Posts Tagged With: America

The Annual 4th of July Post

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I’m going to preface this entry by saying that I’m a closet rampant Christian.  Or, not closet exactly… I just believe that there’s many ways to reach God and that Christianity is a good one, but I know it doesn’t work for everyone as amazingly well as it works for me. So, I tend to keep quieter than some.  I mean, it’s not like you’re NOT gonna hear the message of Jesus in America today…

I’m putting in this preface because I’m going to get a little religious on you at the end.

I’ve been feeling like a big fuddy-duddy this year about the 4th of July, and if I’m feeling it you better believe it’s bad.  I’m usually all about breaking out the tricorn hat and ’76 flag while humming Stars and Stripes Forever and carrying a sparkler. But America IS NOT living up to what it should be in ways so profound that I’m not even sure we qualify as a democracy at this point.  A fascist oligarchy? Maybe.  Democracy?  I don’t know.  I’m hoping we can get back to a semblance of democracy soon.

I’ve always been a proponent of the fact that the 4th of July is a day to revel in the promise of America, the US that never actually can be because it’s an ideal.  It’s a day to party it up, think of freedom and founding fathers, listen to a little fife music, and gain stamina for the fight to make the actual US match the fantasy US.  If we bathe in the America that could be for a day, we can better work towards that actuality in the coming year. A little bit closer, the years bending toward justice.

I just didn’t want to do that this year.   I see the country standing for so much hatred to the point where we’re not even acknowledging the humanity of children.  Where do we even go from here? Is there a bottom lower than this one?  I don’t want there to be.  I didn’t want to ponder or celebrate America at all right now.

Still, in church this morning we had a little America celebration.  We sang My Country ‘Tis Of Thee and America The Beautiful among other things.  The sermon was on making apologies for deep wrongs.  I sat in that sanctuary, sang all the verses, and found that maybe I did feel okay about celebrating the 4th after all.  Because the Founding Fathers knew that this was a fraught experiment with potential for abuse, but they also knew their scrappy citizens who cling to liberty with both hands.

I want to point you to two verses in each of the songs from this morning:

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee.
Till selfish gain no longer stain, the banner of the free!

Our fathers’ God to Thee, Author of liberty, To Thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light, Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King.

I think that this 4th is going to be more of a religious holiday for me this year.  I’ll be praying for everyone to be crowned with brotherhood, for selfish gain to no longer stain the banner of the free, for God to protect us with freedom’s holy light.  I’m hoping that the fireworks will shine like a benediction on these prayers on Wednesday night as they light up the firmament.

And then on the 5th, I’m going to fight like hell again to secure the blessings of liberty for myself and my posterity.

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Book Review: Good Poems, American Places

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I mean, it’s sort of a review.  And a contemplation on America and life:

I didn’t move that far away from where I grew up and yet it still feels like a different world out here some days.  Most times that’s a good thing.  The views of bouldered green hills, snowcapped mountains, and rows of citrus make me feel like I am living in Ultimate California.  Although with my former job in my home town, I hadn’t really been able to enjoy it.

Now that I’m here, I’ve been exploring Riverside in fits and starts.  Between it and Redlands, I think this corner of the world might have been made for me.  On Tuesdays, the local movie theater screens classics.  The bakery down town has the most divine cinnamon twists.  There is a British Emporium & Tea Shop and an indie bookstore called the Cellar Door just minutes from my office.  Couple that with the civil war reenactors in Redlands, that amazing red library, and the fact that I am walking to the symphony Saturday night and I am in bliss.  I’m ready to take a walk and buy oranges at the fruit stand down the street.

For my reading challenge, I bought Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, American Places at the bookstore last night.  It’s billed as poems for those who don’t like poetry.  I’m one of those people who scoffs at poetry, and I can support his claim because I’ve been loving it.  “The world is our consolation,” Keillor says of Americans in the introduction.  “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, we get into our car and drive.  It’s a big country.”

I was listening to someone last Saturday night tell about adventures in Uganda.  They were strange and wonderful, but I knew that it was no more than a story to me unless I somehow, by some miracle, grow deeper pockets. I am realizing while reading this collection that what I do know is America.

I know boating on a placid, icy lake to a deserted hiking spot.  I know tubing in the summer sunshine while pontoon boats rise above my head.  I know the view of the golden dome of the capital building from the high rise hotel with city lights shining brighter than stars beneath.  I know planting tomatoes in the earth in front of my semi-generic tract home, and long road trips across concrete highways.  I have seen Old Faithful burst from the ground, and I have ridden the boat to Disneyland.

The book is making me contemplative and a little melancholy, I think.  But in a good way.  There’s so much to love in this book, so many moments that I’ve also felt along with the poet.  It feels like mine in a way no other of Keillor’s Good Poems collections have.  I’m very glad I found it.

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What I’m Not

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Sometimes you can’t see what a thing really is until you’ve seen what it isn’t.  I felt this way about English when I learned American Sign Language.  I love Sign, the way hand shapes suddenly become something pictorial, like a movie in front of your body, the vast expression and freedom that gives.  But English has many synonyms where Sign uses just one word.  I realized that I loved that about English.  The ability to pick a synonym by sound or subtle meaning, the freedom of language that English provides.  Telling a story verbally in English is so much flatter now that I see the cinematography that Sign provides, but I never knew how much I would miss those vast options of expression until they were limited.  I fell in love head over heels with Sign, but I also fell in love with English at the same time.  I didn’t know what it was that I loved until I saw what it wasn’t.

