From the vantage point of comfort and success I look around and simply accept that this world I know is and always was inevitable. Things are this way because they should be.
I live in a nice house and have a lifestyle that allows me to sit fifteen feet over a jackfruit tree and listen to good music and write to my heart’s content. I can do this because I went to school, was good at it, worked reasonably hard, and played my cards right. I got quite a few lucky breaks, too, but it’s easy to look those as corrections. Here on this balcony is where I was meant to me, and the lucky breaks I got–an enormous scholarship to a prestigious university, a job offer in Mongolia, a friend of a friend who fell in love with me over too many drinks and then stuck around even after the alcohol wore off–was just the universe correcting itself and getting back onto the correct preordained path after an unexpected sidetracking.
But it didn’t have to be this way. I once nearly joined the military, and it’s hard to imagine how that path would have brought me to this life.
I was homeless once, but I never had to sleep on the street or in a shelter because I had enough friends who could, and did, let me crash for a night or two. So I was always showered and safe and fed and happy, even at my worst, and in position to get a job and resume my life when the opportunity arose. Which it did. But things could have been very different.
And of course I had been madly in love many times before. From time to time I poke around on Facebook and find those old flames, and none of them, I assure you, would have brought me here.
When I was a kid my family used to go swimming in a river at the site of a collapsed bridge. You could climb up the pylons and dive deep into the river below. My mother went up once, slipped on wet moss, and fell ten feet into the water. Her head missed the cement foundation by about two inches, and so all she got was a shock. She probably would have died, and I, being, eight years old, would have had a very different life.
So I know that this life I live was anything but inevitable, and yet I feel like it is, until I force myself to think about it.
I am American, and a New Yorker at that. The greatest city in the greatest country in the world. I take it for granted, its greatness as inevitable as the scent of flowers from my garden. I take it for granted that whatever country I go to, no matter how out-of-the-way and obscure, I will find somebody who speaks English and loves America and wants to help me and also ask if I know how to get a visa. I just assume that when people as where I’m from and I say New York they will go “Ooh” in a way that they wouldn’t if I said I was from Decatur. Even if that person blames America for any or all of his problems, or if he went to New York once and found it crowded and smelly, that person is still wearing American jeans and listening to American music and watching American music, and even though he couldn’t imagine actually living in New York he must admit that the few days he spent there were so thrilling and mind-opening that his home seems at least a little smaller now, a little more remote, and little more empty.
But those are hardly inevitable, either. I remember the Bronx in 1986, when we were told to stay away from windows to cut down the risk of stray bullets. And the campaigns in the 90s to save what was considered then an unsaveable city. Hard to imagine that people would someday complain that the city was too clean and too safe and too rich.
Hard to imagine that America could be anything other than great, but I can think back to November 2000 and I can easily imagine an America that wasn’t so embattled and embittered. I don’t know what a President Gore would have done about Al Qaeda but I have a hard time imagining that he would have responded to 9/11 with an open-ended war that would strain even America’s closest alliances.
It’s hard to imagine how a President Bobby Kennedy–or President Humphrey–would have done anything near as catastrophic as Watergate.
There have been many missed opportunities throughout American history–Andrew Jackson rolled back federalism and made investing in infrastructure politically difficult for a century, dooming whole regions for generations, for example. A good many near-misses, too–imagine Lincoln losing in 1860, or Wallace winning in 1968.
When I was young it was fashionable to say that it didn’t matter, than the only difference between the candidates was how fast they dropped to their knees in front of major corporations. And when your candidate wins or loses and the sun continues to shine and the world continues to turn it is easy to say that it doesn’t actually matter, that a president sets a tone and commands a bully pulpit but is so constrained by a remarkably well-constructed bureaucracy that America will continue to shine. We survived civil war and Nixon, right? This too shall pass. Consider England, we say: they’ve had all kinds of chaos in their history and still endure. One president won’t matter.
But just as I don’t have to look hard at my past to see how many missed opportunities and miss disasters I had, I can see the same for my country, and I do believe that the choice matters. No, a president won’t remake or destroy America overnight–not a great one, not even a terrible one, and we’ve had both–but our future is anything but inevitable, and every time we vote, or don’t, we push ourselves in one direction or another. Something, some future, is inevitable. But what it looks like is very much in our hands.
I and my entire family have already voted, so all we can do today is hold our breath and wait for the outcome, and hope that whatever comes next is better than what we are being led to expect.
And once it is over and our candidate has either won or lost, then we must move forward and try to make sure that whatever comes next is better. Because what is absolutely inevitable is that this is the only life we have, whether we are on the path that we chose or not.
On Friday I’ll be back with more fiction, and on Sunday with a beautiful picture I took many years ago. But for today I felt like I had to say something, and now I have. Thanks for bearing with me.