Saturday, August 23, 2008

Mother of Exiles

Some things can instantly move me to tears. One of these is any reference to Emma Lazarus' poem The New Colossus.

In my senior year of college I spent the fall semester in France. As a French major I was required to do this, though it felt more like an opportunity than a requirement - as, indeed, it was. I spent two weeks in Brattleboro, Vermont, doing intensive language training and then flew across the Atlantic. It was my first time outside of the United States and, I think, only the second time outside of California. For two months I lived with a French family in Montpellier, the ancient capital of lower Languedoc, and then one month in Paris.

On the morning of January 3, 1968, I rose before dawn and bade my minuscule (but cheap) hotel room in Paris adieu and headed to the Gare du Nord. It was snowing that morning and I doubt I need inform y'all that it was quite magical. I missed home but I did not want to leave France. My fellow semester abroad students and I rode to Luxembourg City where we were to catch our plane to the States. Luxembourg was covered in snow and looked like something out of a fairy tale, only it was real. Flights were delayed by the weather. We headed to the airport when we were supposed to but the plane was still in Brussels. They bused us back to the city and fed us dinner and later in the night we headed, once more, to the airport. The flight took off in the wee hours. We were flying in the perceived direction of the sun, following the time zones, which made the day seem longer. In some pre-dawn hour we landed in Keyflavik to refuel. Then on to New York, a flight that seemed to destroy all consciousness of time and movement. I felt we were in limbo and would never see light or touch the ground again, endlessly hovering nowehere, sapped of awareness by the steady vibration of the plane. When we did arrive at JFK I had to pick up my ticket from there to home and race to catch that plane. As I emerged from customs I saw, incised in a wall, the poem I knew was on the pedestal to the Statue of Liberty.

My feelings about the United States were far more complex than they had been when I left my homeland to experience a larger world. I was far more critical of my native land and also far more appreciative of it.

I read the words in my exhaustion and wept uncontrollably.

It still happens, without fail, every time I read or hear or think of them.

The New Colossus
Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I wept again tonight, watching the video below. It alludes to the poem and to many other fragments of the dream that is America, the dream into which we hope to grow.

Blessings upon all who came and all who welcomed them.

This is the kind of positive campaigning I want to see more of. No, it is not policy definition from and for the wonks, which we also need, but it is a recruiting poster, if you will, calling upon all Americans to reenlist in making the dream a reality. I am a bhakti yogi and it is the heart appeal that will always speak to me in my native tongue.


UPDATE: As a postscript I want to note that one of my coworkers here in New Orleans gave a Saturday to help build a house for Obama through Habitat for Humanity - so when you see folks painting a home in New Orleans.... [more sniffling]

h/t to Moonbat at Barbara O'Brien's Mahablog for the post introducing me to the video and including the lyrics written by Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics

h/t to Liberty State Park for the poem

"Mother of the Disappeared / Madre de los Desaparecidos" by Richard Lentz via Trinity Stores and NCR

--the BB


Jane R said...

I get all weepy from that poem too. My forebears all came through Ellis Island (as far as I know) and first settled very close by, so this has special significance for me. Thanks for the video, too.

Paul said...

As did my father's parents, Jane. They met in California and married.

FranIAm said...

I love that poem- it gets me every time. I so love your story about France and your journey as well.

The Obama vid is da o'bomb!