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What America Feels Like After a Weekend in Canada
Over the Easter holiday we decided to take a trip up to Montreal. My wife and I had gone there on our honeymoon and fallen in love with it, and our kids had yet to leave the country. We got them passports back in 2020, right before COVID, and have been putting off international travel against our will since. Montreal is an amazing place, one I would put up against the famous cities of Europe, and we can easily drive to it from Jersey.
We indeed had a fantastic trip, one that only furthered my love of Montreal. I ate amazing things three times a day in between seeing the sites and just drinking in Montreal’s unique atmosphere. On the way home, however, I was confronted with something I had never experienced before.
As we crossed the border north of Plattsburgh to return to the US, something felt wrong. In the past, when returning to America after going abroad I have always felt a certain warmth about being back in my home country again. That Easter morning I felt dread. During a trip spent walking Montreal's streets and riding its refreshingly modern subway system, I kept seeing the news from America. I read about progressive state representatives being expelled in Tennessee, about the gun deaths of children lowering our national life expectancy, and of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. For a couple of days, I felt like I had escaped a madhouse.
To be sure, Canada has its own problems. There were panhandlers and mentally disturbed people on the streets, for example. In the weeks before we came a deadly fire killed people living in unsafe housing just blocks from our hotel. By and large, however, Canda felt like such an infinitely more FUNCTIONAL and livable place.
Above all, there wasn't an ever-present feeling of dread, one that has been dogging me in this country every day since the summer of 2015. For almost a decade, America has been on a precipe, our own Years of Lead with mass shootings, police murders, and capitol stormings with the spectre of right-wing authoritarianism constantly hovering. To the last point, I was in Montreal when I saw the news about a Trump judge banning abortion medication throughout the entire United States. This in particular gives me the sinking feeling that I am no longer fighting to prevent an authoritarian, reactionary regime, but instead fighting an ineffective rearguard action against a force that has already won.
I had not been out of the country since 2009, by far the longest stretch in my adult life. I've still been traveling a lot inside America however, and in that time have been to practically every corner of the United States. My travels to everywhere from New Orleans to Los Angeles to Alabama to Boston have deepened my love of this nation and given me perspective on its stunning regional diversity. I cherish getting to walk the Golden Gage Bridge, joining a second line on Bourbon Street, and chowing down on Maine lobster. I have lived all over this nation too, from Nebraska to Chicago to downstate Illinois to Michigan to Texas to New Jersey. Each place has its own unique things to offer. I go to work every day feeling the electric charge of New York City’s streets, but my soul still glories when I get back under Nebraska’s impossibly big sky.
But as my love of this multifaceted nation has deepened, so has my despair. I don't much believe in this country's future anymore, and my deeper investment in it makes its precariousness all that much harder to endure. It's a dynamic I had not been aware of until I spent some time in Canada. I suddenly realized that in this country I walk around every day with a low, buzzing dread that never goes away, and which breaks the surface and becomes full-blown despair with the news of each new mass shooting, attack on marginalized people, and undemocratic seizure of political power.
It felt good to get a break from America, but for better or worse, it is my country and one I won’t be leaving for good. I so desperately want to make it a better place to live; my time in Canada showed me improvements are theoretically possible. I am going to keep that thought in my mind when the buzzing of daily despair gets to be too much.