22 Jun Home At Last

I woke at four this morning to the hyperbolic chorus of birdsong. Since our return on Monday, I’ve been getting up at 4:00 AM, no matter what time I go to bed. A sinus infection has complicated my re-acclimation to stateside time-zones. But today, at last, I can smell again. I’m startled how early it gets light. In the Marshall Islands, equatorial sunrise and sunset never alter: 7:00 AM, 7:00 PM. Here, the sun starts insinuating itself at 4:30 AM. I’m startled, too, how early the birds go to work. And how noisy they are about it. I like their company when I’m up at that hour, staring out at the brightening blue over the Baltimore rooftops. Their energetic singing suggests that I should be about my business too.

Right now, I hear a man calling “Ice cold!” outside. He’s one of the enterprising urbanites who bring coolers packed with bottled water to busy intersections. Today’s salesman is a skinny fellow wearing a white canvas sunhat, long denim shorts, and a t-shirt. A plastic bottle of iced water in each hand, he strides into the street and calls, “Ice cold! Ice cold here!” Yesterday it was a different guy. It’s surprising how many Baltimoreans drive with the windows down, no matter how hot it gets. I’m convinced it’s part of the city’s Southern heritage. We get really hot here in summer and many seem to flaunt it. Whereas temperatures in the Marshall Islands rarely top 90, Baltimore will broil in the nineties for weeks. Last week’s heat spell killed our maple sapling in the sidewalk treewell.

The Marshall Islands is all sky and ocean—wide open and very blue. Here on the East coast, it’s green and cluttered. Trees press in and crowd the view. I like that. It’s what I’m used to. Speaking of trees, we’ve discovered a pair of mocking birds building a nest in the tree nearest our back porch. We consider this a big deal because it means our back yard plantings are getting mature, entering their third year. Jill announced this morning that our pond has at least one new goldfish. She sighted fish eggs a few weeks back but couldn’t be sure. Now we know. Though hundreds spring from the hatching, very few survive the attention of the forever hungry tadpoles and adult fish. Last year only one fry made it. Jill worries about them but understands that we have to let the ecosystem take care of itself.

I still haven’t gone through my mail—there’s a big box of it. Nor have I fired up the vacuum and gone after the cat and dog hair that mosses the carpet in every room. It’s going to take a while for us to get the house back in order. But there’s no rush. We’ve been doing laundry all week. Piles of it. I forgot to cancel my New Yorker subscription before I left, so now the magazines are scattered all over the house as I read them in snatches. I won’t even try to catch up. There is no catching up with anything, I’ve decided—not with your old body weight or the backlog of magazines you think will make you a better person if only you could read every one of them cover to cover. Still, tomorrow I return to the gym and start again with good intentions.

Generally, my return to States has elated me. Our nation is so much like an amusement park, everything geared to entertainment and immediate gratification. I delight in filling up our refrigerator after a day of grocery shopping and blasting music from my computer while I surf the internet and fire off emails at the speed of light. I smile when the electric garage-door rises over me as I back into 28th street. Jill managed to get the city to install a NO PARKING sign in front of our driveway, so now we no longer have the headache of rogue city parkers blocking the garage. Our flowers are opening in the back yard, the butterfly plant as big as a giant squid. I’ve been napping all over the house like a lazy cat, first settling into the library couch, then padding down the hall to the guest room—wherever it’s coolest. Our big house seems such a novelty, there’s so much of it to play in. It’s terrible and wondrous to be an American. “This is Rome,” an Irish friend once told me with a smile. Rome towards the end, I was tempted to add. Nothing this good can last.

On the news recently I saw a story about the growth of the middle-class in India. Observers worry that this huge influx of consumers (350 million) will overburden world resources. The suggestion is that the Indians, like the Chinese, should cool their capitalistic jets. But how realistic is that? Just because Americans got the goodies first doesn’t mean that the rest of the world should go wanting. Our problems are global and, in the end, all of us will have less because it’s too small a world to accommodate everything we want.

I knew this before I went to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, so I can’t say my visit made me feel any guiltier for my privilege. But my stay did calm me down, putting into perspective what is and isn’t important. American history, much of it an embarrassing chronicle of overreaching and exploitation, has led too many of us to believe that what’s happened here in the U.S.A. has been inevitable. It’s a sense of entitlement that much of the world can’t fathom. When you live among those who don’t have such expectations, you begin to see personal and global limits in new ways. We Americans have all we have, in great part, because we got lucky. Much of it had to do with being in the right place at the right time, like a gambler sitting at a hot slot machine. Luck is hardly a firm basis on which to found national pride, much less personal ambition. This is not to say that I will now tamp down my own ambitions and adopt an “island” mentality. Rather, it’s to say that when the next disappointment visits me, I’ll be a gracious host and remember that I’ve been very lucky.