Today is Election Day.
I am an immigrant from a country that no longer exists and I cannot vote in this election.
I remember another important election that, as a non-citizen legal alien and green card holder, I couldn’t vote in either.
It was November 2016 and I was convinced that Donald Trump would lose the election. And when it didn’t happen, I wasn’t just devastated, like so many Americans. I was terrified.
In my postpartum haze, my baby still at NICU after aspirating amniotic fluid during birth, and me at home, dim November light trickling through the window, I tried to make sense of an utterly absurd and implausible situation.
But there was no sense to be found in any of it and fear took over me like a foretelling of a virus.
I became convinced that someone would come to our house, perhaps a group of burly, white men in red MAGA hats, bearing a passing resemblance to lumberjacks, and drag me and my husband, brown immigrants from former Yugoslavia and Turkey, respectively, out in the street, still in our nightclothes, and order us to go home to what had, overnight, become our “shithole” countries. Or much worse.
I don’t think I ever felt such terror, not even during the 4-month-long NATO bombing of my hometown of Belgrade; or when my hard-won F-1 international student visa was almost terminated due to a clerical error; or in 2004, when my ex-husband beat me unconscious for daring to say I was leaving him; or even that time when my just born baby wasn’t breathing right and was carted off by wordless doctors away from me, still unheld, to be treated for respiratory distress.
This sort of fear was different. It was alive and multiplying and there was no known treatment or cure for it.
My ancestors, who have survived pogroms, famine, WW2 concentration and extermination camps, and Nazi executions were awakening in my bones, telling me to run, run, run. Run for your life. But where would I run to? And from whom, exactly?
“These are different times, a different country,” the rational part of me would repeat over and over again, but my reptilian brain wasn’t buying any of it.
It could happen anywhere, to anyone, it would whisper, refusing to be soothed or rational or sane. The time of rationality and sanity had passed and now Fear was king.
But it wasn’t just the paralyzing fear that made me feel like my lungs had become too small for air. It wasn’t even the horror of fascism rising again, making my ancestors, who fought against it tooth-and-nail-and-hoe, shiver with dread and wordless grief inside my cells.
It was the death of a life-long dream that really got me in the end.
The dream that was my America.
The dream that I grew up with while watching the ancient reruns of Grizzly Adams that came to Yugoslavia some fifteen years after they were made. The dream that made me wait for hours in line to taste my first McDonalds cheeseburger when it finally came to Belgrade in 1988. The dream that made me look at the American flag flying above the US Embassy like other people looked at the icon of Christ the Savior at church. The dream that Martin Luther King spoke of in shivery black and white footage that I watched mesmerized, sitting in front of the old box-shaped TV in my parents’ shabby, brown living room. The dream that there might be a place for me: a weird, not-quite-human, ill-fitting kid who wanted to be seen and who had things to say that were not supposed to be spoken out loud. A place where I might feel safe to be who I am.
I know that that vision of America was a naive delusion of an immigrant from a “shitty” country sitting at the heart of the “dark” Balkans, a place that was conquered, occupied, and colonized by everyone and their dog: from the Celts, to the Romans, to the Byzantines, to the Ottomans, to the Austro-Hungarians, to the Nazi Germany, to the UN; a country that is technically on the European continent, but was never a part of the “enlightened” Europe: a poor, dark-featured, fourth cousin who is never invited to sit at the table but is sometimes offered charitable leftovers because Europeans, like all of us, like to feel good about themselves.
You don’t need to say it; I know I was a fool. But there is something to be said for the Fools, those who fly simply because they don’t know that they can’t. Fools dream big. And the world needs big dreams.
But right now, I am no longer holding onto that sanitized image of America that was created by my child-mind fueled by romanticized visions of the wild frontier, the image that was generated for me out of sheer impotence of my own and my much-maligned people’s situation as we sat in our basements waiting for the NATO bombs to finally run out and our own dictator to be replaced by someone saner and kinder.
I no longer strive to be included into what Europeans call “enlightenment” or “civilization” and Americans call “whiteness.” I am happy and proud of who I am and who my ancestors were.
So, I am not talking about the pre-digested, reductionist, cauterized, Hollywood America, I am talking about the America I got to meet and love through my teachers in the 16 years that I have lived on the Turtle Island (the North American continent): Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Ocean Vuong, David Abram, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ofelia Zepeda, Andrea Gibson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Robin Wall Kimmerer and a myriad others who have chosen to consciously strive to live more (inter)connected lives. And, more importantly, the America I got to know through the teachings received from this land that I’m on, right now, here in Utah, the ancestral land of the Utes, Goshutes, Paiutes, Shoshone, and the Navajo peoples:
The America kind
The America listening
The America remembering
The America freed and freeing
The America dreamt and dreaming
The America that never needed to be “discovered”
The America that has never recovered from its many wounds
Both those it received and those it inflicted The America interconnected
The America soft
The America pliable
The America changing
The America evolving
The America emerging
The America expanding its lungs and heart
To near bursting
The America breathing
The America understanding
The America allowing grieving
The America inviting forgiving
The America conjuring healing
The America entangled
The America immersed
The America unstuck
The America uncolonized
The America sanctified
The America subaltern
The America reinvented
The America reshaped
The America unsame
The America re-dreamed
The America liberated from itself
The America awake
The America alive
The America still possible.
So dear ones, you who have magically read this far, dear Americans, when you vote today, if you haven’t already, please remember what a gift it is to have a voice, any kind of voice, however imperfect, and use that voice to say the things you need to say.
I am an immigrant from a country that no longer exists and I cannot vote.
But your country STILL exists.
And you can.