What do you miss about the U.S.?

I get asked this question from time to time. People are surprised that I don’t miss the U.S. more. Well, I do miss it, sometimes a lot, but life here has been good to me, and it keeps getting better, even with ups and downs.

Well, first of all I miss people. I don’t want to go into that, because it would feel bad to mention some and leave out others. But yes, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, former students, former clients, people whose work I love and admire, people I run into on the street, people I have never met but sense around me. This, however, could be true anywhere. There are people I miss in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, the Netherlands, France, Argentina, and elsewhere. People I have known for years, and people I have met only briefly.

Then come the places. San Francisco, Tucson, Taos, Dallas, Chicago, Nashville (where I have been just twice), Philadelphia, Ithaca, New York, New Haven, and then many places in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine. The coast of Maine with its jagged rocks and snails. That, and the long stretches in between these places, the long road trips I used to take. Driving along the Salmon River in Idaho. Visiting a friend in Montana.

Then the works. Of literature, music, art, theater, architecture, and more. Not only the famous and long-resonating works, not only Whitman, Faulkner, O’Connor, Morrison, Dylan, the gold of many colors, but the burgeoning projects, the college singing groups, the open mic poets (even the unbearable ones), the newly-formed bands, the scribbled notebooks.

Then the ideas. The idea that it is not only permissible, but even good to criticize your government. (Granted, this can be taken to ridiculous and dangerous extremes, but the principle is dear to me.) The idea (also taken to extremes) that if you want to do something, and have enough determination and smarts, you can pull it off. The raw enthusiasm of the American character. The belief in freedom, even though we have not always honored it by a long shot and don’t fully know what it is.

Then the institutions, form the elegant universities, libraries, concert halls to the hole-in-the wall clubs, shoestring-budget theaters, independent film houses, ephemeral literary journals.

The comedy groups. Improv. SNL. Really good standup. The whimsy, the daring of comedy. The knowledge, contained in every comedian (just ask them who their favorite bands are) that life serves up generous portions of sadness.

Then the religions. The vast variety within each religion. The plethora of synagogues, for instance, ranging in terms of observance, emphasis, atmosphere, congregants. I don’t know that any other country has or could have a synagogue like B’nai Jeshurun, with such an combination of halachic seriousness, responsiveness to the world, and music.

Then the sounds of everyday life. The whisk of the A train in Manhattan as it speeds from 59th to 125th Street. The crunch of bicycle wheels heading up a San Francisco hill on a rainy day. Someone playing an accordion in the Mission. Coffee brewing in the kitchen early in the morning. The sound of waves, the sound of a stream running over rocks. The movement of animals in the woods. The long, droning cry of rush-hour traffic. The many languages, many tones of voice on the street, arguing, joking, questioning, proclaiming.

Then the personal lives, with all their triumphs and troubles. Because how could any of this have existed, except for the troubles? Troubles that wake you up and show you a bit of the way. Not the crippling troubles—there’s nothing redeeming about them—but the ones that jolt you momentarily out of your dream.

Then the broken dream. Because the darndest thing is, the Great American Dream has failed everyone at some point. “Things have a way of turning out so badly,” says Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. But for some reason, even after the losses and deaths, people get up and start dreaming all over again. Maybe a little differently, but radiantly. And that is one of the things I miss but also brought with me here.

I think of the end of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” one of the most beautiful poems of all time:

And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.

Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.


I took the photo in Fort Tryon Park in May 2017.

Update: I added a paragraph to this piece after posting it. Also, see Veronika Kisfalvi’s comment.

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4 Comments

  1. veronikakisfalvi4972

     /  June 8, 2022

    I enjoyed reading these reflections. I’m sending a link to an article from Utne Review that presents a lovely rendition of America the Beautiful, by Chaim Tannenbaum (with a video accompaniment that I found very moving). I thought of this version right away as I finished reading your blog. Chaim T. is a Montreal singer and philosophy prof, now retired. This version includes all of the original verses:

    https://www.utne.com/arts/music-video-premiere-chaim-tannenbaum-america-the-beautiful-zbtz1706zsau/

    Reply
  2. Michael in Seattle USA

     /  June 9, 2022

    Diana,
    I am so glad to have discovered your intelligent blog. (Thanks to Continental Subway 🙂

    These are indeed strange times in our US of A. Of course, the rest of the world is no stranger to such times.

    Cheers.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Michael, for visiting my blog and for your kind words! That’s great that Continental Subway was the conveyor.

      Reply

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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