When your surname is like mine—it literally means “Patrick’s church”—people tend to assume you’re Irish. To be charitable, they’re probably half right. It’s likely that a generation or two of my ancestors did pass through Ulster on their way to America from Scotland, part of a subset of Scots who sought a new start in a new world…but that was a long time ago.
Unless you’re a direct descendant of Chingachgook, we all came here from somewhere else. Some of us arrived voluntarily, some of us were indentured, and some of us were bound in chains. Like it or not, immigration, whether chosen or forced, is the underlying theme of the American story, and like all good stories, it is still being revised and rewritten today. Nothing is ever truly finished.
Nevertheless, I still think about my own immigration story a lot. Not so much about the ancestor who arrived here in 1763, but about what he left behind. What finally drove him to sail away from everything he knew, the people and place of his birth? Was he headed to a new place or running away from a haunted old place? The distinction was probably important at the time, but it doesn’t much matter now. For better or for worse, we’re here to stay.
These days, my own little family’s migrations are smaller, not nearly so bold. I moved away from my hometown and eventually came to rest in a new place that I love not all that far away. My children have travelled farther: one to Colorado, the other to California. They made new starts in the same country, hardly the stuff of legend, but important nonetheless. Migrations are as much about establishing identity and independence as they are about flight or survival or capture. Motive matters.
In the current political climate, immigration has became a hot-button topic. While I understand the reasons for that, I rue the debate because it obscures something profoundly important in the human condition. We all want a better life. We all want to be safe and secure, to be able to provide for our loved ones, and to realize our dreams. But in today’s world, immigration implies more about threat, privation, and competition for what are perceived to be limited resources. I suppose those narrative themes have always been a part of the immigration story, but now they seem to be driving it over a cliff onto the scree below. What once made us who we are and bound us together, now threatens to drive us apart.
Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. I know it’s something of a faux holiday here—in Ireland it’s hardly celebrated at all—but it’s noteworthy nevertheless. For a few hours, some of us will don something green and celebrate the old cuttings that have grown new shoots in this fertile soil. There are similar celebratory days for other cultures: Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, Hanukkah, Eid, Diwali and more: each a savory dish in America’s multicultural feast. So come in, sit down, and make yourself at home. There’s plenty for all.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.