MotM Essay | Here Together
23 July 2018
“Infinity until Italy!” ––My friend's daughter, four-and-a-half years old; 4 July 2018.
It felt weird anyway, being in Washington, D.C. for the July 4th holiday, since I was still waking up on European time––a practical choice to keep up with the people I’m profiling, who communicate with me from six hours away, in their time zone. Meaning sending or receiving a text message at 4:00a.m. Eastern US and Canada happens to be no big deal; plus, keeping up those circadian rhythms puts me a tiny bit closer to my life there, mentally anyway, when I know I am helplessly far. But it was the confrontation with the nation on its birthday in its capital while my body had heretofore been safely packed away in an apartment in Brooklyn on European time, that it became the first acute cultural readjustment in the weeks since my return.
Actually, the first came a couple of days before when a man who boarded the train in Baltimore announced to his seat mate, a woman from New Jersey, that it was a great day and “a great day to be an American.” It was a provocation that gave me shivers, but it was read by the woman as a prompt for friendly validation. Yes, she cheerfully returned. Both were prepared to boast their national identity apropos of something I couldn’t see. But what if he had sat down next to me?
Later, I was surrounded by three children, the kids of my friends whose home I stayed at in D.C., who all blinked slowly when their father announced that “Auntie Pammy lives in Italy!” They had never heard of the place. Ages 10, 8 and 4 (and-a-half), if a neighbor or old au pair wasn’t from there, Lombardy might as well be Kentucky. I showed the middle kid a map of the country on my computer as I combed tearless conditioning spray through her just-washed hair and she panned immediately away to Panama. The youngest screeched in her best rhythmic meter, “Infinity until Italy!” and we closed the book on the day’s geography lesson. They did like the Mulino Bianco breakfast cookies I found on a fluke at the market around the corner, so there you go, an Italian experience.
We were at the Bishop’s Garden beside the National Cathedral before the fireworks. It was the blue hour and hazy, overcast, I guess, but probably just the humidity taking siege. The rest of the family had taken a stroll, so I sat on a bench watching the middle kid cartwheel and catch fireflies on the lawn. The church bells pealed. It was a collage of Polaroids: people in shorts and sundresses, games of tag, plastic frisbees and ease. We went back to our blanket, the territory that we had narrowly staked out on the asphalt hill; the Washington Monument was in the foreground, right where we expected at any minute to see the firecrackers on display around its obelisk. Staring into the sky on the Forth of July in those anticipatory minutes always feels like the nervous hush over dead airtime on TV before the show resumes, that signal flick to black as a commercial concludes––Sshh, it’s on!
Or maybe it was a pregnant pause and we were all wondering what it meant to be celebrating a nation that allowed brown kids to be locked in a border cage away from their parents while the government urged their ejection to the other side. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t much better in Italy, with Matteo Salivini, its Minister of the Interior, pushing for port closures and seeing, subsequently, hundreds of migrant deaths at sea. And so, as bizarre as the fireworks over this icon seemed for an American coming back from abroad, an argument could be made against any notion of cultural discontinuity.
There hasn’t been a minute to spare in speaking to these traumas. In the month since the MotM return from Rome, from D.C. and back to New York City, I have made the decision to formally incorporate Migrants of the Mediterranean.
MotM as you know it is a website that lives as time and funds have personally allowed it. It has been the work of one, paid for by one, and almost wholly developed by one. Following the success of the conference partnership in Rome in June, however, new support networks have emerged to guide me toward taking Migrants of the Mediterranean from a personal writing project to a professional humanitarian storytelling organization.
There is delight in making this decision, in seeing how to take the skills and resources unique to me can be used for something bigger. It is exhilarating, in fact, even at this very early stage that’s equally, sometimes frighteningly, defined by the unknown. At the core though, the decision has been easy: I’ve already confronted the truth of the humanity and stories given to me. There is no erasing it. There is no going back to a time without the responsibility to make them be heard.
Now, it is a matter of time and logistics. Those may not yet be here, but the objective of Migrants of the Mediterranean is. I only have to think of the people to connect the dots along the path.
I can think of their words and their gestures. I can think about moments of looking deeply enough at the people I meet that the flickers on their faces could––if your attention slipped––appear as subtleties of the wind. They are not. They are the filigrees of the recollections of Libya, the desert and sea oscillating on their skin, which is all in opposition to the normalcy they struggle to accomplish in the spaces here and now.
I can think about how my perception shifts to a place away from any association when each person talks. And then, how essential it is to humanity to give you this person as you’ve never seen them––not merely to understand them individually, but to understand the places where we say we are from, because they are from there now too.
I’m in Brooklyn for the summer. Beside a basketball court in Brower Park, a spot near where I live, it occurred to me that people are seamless. Sometimes they come to you from the thin air. They arrive, in any event, and orient you in unexpected ways. A little kid I’d never seen climbed the seat beside me. He fitted himself between the wood planks just so. He had the unforeseen elegance of a prince as he rested his hand on my knee and announced directly as if ordained, “I want ice cream.”
I watched him like a magic trick and asked about the whereabouts of his mom. His friend, an older girl, arrived at his side.
“He’s an ice cream lover. One time, I yelled ‘Ice cream dream!’ and he chased the ice cream truck down the block,” she said, and patted her braids.
The kid scampered away. They both disappeared, waves melting into the sea.
It was just three strangers that met together for two minutes to justify the day, and it may sound precious the way I’ve put it––and it is––but it served anyway as a dot I connected to humanity. Small things like this always remind me that being out in the world and engaged in it is the thing that brings you home, and that home is everywhere. I keep wandering between worlds, greeting all kinds of people, and finding the same thing. That we are all actually just one thing, here together.