Dreaming in America

Note: What follows is from a while ago. I will be posting older stuff here more often, as I want to transfer all my writings to one place, and have backup copies. This trip actually happened; it was the second trip I took that summer, and it was a learning experience, as you can see below.

Dreaming in America (1st draft)
Ashok Karra

For Joshua Rocks, without whom this would not be possible.

At Gettysburg the sun shone through the treetops and formed what seemed to be a mist of light hanging in the air between earth and sky. I walked on what must have been blood-soaked earth once, before the blood was turned into mere matter and became earth itself. At “The Angle,” for example, Pickett’s Charge broke through the Union lines despite being battered by artillery. One knows that hundreds of people were shooting and knifing each other and trying to blow each other away with cannon all in the space of a few feet, atop some grass and dirt that people were now talking and smiling and wondering on.

There was another space of a few feet at Gettysburg, where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. And I wonder if the soldiers there could ever understand what a “new birth of freedom” was, and whether their lack of understanding makes their sacrifice worthless. Does anyone understand Lincoln’s thought on freedom? That the rhetoric of the Declaration[1] cannot be assumed to be true or even reasoned to be true? That it must be believed true, believed with all the fervor of the most religious?

The light still hung in the air when I left Gettysburg in the summer heat and took the car into Virginia, driving until night came. There a slender waitress with dark hair and delicate features thought I was gay. There a cheap hotel put its filthiness on display.

Monticello stood on a hill hidden by trees and yet had some of the best views of the Shenandoah. Jefferson’s design had to be gotten to by a path similar to the winding road I had taken up Little Round Top,[2] where trees cascaded down the slope like a waterfall and surrounded my little car, filtering out sunlight as they wanted. Inside there were books and inventions and skylights, and one didn’t pay attention to the light falling from above really, because there were gorgeous gardens and open spaces that made one wonder if this was the home of an American or some European gentleman.

Jefferson’s tombstone declares that he is the writer of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Statute of Religious Freedom for the State of Virginia, and the founder of the University of Virginia. Would European gentlemen be so committed to Enlightenment at the expense of religion? Would they really think all men can be free, that all men can educate themselves?

Later I arrived at Memphis, where the blues I heard at night were subpar, but the girls were cute. Alas, they were too drunk and boring to even hold a slight conversation with. The city was filled with panhandlers and drunks.

Graceland’s power came in spite of the fact that it had a color scheme not unlike a lava lamp. The tackiness of the 60’s and 70’s was on display everywhere – there was a carpet on the ceiling, a waterfall in room, a room with 3 TV sets and yellow and blue cushions – but it wasn’t that tacky, not as tacky as it could have been.

They give you an audio tour of Elvis’ mansion, and you hear clips of the The King speaking and singing. He sounds like a grown man even at 18. For all his gaudiness, whatever he wants to do he does well. He reads – yes, they’re cultish New Age books mixing Biblical fundamentalism with sci fi – but he takes notes on what he reads, and doesn’t seem to keep more books than he can handle. He has 2 8th-degree blackbelts in 2 separate forms of martial arts. On display is his Army uniform, and an award he received from the city of Memphis for philanthropic giving. The checks are for massive amounts of money.

I wonder if Elvis’ decline stems from the same thing that made him rise. So much of Graceland is clearly meant for his parents. He had money and fame and lived the American dream – that thing which results from the freedom Lincoln and Jefferson talk so eloquently about. But is freedom and some spirituality enough to be able to take on the pressures of celebrity and wealth? Is it enough to even be able to confront life generally?

Nowadays I think a lot about those soldiers at Gettysburg, the ones that didn’t know why they were out there, the ones that lost limbs and lives and friends and saw and made Hell on Earth, all because of freedom. The ones that stood together and died but did not achieve any sort of immortality like individuals such as Lincoln, Jefferson or even Elvis. This earth is ours now, ours to try and tend to, ours to misunderstand and fail in too. Light and water fall from the sky or hang in the air or even come from the ground, and I never would have paid attention to any of those elements surrounding me if it weren’t for the fact a friend accompanied and aided me this whole trip, doing so merely because I asked, a friend who took on an obligation – a restriction of his freedom, technically – just because he could.

[1] “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

[2] At Gettysburg, the North repulsed assaults by the South here that would have probably resulted in a Southern rout of the North.

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