catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 14 :: 2006.07.14 — 2006.07.28


'Tis the season to remember my citizenship

“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated”
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

I didn’t realize how difficult it would be until I heard the strains of “O Canada” start up. I actually struggled for a moment before I stood up. I did, but it was a conscious decision to do so.

I should have known it would be like this. It’s not the first time I’ve studied outside of the States. But the first time was nine years ago and around people with British accents (and stronger opinions about my Midwestern American accent). So when the national anthem started, I was—albeit with a sense of déjà vu—caught off-guard by the sense of alienation that overtook me. I didn’t belong here, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

The reason my reaction to the Canadian national anthem surprised me is the same reason my classmates chuckle when they remember I’m an international graduate student. In many ways, I am Canadian-like. I speak the language and look the same and had many Canadian friends before I moved to Saskatchewan last summer. Sometimes I feel a need to apologize for my country and the mistakes we make. I think there are many ways Canada gets it right. And so I’m often shy about my American citizenship.

When I lived in the States, I always liked to see fireworks on the Fourth of July, but I wasn’t necessarily attending for patriotic reasons—I mostly liked to “ooh” and “ahh” at the sparkles and spend time with family and friends. But this year as I watched the red and white Canada Day fireworks, I found myself wishing that three days later I could see some with more blue in them. I felt profoundly American. Not from here. After all, Americans do things right too, and Canadians have their own fault lines.

These kinds of moments are bound to recur as long as I’m a temporary resident—an alien—here. As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology reminds me, “alien” and “alienation” stem from the same Latin root, meaning “of or belonging to another person or place.” Although in this case it’s perfectly fine that I feel affinities for Canada, my primary home is in America, and at particularly homesick times I remember that, even though it’s a flawed home.

When this kind of alienation overtakes me, I’m usually annoyed at first, but once I figure out what’s going on I cherish the feeling as a cue to remembering who I am and where I come from. It’s an important feeling to track because it resonates so similarly to other allegiances—and senses of alienation—that have nothing to do with earthly borders. Ones that are more crucial.

Although I like to complicate them and can be as shy about them as I am about my Americanness, my allegiances to God and his kingdom are (or should be) more cut-and-dried than allegiances to any earthly countries. However, it doesn’t often feel cut-and-dried. It’s easy for my affinity for the broken reflections of good things in the world around me—and my empathy with the world’s failures—to overwhelm my sense of the perfect calling of a perfect God. After all, I’m often broken like the world around me, something the Bible has taught me well. 

When I think too deeply about my brokenness and how much it’s like the other brokenness in the world, it’s easy to think that although I’ve loved God for as long as I can remember, I’m not really a Christian, but as Anne Lamott expressed it, “Christian-ish.” As she goes on to say, though, “I'm not. I'm just a bad Christian. A bad born-again Christian." Like the apostle Paul, I seem more conscious of my failures as time goes on: I do the things I don’t want to do, and the things I don’t want to do, I do (Romans 7:15). I really do want to be better, but I’m not always good at it.

My very longing to be better reminds me that I have a deeper, stronger identity than my brokenness, and a goal that I should be spending most of my energy to reach. Sure, I should be honest about my failures and flaws and those of other broken Christians (when I’m around people who don’t share my beliefs—which is pretty frequent in the grad school world—I find myself wanting to apologize for televangelists a lot). But I should also be spending time—a lot of it—seeking to represent my true, perfect “country”—the one where God is—the best I can.

Thankfully, those things that I can do to let God be represented through me are also the things that will bring me closer in my relationship with the perfect God. And that’s something that’s more important to develop than my representation of him to others. As Frederica Mathewes-Green says, it’s not always easy: “It takes time to grow real enough to endure heaven, a process of unflinching self-discovery and repentance that few are willing to take."

In the end, I came from God, and where he is where I’d like to go. And home is not just “where one starts from,” as T. S. Eliot so wisely says, but also, as he writes a few lines later, a “further union, a deeper communion”—with God and with my neighbor. When I take time to remember that and think about its implications, I revel in it. I’m willing to continue on the disconcerting journey towards a country I’ve only had glimpses of. He’s accepted me as a citizen, so it’s my home, after all.

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