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Home of the Brave

I love my country. I love its sprawling, diverse geography; its Bill of Rights; its peaceful transitions of leadership; and its free elections. And I hate its flaws: the racial tensions and hatred that still prevail in our diverse society; the fact that in a land of plenty we have not eradicated poverty, hunger and despair; and the increasingly tribal and polarizing politics. The things I hate do not negate my love; this is my land.

This week’s controversy over how our citizens exercise their freedom to speak demands that we examine what it means to be Americans. The argument over NFL players taking a knee is fueled by a leader who has an innate sense of performance theatre. While we are busy watching the magician’s distraction, we cannot see the inner workings behind the illusion he asks us to accept as real. Despite knowing this, I still found myself thinking more about free speech and patriotism this weekend than nuclear threats, economic concerns, tax reform, possible Russian interference in our elections, climate change, and health care. Distraction is a proven technique used by showmen everywhere for a reason. Audience members really aren’t as good at multitasking as we’d like to believe. We focus where they point us.

So, like most of my countrymen and women, I followed the trail of this bait and switch over the weekend as I watched football games and read the news. And I tried to stay off social media. I didn’t want to know who passionately believes people should keep their mouths shut about racism or which of my friends believes that we should only demonstrate in ways acceptable to all. The very nature of demonstration is that it is symbolic to the one who protests. It means something to that individual. It is his or her speech. If the forum is well-chosen, it is meant to make the rest of us uncomfortable enough to pay attention. And…our Constitution safeguards our right to speech that makes others uncomfortable, so long as we do not endanger them.

I have thought hard about this, and now I’ll exercise my own freedom. The truth is that not respecting the National Anthem in the expected format does make me uncomfortable. I’m a patriot. I love the moment of collective honoring of America that comes at the start of sporting events when thousands fall silent, stand, and watch the flag wave on the field or in the sky (or on the big tv). I am the girl who snaps at the stranger next to me who talks through the Anthem to his friends because he didn’t realize it has started. I hiss at him for quiet and use my “teacher look” to eyeball his hat and gesture for him to remove it as if he were an adolescent student. I ignore his glare, put my hand on my heart and sing, and I am not ashamed of that. It means something to me, that moment.

Oddly enough, I find myself more annoyed by the guy who keeps yapping after the Anthem has started than by the silent players on the field showing their dissent by quietly refusing to stand. But make no mistake; both of these actions make me uncomfortable. The difference is that one of them is intentionally supposed to…it is a symbol of my fellow citizens’ dissatisfaction with some things in our country. The other one is just some guy who doesn’t recognize that the stadium has gone quiet and someone is singing words that should signal him to respectful silence. One group “gets” the significance of this Anthem—enough to choose it as the backdrop for peaceful protest. The other group doesn’t get the significance enough to know why they should stop talking to their buddy about who paid for the beer and take off their hats and be still. Is that a generalization? Yes. Unfair? Perhaps. Biased. Certainly. We all have bias; this is mine. Do I recognize that some of the NFL players might just be “grandstanding” for attention rather than expressing deeply-held convictions? Perhaps. Do I see any irony in a gesture of protest that refuses to honor the symbol of the freedom that gives you the right to protest in the first place? Of course. But Supreme Court opinions on flag-burning, for example, expound far more eloquently on both sides of that argument than I can. (People should read them; they are incredibly thought-provoking, and they have pushed my thinking over the years about what America really means.) Are some of the NFL protesters men who’ve shown character flaws in their life choices and actions? Probably. Does that negate their rights to opinions? No. Just as it doesn’t negate the rights of the flawed people watching who may disagree with their actions. Are some  of the players and owners “spoiled millionaires?” Yes. So is the leader who criticized them…the same guy whose wife had to nudge him to put his hand on his heart and pay attention once when the Anthem played. I suspect there is no perfect American.

But none of those things is the point here.

I’ve heard more than one person say that they accept the right of those football players to protest but “not like this.” Democracy is messy. Free speech is not always pretty. Demonstrations are symbols, often loosely linked to the source of the protest; I think of Gandhi’s hunger strikes to protest British rule, for example, or United Nations allies withholding goods from countries to protest their nuclear programs or the genocide of their people. These are symbolic actions; intelligent, thoughtful people understand symbolism. The very flag we salute (or not) is a messy symbol in itself, standing not only for the unity of our states but also for the ugly protests against authority and the bloodshed that led to our union.

I heard thoughtful friends and commentators this weekend express concern that the “knee takers” and “arm linkers” on the football fields around the US and London this weekend are choosing a poor form of protest since the connection to their cause isn’t clear. When they refuse to stand silently or sing along with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” onlookers believe they are protesting the National Anthem when they are, in fact, trying to make a statement about racial profiling and police brutality in our free society. These aren’t connected enough, some argue. Doesn’t that confusion prove the protestors should seek another way to make their point and stop all this interference with football and patriotism? No. It doesn’t.

