the cracks in our national myth. I wonder if this back-looking trend began during the Viet Nam era, during the “Back to the Land” movements of the seventies and eighties, when the most idealistic people of America consciously jumped ship on the military-industrial complex, and then was absorbed afterward and more selfishly into a nostalgia for one’s own “wonder years.” I wonder if our endemic cultural nostalgia is evidence that we know that our culture is failing, so we look back to the rosy moments before we sensed this and had to grapple with our own culpabilities in that loss. I do know that the use of nostalgia has a long and suspect history in societal manipulation. When the Nazis occupied Paris, they did not cancel the lectures at the universities and museums. They just fired the present-day intellectuals and replaced them with people who upheld a narrative of a romanticized past, in which the French peasantry were happy and wholesome, and undefiled by “outsiders.”

Our own country is experiencing a similar, politically motivated nostalgia based on a myth—of racial purity and undefiled “whiteness,” a past that never was what it pretended to be in the first place. This toxic Americana is evidenced in the upsurge of Klan rallies and in President Trump’s election on the slogan of “Make America Great Again.” Yet the original America was established in direct opposition to a romanticized past, an imperialist leader and the patronizing support of colonialism. It was secured through the blood sacrifice of war, but designed and created by writers, by people who could change the narrative and who wrote to the beat of the future and not the past, and by the many citizens who read and argued their tracts. Thomas Payne, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson initiated this argument, and later writers like Frederick Douglass, Horatio Alger, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and countless others showed us the gaps in their notions of freedom, and wrote so we could improve on it.

My own writing has transpired at the margins of a teaching career, in which my students and I read and discuss books and examine the stories we tell ourselves—as individuals and as a culture. I am interested in the evolving story of our nation, and in this moment in history, in which it seems we must sober up and wake up to the stories we have been telling about our country—both overtly and implicitly—and attempt some honest, complicated revisions. The United States is one of the great marvels of the world because it began as an act of imagination, and it exists still as a vast co-creation, a shared, imperfect narrative. It is impossible and inappropriate to summarize the story of this country at this point, because it is made up of so many stories, and this idea of many-as-one has always been a central facet of our national narrative. Today, more than ever, the platform of social media makes us feel as if we are co-constructing an ongoing political and social story, however polarizing it may be.

“I love the way the story keeps changing as I keep changing,” my friend Julianna said this week. She was talking about the story of her own childhood which was fraught with addiction and poverty, love and courage, bad and good. She was marveling at her increasing ability to accept its contradictions, and she was expressing a truth that every storyteller knows. Our stories change as we change, our stories are alive—as capable of evolving and renewing as we are.

~

When I was a kid, if my mom asked me to clean the bathroom, I was suddenly a poor orphan in an upstairs garret who had to do demeaning chores all day just to earn my keep. If my dad asked me to pick up sticks in the backyard, I was the daughter of the groundskeeper at that orphanage. I lived above the stables in a dark and dingy room and was given just meager rinds of bread and cheese for all of my tireless labor.

My favorite way of playing as a child—by far—was pretend, and my greatest delight came on the days when I could involve my brother and the neighborhood kids in a story I had devised. But I hadn’t really devised the story, I realize now. I had only borrowed a trope from the catalog of stories gleaned from my favorite books and TV shows. Our go-to games were, “we are stranded on an island and have to survive,” as in Swiss Family Robinson. Or, “we are pioneers out west,” as in Little House on the Prairie. Or “we are waifs in the city,” scrapping it out in the cruel stockyards, as in The Jungle. The most important part of the story was the fact that we were orphans, that is, little upstart Americans, dependent on only ourselves and our scrappy peers, for our survival. We always killed off the adults in our stories because we wanted to be able to invent ourselves, establish our own freedom, find our own way of making it. Every story we played, I realize now, was about finding some way to participate in a history that seemed, for the most part, to have already been gloriously lived and written.

