The Fourth of July has come and gone and I am not quite sure what to make of it.
There was celebration and merriment — always a good thing, I suppose — but so many people arrived to celebrate and so many are still here. Honestly, up until July, some of us had gotten somewhat lax about our response to the virus, with our masks at half-mast or in our pockets, our distancing sliding back from six feet to five, four, maybe three. But we were seeing the same people every day — our friends and neighbors, or at least familiar faces. Now, it is different: strange faces, lots of them, from elsewhere: the stakes have risen, the odds have changed.
But the real reason for my equivocal attitude about the Fourth was that some fool staying at a nearby motel (full to capacity, by the way) set off firecrackers, and fool that I am, I had my old dog out loose in the yard. When she heard those loud noises she took off, frantic. Hours later, with the help of family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, I found her — across the highway, out in the middle of the dunes. But for a couple of terrifying hours, in the whining company of mosquitoes, I pondered the insanity of fireworks and firecrackers, how quasi-militaristic they are, and wondered exactly what they had to do with the birthday of our country.
To be absolutely candid, I was not and am not in a celebratory mood. It is not just because of the virus, or the heightened awareness of our racial divide; it is not even just because of Trump, that odious individual. Something is off for me, and I am having a difficult time figuring out what it is exactly and putting it into words.
I put the matter before my family (ages 11 to 72) after a pizza dinner: what are some positive things that occur to you about our country? The same difficulty seemed to obtain: there was some hedging and hawing, a reference to the vastness of the country (“From sea to shining sea”), the fact that there are so many different places and so many different ways to be, the freedom of speech. But every piece of praise slid back into a negative.
My daughter summed it up best: “America is such a great idea!”
I think this is where we need to start — with the idea. There is much that is praiseworthy about this country. The United States of America has been a symbol of freedom and democracy and opportunity emulated worldwide — at least until very recently. The notion that any individual with pluck and determination can rise above class and economic status to achieve success is, after all, called “the American Dream” — even though it currently occurs much more often in other (usually Social Democratic) countries.
The greatest attribute of America, I think, is its diversity, in spite of all the negatives that readily come to mind. What other country has absorbed more minority populations more peacefully than this one? Most of the world’s countries are relatively monolithic in race, religion, and culture. America, flawed as it is, stands as a symbol of what the rich tapestry of diversity can look like.
So, it is the idea of America that we must keep alive. And to do that we must not so much celebrate our country’s history as confront it — all of it. We must look back. But we must also look forward. And we need to believe in the idea, in all its possibilities, and then work for it, before it can blossom into a more perfect reality.