The Good In America

As I write this, it’s New Year’s Eve on the precipice of 2012. I spent the last several hours in a Hogan, a traditional Navajo structure, with a family I’ve come to know here in Utah, not too far from the Arizona border. We sat in a semi-circle surrounded by half-whispered prayers and sacred smoke. Taking turns we spoke about the past and the future, we spoke about gratitude. At the end, in silence we passed around the family’s ceremonial pipe to welcome in the New Year. Then we received our final blessings, fanned over us by eagle feathers.

I’ve been traveling for two years now. The first I spent exploring the world, visiting many different countries, doing many different things, like marching across the Sahara, visiting the monasteries of Bhutan, tracking elephants in Namibia, climbing volcanoes in Ecuador, and delivering medical supplies to remote mountain regions of Haiti. My goal was to learn, and to follow a narrative I was given sometime before.

The second year was about solitude and reflection. I decided on the deserts of the American Southwest where I ended up living on my own, tending sheep on the Navajo reservation, and heading in for supplies every few weeks. I then chose to be utterly alone, so I bought enough food to last me a while and moved to an isolated plateau about 40 miles south of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. There on a ridge with a view of Mount Taylor, I built a small adobe shelter, and watched the skies melt the months away.

This year is about getting to know my country and home. As a result, I’ll be hitting the road again, and in the process, based on current circumstances, I’ll attempt to give up my fierce independence and rely on the kindness of others. I’ll be gathering a set of experiences I hope will inspire my art for a long time to come, and maybe, if I’m lucky and diligent, this journey will spark others to remember what’s great about our country as well. Furthermore, my weekly posts will be a venue for me to organize my thoughts, to articulate them, to write them down.

I chose the name “The Sunday Evening Post” because I plan on spending one week in each state, ending each Sunday. More importantly, I chose it because it resonates with a famous magazine, residing one day earlier, that inspired me and made Norman Rockwell an American icon.

Norman Rockwell considered himself an illustrator, but he was a true artist. His masterful images reflected a specific time, capturing the magic and goodness in our country. It was he who introduced me as a kid to what art was capable of:  instilling emotion, creating identity, reinterpreting the world.

Access to this window on American life was through a large Norman Rockwell coffee table book my parents kept in a room they called “the den”. This was in the front of the house and off-limits to my little sister and me, a place my parents reserved for the Adults, where they served boxed wine to their guests, plates of deviled eggs, and glass pans of shimmering green Jell-o.

But sometimes during the day when they were gone, I would sneak into this forbidden place, lift the heavy book off its pedestal and lay down on the floor to page through the images and consequently, absorb not only what was good in us, but the perspective of a man that saw our good.

It was through Rockwell’s rosy lens that I began to develop a sense of context for myself, suspended in a broader community, a community full of boys in leather football helmets, friendly doctors, sunsets, and apple-pies, all wrapped in an American flag. It felt secure, protected; it felt like home. From this grew a sense of pride and loyalty and, even as a youth, a sort of nostalgia for a world gone by. But as I’ve grown older I’ve learned we must be careful of nostalgia, it can trap us in the past. We must participate in and celebrate our own time. Furthermore, I believe that Norman Rockwell’s America exists; it exists now, here, today.

We are among the luckiest people on Earth, to be born in America is to have won the lottery; we are ahead of the game, we are citizens of a country where hope, comforts, and the possibility for a positive future is too often taken for granted. We as Americans stand for a dream, a way of life that the rest of the world at one time, and even still, seeks as a beacon.

During the first year of my travels, I volunteered briefly at an orphanage in Africa run by an older woman who, in the face of significant odds and social stigma, opened a foundation to help mothers and children with AIDs. She was bed-ridden, and could barely walk. But when I sat down next to her she took my hand and told me how much she loved America. She’d been fortunate enough to have been here once, invited to Washington D.C. for her humanitarian efforts. “Yours is truly the land of milk and honey,” she sighed. Continuing, she said that it’s important for a place to exist that offers hope, a place where dreams can actually come true. She was quiet for a moment. “The world needs to protect America,” she said.

Later, I thought about what she told me. The world needs to protect America. I had never looked at it that way. It often seemed that we as Americans felt a responsibility to protect the world. But this old woman, who’d devoted her life to good, and helping others, saw in America something vitally important. It touched me, and when I turned west again, it helped me to think of our country differently.

We all need to protect America, we all need to manifestly understand what this woman, and many others I came in contact with understand all over the world. That what we have here is special. This year I want to find and absorb what’s best about this country. I want to remind people, in my small way, what’s best in them, because in aggregate, they compose the character of a nation that has long inspired the world. We have a responsibility to continue this, to teach and live it, so that these people living in conditions we cannot fathom know that all things are possible, not so they can become more like us, but so they can become more for themselves. The American spirit at its best is about inclusion, acceptance, optimism, freedom, and compassion. But these are choices. They are choices I struggle deeply to exhibit, to practice. It is what many dream about. It is up to us to protect the dream.

I have dreams myself. I hope that my journey as an artist, using the creative materials of modern media will in a humble way recapture some of Rockwell’s purity and truth, and propel them into our new century. This year, I hope to illuminate the good in this country, which really is just a search for the good in all of us, which in turn, if I’m honest, is also about locating and solidifying the good in myself. I hope that we can address what’s important to us, individually and as a society, what it means to be American. What does it mean to have lived in a time and region historically unprecedented in terms of wealth and opportunity?  What is the good? I hope to reignite appreciation for this good in us, what we stand for, who we are.  Good starts with caring; we are all linked together in one great family that forms our national identity.

Ultimately, I dream of a book, either of text or pictures, which will end up on some family’s coffee table, which may someday inspire a child to see the good in his new world. And since this is America, I can know that my dream, though it may have only a sliver’s chance, exists in the realm of possibility. For many around the world, it does not.

So this is the beginning, I’m curious about what I will find, I’m curious about how my viewpoints and perspectives may be reinforced, or changed. I am happy for this opportunity to explore and build a deeper relationship with my homeland.

It’s after midnight now and it’s 2012, my friends are in Las Vegas, they are dancing. I have a year of action and discovery ahead of me, and it’s time for bed. But to quote Robert Frost…”I have promises to keep/ And many miles to go before I sleep/ And many miles to go before I sleep.”