I feel a bit remiss to have checked out so abruptly, and not to have managed even a holiday greetings or New Year’s post. Truth is, I just managed to get all the pre-holiday loose ends tied up before rushing out the door for a long flight (Paris-L.A., non-stop). And despite my best intentions, once I made it to the City of Angles, I found it harder to cross back over that work-vacation divide than I’d expected. So along with my apologies, please accept my belated best wishes for peace, health and prosperity in 2010.
I also feel like I should offer up some thoughts on the past decade, which maps out, to an unprecedented degree, with some turning point moments in my own life. I left the States — from L.A., no less — on Jan. 15, 2001, with the 2000 election drama still fresh in everyone’s minds and just five days before George W. Bush took office. It was a happy coincidence that allowed me to consider myself a voluntary exile. My son was born later that year, and then, of course, came the events of 9/11, and the march to one war, and soon thereafter, another.
To be an expatriot is perhaps the closest one can come to watching oneself from outside one’s own body. At least that’s how it felt for that early part of the decade, watching from afar as America suffered and then struggled to find its way through its pain and rage. I couldn’t help but feel that what drove that rage was not just the shock of vulnerability and the pain of loss, but the shame that came of having been seen to be afraid.
I felt quite safe and sheltered where I was, in a small village in the South of France. Lucky, yes, and glad not to feel anxious for my son’s wellbeing. Though I shed tears while watching the images of that day, I didn’t share the trauma. And so, understandably, I didn’t share the rage. To be attacked, even savagely so, in a world where so few are ever really spared that indignity seemed more to join us to that world beyond than set us apart — just as moments of personal tragedy are often reminders, through the solace offered by those around us, that loss is what we have most in common and what brings us closest together.
There inevitably comes a moment as an expat when you are no longer watching yourself, but rather a stranger — albeit one that you, too, might have become had you not changed places. That’s how I felt in 2004, as the rage began to seem like it might never subside, and later, after the levees broke, when even the gods and the elements seemed to have turned history suddenly against us.
And yet the tide turned, as it often has for this country, and beginning in 2006, with the Congressional mid-terms, and yes, bolstered in 2007 by the gritty decision to not admit defeat just yet in Iraq, I felt like I was again watching a familiar friend, if still no longer myself, staggering his way back home after a nasty bender. America, it seems, can at times be a mean drunk.
And also, at times, as during the 2008 presidential campaign, it can be a joyful one, the life of the party, even. But somehow, even in that heady moment when history seemed to pull us all back into our old skin, the hangover seemed like it was already there, lurking just out of frame, but written into the script as a plot twist.
What a decade. So much history, how can anyone reflect on it all and reduce it to the columns of an accounting ledger? And having done so, conclude that it came out a wash? Long ago, at a time in my life when I viewed the world through a more mystical lens, I once wrote that nothing is ever lost or gained, only ever-transformed. And if ever there was a decade that suffers a mystical perspective, certainly it’s the one we just lived through.
And so we emerge from it, no less, no more — but man, have we been transformed. Into the X’s. Should be a blast.