Symbols, by their very nature, stand for something else…and sometimes need explanation for those who didn’t conceive them. This need for clarification of their meaning doesn’t prove they are meaningless. Priests and pastors who explain the symbolism of the bread and wine at every Communion do not diminish the power of those symbols to the faithful with their reminders of what they mean. Once the link is made in our minds to symbols, we comprehend their significance. The link to our kneeling countrymen and women has been made by many of them—clearly and often. They do not hate our country. They do not hate our flag. They do not hate our countrymen and women who give their lives in military service to protect us and others around the world. They do not even hate most of the men and women who police our cities. They hate racism. They hate acts of brutality and those in power who commit them. They hate that people would rather not know about or act to change these things. They kneel to protest these acts and lack of action…and, this weekend, many also knelt to protest a leader who called them “sons of bitches”and who seeks to bully them into silence or into another form of protest at the risk of their livelihood. No one who is paying attention can feign ignorance about what their act of kneeling represents. We should acknowledge that for many, this choice was difficult, made only after thoughtful consideration of the consequences and requiring them to summon the courage to do something so public and so unpopular. These fellow citizens have been clear that they are intentionally choosing this sacred moment of public homage to our democracy to remind us that we still have work to do on freedom in this land of the free. Standing and singing our Anthem is an act of patriotism that honors our country. It is also an act of patriotism to love this country enough to do something unpopular to demand that it reach its potential.

While some of my countrymen kneel, I will stand with hand on heart and sing our Anthem. But I will also let their act of quiet non-participation remind me that I have a responsibility as a citizen to work for a better America. And both these things will be acts of fervent patriotism and love of country.

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Would You Mind…?

The Yosemite Valley is wild and strong. Towering granite peaks dwarf human arrogance even as they stretch our souls beyond bounds. In their presence, I felt small, but still…my spirit soared.

Three-thousand-foot rock walls block more than cell signals; they enclosed us safely in space away from the outside world for just a weekend. I recharged while all my devices lost power. I hiked. Glimpsed beauty words cannot describe. Cooled my body in waterfall mist. My camera captured breathtaking scenes:  two-dimensional disappointments whose only value lies in allowing me back inside those moments for a fleeting instant.

And everywhere I went, I was in community. A national park is full of worshippers. In the valley of the shadow of these mountains forged by time, you feel the grace and power of the same God–no matter how we might define “religion” in our daily lives.

The last time I came here, I was younger. The world was younger. Technology…was younger. I remember carrying a camera case, cushioning a state-of-the-art Canon Sureshot. Point and click. Automatic focus. Develop the perfect pictures later. I could even delete by flipping through digital images in the postage stamp screen. I could erase any scene I didn’t want. It was miraculous then. We could capture everything in such clarity but select only the best to keep.

What I couldn’t do with that old camera fifteen years ago was take my picture. A “selfie” wasn’t part of our vernacular; self-recording our own moments hadn’t entered our culture. We had not begun the Age of Obsession with Ourselves, spinning our lives, marketing our brand, becoming our very own paparazzi. If I wanted to save a memory with my own face in it, I asked for help from fellow travelers. “Excuse me…would you mind taking a picture of our family?” And I would hand over my expensive cherished camera to a total stranger and trust that he or she would help record this moment, would get “the Christmas card shot” that would help us tell our story to our friends. “Excuse me? Do you mind? Can you help?” I don’t remember anyone ever declining. They always said yes. They may not have spoken my language, but who cares? Help is its own dialect. They may have felt burdened by the request. If so, they did not say. I regret now that I did not fully appreciate that small act of civility then as I do today. We used to take it for granted. Some did not even engage in the obligatory “swap of services” by letting us take a photo in return. Simply, they always helped us capture this memory we wanted when we asked with a shy smile before continuing on their way. I needed them to be part of our narrative; without them, I would not have these memories. We could not do it alone back then. We had to cover each other.

The pictures were often terrible. Not many strangers ever mastered the twelve-inch differential in my husband’s height and mine…nor were they very mindful of the fact that Joe’s best smile is not the one he poses with. Most were not attuned to the subtle ways of counting to three but snapping on two or four while we were all a little more relaxed and real. Some got the family at the expense of the background or the background at the expense of a head or half a person. Kristin always grimaced when she saw their view of her. That’s ok. This collection of pictures that aren’t beautiful is actually a reminder today of all the ways in which people help each other when they don’t have to. It’s a collaboration among strangers that I find strangely beautiful all for itself.

