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American Eagles and American Dreams

Over the last week tens of millions of people (my two-year-old son, husband and myself among them) have logged on to watch a pair of Iowan eagles and their three babies perched high above the earth in a nest of sticks. This, at first glance, is an easy story about our national bird, which until 2007 was on the endangered species list, living its simple life of survival against the Darwinian odds. But there’s something more here and it’s less about the eagles themselves, actually, it’s about why we want to watch them and who we are.

Look at where we are as a nation: In the mornings we turn on the radio or the TV, check our blackberry’s and iPhones, and hear the same story: the recession is over; unemployment is going down; the Dow is creeping up. Everything’s getting better.

It may be. But what, I wonder, if we live in towns that have been ravaged by the recession, like Bend, Oregon or Millinocket, Maine; Bakersfield, California or Youngstown, Ohio? What if we’re still unemployed, as my own husband, Dan, was, for almost a year, before he decided to go back to school? What if we have to choose between rent and food?  What if we’ve become so disgusted by our on-going wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so disheartened by the lack of concern for our planet which is screaming with tsunamis and earthquakes, so depressed by the media’s message to consume more in order to save ourselves, that we no longer know where to turn?

What’s interesting is that many of us find ourselves watching a real story in real time of a family, not unlike ours, which is just trying to survive. Theirs is a story of the vulnerability of babies who sometimes dangle close to the precipice of death; it’s a story of the courage of creatures and it’s a story of the perfect harmony of a partnership--in this case a male and a female--who are taking care of each other while below them we see cars go by, we hear airplanes overhead, we know that the world with all its Facebook and Twitter and reality TV and just plain artifice is going on and yet these eagles, blessedly, are just focused on their own survival and the survival of their children. And it’s a story of the American Dream, because the eagle is, in the end, a symbol of our country.

But what is the American Dream, anyway? Do any of us know anymore? Is it Fitzgerald’s vision of a “green light” and an “orgiastic future” that forever eludes us? Is it our founding fathers’ notion that all men are created equal to pursue happiness? Is it the workers’ rights the brave people in Wisconsin have been fighting for? Is it the idea of a house with a perfect lawn, an SUV out front, and all the material things we could want?

What’s hard about where we now find ourselves as a nation is that many of us in the working middle class grew up believing in the promise of “fruited plains,” ours to harvest if we worked hard enough, and that America was “made for you and me.” But how do we reconcile our beliefs with this interminable slog through joblessness and poverty? How do we believe in the American Dream when we see the injustice of an illegal war in Iraq and such a fundamental lack of concern for the earth that we know our own children we will inherit plagues of disaster?

How do we continue to believe in anything when we’re told the recession is over and yet close to 14 million Americans the government considers unemployed, men and women who are still willing ready and able, cannot get jobs? And this number does not reflect those whose unemployment has run out or people who are self employed and out of work or the people who have lost the heart to keep looking for a job are no longer counted.

We need to understand that somewhere along the line, the basic tenets of the American Dream got hijacked by a “get rich quick” greediness that has nothing to do with hard work and thriftiness, nothing to do with the pillars of justice and democracy we cherish as our birthright. And, in the meantime, the things that could sustain the American Dream through tough times, like a reliance on our communities, neighbors, and extended families, has been bred out of what we imagined for our lives. Young families like mine think we should be toughing it out alone as if we were pioneers with nary a neighbor in sight; instead we should be asking for help and reaching out to help others.

Fitzgerald famously wrote that, “There are no second acts in American lives.” I know from personal experience that’s not true. In 2008, Dan and I went west from Maine to start new lives in California. Just one year later, we found ourselves with a new baby and an empty bank account. The recession hit our family so hard that we were forced to drive back across the country to move in with my mother, in Maine. There, at home with Mom, we simplified our lives to only what we needed, not what we wanted. Then we reconfigured our dreams so they were no longer about material things or images of a house with a perfect lawn and two cars out front, and we began building them back, brick by brick. We got lucky, eventually. When I sold my memoir about our experience with the recession, we had $16 in the bank. The advance didn’t make us rich or even make a significant dent in the towering pile of bills that we towed across the country behind us, but it gave us some breathing room.

When I sold my book, people said to me, “Only in America!” and “That’s the American Dream!” Perhaps. But I’d add this: As I found out, the American Dream can no longer survive on the idea that if you persevere you will succeed. It needs to become something deeper, something simpler, something we are learning as we watch that family of the eagles in Iowa: We need each other. It’s that uncomplicated. As we watch the male eagle fly back to the nest with a gasping fish and pull it apart, giving pieces to the mother who is shielding her tiny babies under her belly, which she, in turn, feeds them bit by bit, we are moved by this beauty of needing each other to make it. Because it is only in coming together, with guts and determination, that we will build back the communities and families which will preserve what we know innately: that we can get through anything as long as we do it together.

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