“Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave…” I ask, over what, exactly, is that banner waving?
July 5, 2020. The full thunder moon. Fitting. We sit within a tempest, even as it is dry as a bone here in the American Northeast: a tempestuous energy that blows through the psyche, through our communities and cities, across the land from coast to coast, and border to border.
I was struck yesterday by how fraught the Fourth of July felt to me this year—with the wildly surging pandemic and the administrative gas-lighting (rather than problem-solving) that plagues the pandemic’s resolution, or at least its reduction. With the occupant in the White House conducting audacious displays of divisiveness at Mount Rushmore and the Washington Mall, inciting people to gather in large numbers, close together (in zip-tied chairs no less) and a “wink wink” no masks or social distancing needed here. “We are invincible! No virus can get us. And if it does, well that is god’s will.” It’s just a little flu, right? One that has killed over 125,000 people just in the U.S. in less than six months—that pesky little virus. It’s of no matter, so the Occupant, in his Rushmore speech, focused instead on protecting racist statues and decrying the progressive left as fascists.
Really??! I looked up the word “fascist” just now to double check. Did I have the meaning wrong? No, I don’t think so … Dictionary.com says, “a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism … emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.” Now I know the meaning of fascist has many more nuances, too many to go into here, but this sounds, well enough, like our current status with this president.
Last I knew, the progressive left are fervently focused on saving the earth’s ecosystems before it’s too late and creating social systems that support ALL people, not just those glittering with ill-gotten wealth. Seems reasonable to be passionate about these goals.
Countries with competent leadership and intelligent citizenry abroad are watching us, aghast, and utterly flummoxed. They won’t let Americans fly into their countries without quarantine, if at all. Who could blame them? Countries led by despots just like ours are applauding our idiocy. The weaker America gets, the better for them.
This past week, I’ve noticed that the houses in the rural New England towns near where I live are the “flagged” and the “unflagged.” Or in some cases, the flagged and the “Black Lives Matter” houses. Yesterday, for the Fourth, one house had decorated its yard with quite an impressive number of medium-sized, seemingly brand new flags and a quaint little colonial-style sign that says “God Bless America” hung on a tree. I thought, as I walked past, “Man, we need blessing badly.” Now I like this family, a lot, so as I walked, I tried to understand how, maybe, they viewed the divisive issues we are grappling with as a country. Judging from their flags and crosses, obviously their views are quite different from mine.
Part of me wants to sit down with them and have a good ole lengthy civil discussion about philosophy, religion, politics, and the meaning of life. Or several discussions. But I can’t. For one, civility seems to be in short supply these days. It would be a risk. And, of course, we need to physically distance. And they would probably think I was a weirdo, with my belief that even plants have intelligence; and that all is interconnected and equal, even rocks and minerals; and that consciousness is primary and physical matter is a manifestation of consciousness. (The latter is not that crazy—some quantum physicists are starting to think in these terms. Space-time is starting to appear doomed as a theory. Ancient religions have been saying this for thousands of years.) But I digress.
To me, the Fourth of July felt this year a surreal pageant, playing out like a Stephen King or Robert R. McCammon novel. Indeed the whole year has felt this way. The past four years… The “rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem” in Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” appears to have awoken. We are all painfully aware of its presence. How we view the beast is a matter of perception, and how much love we still connect with in our hearts.
On a long walk down my country road yesterday, on the Fourth of July, I was thinking about the town I grew up in. It was a small New Hampshire town with one general store, a town hall, a town garage, and a library. That’s it. It is still that way to this day, due to vigilant zoning and a coop running the general store. It was mostly white, this town. But we had diversity of economics for sure with some families being very poor. I like to think we all looked out for them, for each other. I know my dad used to stop in regularly to check on an old hermit who lived in a one-room house with his German shepherd. This old hermit knew the town history like no one else and often helped my dad solve his surveying questions (my dad had a part-time gig as a land surveyor).
So as I walked, I was thinking about July 4, 1976 in my hometown: the two-hundredth anniversary of the year that the Declaration of Independence was signed (August 2, 1776). Okay, I didn’t know this but independence was declared on July 2nd; Congress approved the text on July 4th; and it was signed on August 2nd. A little history thanks to Constitutional Facts online.
What a celebration that was in 1976!! I was thirteen. I believe I wore red, white, and blue elephant-bellbottom pants—remember those? Just about everyone in town joined in for picnics, a softball game, log rolling, and fireworks. We even had frog races. One of my favorite memories of time spent with my dad was he and I trying to catch those dang frogs with nets and white buckets at the pond up the road that morning. Easier said than done! Still, my dad and I realized our error as we watched the poor things prodded on hot pavement by clumsy children. We’d just engaged in an act of cruelty. A small dampening of an otherwise happy day. I never caught frogs again. Neither did my dad.
Being young teens, my friends and I were thrilled to find a half-eaten vodka-spiked watermelon on a picnic table that evening. We ate a generous quantity and I was drunk for the first time in my life. We ran through the cemetery, “oohed and awed” at the fireworks, and, on the town hall steps, I kissed a boy for whom I’d been harboring a huge crush.
Never in my wildest dreams, did I ever think that the Fourth of July would be a sad day, as it felt this year, in 2020.