When I think now about those games of pretend, I remember the elation of working with others to bring them about. My best friend Rachael and I wore long petticoats and sun bonnets, and my brother and his friend Devin oiled my dad’s toy wooden rifle and went out into the woods behind our playhouse. There they stalked the deer in the deer lick and pretended to hunt our dinner. We were pioneers, participating in our country’s famous history. We were as activated as our ancestors had been when they first came to this land. I remember the thrill of playing in sandy lots and undeveloped woods, and I thought that the best feeling in the world was to imagine and create something together.

Those social games of co-creation, meanwhile, were balanced by something more meditative and private. I loved to ride my bike to the clay banks beside Lake Erie and sit alone on the sand, outside of time, outside of the story of my day, a nameless silent being who was just breathing and glad and alive. Sometimes, I would slide down the clay banks into a pool at the bottom, and then I’d spread the clay all over my body. I’d lie very still in the sand then until it dried, and walk, like some kind of original, fossilized human, into the water until the clay dissolved and freed me. It was all strange and silent and deep, connected to a feeling that I was intimately of this land, born of it somehow like I was born of my parents and their parents before them. Those timeless moments of my childhood are somehow more real to me than its times, and yet they went unclaimed. They did not lead to the construction of my self or my life, but to its sustenance.

Through all the stories our country has told about itself, I think it has been sustained in its deeper registers by a similar sense of “being”—an innate feeling of freedom, of individuality, an appreciative intimacy with place, an awareness of what is within us that is singular, and in that singularity, most common. Life. Liberty. The right to pursue happiness. A wordless sense of human value rests at the root of the country, impossible to generalize, and yet we have also always been wielding narratives, both true and false, over this value, eroding its banks, ranking the place and the worth of the people within it.

~

If my generation was and is a little too beset by nostalgia, the story tropes that have gained the most traction in years since my childhood are those about zombies (dead people just going through the motions, alive in body but not in mind) and the apocalypse, and sometimes, the zombie apocalypse. We have been moving toward an apocalyptic trajectory for some time now—about 20 years, I think, when even the voiceovers on the Discover Channel began booming with gloom in documentaries about small animals. The apocalyptic mindset suggests itself in the dim lighting of game shows, movies like Independence Day, popular books like the Left Behind series, in widespread cultural panics around Y2K and the End of the Mayan Calendar, as well as in the language used to describe climate change. In the last decade, more than 30 TV shows and movies have been produced with apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic themes, including the National Geographic Channel’s top-rated documentary series, “Doomsday Preppers,” in which people prepare for the apocalypse with bunkers and weapons and then are evaluated by a “prepping” consulting firm on the efficacy of their undertakings. There seems to be a mass fear of—or desire for?—a giant reset of our culture, that now seems to be playing out in real political and climactic upheavals. Perhaps this apocalyptic trajectory is a natural inheritance of the post-nuclear age, in which we wake every day with the grave awareness that we could be the recipients or perpetrators of mass annihilation, a submerged sense that we deserve to be the victims of what we have created. Perhaps it is a rational panic about our damaging effects on the living, warming earth. Perhaps it is a massive failure of agency and imagination, revealing our sense that our current trajectories of meaning are false and taking us toward a dead end, but suggesting that we don’t believe we can do anything about it. Perhaps it is a triumph of fear.

Apocalyptic thought is both a failure of imagination’s positive purpose—to design new modes of life and new solutions to dead-end thinking—and a triumph of imagination’s negative purpose—to give power to our worst fears and visions. It is one of the most useful and overused narrative modes for entertainment companies, because fear is the emotion that elicits the most frantic, continued consumption. The cultural products that fuel their success through apocalyptic fear therefore tap into the collective unconscious of our country, but they also reveal the worst form of cynicism because they deny our imaginative products’ power to influence and create as well as to reveal. They deny the fact that these series and movies are having a very real effect on consciousness, and therefore, on our reality.

