Every Fourth of July I am filled with ambivalence. I feel so deeply fortunate to have been born in a country where I live a very privileged life: I can afford to live in a spacious, comfortable house, own a car that I can drive when and wherever I choose, eat (yes, too much, and that I have the choice of changing as well); more importantly, I can vote in any election–though I have sincere doubts that we are as close to a ‘one man, one vote‘ nation in effect as we are on paper–and I can say what I believe, and believe what I wish, and choose my own friends and live as I please.
At the same time, I am constantly troubled by the many self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ whose views of freedom translate what I see as privileges into their personal Rights without regard to how they might impinge on the health, safety and happiness of the people directly around them; who preach (because they are free to do so in this country) against the rights of the poor, the downtrodden, and especially of those who simply differ from themselves because they believe (and are free to do so) that the poor, downtrodden and different are inherently wrong or evil and that what applies as a Right to oneself is an undeserved privilege to another. It frightens me that the very freedom to think and decide for oneself is applied to people I would disagree with vigorously and even think dangerous in their views, even while it pleases me that I am free to oppose them.
What is called the United States of America is far from a land of wholly united people–this present time is no different from our past, if perhaps a bit more polarized than some eras in that regard. I’m constantly hearing the language of ‘freedom’ morphed into the language of making others change to suit our own personal ideals of how to live a good and just and proper life, not just here on our own soil but around the globe, and this too is not new but is no less fearsome a characteristic of our frailty as both individuals and a nation. We are spoiled, self-centered and arrogant in so many ways.
Yet the general goodness of living in a widely varied, opportunity-loving, favored land never leaves my heart and mind, either. Even if I define its better qualities differently than any number of my fellow citizens would do, I am aware of my good fortune in living in a place where that is both legal and generally acceptable, and where the very spirit of the country’s foundation says I should actively participate in making it as bold and just and generous as it can be. So though a part of me withers at the very idea of anyone needing political, legal or military systems, I am grateful to those people who throughout our history have committed with sincerity to their thirst for justice and making things right in the land and done those kinds of work to make it possible.
I just heard someone say a variant of the (true) old saw about ‘the guy who wrote the manual isn’t the one that actually does the job’ and am reminded that those who framed our constitution and envisioned as the nature and future of our nation could never have known exactly how it would unfold in practice and over time, even though they did live, work and die under that constitution as well. We all only do the best we are able, and as it happens, those of us who now live, work and die in America have a setting in which it’s possible for more of us to do so at an acceptable or even high level if we, too, commit to it and live our many-colored versions of the dream the best that we can.Show of Fireworks
Across this piece of Texas sky,
Local alchemists and
Magisterial teenagers are casting
New and sparkling stars, comets,
Blazing suns shot out of
The hands of these earthbound gods
Into the deepening blue-black night
And turning the sky of the
Lone Star State into great
Galaxies of momentary stars
Notes on the Fourth of July 2010
All through this night, a sparkling sky shouts out in dazzling handmade stars
of hopes and dreams, of glories past; what we believe makes the future ours–
our splashy, gleaming, naive wants, our bold wild brashness, sweet with pain
at the memory of what all this cost, this wealth of joy–this the faint refrain
as the night grows cold and the ashes drift: that our predecessors paid with life
to buy our present comfort, give us our privileged pleasures free from strife–
this tinge of sorrow underlaid still cannot dim, and never mars,
our gladness that that price was paid, so we fire our dazzling handmade stars–
our banners raise with collective pride, with staunch salutes and our boastful hymns–
at least until we wake up unchanged, long after the final firework dims.
We should still remember, when dawn returns and celebratory displays will cease,
that it’s best for us to light the skies with our stars for prosperity–and peace.