Reflections on Celebrating the 4th of July.
You might think it an odd choice but this year in search of the deeper meaning of the 4th of July, I chose to forego all the events in my town and celebrate the day with my 98 year old mother at her assisted living facility a couple of hours from my home. I've found spending time with the really old, those who have lived more of the history of our country than I have, a healing place to celebrate the true meaning of the day.
For reasons which aren't absolutely clear, Independence Day is always a bit complex for me. I know its supposed to be a time to celebrate the birth of our nation. There are parades, barbecues, picnics and fireworks, lots of fun to be had. Its definitely a holiday for extroverts and we introverts give it a whirl. We are all out there in our red, white and blue. But underneath all the hullabaloo I can't help but hear a deeper story and its that story I have been mulling over since the holiday passed us by.
It is the second time I have had the opportunity to celebrate the 4th with the oldest among us. The first time was a few years ago when my mom had broken her femur and had to spend three months in a nursing home for rehab. The 4th of July occurred about midway through her stay. A woman and her two adult daughters came to the nursing home that day with guitars, a banjo and lovely voices to serenade the residents with a special holiday program. The staff had gathered everyone into the dining room. Most sat in wheel chairs, many not in their right minds. Some were so far gone, I had never seen their heads raised or heard them speak. Many had to be fed at meal times. It was a difficult to stay present in that environment as all my worst fears about aging and the end of life sat there looking at me. And this wasn't even the dementia ward!
When I walked into that room that day, I had no idea what was in store for me. The performers were exuberant. Faced with the energy level of their audience, I don't know where they found that much enthusiasm, but they did. They sang their hearts out. Very soon after the music started, heads lifted, and feet began to tap. In the most patriotic songs residents who I had not seen speak were singing. I couldn't keep my tears at bay as we all sang My Country Tis of Thee and America the beautiful.
Then the women asked who had served in the armed forces. They carefully honored each one with the song that matched their branch of service. I was amazed that I still knew some of the words as we sang The Caissons Go Rolling Along and Anchors Aweigh. The spirit was contagious; me, the peace activist, enjoying even these songs. The room came alive. There were smiles and laughter. An old man who was very far gone kept reaching out toward my mother whose mind was in tact. Each time he did, she would graciously take his hand for a moment and he would smile. I was so touched by the whole experience.
It definitely stands out as the most memorable 4th of July celebration in my adult life. I left the room that day with a deep sense of belonging. In all the singing, we had become a community. I felt I belonged to these old people and they belonged to me and we all belonged to the USA. As those folks came to life with the music, something inside me, my patriotism, which had been long slumbering, came alive as well. They mirrored a love a country that seemed much less complicated than my own and that made it easier for me to set down that complication and just let my love of country be.
The years when my chest swelled with pride for love of the good old USA are far behind me. The Sixties brought that feeling crashing down and except for fleeting moments, like this one at the nursing home, I have not recovered. Yet, I yearn for that feeling that we are good or at least well intentioned, that something other than greed and power, really does motivate us. Where I live, patriotism isn't the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about country. It feels wrong to be patriotic because there is still so much that is wrong with how the USA is conducting itself. Politics are far to the left compared to many parts of the United States. There are a lot of dedicated activists here with lots of ideas about how we could live more fully into the vision our forefathers had for our country. There is anger and rage when, as so often happens, we miss our highest calling as a country. There is plenty of energy to go with that rage, plenty of energy to confront, identify shortfalls and call for change. Though it is clear to me that love of country underlies all that energy. We don't so much focus on the love or talk much about it either.
It is admirable and deeply American to protest injustice but as has happened so many times in our history, those who see the injustice first are called traitors or at the very least, accused of being un-American. As the energy of protest opens minds and raises awareness, we eventually reach a tipping point where the majority of us can see issues we were blind to just a short time before. And so we inch our way forwards. That is how change happens. I don't see a time when all will "come round right" but rather see it as an ongoing process in which our democracy creates itself each day, each month, each year.
Some years ago I was facilitating a group on spiritual activism. I wanted to provide an experience where we could, in a flash, experience the feelings we have about our country. I wanted to offer an opportunity to progressives, to have a conversation that we are trying so hard to avoid. There were about forty people in the room all sitting in one large circle. I asked people to close their eyes. I went around the room and placed a small American flag in the palm of the hands of these mostly left leaning participants. When they opened their eyes, there was big response. Once the room settled down, I asked them to break into small groups and talk to each other about their responses. It made a big impact. Many reported the same longing I experience, to be able to find love of country in spite of it all. I still hear comments from people about that exercise.
