“I returned to the Land of the Free only to feel like I am giving up my bits of my freedom,” I told a friend over coffee last week.
I’m back in the US after three years in Australia.
I’ve returned to a place where I never know if new people I meet will judge me and my family as too….. something to associate with politely. If the parents of the neighborhood kids my children are quickly befriending find out about my spiritual beliefs & practices, my progressive voting record, my sexuality, my feminism, my ally-ships & activism, or any other bit or bob that makes up the whole that is me, will they still allow our children to play together? Will they still welcome my family to the neighborhood? Can I still borrow the occasional cup of sugar?
I wish I could say. But the truth of it is I just don’t know.
I can pass—visually, but also conversationally. Years of practice playing Corporate Wife at shmoozey dinner parties. And as much as I would like to say that I’ll put myself out there, neighborhood judgment be damned, the reality is that I probably won’t. I hear myself beginning to justify putting pieces of who I am back in the closet. I feel myself, as much as I abhor it, struggling with re-chaining myself to (acceptably) American behavior and a compulsive need to blend in.
I’m caught between wanting to teach my children to live their truth fearlessly and not wanting to wager my children’s fragile sense of new community connection or our family’s ability to live comfortably in a new place on it. The last time we lived in this area, a child on a playground graphically explained to one of my children how she was going to burn in hell because she was wearing a Halloween t-shirt. A string of other more hurtful events in our past history with this place force me to confront fears of potentially toxic interchanges with new people we meet.
I learned to live without this sense of relentless external judgment while living in Australia. Don’t mistake me—Australia has its own slew of social justice issues to confront; an alarming number of women killed by their partners this year alone, a really ugly humanitarian refugee crisis linked to the legacy of years of “whites-only” immigration policies, battles over sovereignty for indigenous communities, etc. I do not mean to imply that Australia is the paragon of progressive utopia. No such place exists and I know it.
I’m limiting my scope to every day interaction—exchanges between neighbors, meeting someone new at the community pool, shopping at the local grocer, taking your car to the mechanic, going to a new exercise class. That is the scale of interaction currently at the forefront of my average, comfortable life.
In my host country, I never experienced the nastiness or judgment that colored my American past. When we first arrived in Australia, I was absolutely still carrying that weight though. I passed—at least until I opened my mouth & revealed myself to be a foreigner. And at first I still struggled to gauge how authentic I could be around new connections.
Over time I learned as each contact came to know me for me, the exact opposite of my experiences in America took place. Deeper knowledge of each other deepened relationships further. I came to understand at the level of every day interaction, the everyday Australians I came in contact with couldn’t care less whether or not we shared a religion, a political party affiliation, a cultural background, a gender/sexual identity, or whatever other category we, in America, use to endlessly divide and subdivide ourselves from each other.
All in all, I spent several years being able to make new relationships pretty fearlessly; having my life enriched by a wonderfully diverse array of people. Maybe it was the nature of the town or the expat experience. Maybe it’s something inherent in Aussie mateship culture. Maybe I was just plain lucky.
It wasn’t a sociological study. It was just my life.
And now, I find myself back here.
Confronting the dissonance between the person I became abroad and the home culture I’ve returned to takes place in a thousand every day moment; in every interaction outside my nuclear family, where it seems I must be weighed, measured, & judged on my acceptability as an American over and over again.
Will my daughter lose her new friend if that family finds out I’m not Christian? Can we successfully re-build an authentic life here? Will I be able to keep myself whole? Are there new relationships in my future that I can build without having to be vetted for the proper (acceptably) American criteria first?
And after all that—carrying these feelings in my heart day to day—I sit on the couch and watch the evening news.
And what completely rocks my world is that I also know, despite how out of place I am feeling in this moment, I carry a great deal of privilege in this culture. So, if this is how I—a white, financially stable, cis woman—am feeling, I can only sorrowfully imagine how those less (acceptably) American than I am must feel struggling with no reprieve, no opportunity to live a few years far away from the restrictive nature of their everyday lives in this Land of the (hypothetically) Free.
To live every day afraid of what might happen to their children. Especially those children that can’t pass—can’t smile and nod and keep themselves under lock & key—because pieces of their authentic selves just can’t be acceptably hidden.
I am afraid the neighbors won’t let our children play together if they knew me authentically.
But I am not afraid the neighbors will assault my children at the community pool. Or call the police on them just because they don’t find them (acceptably) American.
That sort of fear I, and many other Americans, may never fully understand.
But we should still make an effort to grasp at least a sliver of it.
Put yourself in that fear for a moment.
Imagine it at vividly as you can.
Now, let’s ask ourselves how (acceptably) American is it to live with that every day in the Land of the Free?
Kate Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is a somewhat nomadic American, homeschooling her children with the world as their classroom. Before motherhood, Kate earned a BA from Tulane University, while studying Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. She served four years as a logistics officer in the US Army, after which, Kate became a doula and holistic birth educator. She is a regular contributor to The Sisterhood of Avalon’s online journal, The Tor Stone and is active in the Red Tent Movement. Kate volunteered in Houston as a presenter for monthly Red Tents and semi-annual women’s retreats before relocating overseas. In Australia, she hosted seasonal women’s gatherings, facilitated labyrinth rituals, and led workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. She recently returned to the US and is breathing into the potential of a new chapter of life for her and her family.