What Does An American Look Like?

My friend Prithvi was sworn in this week as a U.S. citizen. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation about the experience:     Swearing in

The ceremony was beautiful.One thousand one hundred sixty-six (1,166!) people from 97 countries participated. After waiting outside for about 30 minutes, we took the oath and a lovely band played the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  It was an emotional moment.

Several judges spoke about the United States being a nation of immigrants and as new citizens, our enriching that heritage. They encouraged us to tell our stories and enrich America with our culture.

A woman judge told a story about a Bangladeshi immigrant who became a citizen.  When he was shot after 9-11, he sued to stop his assailant’s execution. We were strongly encouraged to vote:  There were voter registration desks in every corner of the building.

The head of the immigration service there, whose grandfather was from Mexico, asked us what an American looks like.  Then he said, “This!” and gestured at us.  Each country was called out, and the people of that country were asked to stand. Then he said, “Mexico,” and everyone remaining stood up.  There was roar from the stadium.

Prithvi is from Mangalore, India. She is brilliant and well-rounded: a technical manager at Apple, the mother of a three year old, the wife of an equally brilliant engineer.  She also runs a non profit for Indian children. I can’t imagine anyone’s taking issue with her becoming a citizen.

I asked her how it felt to be an American.

I don’t known what that means. I have felt American for a while.  And Indian.  That will not go away.

Prithvi’s experience was a reminder of what we’re about — and it’s not those plastic American flags realtors insist on sticking in everyone’s yard, nor the mattress sales, nor the grocery store aisles clogged with overflowing baskets.

At a time when our world’s politics are compared with — heaven forbid –“Game of Thrones,”  let’s try our best to rise to the occasion, to return some of what we’ve been given — to read, listen critically, write our elected officials and vote. Let’s try our best to make things better.

 

Don’t Let Fear Be Your Excuse

I had lunch recently with my friends Jane and Larry Graham. Their granddaughter Caroline Richards died in January from osteocarcenoma, a rare form of bone cancer.  She was 12 years old. Caroline was a sunny day kind of child: She favored dancing over walking and singing over whispering.  She had over 30,000 followers on Twitter. She embraced her disease by giving people presents, making them laugh, and celebrating her favorite pop band One Direction. Caroline refused to forfeit her time to fear, self-pity or regret.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.
Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

I’ve thought of Caroline many times since the Saturday afternoon I squeezed into her funeral, a standing-room only affair packed with people of all ages and walks of life, many of whom had big bows in their hair like the kind Caroline wore – when she had hair. There was dancing in the aisles and a great deal of singing to honor Caroline’s philosophy: If life throws you a bum rap, put a bow on it and throw a party.

Easier said than done, we say. Some of us are tragedians; we tend to look at the quieter, sad aspect of life. But the lesson Caroline leaves us is to not be undone by mere predisposition. No indeed. Do not let fear be the excuse.

Most of us are blessed. We don’t face major life-and-death situations.  But fear is an insidious life-stealer.  Ever since I can remember I’ve suffered from paralyzing stage fright. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of my eighth grade speech class and leaning on a chair because my knees were shaking so hard. Stints in community theater and Toastmasters have alleviated it, but I’m still terrified when I face an audience. My task is to prepare, open my mouth and say my piece. Telephone calls have always had the same effect on me, an odd twist for someone in my profession.

Caroline's Brave Bunny Foundation awards a children who show exceptional courage with this bunny.
Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation recognizes children who show courage.

Caroline’s mother, Lauren, gets it. Caroline didn’t live to do what she’d wanted to do, help raise money as an ambassador for research to help save other children from the cancer that caused her so much suffering.  So her mom has taken the bull by the horns in Caroline’s honor. Lauren is starting the Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation that, among other things, awards a (stuffed) bunny to children who show their own particular brand of courage.

The award — a bunny with “Brave” embroidered on one ear and the child’s name on the other — recognizes courage, not winning. The victory lies in moving through the fear, be it finishing school, or mastering a particular skill. Whatever it may be. Fear is a very personal crippler.

So remember Caroline and the Brave Bunny next time you pick up the phone to make that cold call. Or take a job you don’t think you can do. Scale your guts, and think about the time you have on this planet. Let’s not let fear be our excuse.