Mark Twain's desk and billiards table

All Right Then, I’ll Go to Hell

We were supposed to go to a wedding this weekend, but for various election-related reasons we chose not to go. Instead we spent Thursday driving north. We got to a service station, and when we sat down we realized that the TV had the election all over it. We moved over closer to the food kiosks, and faced the people who made our food. Because of this, I was able to hear as one young man came in for his shift, asked if everyone was OK, and then clapped his hands. “There are protests all over the country. We’re going to get through this.”

We drove back into the City for a fellow No Tokens editor’s book launch. The readings were beautiful, and the evening felt like a good wake – we were sad, but we were sad together, and that sadness was punched through with hope and celebration.

The next day we were back on the road. Movement has helped, as has playing angry fuck-you music as loud as we can stand it. We ended up at an IHOP for dinner (the first time I’ve been in one since college I think) and the crowd in the restaurant were families of all different stripes, a dad with two daughters, a girl with a femme, bleached-hair boy in the corner, families speaking Spanish. When I looked at the menu, each entry had its Spanish translation underneath it.

The next morning, Mike surprised me by taking me to Old Sturbridge Village, and I lost my shit. Now, this requires some backstory: When I was a Tiny Leah, my favorite show in the world was Reading Rainbow. (I was going to marry LeVar Burton, because he lived an exciting life in New York, and he had ALL THE BOOKS.) My favorite episode of RR was called “Ox-Cart Man”, an illustrated adaptation of a long poem by Donald Hall, in which a farmer and his family toil year-round to survive in New Hampshire. I don’t know why that was the episode that spoke to me, but I have watched it almost every autumn since I was a kid. As my fellow RR fans will remember, LeVar always took us on wonderful adventures to complement the episode’s book (highlights include, a Tar Beach in Harlem, the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a radio station, and maybe best of all: A BOOK BINDERY.) LeVar demonstrated the harsh conditions of The Ox-Cart Man by traveling back in time┬ádriving to Old Sturbridge Village, a living history farm in Massachusetts where costumed guides actually do all the work necessary to live in 1830’s Massachusetts.

I have wanted to go since I was 7.

When I saw the highway signs and realized where we were going I lost my shit.

Several magical things happened at OSV. A Caribbean-accented family sat together one a bench while their youngest member, a little girl who looked about ten, ran around in a happy frenzy. A Spanish-speaking family went building to building, quietly translating the Villagers’ English for their grandparents. The banker (a real retired banker! who ran the Village’s pretend bank! OMG!) told me two things I never knew about American history, first that the push for federal paper money was part of the call of the Union to unite against the Confederacy, and second, that the earliest counterfeiters were Loyalists who were encouraged by the British to destabilize our early currency. (So I think I found the best possible Hamilton sequel.) As we were about to leave, a little boy came into the gift shop to go to the bathroom. He went to the women’s room first, and his older brother pulled him away, saying “That’s the women‘s room.” A minute later, the boy comes bounding out of the men’s saying, “I wanna go to the women‘s room!” This time no one stopped him, and his mother followed him in.

On the way home we stopped at The Mark Twain House. One of the museum workers asked a standard-issue question about why we came to the House. Mike replied,” The need for sarcasm.” The guide laughed in that dark way everyone’s been laughing for the last few days. “Enjoy it now before it all goes away.”

Oh, how we laughed.

Our guide for the House tour was a young African-American woman named Kadijah (this was the name of Muhammed’s first wife, the one who supported him financially while he founded Islam – I was too shy to ask if she was named for her) who walked us through the House calling Mark Twain “Sam” or “Our Sam”. The main gallery devoted about half of its space to Twain’s fights for civil rights, women’s suffrage, the articles he wrote denouncing anti-Chinese attacks in San Francisco, and detailing life as an enslaved person in 1840’s Missouri. There was far more space dedicated to that than to his time on the Mississippi or his famous, globe-spanning lecture tour.

We drove North rather than spending the weekend on the site of a Confederate plantation. We gave our money to a living history museum and a great American satirist’s home rather than the respectable family that is currently home-schooling their twelve children and raising them to be good Christians on the site of a Confederate plantation.

I love my family, and I’m sorry to miss the wedding, but I needed to see America, the real America, the America that welcomes everyone, that strives to be better, that remembers its history and works to heal the wounds it’s caused. I cannot allow myself to believe that my America is a fiction, or a pipe dream, or a bubble. I can only believe that we will live up to our promise, and dedicate my words and my time and my life to creating the America in my heart.

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