A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

All Flags Waving

A couple of months ago, I was informed that at sixth grade graduation, one of my daughters (and one of her male classmates) would be given special awards by the American Legion.  These were purportedly being bestowed upon the children who best embodied the all-American values of honor, service, leadership, scholarship, courage, and patriotism.
Setting aside the pomposity of assuming that an eleven-year-old can embody any of the above values… patriotism?
I don’t use that word much.  My circle of friends – that is, the small and non-representative sample of Americans (and the even smaller and less representative sample of Not Americans) who are willing to hang out with me -- aren’t prone to using that word, either. 
To me, and I suspect to many of my politically self-identified clan, “patriotism” brings to mind the kind of bellowing nationalism that supports bombing places without having any inkling of where they are on a map.  This form of patriotism believes that walls are great (GREAT!) -- and that bigger walls are greater.  It glorifies mindless, flag-waving, my-country-right-or-wrong bravado coupled with my-bald-eagle-is-gonna-crap-on-your-solar-panels aggression. 
Given that this wasn’t exactly the feeling I wanted to conjure when telling my kid about her upcoming honor, I tried to draw upon the Merriam Webster definition, which told me that “patriotism” means “love for or devotion to one's country”. 
Although I’m not certain whether my child is patriotic, she’s not lacking in perception.  At eleven, children already know what social groupings they belong to.  They understand nuance and connotation.  My daughter was thrilled that she was going to be recognized, but she also was not immune to cynicism.  She noted, “Well, I guess at least it’s not too racist, because [the other kid getting the award] is Black.”
Yeah.  She listens to adult conversations.  She knows.  She is sadly aware that We Who Do Not Generally Refer to Ourselves as Patriotic have got a lot of guilt about being Americans.  I won’t argue with that; most of that guilt, born of privilege, violence, discrimination, hatred, greed, has been thoroughly earned by this nation.  It’s high season for agonizing over what it means to be an American. I can’t judge anyone for wallowing, because I’ve been wallowing too.  And I’ve been trying to figure out just how I should represent my country – their country – to my kids.
In order to understand how I feel about America, I have to go back a little bit.  Okay, a lot.
In February, 1997, I was living between the villages of Riversdale and Troja, in rural Jamaica – a place that is almost entirely unlike the reggae-and-beaches Jamaica that the tourism industry wants you to buy into.  I had been there for two years.  During those two years, I’d learned a lot of fascinating things, such as how to open a green coconut with a machete, how to roast a breadfruit, and how to conjugate verbs in a language that doesn’t officially exist.  I’d also, finally, begun to have an inkling about how to own my Americanness – with all the shame, pride, beauty, ugliness, shallowness, and complexity interwoven into that endeavor. 
When I joined the Peace Corps, right after college, my sense of commitment to patriotically serving my nation was slim, at best.  The idea that I could adequately “represent” America seemed laughable.  I considered myself a highly atypical member of the American genre.  American culture?  What was it, even?  I barely watched TV or movies, I’d never seen more than a fleeting few minutes of a football game, and I’d never even eaten a Big Mac, a Whopper, or Kentucky Fried Anything.
I told myself that I didn’t want to join the Peace Corp to be an ambassador of American-ness; I just wanted to help people.  I knew I wanted to step outside the bubble of advantage that I’d floated around in for all of my life.  And, more selfishly, I wanted to have some adventures before I got down to the presumably boring business of figuring out what I really wanted to be when I grew up. 
The Peace Corps, one of the dreams of JFK, was created with lofty ideals.  It was never just about providing free teacher-training or agricultural aid or healthcare services in the developing world.  Indeed, digging irrigation ditches is simple compared to the far more daunting second task of the Peace Corps: Not Being An Asshole.
The official paperwork describes it in different words, but that’s basically it.  That’s your second task.  American volunteers, can you represent our culture in a way that doesn’t totally suck?  Can you take on the challenge of being the only American that an entire community has ever met, and not screw that up?  While you’re at it, can you complete the actual project assigned to you?  It may or may not involve breadfruit.
I can’t overemphasize just how clueless I was, and how unprepared, with my 22 years of sheltered white-girl wisdom, my optimistic outlook, and my brand new degree from Harvard. 
I was sent to a country that exists in literal proximity to the United States, but I’m not sure that made much difference.  All nations of the world, these days, live in figurative proximity to us.  We cast our shadow everywhere.  It’s a big, dense shadow of past slavery and current imperialism.  That’s a lot to try to discuss while sitting on a crumbling concrete wall with a man who does not own shoes, speaks a creole that has never been fully legitimized as a written language, and wants to have a little chat with you about the Middle Passage. 
