This is a paper I wrote about Naomi Shihab Nyes "Newcomer to a Troubled Land " essay.
As a child I dreamed of running away. I was going to go to Europe to visit old cities, winding country roads and view an enormous amount of artwork. I also wanted to go to Alaska to climb mountains and to bask in the glow of a sunset from every beach. I just wanted to go, go, go. And as soon as I got my college money, I was out the door- I went to Canada and played in every city. I went to London, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, and Athens... Every place I went I would then mentally check it off my list, another trophy city done. I went to Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Todos Santos check, check, check. I traveled all over the United States- Austin, check. Chicago, check. Salt Lake City, check. I went to Fairbanks and on the way saw Denali, check. But I was so determined to see everything that I forget to look, to really stop and look at all these wonderful sights. I did Italy in two weeks, how can you absorb Rome, Venice and Florence in two weeks? I ran blindly. My trophy list is all I have from those years with just a few memories here and there. I was the perfect model of what America is producing now- a one-dimensional girl with no attention span. I only cared about racking up points to claim the prize at the end.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s essay “Newcomers to a Troubled Land” implies that words and destinations are subjective. Without the rich history and exploration along the way the meaning and depth may be lost. So to skip along in this multicultural world we live in is detrimental to our connection to people, the land and history.
Nye’s essay reflects an innocent journey through moments of her life as she explores this diverse world and the words we use (or don’t use) to connect ourselves to our people and land. She starts with her son renaming himself after arbitrary items, but today he is Madison (his actual name). He is writing his name, then his mothers name underneath, and he discovers all the letters of Naomi can be found in Madison. Her name lives in his name. The meaning of her first name Naomi is “pleasant”, with her last name Shihab meaning shooting star. Nye claims that her names, as a child, were hard to live up to so she tries on more common names like Susie and Debbie.
She writes about watching the assembly of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. What would happen if the last piece were set in place and it came crashing down? Or it didn’t fit? All that groundwork for nothing. The phrase “Gateway to the West” sounds so inviting; it doesn’t lead us to the bloody massacre that happened to “win” the west.
Nye touches on the missionaries not leaving her father alone, “like coming into someone else’s neighborhood and telling them how to do things”(397). Nye also writes about her trip to Hawaii over Christmas. She went to church and the daughter of last king of Hawaii sat behind her. A woman of elegance in all black, a queen-like presence in a sea of “Christmas patterned Aloha shirts” (398). A princess participating gracefully in the customs of the people who took her world away.
The name “Nye” comes from a group of Sweden’s who fled their country and resettled in Denmark in the thirteenth century. When Nye first met her husband she was intrigued with the name and really enjoyed taking ownership of it when they married. They had a Nye party- inviting all the Nye’s in town over. Also a family trip is planned to visit the original Nye homestead on Cap Cod. She is overjoyed to see how others are occupying the name and at the same time how she is adding to the history of it.
The Nye family decided to take a road trip to Oregon. Along the way a town named Nye is spied on the map and the family is elated. They must go visit! Nye dreamed about the café they would have lunch at and the neighborly people that would show them around. She panics when they drive up and there is nothing, absolutely nothing.
Nye finally writes about a nanny who had her husband confused with another Nye and how the memory and history may mean more then the reconnection.
Throughout Nye’s essay she explores names, her son’s name and her name hidden in it. She will be there with him forever, but she fears where “there” is. Our world is so meshed; will he find his identity? Will he remember his heritage? When children are raised in a multicultural environment we tend to believe they would be open to others and their differences. But a lot of people in America do not tolerate differences. We need to explore others lives, walk in their history and understand that this end point where we have met is just an intersection in a long, traveled road. Without sharing the journey with others (and embracing it ourselves) we disconnect from each other and become one-dimensional.
One of my favorite parts of the essay is Nye writing about the “Gateway to the West”.
“ I stood with my St. Louis schoolmates as the last gleaming silver segment of the Gateway Arch was swung into place by a giant crane. We held our breaths, imagining a crash as the parts clanged together, or a terrible disaster if the piece were to slip loose. Worst yet, what if the section didn’t fit?” (396-397) White American’s acquired the west through brutality. What would have happened if the west didn’t fit with the east? We built this land from the legs up and if the finishing pieces did not connect what would happen to the stability of the country as a whole? As a multicultural society we need to have the foundation set in place to hold the rest of us together. We are not a melting pot swooshing all the cultures together and watering them down, but instead a country made of different people working as a whole. All Americans need to strive to retain the integrity of their culture and at the same time, share it with others. Creating a road for future generations that embraces them individually and as part of the entire land.
Nye wrote of the Oregon settlers,” how many got all the way there, paused a while, and turned back. What was it they didn’t find?” (400). We are so busy going forward, planning the future, and finding the quickest route, we forget to use our senses. To stop, look and listen to the streams or to feel the land between our toes. We need to explore our history and people and get to know our surroundings. There is so much here to discover, why should we hastily keep moving? We ought to bring our rushing life to a standstill and learn to understand people and their relation to this land. I am no longer interested in the prize at the end, but instead traveling within my day, savoring the moment. Nye quotes Pablo Neruda who says “Why wasn’t Christopher Columbus able to discover Spain?” (397). If we are not able to know the land we live on how can we know any other?
The Oregon trip opens Nye’s eyes to how we have traded the intimacies of travel for good gas mileage, a trusted atlas and hotels. She reads about the pioneers on the Oregon Trail and all the hardships they had, but still they experienced the land and allied with fellow travelers. Nye yearns for this kind of connection. When she discovers the town of Nye along the way, she is elated. Again Nye is going to connect with people on an arbitrary notion but then discover their history. When Nye finds the town empty, she panics. She spent her childhood toying with more suitable names within this culture; she scoffed at the misconstrued name of the Arch in St. Louis, and finally she married into the name Nye, full of roots buried deep in the American soil, for what? Although she uses the name to catapult herself into the history, it in itself, at times, is empty.
One evening Nye got a call from a nanny who used to watch a boy who shared her husbands name, “Honey! I took care of babies all my life and no baby ever got into my heart like that little Nye did”(403). It was the wrong Nye. If the words and destinations are arbitrary, then the connection must happen in the journey. A shared moment. People should slow down and enjoy our experiences together. In the end it will open us up to each other, our history and land.
I agree with what Nye is requesting of us, to stop and talk to strangers. It will not solve major world problems or the inhumane treatment of people. But individually we would feel more a part of our community and this space we share. And down the road maybe this local level of understanding would grow and make it better for the next generation. Nye is passionate in her desire for us to connect on a deeper level. She wants us to open the lines of communication and cross barriers so we can develop a better perception of this multicultural world. We should have a better relationship with the people, the land and our history so we can be open to others and their differences. It is not enough to struggle to retain our own integrity in this troubled land; instead we need to talk to strangers and hear their story. To run blindly with our hands tied through a world full of light and texture is tragic. I am ready to stop running. I feel like I missed so much when I was traveling, moving and not experiencing. But I am here, standing still.