What the Constitution Means to Me

For the past eight months we have talked a lot about self-care, a state of being where we look inward to center ourselves, to focus on our own mental health in order to make it to the next day, and the next, and the next. We read romance novels, and binge re-watched all of New Girl. We learned to bake bread, and more recently began the easy process of mocking holiday movies on Cable TV. We gave ourselves leeway to not be productive, to deal with our emotions, our fear, and the uncertainty.

Mike Wilkens, Preamble, 1987. Smithsonian American Art Museum. I used this image as a central piece in a 2005 essay I wrote called the Visual Representations of the Constitution.

And amidst all that self-care we’ve realized—well most of us at least—that we need to be more aware of what is happening beyond ourselves. That in a lot of ways what America is, and what we will become, depends on that single choice. To care more.

We have all been changed by this year, and we cannot go forward without acknowledging that a single election, for good or ill, will not fix what is broken. While we wait with baited breadth for the results that will begin to roll in on November 3, the real challenge, no matter the result, comes after: the next day, and the next, and the next.

But let’s take a step back.
Let’s talk about me.

For most of my life, I have constantly re-evaluated what it means to be an American. Even with all my knowledge of history, my understanding of how we as a nation have trampled and then course corrected on the rights of anyone who is not white and male, that I am, at my core, an idealist and an optimist. That I believe in the promise of America, that we are going to be better, that we can be better.

For me, America was not about this single enshrined document, but rather the way we govern ourselves by its words even hundreds of years later. Despite its enactment in a way that reinforced slavery, and the denigration of Native Americans, it allowed us, as a country, to strive for that more perfect union. I believed (and still do) that our most sacred civic act is enshrined in the right to vote, and that that fight for civil rights is what opened the doors for my family to come to this country in the 1970s.

I owe everything to those who marched and fought for me, even though they had idea who I was.

I don’t think I understood how I really felt about all this until 2019 when I saw a remarkable show at the Kennedy Center called What the Constitution Means to Me. Written by Heidi Schreck, this play examines, teases, and pulls apart the Constitution, but in such a way that looks beyond the language of our governing document and those that enforce it, to emphasize how we as individuals (particularly women) are impacted by the words on that page.  

Schreck masterfully weaves this complicated story, through the vehicle of a fifteen-year-old girl reciting her award-winning, scholarship producing, essay that responds to the prompt that titles the play. Near the start of the show, Schreck (as her younger self) describes the Constitution is a “Boiling pot in which we are thrown together in sizzling and steamy conflict to figure out what it is we truly believe.”

Figure out what we truly believe. I wanted to write a review and a reaction story to the play last year. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it, but maybe, just maybe, my brain was waiting for this day, so I could ask myself a few questions.

After the year we have experienced what do I believe? What do I want to believe?

I believe that we as a country are better than what we have been for the past four years.

I believe that even with my understanding of the past, I have been able to wrap myself in my privileged blinders to acknowledge, but not do enough to support the Black, Latino, and Native American communities in this present moment. I can always do more.

And particularly after seeing What the Constitution Means to Me, I have realized that my belief in this document comes not from the document itself, but rather, in the fights to change what had been enshrined. I believe we are capable of positive change.

A momentary aside. At the end of the play Schreck tells us that our Constitution is “really, really old,” and that thinking of the Constitution as a battle isn’t helpful because (and this is a partial paraphrase) “the people who have always had power in this country, always dominated are always going to dominate and interpret the Constitution their way. ” She says, that even if we changed the Constitution to be one that enshrines human rights from the beginning, we still have to trust the people who are doing the interpretation.

And so—

I want to believe we can, someday, trust our elected officials.

I want to believe that we are about to elect a well-spring of strong, uncorrupted voices that will advocate and lead change.

I want to believe that we are able to survive what is to come.

Earlier, I said that that this one election will not fix what is broken. But I would like to take a moment and look to Bryan Stevenson for a semblance of what we do next.  

“Sometimes we are fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.”

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

So this Election Day I am carrying an invisible satchel filled with my crumbling idealism, my fragile optimism, my own ever-learning capacity of compassion, the knowledge of what this year has wrought, coupled with an understanding that further action will be required.

We’ll see what happens next.

Note: Please watch What the Constitution Means to Me on Amazon Prime. It is magnificent. Everyone should watch it.

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