911, Patriotism, and Farming Oysters

I was living in Paris on September 11, 2001. And like many across the globe, I spent the day watching reruns of the twin towers collapsing in horror and disbelief. My mom called and said she was so relieved that I was no longer in NYC, my home before Paris. But I felt differently, like I should have been there. I’d spent most of my life until that point as a die-hard expat. September 11th changed that for me. I felt a profound need to connect with the United States. So, within 10 days or so of 9/11, I got on a plane and flew to San Francisco to visit a college friend with the intention of then flying to NYC.

In San Francisco, I was moved and amused by the outpouring of flags and other patriotic displays. They seemed tailored to San Francisco, a flag mutated into a peace sign, or a line of empty NAPA wine bottles with flags standing up in them. I was well travelled internationally but as a native Mainer, I had never been to California before, or actually anywhere in the US off the East Coast except for Portland, Oregon. After September 11th, when I felt that sorrow we all felt, I was forced to ask the question: What was my native country really like? What did all of this flag waving really mean? My ideas about the US were largely shaped by my experiences abroad.

Looking around, I wondered if these visual patriotic expressions would change and adapt to reflect the different cultures across the US. Would flags look different in Santa Fe? I thought about driving cross country and taking pictures of it all. A friend suggested I interview people along the way. So that’s what I did.

I interviewed over 100 Americans I met along the way home, from executives to homeless people, from California to Maine, and I asked them the same 10 questions about patriotism and America. What does patriotism mean to you? What does it mean to be American? What do you most love about America? Who is a great American patriot? Etc.

Outside of oyster farming, this was the most life-shaping thing I’ve done. In some modern day take on Alexis de Toqueville, the 19th century French philosopher, with France behind me, I set out to learn about America. I met a flag maker, rode on a Harley, danced in a park, listened to country music, had moments of real fear, and was occasionally brought to tears by people’s stories. And as I drove across the country and listened, without judgement, to my fellow Americans, I learned.

Patriotism is a tough sentiment - sparking concerns of jingoism. But in the wake of 9/11, many spoke of patriotism and love of country as loving your neighbor and embracing diversity. As I moved into Nevada, people did start talking to me about God and country. Witnessing the desert for the first time, I have to say, I kind of understood them. I have never felt as small and insignificant as I did driving my little PT Cruiser alone though those vast, red landscapes. It’s transcendental - no wonder God is on people’s minds out there. It had never occurred to me how much our landscapes can impact our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.

De Toqueville spoke of two kinds of patriotism he witnessed in America, one passive and backwards looking, based “traditions,” where people lived in “obedience” like in their father's house. But there’s another, more “rational” type he saw, one that’s more ‘ardent’ and “productive,” based on “self-interest” and the “exercise of one’s rights”. After September 11th, I saw that latter type on full display.

When asked what people were most proud of in America, the response was almost universal: freedom and opportunity. Exactly what de Toqueville was speaking of. What I have always loved about those notions is the agency they require. Freedom and opportunity rely on the individual to act, to take advantage of that freedom, to make good on that opportunity. I don’t think we appreciate how unique that is. When I returned to Paris, I called a bunch of French friends and asked them the same questions but regarding France. When I asked them what made them most proud about being French, universally they spoke about French history or culture, largely nostalgic notions that are more about what others have done.

While I stayed in Paris for many years after 9/11, being an expat never quite felt the same. And as chance would have it, nine years later I wound up being an oyster farmer back home in Maine and that work felt good. A friend came and worked at the farm one summer at one point he said “this is the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done.” I knew what he meant. In some ways becoming a farmer in my home state was the healing I needed after September 11th. I was able to exercise the freedom and opportunity afforded me and through hard work and determination I felt I earned my stripes as an American. I felt like I finally had a country.

Looking back on this project I feel like we missed an opportunity to take a big step forward as a country and community. We are all now entrenched in our bubbles and pointing fingers at each other, looking backwards to what the country used to be, instead of looking forward to what it could be and embracing the pro-active, forward-thinking patriotism that is “generous,” “creative” and “more lasting.”

I would love to see this 20th anniversary of September 11th as an opportunity to embrace this type of pro-active patriotism. And to remember that in the wake of September 11th, to many, to most, patriotism meant loving your neighbor.

Here is a link to a slideshow of my photos and interviews.

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