In Yosemite, I stood on a wooden bridge over the Merced River, watching Vernal Falls come crashing down, spotting fleeting rainbows in the spray exploding like fireworks over the rocks. I didn’t snap a selfie. I saw a smiling couple taking pictures of each other posing at the bridge railing (the falls too tall and too close to make the aspect ratio of any selfie capture the moment well), and I asked them, “Would you like me to get one of you guys together?” They paused, caught off-guard by this charming, old-fashioned request. Then they smiled and said that would be great. And handed me their $900 iPhone. I sized the shot to get it right, to get them right. (We don’t even have to ask how to use the camera today; we all speak Smartphone.) I got three terrific Christmas card-worthy photos of those two. I swear they will love them. They continued on their way without even checking my work. No do-overs. No retouching. Just faith. A part of me finds it odd that I noticed this small gesture of trust.

I hiked twelve miles up the falls and back around that day through the mountains to my starting point at the dusty trailhead on the road to the campground. Along the way I was never alone. Dozens of strangers accompanied me. And in our mutual awe of the valley around us, we were a congregation on this Sunday morning. A diverse and unconnected body drinking in the view. Communion.

At the top of the waterfall, a viewing platform just big enough for a few people hangs out over the edge right where the roaring stream bends to drop on rocks hundreds of feet below. You cannot possibly take a selfie and do justice to the view. You’ll miss so much if you try to do it by yourself. Focused only on your own face, you will completely lose the context of where you are. You must count on others standing back twenty feet to snap the shot that shows that you are here. And so we did. We joined an improvised photo brigade and each took turns posing while someone else held our digital lifeline and snapped the picture of us smiling bravely into the sun with miles of wilderness at our backs. Then we’d move to the snapping space, recover our phone from someone, and become the photographer for someone else. Symbiotic,  collaborative, poetic justice. That evening, back at the campground, my husband and daughter would share with me their moment of hanging out over the edge of the world on Half Dome, preserved for me and them by total strangers–a picture they could not have captured themselves to bring me so I would share their joy in the summit I could not make myself. My heart still fills with gratitude to the nameless, faceless hiker who caught that memory for me to have with them.

Later, back at home in my life, I muse on the fact that while I was encased in this throwback human moment, my countrymen and women debated the politics of hate speech on the unending news cycles that fill our days and our devices. For a weekend, in the cathedral of rock walls that blocked these signals, we did not have to know that so many of us despise one another. I was able to wrap myself in ignorance and bask in the purest light, bathe aching feet in glacial waters beside a roaring stream that hid all other sounds. Relax to the soothing white noise of earth speaking. I drank the water I carried and talked to people I will never see again. And we captured memories for one another…we strangers.

I know my musings here are naive. Ensconced in this skin I did not choose but was merely born in, I can only plead guilty to being innocent of what it feels like to be hated or hunted for being myself here in “the home of the free.” I cannot change this. Still, I wish naively with all my heart and with no appropriately sobering real experience to make me cynical, that we could block most of the signals the world is sending and just be decent strangers willing to help one another on the journey, feeling gratitude for the creation around us. I wish that we could trust each other with things of value and do one another simple kindnesses without question. I wish that we could see the context beyond our self-images and our own narratives and let other people into our stories. The people I shared the journey with last weekend traveled far to stand together in awe of something bigger than ourselves. And when they handed me back my camera, they gave me back their generous view of me to keep and this small spark of hope. And I am grateful.

Midwestern Soul

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I have a Midwestern soul

No fast-talkingwalking pace

but no warmlazydrawl with sugar in it either

Just plainspeaking truth laced with an offered hand

Amid flyover forests of corn tassel tops baking in July heat

I came of age in vast back yards of dandelion crabgrass

filled with cicadas and whirring lawn mowers

Knew all my neighbors’ names

Quiet people working outside

who watched us walk to school and back

Dependably bought from our school catalogs

Cheap ugly candles and stale candy that they did not eat

And we could count on them to watch us grow

Not all suspicious…more like sharp

Aware of missteps that we should not make

And people whom we should not trust

But trusting all the same (except for some)

Which pains me still, a scar upon this place that does not fade

I have a Midwestern soul

My home will welcome traveling friends

With dinner table food and talk and crisp white sheets tucked in just so

I’ll hug a new acquaintance without fear

And search for common ground

Because it’s right

Not every crop that grows here comes up strong

But people strive to weed and to forgive

Most understand the simple things to plant

Food and faith and family, all in rows

fenced safe with wind breaks

Work hard from dawn till dusk and help your neighbors first;

there’s always time

Some slow Midwestern voice reminds me quietly

From coast to coast the breaking news all sounds the same discordant howl

The middle may just be the place to meet

We all may find we have Midwestern souls

Driving by Headlights

In one of my favorite passages of Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she quotes E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  Annie adds, “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way.  You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.  This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

We’re all on this journey through life “driving by headlights.”  My writing snapshots capture the view along the way and the moments I want to preserve…just the two or three feet ahead of me…illuminated briefly from where I stand.