I thought I would feel the same about being an American, which is one of the many reasons I’m dying to travel to Europe.  My quick trip to Montreal last Sunday night, a flighty three hours when I was not in the States, proved my assumptions to be true.

When I asked Brian if he would be OK with us nipping over to Montreal for dinner at 4:00 in the afternoon, I don’t think either of us had any idea what we were getting into.  I expected it to be like crossing state lines but with more security.  Things would be mostly the same on the other side, of course, but we wouldn’t have the GPS to guide us.  I copied careful directions from Google Maps, and we were on our way.

The line at the border crossing was long.  It took us almost an hour to get through.  There was more than one car with Canadian plates having a dance party, though.  Brian and I laughed at the boys in the brightly colored shorts and backwards baseball caps as they slid open the doors of the beat up blue minivan and had a Hammertime dance break on the shoulder of the highway.  The border patrol agent asked us, “got any bombs in the car?” with a jocular grin.  And then we were speeding through the most beautiful farm country on route 133.  Hot air balloons flew over silver silos amid green fields.  Stone farmhouses with white Victorian trim peopled the roadside.  Things went downhill from there.

The signs were in French.  Why it did not dawn on Brian or I that Montreal was the FRENCH part of Canada, I will never know.  I feel like I’ve failed the Chapman University history department with that one.  The only French I know is limited to telling people that the chickens are disguised as cows.  I failed high school French in a travesty of garbled verbs.  Neither of us could read the street signs.

Street markings were different, too.  Thick white lines did not mean that the lane was ending.  Signs above the highway with arrows did not mean that you had to pick one of those options – if you followed none, you just stayed on the current road.  I misread the directions, and we were suddenly lost on a back road in a foreign country with no cell phone service, no GPS, and no way to pull over and ask for directions.  It took us only a few minutes to turn around and find the highway again, but we both realized the full implications of what we had done, and how terribly ill-prepared we were for this jaunt to have dinner.

We parked just off the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal.  Brian had looked at Trip Adviser for the best restaurants in the area, and we found ourselves standing outside the first on the list.  I never felt more hickish than when we walked in and asked for a table.  No reservation, in jeans and t-shirts.  They fit us in.

I realized, sitting next to Brian in that restaurant, what our essence was and what America had made us.  There we were, boisterous, full of jokes, too casual for the environment, barely able to bumble through the menu.  We misunderstood the word “Sortie” to mean bathroom – the exit was evidently down the hall from them – and embarrassed ourselves in another store.  Brian wandered into the woman’s restroom because he didn’t know whether to pick the H or the F.  By the end of the night, every subsequent mistake just set us giggling.  We cajoled the waitress with the stories of our embarrassing exploits.  I understood just a little why the rest of the world sometimes hates us.  Put this vibrant ignorance together with the conviction that all others want to be American, too, and it is easy to see how we become insufferable.

Old Montreal was the most beautiful city I have ever been to.  It was like something out of a movie, out of a history book.  I bought postcards in a kitschy tourist trap and took a million pictures in the yellow glow that surrounded the gray, opulent buildings and spilled into the slim alleyways.  Brian and I drove home, fearful in the darkness that we  would lose our way again, and crossed the border with no wait back into the States.  We sped through the border checkpoint with a sigh of relief to be back in a place where the GPS worked, where we could ask for directions, where we weren’t total idiots.

It is the Fourth of July today, and I can honestly say that I love being American with all my heart.  It is nice to be able to fully appreciate what being American means.  It was a flighty trip, a scant three hours in a foreign country, but it gave me something.  It makes me eager to travel more and explore other facets of the identity I gained simply by being born in this beautiful country.   I usually use the 4th to quote sappy lyrics of my favorite American songs, but I’ll skip it this time.

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The 4th

It is not quite the Fourth of July, but already the town is gearing up for the annual house decorating contest.  The prize is quite nice: several hundred dollars, your picture in the local paper, and a ride down Indian Hill on the back of a convertible behind a group of baton-twirling teens.  Lots of people enter.  Past winners prove that unless your house looks like Uncle Sam vomited stars and stripes across your entire property, you aren’t getting anything.  Tasteful is not in the vocabulary of the selection committee.  Tasteful guarantees failure. 

There is a real contender on the way to my grandfather’s house.  Swags of bunting hang from the garage and over the doorway.  Full flags swing in the breeze from the rafters of the house, and they have purchased white vinyl banners that proclaim “God Bless America.”  One is pointed north and the other south, so that all directions of traffic can see them gleaming.  Their lawn is lined with flags suck upright in the earth.  These are not the small flags people put on picnic tables or wave in their hand.  These flags are over four feet long, fluttering high in the breeze like some nightmarish fence.

“Oh my God,” said Brian when we drove past.  “I can’t even… there are just no words for it.”

“It’s the contest,” I said, “and that’s hilarious!”

“Hilarious is not the word I would use,” said Brian.

“Ok, how about ‘Murica,” I said. 

But secretly, I sympathize with them.  There is only one time a year that my embarrassing enthusiasm for the Revolutionary War is allowed full flower, and that is July.  I will hang out my reproduction ’76 flag, pull my tricorn hat over my curls, and prepare to spend most of the day singing Stars and Stripes Forever.  The only thing that would make this holiday better is cannons. I stop at full displays in the yard, but I understand the impulse.

I could not find the owner of the quote, but somebody said “Patriotism is love of one’s country, despite one’s leaders.” Isn’t it nice, for just one day, to put aside all feelings about the government and just revel in the well-worn, tacky symbols of our origin?  If there was ever a time for this sort of display, the time is now.   I’ll be searching for shoe buckles next week.

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