The Sunday after forty-five first hung a “Closed” sign on the Statue of Liberty, my granddaughter had a gymnastics meet. Sunday afternoon found us in a gym full of sparkly tweens, cheering as Aurora balanced, swung, jumped, flipped, and tumbled.
The meet began as they all do. We stood and turned toward the flag hanging way up in the corner. Kids and adults put their hands on their hearts, men took off their hats, and a scratchy recording of the national anthem blared through the sound system.
Many of the people I spend time with are cynical about this ritual, but I’ve never really been one of them. It’s not that I don’t understand the perils of blind nationalism or know the way a flag can be draped over deep flaws to camouflage them; I do. But I’ve always been a sucker for words sung or spoken aloud together. Maybe it was all those years of Catholic school where we began the day by reciting both the Our Father and the pledge of allegiance, or those long Pittsburgh Lents when we walked around the church, praying aloud at every station of the cross, We adore thee o Christ and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world. I have a vivid memory of a Girl Scout ceremony from elementary school. We were standing outside in someone’s backyard on the other side of Clifton Road on a cool Bethel Park evening. We finished saying the pledge, and somebody’s little brother said loudly, “Amen!”
It was all one thing back then, even before I got to Notre Dame and read “God, country, Notre Dame” engraved in the doorway of Sacred Heart church. It’s the same thing with the national anthem. I’ve always been that person standing in the row behind you at the baseball game, singing along. If I’m being all the way honest, I’ll admit that I even tear up a little in those moments.
I’ve never before stopped to interrogate those tears. Trying to understand them now I think they might be about the fact that thousands of strangers are sharing a unifying moment, any moment. But now that I say that out loud, it sounds terrifying.
So last weekend in that gym, standing between two of my grandkids, looking out on a floor filled with little glittery girls in leotards, I couldn’t do it. My hands were clenched in fists at my sides and nothing was going to make them move. All that intellectualized fear of blind nationalism that I’ve carried for years moved out of my head and settled like weights in my hands. Symbols matter, I told myself. Now more than ever, it’s important to be clear.
And then it was Monday morning. I went to work and headed into our gym for a full-school morning meeting. We were gathering to welcome the Mexican exchange students who had arrived that weekend. Thanks to some amazing Spanish teachers, my school has had an exchange program with a school in Mexico City for more than a decade. Near the end of every winter as the light returns, a dozen or so new students enliven our school. Then, a few weeks later, our kids head to Mexico City. For years, this program has built life-long friendships and deepened intercultural understanding. This year, it felt also like an act of defiance. We welcome you, my school said loudly, in the face of those who would build walls to keep you away.
I started writing this essay just after that powerful morning in the gym, and then life took over and sent me meandering down different paths, as it does. When I thought about the gymnastics meet, I wondered if I had reached some new understanding, some new point that would keep my mouth closed and my hands clenched tightly by my side.
And then I started thinking about Lorraine Hansberry. I read A Raisin in the Sun again with my eleventh graders this fall, and last week I kept thinking about the scene where Walter Lee has lost his father’s insurance money, including the part that was earmarked to pay for his sister’s education. His sister, not surprisingly, is furious. When she tells her mother there’s “nothing left to love” in him, Mama stops her. “When do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? …that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so!” she tells her.
Then one morning the students at my school announced an upcoming discussion about America. One of the young women publicizing the event said, “I’m trying to figure it out. Is it ‘America, yay, we’re great!’ or ‘America, oh, that’s not so good’?” She invited her classmates to join her in a conversation to figure it out together.
I was heartened by the students’ desire to make sense of America, and I still hadn’t figured out what Lorraine Hansberry was trying to tell me. Then I was unpacking some books and I came across an old marked-up copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night. In his Nobel lecture, Wiesel said “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
I’m thinking about all those other moments I’ve spent in gyms and stadiums, cheering on St. Louise, rooting for the Blackhawks at Bethel Park Senior High, yelling for the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame and the Lobos at UNM. I’m wondering about all those times I’ve cheered and chanted and sang for our side, for our team. I’m thinking about how easy is to get pulled in to those moments, to think you care more than you really care.
I’m thinking about the fact that symbols matter, and that it’s important in challenging times to be clear. Let’s write 2017 down as the year democracy kicked us in the teeth and reminded us that we don’t get to keep it for free. It’s not a spectator sport or a pep rally. We can’t cheer from the sidelines and trust that somebody else is going to get it done. This is the year we need to remember that those same fireworks that look so beautiful in the sky are explosions here at ground level; those “bombs bursting in air” actually kill people.
Yesterday afternoon I walked out of the house with Rusty on his leash by my side. We’d only taken a few steps when we both came to a dead stop–I flinched, and Rusty pushed his belly toward the ground. We felt the air above us churn and heard a powerful clapping of wings. A giant hawk had bulleted over the roof of the garage and passed just inches above my head; it was as though we had stepped right between him and the prey he was diving for. Rusty and I watched, stunned, as the hawk changed course and skidded back into the sky.
I don’t know what the students at my school decided about America. I suspect, or maybe I hope, that they ended in ambivalence–that they weren’t so cynical to have stopped believing in the ideal of liberty and justice for all, but weren’t so blind to believe it will magically manifest on its own.
At the end of his speech, Wiesel said, “Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.” We’re all charged with creating the world. Let’s use our hands and hearts and voices for that.