A Different Kind of Calendar

I was setting up my calendar and to do list for next week and realized that by this time next Saturday, it will be January 21st. I always rejoice as we get close to January 21st each year…it’s actually usually a little private celebration day for me because in my head, I have a different kind of calendar that is tied to the rhythms of light.  Here’s how it works for me:

The time between November 21 and January 21 is the darkest two months of the year, and even as we transition into Christmas in November (which I always greet with joy), I hate how the days grow shorter as the year comes to its close. As soon as we pass the winter solstice, though, I remind myself that we are coming out the other end of this little tunnel of darkness.  As we pass January 21st every year, I always compare it to its calendar opposite month and start to tell myself, “The light now is like it was in late November…in a month, it will be like late October…and soon we will be like late September…” and so it goes.  I count both forwards and backwards at the same time, and coach myself to happily anticipate the returning of the light. Every day is closer to the light I loved last summer and all the summers past. I think because I see things in this weird way, I never feel low as some people do in these dark after-Christmas months of January and February…because to me, they are taking us in the right direction.  Each of these cold gray days brings us closer to more light, so I am always glad for them. Similarly, although I love the lengthening of days, I’m not sad on June 21st (the calendar’s other solstice tipping point) because I envision it as the center of six months of wonderful long light (late March to late September) of which so much remains…followed by the postscript of October–which compensates for shortening days with gorgeous fall color. I like to think it is an optimist’s way of viewing earth’s cycles. There is only a little short piece of darkness (with the lights of the holidays in its core) and the rest is all good.

Small message…

Some years ago, on a visit to New York City, we toured the 9/11 museum. While all of it was deeply moving for those of us who will never forget, one particular artifact stood out to me that day and still does. The last room was just a place to write our thoughts or reflections and post them on the walls. They were covered with messages left by others who had come before us. I stood gazing around, not really able to process them all or put into words everything I had just seen and felt…until one particular message caught my eye. It read simply: “Love harder. Pray for peace.” I will never know who wrote it, and the author will never know her impact on me…but in the midst of memories of a tragedy caused by our human inability to find common ground, a temporary triumph of hate that left families torn apart, hearts broken, so many good people lost–whether dead or ravaged survivors of this hateful act of violence…in the midst of all that, this little message reminded me that we are never powerless, and we are never alone. We can always act, for love is ours to give. We are never abandoned; lifting prayers reminds us of a higher power in the universe than ourselves. We are never finished if can envision something better and yearn for it, lean toward it, hope for it, work for it. Peace is not a vague dream. It is a state that we can all picture. And it begins in simple ways…with reaching across the lines that divide us and finding ways to love those with whom we differ, those whose actions elude our understanding. I love that the writer of this little post-it encompassed both the “hope” of something better and the knowledge that in action, even something simple and small, we make those hopes come to pass. Pray for peace, yes. But in the meantime…while we are praying and waiting for prayers to be answered, we love harder.  Just love harder. 

 And if that feels sappy or weird or vague or political…well, we don’t let it. We don’t give away our power to love people because of those who doubt our sincere intentions.  No one gets to say it’s too late to love harder or that we are late to the table with our offering in this world where more love was needed long before we arrived on the scene offering ours now that we know it is critically needed.  No.  It’s simple.  Love harder.  Love with your heart, with your time, with your smile, with your intellect, with your money, with your profession, with your arms, with your attitude, with your grace.   And pray for peace.  Not for the destruction of those with whom we disagree.  Not for revenge or vindication.  For peace.  Only peace.  

If love wins…

when love wins

when love wins a primary we might

step awkwardly from polls into paradise,

try a smile tentatively tomorrow at strangers,

ask ourselves hard questions about the true cost of so much

excruciating comfort bound in easy answers

if love takes leads in early exit polls,

latitude and longitude might compress,

binding us nearer to frighteningly familiar others

the night love mounts the stage to raise triumphant fist in victory,

alarming line graphs might aim sharply downward, illuminating

regression analyses of correlations between invective and violence

decreasing trends

in all the ways we’ve found to hurt one another,

if love’s approval numbers skyrocket, dark ideas might die instead of…

and all the fearful haters who’ve found God in cozy suburban oblivion,

displaced earners who simmer in slow-burning rural indignation,

angry young men frantically looking for their lost hope hidden

in twisting urban labyrinths crammed with the inconveniently poor,

might end jihad against our ugly human symmetry

for we are mirror images, left mapped to right and right to left

if love pulls off a victory

in the hardened hearts and noisy minds of a soulless electorate…

so obstinately resolved to be impervious to hope

if love wins…what could we become