Love is Not Blind
I do some of my best thinking (or so it seems) in the early morning, sitting on a park bench high atop Russian Hill as I look to the west and the brilliant Golden Gate Bridge. My dog Peaches tosses sticks in the air as happy to entertain herself as I am to sit and reflect...
I started out thinking about remembrance since this is Memorial Day, a day set aside for many to call back into their hearts loved ones now gone who were part of our armed forces, who served this country as patriots, or so many would call it that. I would use different words, like faithful and loyal and stalwart to describe their service. In my lifetime I've noticed that men and women joined the military for a variety of reasons, not only for patriotic ones. Back in 1944 a young man from New York with buck teeth and curly brown hair joined the Navy and became a pilot, and while stationed in Texas he met a stunning beauty of a woman who had left her affluent Long Island life to join the Waves. They fell in love - it was still war time, after all, and everyone always looked so much more romantic when dressed in uniform! They married against all parents' wishes and about a year later I was born. Though my grandmother bragged incessantly across the bridge table to her cronies that her daughter was a "patriot," I eventually figured out that this was not the case. My mother wanted excitement, escape from home, perhaps romance with a young man in uniform, and so it came to pass. My father, having struggled at college, decided the best thing to do for his future was to join the Navy. So many young men did the same thing, choosing a military in the hopes it would offer a constructive path forward. At best, it would postpone having to make any career decisions for the time being. I doubt whether most of them stopped to think about love of country. This man and this woman, my father and mother, would come to believe deeply in this country later in life as they aged and became aware of the freedoms and advantages American citizens had compared with those who lived in other less prosperous or democratic countries. Perhaps they saw it this way because they traveled internationally from time to time, and saw the plight of the poor and oppressed in European countries. However this is just conjecture on my part...
When I lived abroad as a young girl, I became quite anti-American, embarrassed and disdainful of the behavior of my fellow students who were from military or foreign service families. At the time they seemed self-absorbed and arrogant; I was quite young then, and never stopped to consider ignorance as a reason for their insensitive behavior. I also fell in love with a Sicilian six years my senior, and in doing so also fell in love with everything Italian. As it turned out, he and I couldn't make a go of our improbable romance, so different were our cultures and our ages. I could not hurdle forward blindly knowing these things to be true. This broke my heart, and it was around that time I first saw that being American was something I appreciated and loved. I realized how encased in comfort most of my life had been, how free of worry or deprivation -- unlike my beau who came to America with no money, no education, and a bundle of dreams about living and becoming successful in New York. The inexorable truth: we were both products of our respective (then disparate) cultures.
As I've become older, I've softened my critical stance happily and have been able to see the gifts of living as an American -- the kind of education that was available to me, the ethnic diversity I was always exposed to, the economic freedoms I was able to enjoy and the choices that came with them, the expansive generosity of America's spirit I came to know the more places in this country I visited ... In many ways I love this country, but I'm not sure I call myself a patriot. I will stand for the national anthem because I have no reason not to, but I don't usually feel filled with pride. In high school I remember getting into trouble because I arrogantly refused to pledge allegiance to the flag --it all seemed false to me then, and I quite enjoyed the posturing, as I held my opinions tightly. I rarely castigated those who sincerely pledged allegiance, who become teary at the anthem, or those who put flags out on their lawns on the 4th of July; I just didn't want to be identified with a rote behavior. They have a relationship to these symbols that I simply didn't. We simply had different allegiances. The truth of it is that we are a country of great diversity, always have been. Interestingly, I have discovered I admire John McCain, though he is often too conservative for my taste. He is a man who has consistently spoken his own truth, he is authentic, and rightfully proud of his public service; he understands the principles this country was founded on. He is a real and true patriot. This is all good.
I believe that patriotism looks different depending on who you observe -- it has many faces. There are no criteria or qualifications you have to meet to consider yourself a faithful citizen of this country. The painful mistake being made today is that a large contingent of right-leaning folks believe that patriotism and being a good American looks one particular way. One of the required qualities is that you stand up for the national anthem. And because those in power share this view, we have professional football players in the National Football league being punished for expressing their individuality and their deeply held views as they decline to stand for the anthem. Those who have decided to castigate the athletes don't understand what being a good citizen or patriot means. They don't get that there are many people throughout this country who, like the football players, work in service to their country, give their lifeblood in many different ways, and yet decline to puff their chests out and place their hands on their hearts at public events. I choose to believe in the general good will of American citizens. It's one of the things I think is characteristic of us as a people. We are a kind and generous nation, though our history has been colored by a great deal of greed, hatred, and loss. Despite this dark legacy, many of us do love this country and hold its original values close.
When I saw the musical "Hamilton" I felt a swelling of joy, both in the creation of such an extraordinary play, but also in understanding the brave and relentless spirit that characterized those who formed our government. Not only that, but I saw again how much of a melting pot the United States is... We are from many races and traditions, and as such we need to display the inclusiveness that is required so that we can live in peace and safety. Pushing away immigrants who have a deep desire to raise families and contribute to this country, punishing athletes who dare to express a political opinion as they sacrifice their bodies for our entertainment, or excluding those men and women who don't fit the old "white-man" gender roles -- all these choices are forms of exclusion. And they make us a crueler place, not a kinder one.
Love should never blind us to what is true and real, whether that's love of country or love of one another in this society. Good patriotic Americans should speak their minds when they disagree with what is being decided because it is our world to shape and build; we have a responsibility to participate. To disagree is not to deny, disrespect, or turn away from, but rather to come toward in the hopes of making a difference. To claim that we must all do the same thing at the same time because that's what being a "good American" is all about is both Fascistic and false. False because we are a diverse population, and as such must work together if this country is to be helped. And as we come together with good intentions we are able to reconcile differences of opinion and realize that we all want the same thing: safety, happiness, communion, wellbeing for all.
So, this Memorial Day I am going to spend time thinking about people in my life who have given back to their communities, who have loved well, who have gone to battle for this country, and I'm going to feel gratitude for these lives. Though I have never been a football fan, I'm also going to hold the football players in my heart, those young men who dared to be authentic and were punished for that. Maybe the more people I allow into my heart, the more expanded I'll feel, and yes, perhaps, more hopeful too. I so want to believe in our capacity for change. "Hatred never ceased by hatred, but by love alone ..." (thank you, Buddha)