That conversation on that wall, stretched across two and a half years, was my experience of the second task of the Peace Corps.  It wrung me out and left me to flap in the sunshine like all the laundry I hand-washed in rainwater from my roof: imperfect, fraying at the edges perhaps, but nonetheless cleaner. 
There were days when I tried to describe snow to curious friends who had never felt the mercury drop below 60F.  There were days when children ran gentle fingers up my bare arms, and exclaimed that my skin felt normal, human, despite its peculiar appearance.  There was the point in linguistic and cultural immersion when I could sometimes get the joke.  There were days when the cloud of anger regarding whom I represented felt palpable. 
There was a slow, slow mental sorting of what others might think it meant to be American, what I used to think it meant, and what I actually wanted it to mean.  There was the day when I looked at my own arm among a line of arms, strap-hanging on a densely packed bus, and saw it as freakish and alien in its paleness.  There was the day when an elderly man looked down at me in the bottom of the pit where I was laboring at the village school, and remarked, laughing, that white girls are really good at digging outhouses.  He shared some limeade with me, sweet and sour.
Yeah, that’s the second task.  And then there’s the third task of the Peace Corp: spending the rest of your life talking about it. 
I solemnly promised the federal government that in exchange for sending me off to figure out my American-ness, I’d come back and let everyone else know how all that went for me.  By definition, this has to be done a little at a time, and it has to be done without coming across as a boring, self-aggrandizing git.  Even taking that into account, I’ve been a bit of a slacker.  But if I have failed to explain what I’ve learned to anyone else, I should at least explain it to my own children. 
So, what does patriotism mean to me, anyhow?
Parenting gives me additional perspective that I certainly didn’t have when I set off, starry-eyed, for Jamaica, and still didn’t quite have when I returned, two years older and maybe-or-maybe-not wiser.  What parenting taught me is that it’s possible to think my kids are amazing, to enjoy their quirks and their strengths, and even to feel affectionate about many of their weaknesses, while still being very much aware that they are flawed.  I do not think that they are always right.  I do not think that all their actions are defensible, or that they have nothing to learn, or that they can do no wrong.  I certainly do not think that they are intrinsically superior to other children.
I do not think any of those things about my country, either. 
When viewed through this lens, patriotism feels both obvious and easy to me.  Yes, of course I love my country.  I care about it deeply and passionately, which is why I am so desperate to help it grow in the right directions, and to avoid pitfalls ranging from the relatively petty (crappy mass transit, terrible fast food) to the tragic.  I won’t list the tragic.  You already know. 
So, yes, I’m patriotic.  And, yes, maybe my kids – the one who was honored by the American Legion and the one who wasn’t – are learning to be, and NEED to be patriotic too.  If there’s one thing that I should learn from the American Legion, from the Fourth of July, and from the First, Second, and Third tasks of the Peace Corps, it’s that patriotism is something I need to DO rather than just BE. 
If I’m wringing my hands and protesting that golly gee, I’M not racist/ sexist /xenophobic /homophobic /intolerant /intolerable, then I’m doing it wrong – because of course I’m all those things, or have been, or might be, in one way or another.  The trick is to actively try to be LESS of those things.  I might not get it right, but I can get it less wrong. If I’m rolling up my metaphorical or actual sleeves and actively seeking cures, improvements, protections, and changes – and if I’m teaching my kids to do the same -- then we’re at least making an honest attempt to put patriotism into action. 
I don’t claim to have succeeded at this, or even made much of a dent.  But for today, Independence Day, I’ll first deal with several days’ worth of dirty dishes: curry, pasta, chipotle, quinoa, pancakes – an immigrant pastiche of flavors.  I’ll hang my laundry to flap rainbow-colored in a sunburn-hot breeze.  I’ll take a bike ride with my family, on our two tandems, to a locally-owned sandwich place.  An older guy will sing, with creditable accuracy, “Bicycle Built for Two,” and a smiling young man with Down Syndrome will high-five me.  The kid who is a model of honor, service, leadership, scholarship, courage, and patriotism will decide that it’s the perfect time to attach a stick and a napkin to her shoe in order to sail it across a large puddle, and no one will bat an eye. I will contemplate the ease and acceptance with which I am granted the privilege of moving through my community and my world. 
We’ll do a bit of gardening.  We’ll talk about what it means to be pot-bound – roots turned inward until, even if granted new room for growth and enrichment, none can occur.  The kids are old enough for metaphors. For irony. For truth.
When all that’s done, I’ll finish this essay, write another letter to my Senators, and donate to a couple of charitable organizations that epitomize caring about our future, our fellow humans, the world, and our nation’s place in that world. 
It’s not enough, of course.  I’ll keep looking for more that I can do.  I don’t want to become pot-bound. I don’t want my nation to become pot-bound, either. I want to keep working on the Third Task. I want, ultimately, to try to earn my own patriotism.