No one in their right mind would give up the sensual, aesthetic, and gastronomic pleasures offered by French Savoir-vivre for the unrelenting battlefield of American ambition were it not for one thing– POSSIBILITY
from an op-ed in the New York Times
This entry in my journal, if you have been following this series since I started, is a departure from the typical voices of freedom message. Perhaps you won’t sense the difference as much in the content of this message as in the style and source.
The voice you will meet and hear through my pen belongs to an immigrant, an icon and a messenger bearing gifts. You may find her voice to be unlike any which comes to mind as you ponder these clues.
Before she actually speaks, I will preface her words with a brief explanation as to why I chose her in this communicae and how and why the idea of possibility became the theme.
Essentially, I chose her because Independence day is fast approaching. July 4 is the day we celebrate our independence from Great Britain–the day our status as a country went from mere colony to the idea which lives today in the United States of America.
She was truly an immigrant and she carried with her the heart-felt congratulations from the French. Sculpted in copper by artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the statue which would one day stand 151 ft. above the New York harbor, was intended as a gift to commemorate the 100th anniversary of America’s Declaration of Independence in 1876.
In reality, she did not make it to her final destination for another 10 years due to logistical and financial issues with the transport.
Originally entitled “Liberty Enlightening the World,” this iconic likeness of a woman soon became the light shining for the whole world from the eastern gateway of the “city on the hill”–that phrase immortalized from the Holy Scriptures in reference to the new world of America from the deck of the Mayflower in 1620.
Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the words from a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus which are inscribed on the metal plate affixed to the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands. ”The New Colossus” was the winning entry in one of the many art and literary contests held as fund-raising efforts to facilitate the completion of the foundation where she would stand on what is now known as Liberty Island.
As providence would have its say, it would be poetry and not mere prose which would deemed the fitting inscription for this messenger of hope.
Poetry–the medium which became the metaphor for POSSIBILITY through the genius of Emily Dickinson–another American poet of the same period. In the following lines, she presents a powerful image which limits the inextricable connection between possibility and human freedom and so aptly represents the American ideal.
I dwell in possibility
A fairer house than prose
More numerous for windows
Superior for Doors
For Chambers as the Cedars
Impregnable to eye
And for an everlasting roof
The gambrel of the sky
And fairest is the visitor
Whose occupation this
The spreading wide my narrow hands
To gather paradise
From Dickinson we hear things about poetry which, whether we’ve actually experienced them or not, seem to ring true. Poetry takes one somewhere and leaves the hearer to discover just where that is or what it means. At times it can confuse or frustrate and we demand to know what was in the mind of the poet. I have felt it and yet for all the best efforts of my seventh grade English literature teacher and even the contribution of a Sparknotes download to help me with a Shakespearean sonnet, does anyone know what he really meant?
The images of windows and the sky as a roof certainly gives a sense of the expansive nature of poetry. What an invitation to wonder, reflect, ponder and dream–to spread open the horizons of our minds to imagine, create and experience this freedom!
POSSIBILITY is not something which makes one feel comfortable or secure, but it definitely offers choice.
However, choice carries an incumbent requirement–to respond by following a path, to the exclusion of others, which leads to an uncertain destination. Uncertainty brings anxiety and often leaves the human soul wishing the choice wasn’t necessary; yet few would willingly give it to another.
As you read the words of Emma Lazarus which follow, hear her set the stage for the invitation by Lady Liberty to the land of possibility:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land
Here at our sea washed sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch; whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles; for from her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome and mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbors which twin cities frame
This is not the triumphal procession of the conqueror leading the conquered. Here is the gateway to the power and energy of freedom by one who call the exiled to their new home. She commands with a kind and gently eye and offers them something far different than the lands of their origin.
“Keep ancient lands your storied pomp,” cries she
With silent lips, “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, your homeless tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
What drew them here was the promise of freedom–the lure of potential to make a life for themselves and their children–a life free from restrictions which bound them even before birth. But because possibility is only potential for success and not a guarantee or entitlement to a certain standard of living, it is risky business and the responsibility rests on the individual and not government or society. And they understood that and were still willing to give it a chance.
America still calls out with this invitation of possibility today and there are those who clamor to cross her borders and enter for a better life. Yet immigration has become a hot button for politicians and leaders because somewhere along the way the rules which accompanied those at Ellis Island no longer seem to apply. Instead of inspection and rigorous questioning as to health and eligibility to work and make a living, we hold out the promise of citizenship for children born on American soil regardless of the status of their parents.
There are no language restrictions–instead the public schools must accommodate even the children of illegal immigrants. Certainly it was difficult for my Norwegian grandmother to attend school in an English speaking country, but she learned quickly as did scores of others. Do we not do a disservice to those who came before and obeyed the laws and bore the consequences of ineligibility when we advocate to open the borders without restrictions? I believe that we do. We owe it to those who desire to become citizens of this country the dignity of doing it by the book. Most of the legal immigrants I know feel the same way.
There were not welcome wagon hostesses, no free gifts from local business owners–no one with food stamps or housing assistance vouchers waiting for those disembarking from the Ellis Island ferry boats. All that lay before those working class people was the possibility of employment and prosperity in exchange for hard work and thrift.
As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend, let’s stop and give thanks to those many immigrants who courageously traded familiarity and a degree of certainty for the unfamiliar and uncertain and became those who “dwell in possibility”And passed the same POSSIBILITY to the next generation–