The apocalypse is originally a Biblical concept, first introduced through the Book of Revelation as a kind of rapture, a New-Testament slate-clearing that mirrors the flood of the Old Testament, in which almost everyone will be eradicated and only a select few will survive. Its root word comes from the Greek apokálypsis, or revelation, equivalent to apokalýp(tein) to uncover, reveal. So it is ideally a difficult birth, the beginning of a new world order, a new story of truth to replace an old, outworn framework of understanding. But the way that it tends to be framed—the apocalypse, and apocalyptic thought—is not as much as a change of worlds, but as the end of the world. It speaks to a collective fear and desire for escape from life, proportionate to our anxiety about living.

Such apocalyptic fervor has been with us forever, and historians track its rise during the turns of centuries, and during times of political and philosophical tumult. Psychologists, meanwhile, posit that we must find some comfort in apocalyptic thought, because it is so widespread, and because it positions our existential fear of mortality as a collective dilemma rather than an ordinary, individual end, giving death a predictable and shared end-date. This collective fear simultaneously relieves us of responsibility to the future, or responsibility in general, because psychologists also find that apocalyptic thought is accompanied by a distrust of authority and a pervasive feeling of powerlessness.

One researcher, however—who is both a Harvard psychologist and a novelist who writes books about the zombie apocalypse—has noted an increasing interest in his younger patients not in the apocalypse, but in what would come afterward. Steven Schlozman has observed that people frequently romanticize the End Times. "I talk to kids in my practice and they see it as a good thing. They say, 'life would be so simple—I'd shoot some zombies and wouldn't have to go to school,'" Schlozman says. “They imagine surviving, thriving and going back to nature.”

The first question is, why do we Americans always imagine that we would be the ones to survive? Why are our stories always so dependent on the eradication of others and an exclusive few being spiritually “chosen”? These post-apocalyptic fantasies seem to be contemporary versions of the stories we have always told about our country, tangled up with our self-congratulating myths that of Manifest Destiny and prosperity Christianity. They are like the pretend-play of our childhoods, in that they are detached from real consequence, too immature to realize that murdering the parents, the indigenous people, the unfaithful “others” who didn’t survive the transition to the New World, would actually be terrible, unjust and real.

But psychologically, they are understandable. Our childhood games of pretend were all about imagining that we were necessary to the world, that we had some essentially active and meaningful way of working together and creating our future. Because of this innate need to be valuable and to overcome obstacles, this post-apocalyptic longing does not surprise me, this longing for a way to wipe the slate and begin again. After all, our government and economy seems to run along like a giant machine, well-oiled and unreliant on our participation, and we are invited most often to participate in our society not as citizens creating a new world, but simply as powerless children, which is to say, as consumers.

“Isn’t it weird that it’s all a fiction?” my friend Rachael said last week. We were standing on my aunt’s beach, at the same cottage where we had spent the happiest days of our own childhoods, watching our daughters build a fort on the sand. They had gotten out all the towels and beach chairs and were setting them up into a makeshift hut, building and rebuilding with busy absorption, the way children tend to do on the beach. “All of it,” she said, “all our societies and governments, the stuff we construct, are all just collective myths that we participate in.”

The ones who leave home, who pull themselves away from the childhood of America, or who never received its shelter in the first place, are those who can see through this myth, who can see the flimsy construction of the nostalgic, patriotic narrative as illusory. But where do we go? We return to stand on the same shore staring at our own children, who play the same games that we played, and we can’t see another side.

“Remember the little playhouse that my mom made for us out of a big refrigerator box?” I said. “She painted it blue and sewed little curtains for the cutout windows?”

“Oh, yeah!”

“It’s like we’re all in a cardboard box pretending it is the real room.”

