By Marieke Slovin Lewis / Prescott, Ariz.
I have always been a bit wary of the idea of normal. I have spent most of my life working to embrace my authentic self, and I try very hard not to censor elements of myself in order to fit in. Certainly, normalcy has taken a back seat since the start of Covid and the pandemic in 2020. I think common sense and kindness have gone with it.
I have moved a lot in my life, and I think part of my propensity for migration has stemmed from the desire to find a place where I can belong and be accepted (maybe even celebrated) for who I am. I have been living back in the United States for just over a year, and it is becoming very clear that this is not the place. My husband and I spent four years living in Brussels, Belgium and one year in Bailleul, France before returning to the States in June 2021. To say that I have been experiencing culture shock and a strong desire to run far away would be an understatement.
When we returned to the U.S. last year, we moved back into our home in Prescott, Ariz. My husband had lived there for many years before I left my job as a park ranger at Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts to join him. I spent just under two years in Prescott before we picked up stakes and headed to Brussels so he could study for his doctorate at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels. Having grown up in liberal Massachusetts, studied abroad in Africa, Europe, and Russia, and then lived all over the United States, I found the conservative perspectives and politics of people in small-town Arizona very challenging. Elements of life were seriously grating on me before we left, and I was very ready to go to Belgium. And this was pre-Trump.
There is a way to get to know the flavor of a place by the bumper stickers people put on their cars. I call it “bumper sticker politics.” Before I left Arizona, I would regularly read anti-abortion stickers, slogans about gun rights, or anti-Obama sentiments with the words “A village in Africa is missing an idiot.” I remember being really excited to finally see Hello Kitty on a bumper sticker one day. It was such a relief to see the familiar figure. Upon pulling up behind the vehicle at a stoplight, however, I found that Hello Kitty was holding two AK-47s.
The population in Prescott is varied. There are artists, cowboys, veterans, hippies. And certainly I do have a rare “coexist” or “be kind” bumper sticker sighting. I just feel a stronger despair arise from the other messages of entitlement and hatred.
Before we left for Brussels, I told someone at the dog park about the upcoming move. He told me that he would never move to Europe without his gun and that I should have someone from Prescott mail a Stetson hat to me in Belgium and then open the box in front of all of my Belgian friends.
I wasn’t really sure what this show of Southwestern culture was meant to communicate to the people of Belgium, but I didn’t inquire any further. I never did follow his advice. The cost of shipping to Belgium from the U.S. was exorbitant, and I really had no need for a Stetson hat.
Now returning to Arizona, the elements of life that were grating before have become disturbing on an even deeper level. And people are much more outspoken, thanks to the behavior of our former president.
There are the usual gun rights stickers, and there are bumper stickers for Trump 2024 to “Make votes count again.” In addition, there is a local man whose primary pastime seems to be driving around in his large, black pickup truck, upon which he has painted several unfounded claims:
NASA is a hoax
NASA knows UR stupid
Since returning to Arizona, I worry more about gun violence when I leave the house. I bought a temporary pass to use the pool at a local community college, and within a couple of weeks of my pass expiring my husband received an alert that there was possibly an active shooter on the campus.
Pandemic health precautions are another source of stress. In Europe, people were not allowed to enter any establishment without wearing a mask and using the hand-sanitizer station at the entrance. In Arizona, I get strange looks if I wear a mask, and I am often the only person with one on. When I run an errand, I find myself weighing the importance of protecting my health against the many viral mutations by wearing a mask, against the desire for better customer service if I don’t wear one.
I find myself feeling more and more isolated, staying close to home and interacting with very few people and then, only those with similar politics. In an increasingly polarized place, the pool of possible people to socialize with seems to get smaller and smaller. And I have to psyche myself up just to leave the house because I feel so bombarded by bumper sticker politics. With upcoming elections, I am trying to avoid peripheral vision so I don’t have to read the deeply disturbing platforms candidates are running on. Just the other day, I drove by a sign with a person’s name in bold, capital letters with a one-line slogan beneath: Stop Critical Race Theory.
I am heartbroken by the lengths people take to paint someone who is different as a threat. What galls me the most is seeing this in religious fervor. It’s cliché, I know, but I just cannot imagine Jesus supporting any culture of fear and hatred. And yet, his name appears in even larger, bolder letters on signage all over town. There are multiple trucks with Jesus advertisements painted on all sides. I see the trucks parked in different places for their messages to be seen by passersby.
The Jesus truck advertisements include messages like:
Got Jesus? I came for you ~ Jesus Keep Calm - Jesus is Coming Soon Normal is not coming back….Jesus is
Before we moved to Europe, I used to laugh and roll my eyes at these advertisements. The emotions I feel now are more fraught. Each time I see a message born of fear, bigotry, and ignorance, I feel an increasing sense of danger and urgency. The repercussions feel higher, people’s behavior more reactive and extreme. Our very humanity is at stake.
Normal may not be coming back, but perhaps if Jesus did he could remind everyone to act from a place of love and compassion.
Marieke Slovin Lewis is a writer, musician, singer-songwriter, yoga teacher, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education and writes music from people's life stories, using a method called Story-to-Song that she developed with a fellow doctoral student. She was recently recognized as a finalist for the 2021 Amateo Award for arts participation projects in Europe for her project, "On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration," for which she wrote songs with refugees and asylum seekers in Brussels, Belgium about their migration experiences. Marieke is a wandering soul and has lived all over the world. She is currently living with her husband, three cats, and a big white husky in Prescott, Arizona.