Why I finally decided upon America by settling in Seattle: across the Great Divide

Hendrix on Hendrix

The best stories give you a strong sense of place. I’m contemplative of my own citizenship as I prepare for my final expedition for the year. I’m headed to Brussels to lead a couple of storytelling sessions for the European Commission, as well as give a talk to the Belgian chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. I’ll be doing so via London (where I was born) and Paris (where I studied law).

I grew up in Toronto, my parents are from Trinidad & Tobago, I spent formative professional years in Montreal, New York, Tel Aviv and British Columbia. I once celebrated being a “citizen of the world.” But then as I slowly recognized my need to belong somewhere and believe in something, I realized that this was a hollow credential. It takes focus and more than a little courage to commit to another person, a place and a profession.

Despite roaming the world in my 20’s and 30’s, I’ve always been drawn to America, both geographically and spiritually. I’ve reported on it, produced documentaries about it, got married and had kids in it. It’s a place of abundance; it’s also sometimes scary. I’ve come to learn that the best stories have tension and conflict. America is replete with both. Yet this country of contradictions has also fueled me with the greatest sense of the possible — more so than any other place. I could only nod vigorously in agreement when I recently came across this passage about The Band (pioneers of “roots rock” despite being mostly a group of ex-pat Canadians) in Mystery Train: Images of American in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music:

They felt more alive in America. They came to be in good terms with its violence and its warmth; they were attracted by the neon grab for pleasure on the face of the American night, and by the inscrutable spookiness behind that face. American contradictions demanded a fine energy, because no one could miss them; the stakes were higher, but the rewards seemed limitless. The Band’s first songs were a subtle, seductive attempt to get this sense of life across. Their music was fashioned as a way back into America, and it worked.

The Band's classic second album
The Band’s classic second album

I too voted for an American life. I married Miss Maple Valley 1988, decisively choosing Seattle as my adopted hometown, naming our kids after Jimi Hendrix and Harper Lee. Though I sometimes jokingly refer to it as “closet Canadian,” sharing more of the progressive values of its neighbor to the north than having anything in common with say, the deep South, I still consider Seattle a quintessential American success story. I spent much of this year digging deeper into the nature of this success as I was tasked to help craft the narrative of this city of innovation.

My interview with civic innovator Eric Liu is airing this week as part of this endeavor. Eric wrote The Accidental Asian and speeches for President Bill Clinton; his most recent project digs deep into the nature of citizenship (“what would it take if we actually had to earn it?”) and his wisdom helps explain my own attraction to the region.

“This is a part of the country that is not yet finished. You can still write the future of this place. But you can also write the future of the country¬†from this place” Eric told me. Given the focus of the graduate program that I direct, It’s music to my ears when he goes on to explain that really good citizenship includes cultivating really good networks as we self-organize and tend to our community “gardens.”

I invite you to watch Eric’s conversation with me; he’s utterly inspiring and gives me much hope for the place I’ve chosen to call home.