~

When a person learns to meditate, they learn to separate the Self, the higher or watching Self, from the Self’s story, to observe the way that emotions and inherited tropes of convention have turned clear, unfettered moments of “being” into stories, giving them a supposed shape and arc. We are observant and complicit in those stories, but we are not those stories. We construct our identities through the experience of those stories, and yet our identities will always transcend any stories we tell about ourselves. That’s why the stories keep coming in, like sand into a hole, the more we draw them out, because we are alive in time, always experiencing, always changing. The Self has been the observer and participant in these chapters, but is not fixed in them, because our identities are that complex and dynamic.

It is said that people who develop a very high level in meditation sometimes fall into a period of apathy. They have seen the illusory nature of the world of systems, even of action itself, and so they experience a period of wondering why they should even bother. The successful completion of this awareness, however, is not further detachment, but increased compassion for the world, a way of working that both understands the stories being constructed and wielded, and understands that what is within them—what is within their very framing and language, however problematic, are people, real people who are valuable in and of themselves and created and effected by the stories we tell. I wonder if now if many of us could develop a similar awareness about our cultural stories. These are the stories we have told about our country, but they are not, in fact, our country.

I recently did a project about the Lakota people and Westward Expansion, a time in which the U.S. government overtly declared its aim to exterminate the Indians so they could open the Dakotas to prospecting, settlement and mining. The cultural story that developed there, of one race overtaking another, continued to be mythologized well into the twentieth century through TV Westerns, Cowboy and Indian movies and paperbacks, but it was always a mythology, perpetuated by the Christian idea of Manifest Destiny, and used to justify U.S. interests that wanted to seize the Natives’ land for economic development. Those “battles,” many of which are being newly recognized as massacres, were forms of ethnic cleansing motivated by an economic imperative to mine and own the land.

During my research, I was talking to a Lakota scholar, Craig Howe, about the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, bemoaning the fact that after the U.S. Calvary soldiers shot down 300 unarmed women, children and men, they were awarded Medals of Honor. Meanwhile, the Native people themselves were rendered nameless, smashed into a common grave, their skulls and bones breaking under the boots of the white men who flocked to the site to see the spectacle and to get paid to bury them. To this day, the names of the soldiers are memorialized in textbooks and on Wikipedia, while the names of the victims remain anonymous to official history.

“But don’t you see?” said Dr. Howe. “That is why the soldiers were given medals of honor, because it was a massacre. The government realized it was a mistake, and the patriotic pomp was proportional the crime it meant to hide. It was a cover-up.”

A cover-up. A con. Our country’s history is full of them, and full of magnificent stories of heroism and goodwill too. We should always ask, then, over what are we waving our flag? And what, for that matter, is our flag actually made of? In 2017, 90 percent of American flags sold were made in China, which is not as much an indictment of China or trade laws as it is an indication of our inability to be alert to the essential differences between symbol and reality, and to remember that jobs, lives and futures are made and lost between those poles.

The old stories of America are revealing themselves to many of us as too reliant on a collective denial of reality, of the injustices wrought within our nation and by it. These false tropes foster continued inequality and denial, and because denial takes us away from the truth, it always makes a person—or a culture—decentered, feeling powerless and anxious. Those who are wielding the old Americana most desperately are driven by a desperation to go back, an idea that the only real America existed in the past. Does this oversimplified, bigoted nostalgia taint our flag forever? Or is there a way—and enough stamina and interest— to retrieve and renew values of justice and freedom, and take them with us into the future?

After the presidential election of 2016, I realized that subjects that I once would have considered private (like my childhood) were ripe for socio-political reexamination. I grew up in Madison, Ohio, an all-white small town on Lake Erie in that now solidly ‘Red,’ gun-toting state. But I have spent my adulthood in the ‘Blue’ state of Illinois, in diverse communities of Chicago, where for years I taught mostly minority students. This essay is part of a book-length project recounting those experiences while exploring intersecting realities of class, gender and race. I am especially interested in the ways we are telling the story of this country, and how we can continue to write and revise ourselves away from narrow nationalism, and toward a more humane future.