Mostly Zoe
December 2, 2001
North Topsail Beach, NC.

I started this journey looking out at the Pacific Ocean. I hopped in my truck and drove a little over a mile down to the beach. The Pacific is my ocean. It means I am home. An hour ago, I sat breathing into the teeth of a bitter, lonely wind on a dune in North Carolina and watched the breakers hit the Eastern edge of the country.

From Sea to Shining Sea.

At the half way point, in time if not quite there in distance, on this Quixotic quest I huddle tonight in my tent in the hauntingly empty Surf City Campground. The season is over, the warmth left south in the sister Carolina. Nothing here but me and the wind and the cold and the boxy hulks of faux Victorians abandoned for the winter.

It is a baptism by battery power for my new laptop. In Birmingham a few days back I discovered that the computing machine I started this trip with had an advanced terminal disease. She died peacefully.

I sit here bathed in the light of the screen and listen to the wind rattle my tent and the insistent roar of the ocean just beyond the dunes. Seabirds of some sort scream angrily outside the tent, ticked off that I didn’t read the part of the contract requiring me to discard bread for their use. Angry, angry birds.

Still haunted by an intimidating woman with an intimidating rasp in her voice and an intimidating granite face, all asking her intimidating question…

“What do you believe in?”

I think about the words of an eight year old Mexican kid on the other coast. I think about two homeless guys in a park in Tucson and their little flags flapping proudly from their shopping carts. I think about two soldiers on a gate at Fort Huachuca and their color blind devotion to each other. I think about an old man in El Paso smiling proudly at his mixed blood grandchildren.

I recall the kindness of a cutthroat hooker in Vegas and the excited joy with which a young Latina hopped up and down just thinking about when she would finally be a citizen and could vote for “President, Governor, Congress, City Council…I’ll even vote for what color to make the street signs if they’ll let me. I will take my children out of school so they can come with me to vote so they will know how important it is.”

I remember the odd, cold war in Kanab between members of the church of Latter Day Saints and the recently arrived non-believers. I remember that they agree on one thing…wave the flag for all you’re worth.

I think of the searing red sandstone of the Canyon Country of Utah, the gentle Vermillion of the Grand Canyon, and the high desert loneliness of Arizona and New Mexico and wonder where else I could lose myself in so much magic.

I conjure up, here in the cold, the faces of two little angels. Young girls with diabetes, one from a family with wealth, one from a family without. I think about the sacrifices and changes borne by the families, the jolting fear of the little girls when their bodies betray them, and in both cases, on opposite ends of the country, in completely different circumstances, the rare and moving courage of the mothers. Molly and Elizabeth…one poor and plain, one wealthy, regal, and beautiful, both quietly determined to kick the shit out of this beast that has grabbed their daughters.

I think about an ex-serviceman in Tulsa absolutely infuriated at anti-war protesters. “You’re over there with people trying to kill you and you’re doing it for these people and you start thinking what the hell am I doing this for if they think I suck so bad?” I remember the words of an ex-serviceman in Birmingham who thinks the opposite… “I knew that I was willing to die to protect their right to protest, that I was willing to die to protect their right to protest.”

I remember a newly minted American telling me that freedom makes it easier to breathe.

I remember some old Armenians who knew more about this place I call home than I had ever bothered to learn.

I think about a bunch of scared people across the entire spectrum of colors who think we need to “kick them all out and take our country back”.

Close the door, I’m on the bus already.

I think of a high school football game in Midland that everyone, participants and spectators, took far too seriously. For three hours we all got to take a silly game far too seriously and not take so seriously a bunch of crumpled steel and concrete in New York.

But only for three hours.

I think of a terrified young woman in St. George, UT. who swears she is not afraid but won’t open her mail.

I think of a woman in Alabama wrestling with the man she loves now and the ghost of the man she loved before him. I think of a cop who just wants to do some good.

I think of a classroom in South Carolina filled to overflowing with twenty year old see how much I don’t give a damn and one young man, a soldier, quietly resolved to put his life on the line for them anyway. “The idea is bigger than any one of us and it’s worth fighting for,” he said… “It’s worth fighting for those who can’t, those who won’t, and those who don’t even get that you are fighting for them.”

I think of a little girl with a teddy bear she wants to give to another little girl whose father won’t ever come home. From the World Trade Center.

I remember the words of a retired military officer who told me, “Look, I think we have to fight this war but remember that the only good war is the one where no one shows up…the one where we as a species figure out that this is foolish. I’m not holding my breath but it sure would be something, wouldn’t it?”

I find it oddly comforting that every ex-military person with whom I have spoken have suggested the same thing when asked what one could do to help, on a personal level, the people fighting for us in Afghanistan… “Write a letter”.

I find it absolutely maddening that I cannot figure out how to do something so simple.

I think about all the self-possessed twenty and thirty somethings in Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Birmingham, and Charleston who only think of their wallets. Who think that we have to fight this war so let’s go get those people, whoever they are, to go fight it…and finish it quickly because this whole economic uncertainty thing is really putting a crimp in their plans.

I think about a young woman in a post office carrying two young children and pushing a huge box with her feet. A box filled with mundane contents. A box going overseas to a military base for a husband she might not see again. I remember thinking someone should help her and feeling embarrassed when someone else did it before I did.

What do I believe in?

The cowardly beauty of going around the country asking the questions is that I don’t have to have any answers.

I think about a bunch of old, dead, white guys who cranked out a piece of paper that gave me gifts, as a birthright, that I cannot fully appreciate. I think that it is a testament to how well that old yellow piece of paper works that I cannot conceive of what it means to be anything less than free.

I know these things are important. I know I believe in the ideas of America and the people that make those ideas into a shifting, liquid reality.

Mostly, though, what I believe in is all the way across the country in a little cracker-box house not far from the right ocean while I huddle here a stone’s throw from the wrong one.

Gary Snyder wrote something once that said what you need to do is find something to call your own and then dig in and defend it.

Maybe the issue of what it means to be and American is too big, too broad, too much to put into words or into concrete thought. Maybe I am no different than the many I have met who cannot define what it is and can only think of it in terms of what is wrong and what is right in our own lives. Maybe there is an instrument, a substitute for the eloquence of Jefferson or Jay or Madison or Hamilton, and that instrument is human and tangible.

Leave philosophy to the philosophers.

Mostly what I believe in is the magic of every day with her, the music of her voice, the poem of every motion and sound she makes, and the prayer never far from my lips. She is what I will dig in and defend. That life. That dream. I am developing an appreciation for what it means to be an American. For what it means now and what it has meant down through the tunnels of time.

Mostly though, what I believe in is a woman. Mostly, what I believe in is Zoe.

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