Even as I got older, the Fourth was always a cause for celebration. Fireworks synced to WHEB Portsmouth playing Pink Floyd, “Dark Side of the Moon.” Sitting on my friend’s roof on State Street with a big party of folks watching the display, my friend’s brother smiling and saying to me as the colorful sparks burst and fluttered earthward, “Each one looks like it’s coming right to us.”
It was my father-in-law driving his old Corvette in the town parade and the barbecue afterwards at their big, old New England home. My husband and his dad squabbling over how to grill properly. My mother-in-law proudly presenting her cucumber molded salad that none of us liked but ate out of duty and our love for her.
Of course, history is never ideal. We had our problems for sure. Humans have always been prone to treat each other and the planet poorly. Wars, genocides, nuclear arms proliferation, Cancer Alleys created by toxic manufacturing of chemicals. Elephants slaughtered for ivory. Crooked politicians: Watergate, Iran-Contra. Religious differences. Serial killers. Crazy cult leaders like Charles Manson. Persistent racism and sexism. The tenacious patriarchy. Cultural revolution in the ‘60s followed by an insipid, growing apathy. And the ever-present human ills: selfishness, greed, egoism, and the like.
But it’s never felt like this.
Like a tinderbox ready to burst into flame. Like a tempest about to unleash. Like a very, very sick society that just needs to go to the infirmary to heal. I’m not the first to wonder if the coronavirus is an outward manifestation of our inner illness, of our cultural ills, of our sick planet.
Yesterday, it felt that the Fourth of July was a symbol of that illness with worries about people gathering in large numbers and giving another boost to the accelerating pandemic in the U.S. The fireworks—I didn’t even have the heart to watch my neighbor’s fireworks out my front windows—they felt as if erupting like the tinderbox I sense that we are. (And I actually worried about a wildfire, it being so dry.) And then there is my knowledge, contrary to my elementary and high school education in the ’70s, that the real narrative is that our independence was won by colonizing and enacting genocide on the indigenous people whose land this was when Europeans arrived. I can’t unsee that and I don’t wish to. It’s the reality we need to face and accept. And fix.
We are encouraged by this holiday to celebrate “freedom.” Yet those with little means, without the justice and respect they deserve, with health issues from toxic pollution from now unregulated or less-regulated factories, can’t take advantage of that freedom in equal ways. The indigenous tribal members who protested at the entrance to Mount Rushmore are still, centuries later, calling for the respect and apology they deserve. They are still fighting to protect their sacred lands, currently dug up and destroyed for oil and gas endeavors and other infrastructure projects we really don’t need and should not build.
The giant Formosa plastics plant they are attempting to build in St. James Parish in Louisiana would further pollute the already polluted communities nearby. The plant will create mountains of trash we can’t dispose of safely. Trash that will float to the shores of other countries. Trash that mother birds will feed to their babies, thinking its food. By 2050 it’s predicted that we will have more plastics in our oceans than fish. We already have enough fossil fuels out of the ground to warm the planet the precarious 2 degrees Celsius that will see 90% of coral reefs die off and flood out major cities (The Story of Plastics; Center for Biological Diversity). We don’t need more oil and gas extracted and piped under the Appalachian Trail or sacred indigenous lakes. We just don’t.
Our country not only has a dangerous, delusional ruler who gleefully supports the fossil fuel industry and rolls out the red carpet for projects like Formosa’s, our country has been, for decades, hijacked by corporate interests that think nothing of melting our polar ice caps or destroying every single species on this earth. More resources to grab and profit from.
Speaking of freedom, what of the brown people we have locked up in detention centers? How is it, that in the land of the free, the “give me your tired, your poor” America, that we deny asylum, lock up people in this way, and simply go about our business?
None of this is cause for celebration.
These are signals that the light of love has burnt out in our hearts, leaving us in darkness. Perhaps this is a necessary part of the process for us to learn, by coming to our knees, that love is the only truth. Maybe this is the only way forward? I don’t know. But it’s painful. And heart-wrenchingly sad. Grief is my constant companion these days. Even as I see the light everywhere: in the nest of blue-headed vireos that flourished in my lilac bush this past month. In the full thunder moon that will rise tonight.
How will we carry America forward? How will we steward the earth? With the light of love reignited in our hearts? Co-created in the spirit of thoughtfulness, communication, and cooperation? Or in pieces and tatters, barricaded behind walls and waving flags, while sacrificing the vulnerable, the “others,” and all the beauty of this planet on the altar of short-term gratification, selfishness, independence, and greed?
We get to choose. We choose every single day. Each day there are consequences of our choices—individually and collectively. Each day we create consequences that could turn us from this darkness to light. Or, we create consequences that could take hundreds of years to rectify. And we create consequences that can never be undone—such as melting permafrost, or a grandmother who dies in the ICU because her grandchild went to a party and, not meaning to, passed the coronavirus on to her.
Let’s pause … live slowly and deliberately. Let’s rethink and revise our words, our actions, and our beliefs. Let’s realize that individually we really don’t know everything and that together, with open ears and minds, we might figure out something. Let’s create good ripples. Let’s celebrate independence in conjunction with cooperation and collective wellness—for we can’t separate them. They have never been separate. In the illusion of separateness, we won’t survive. But with the inclusion of interconnected hearts, we will.