Guilt Trip - On Visiting The U.S.

Back in August, day five of our holiday on Martha’s Vineyard, and the sense of guilt at having crossed the border still making me grumpy. I was trying to think of it as an island off the coast of America, rather than part of the country proper. A hideout populated only by decent people dismayed and embarrassed by their appalling leader. Like Puerto Rico, sorta, only with a fully functioning power grid and ten dollar tubs of yoghurt.

The Stars and Stripes that wave brightly from windows and flagpoles in Vineyard Haven don’t seem to mean the same thing they might on great blistered swaths of the mainland. They are, it seems to me, intended not to support Trump but to fly more or less literally in the face of what he has done to the country. I don’t think this is wishful thinking on my part.

Last year we said we wouldn’t cross the border. But then this spring the reservation for this modest little cottage at the foot of a caterer’s back yard appeared more or less of its own accord on our kitchen table (or so I’m having it). We intermittently regretted the booking even as we looked forward to being on the island again, but did nothing to cancel it.

In the days ahead of our trip I thought often about how others had been separated from their children at the southern border. Those families were fleeing poverty and violence, the risk of death, seeking (and why the hell not?) a better life, whereas I just needed a few days away from the office. I wondered whether I was betraying those without my resources, my liberties, and my privilege. And yet we still packed up the Volvo (yep, the Volvo) on Monday morning and we came across the floodlit border with not much more incident than I might expect getting in or out of a mall parking lot.

And we enjoyed ourselves very much. Met only good, considerate people all week. Swam in waters both placid and halfway surly. Climbed through red sandy hills to a brilliant, beaming lighthouse, and ate a wonderful meal while cantilevered out over the Vineyard Haven harbour in an altogether too serious restaurant. I read the New York Times on a coffee shop patio, my daughter squinting down the main street, and listened to others giving eloquent, animated voice to complaints near-identical to my own. There was the sense we were all in it together. And I returned home thinking that the holiday had done its job.

In the same period, though, kids were indeed kept away from their parents, and a turbid near-constant froth of hateful nonsense came out of the president’s mouth. It’s the same every damn week. And I thought about how head-shakingly sad it would be to live these days in the States, if what you believed in, and if what you thought your country was aimed at (however gradually), was a basic equality for all people, and a civilized, humane response to those in need. How rotten it would be to see your country’s power wielded every day with such moral abandon.

All the armchair handwringing pales miserably, of course, next to the life or death efforts of those trying to make their way into the United States. Those wanting (and needing) to enter a country whose leader is hell-bent on immediately dividing them from their loved ones, imprisoning them, and then quickly deporting them. It is impossible to convincingly imagine myself faced with that sort of dilemma; to be in such a bad spot that fleeing for weeks towards a man so full of hate still feels like my best bet.

I watched my children cavort most of our August holiday afternoons in a serene glitter of warm Atlantic surf. The air was so bright it was impossible to identify them. My biggest worry was whether they were wearing enough sunscreen. We returned every evening to clean rooms and good, expensive food. The island cops had absolutely no interest in me.

I still don’t know whether the right move is to boycott the country as much as possible. A lot of people more thoughtful than I am have decided it absolutely is. I should spend my money elsewhere rather than offering implicit and financial support. Good point. Shit, I hear you. But I know also that I wouldn’t have spent quite so much time thinking about the horror-show that is Trump’s presidency if we hadn’t driven down there. And I wouldn’t have written this very minor bit. I also wouldn’t have had the chance while I was there to remind myself of the essential goodness of so many Americans. I wouldn’t have realized how much they share our sentiments and are working in their own ways to end the horror. Staying home feels more useless to me somehow than sitting on the main drag coffee shop patio with my daughter, hearing and being encouraged by everyone’s despair.