Some years, birthdays are all about the numbers. Like this year. I drove 8 hours across 3 states with one 6-year-old and watched 2 feet wiggle during the 9 hours I was trying to sleep, in order to hear 3 stories told by 1 stranger on behalf of 47 newly naturalized citizens…. It added up to the kind of experience that left me energized and exhausted.
In case it wasn’t clear, I spent the day at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh watching my sister-in-law, Masha, become a U.S. citizen. Families and friends sat shoulder to shoulder on one side of the courtroom, the newly naturalized citizens on the other, Girl Scout troupe 414* filled the jury box, and a self-proclaimed short judge sat in a very tall chair behind the towering bench. We all surrounded a podium on the floor.
Immigration has never been an easy topic, especially when it strays to the gray areas of the law. But, as with all issues that have the potential to irrevocably change lives, it demands compassion first. Compassion is a gaping black hole in our current government, which over the past term has created a black hole in many of our hearts. The speech I heard on behalf of the citizens sparked the first genuine feeling of hope I’ve felt for our country in a long time. It wasn’t just the stories that got through to me, either—it was also how they were told, which was another gift all its own.
I didn’t catch the speaker’s name. She was a middle-aged, professional woman who seemed competent although not charismatic. She started off by saying, “I’m going to share three stories with you,” and I cringed. The structure made me think of Goldilocks and the 3 Little Pigs—stories that teach there’s one right way to do things. I couldn’t fathom what lesson she would surmise from three stories that would be true and respectful of the different paths that led all 47 newly naturalized citizens here.
The first story was about her dad, eager to explore the world outside India; the second was about her mom, a homebody subjected to an arranged marriage; and the third was about herself as an 11-year-old, Canadian girl forced to move to America.
Instead of tying them together with a one-size-fits-all moral the way I expected, she reflected them back on the audience to say that whatever experience had brought us from where we started to where we were today, that experience was valid. For some like her dad, it might be the pursuit of a dream. For others like her mom, it could be the fulfillment of a larger obligation. And for those like herself, it might be something entirely out of their control. But all of them can be true.
That twist really hooked me. It got me thinking about how between the lines of her speech, she was actually saying one-size doesn’t fit all in the US. Between the personalities in her family she was creating space where others could find themselves. Between her intro and her conclusion, she was demonstrating that stories don’t have to tell the audience what they should see, they can also tell the audience how much they’ll never see.
While the past four years have been a cold, dark stretch in our country’s history as a safe harbor for immigrants, the message I heard on my birthday helped me realize that I don’t know how this story will end no matter how much I think I might. And between all the possibilities that exist, there’s always a way to make room in the story for hope. Short of a new back and a full night of sleep, I can’t think of a better way to feel young again.
*The troupe number has been changed to protect the identities of minors. 😉 And because I can’t remember (please reference the note about getting old).