Three times in my life I have had friends go through the naturalization process and become citizens. The idea that someone would make the choice to become a citizen of this country seems to draw a spurt of patriotism out of me. With each one, I celebrated by baking them and apple pie and presented it with a US flag. Perhaps I have a soft spot in my heart for the naturalization process because in the 1920's in Sparks, Nevada, my grandmother taught English to people who had emigrated here so that they could obtain their citizenship papers. I've heard many stories over the years of the struggles these families faced at that time. My grandmother was supporting six children of her own, on her own, having lost two husbands, one in the 1917 flu epidemic. My mother remembers my grandmother taking milk from her their pantry, when she could little afford it, to give to these families who had even less.
Citizenship is something I take for granted as it came with my birth. The struggles that many have gone through in order to obtain it makes me feel like I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Whenever I participated in antiwar protests my parents would always ask, "Would you rather live somewhere else?" And the truth is I wouldn't, though there are a few places I would consider. Still the thought of renouncing citizenship (which I considered during the Viet Nam war) or watching someone opt for citizenship strikes deeply in the psyche. Country does mean something!
One of these friends decided to have a party to celebrate her citizenship. She invited about thirty of us for a potluck dinner and celebration. We all gathered in a circle to welcome her as a new citizen. She asked us to tell her what being a citizen meant to us and to make a wish for her. So many feelings poured out as we went around the room. There was a palpable sense of relief that we were having an opportunity to talk about our connection to our country. Many commented that it was a different kind of conversation than we are used to. That night, I wished we were sitting in a room with those from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Confessions of the deep love of country and all it stands for were expressed by so many. It might have gone a long way towards being able to talk with one another about some of the things about which we disagree.
When Barack Obama became president of the United States my flag waving little girl came out of the closet and cheered. I discovered her buried deep inside of me in an authentic movement process. Authentic movement is an expressive arts practice where there is a mover and a witness. The mover closes her eyes and focuses inside, then lets whatever she finds there express itself with movement and sound. The witness is an important part of the process and reflects back what she saw. As the mover, I was surprised to find myself singing My Country Tis of Thee, with a strong clear voice. I haven't heard that much clarity in my voice since I was a child. After the movement session I drew this picture of the little girl, coming out of the darkness with her flag and her red, white and blue. The words "I have been waiting" poured out onto the page.
So this year I spent the 4th in the garden of the assisted living facility where my mom now lives. The facility had gone to lots of trouble to make it festive. Picnic tables were set up, families were invited. There was a barbecue, chicken, ribs, corn on the cob and lots of ice cream for dessert. My sister and her husband joined us and we spent a quiet afternoon with my dear old 98 year old mom. It was a day of quiet celebration. As I left that day I heard "This Is My Country," playing over the sound system and paused for a moment to let the song in. I struggled with some of the lyrics but did let in its concluding line, "This is my country to have and to hold!" The question is, can I hold it in all its fullness, its wonderful glory and its very dark side?
I got into my car and started my long drive home. My radio was tuned to a progressive radio station somewhere in the Bay Area. The basic theme of the day was a sarcastic, "What is there to celebrate?" If I'm only looking at the dark shadows of our country, I can see their point, but maybe it would be good if we progressives could just take this one day each year and dedicate it to finding our love of country, I thought as I changed the station. I know it would be a good exercise for me and maybe even healing for all. Otherwise, we are just like a warring couple who finds nothing good about each other but stays in the marriage for a lifetime anyway. What? Did I just echo my parents question to me so many years ago? Did I just say, in a little different way, "Would you rather live somewhere else?" Its not really what I mean. I just want to urge us to look underneath all the shadows and find our love because I know it is there.
I ended the day, tucking this flag into the heart backpack of a little doll I made. She looks a little confused, maybe even has some tears. There is a very big shadow behind her. She knows it is there. Thankfully, she has a very big heart. She is a reminder to me that I can trust my heart to open, to wrestle with these complicated feelings and to continue to uncover the love I know resides inside of me.
An Expressive Arts Exercise For You
For me its the old songs I learned as a child that put me in touch with those softer feelings toward my country. America the beautiful speaks to my love of the land we inhabit (and yes, I do know we took this land unfairly) and Marion Anderson standing on the steps of the Lincoln memorial always brings tears and pride in who we are. Certainly if Marion Anderson can find it in herself to sing this song with such passion and power, we can meet her there. I offer this video for you. Listen and then spend a few moments reflecting in your journal about what brings you in touch with your love of country.