Monday, October 29, 2012

A Part of the World

Photo Credit: Morguefile by Arker

This post is a response to the GBE2 prompt: Patriotism.

In the beginning, Lydia could not help but be moved by the emotion of the song. Oh say can you see by the dawn's early light...It swelled up on currents of pride and straight-backed decency that brought a trembling wetness to the eyes of those around her. She watched. This tradition was alien to her and so dear to the hearts of those around her. She sang quietly, a smile teasing up the corners of her lips. Even she did not know what the smile was for. She felt confused.

"It's the flag from the Star Spangled Banner!" Peter would exclaim, clamoring to show as they entered the Post Office door. "Look, Mommy. It's the Grand Old Flag."

"Yes," she agreed. "The flag of the United States."

Lydia had not been raised in another country. She had merely been raised on a commune on the winding seacoast of California. She was, for all that, raised in a different America altogether: America the aggressor, an America who helped to take down democratically elected Salvador Allende and install Pinochet, America of the Long Walk and the Trail of Tears, America of the internment camps, the America of Joseph McCarthy.

Growing up, she did not sing the Star-Spangled Banner. She had never learned the song.

Now things were different. They lived in a small town, in a world where towers fallen still left rubble in the landscape of the nation's mind, and she had chosen to place her only child in public school.

"When they say the pledge," she told Peter," stand up. Put your hand on your heart. Show respect."

"Humph," said Lydia's mother loudly, when she came for Christmas. "Why should he show respect? What is there to respect?"

"He should show respect, " Lydia answered, "because he is five. He doesn't know anything about Vietnam or Watergate or President George W. Bush. He doesn't know about Napalm. He is in kindergarten and he is learning to follow the rules."

A still anger for a moment crossed Lydia's mother's face. "You are teaching him to be a part of something that I worked all my life to pull away from!"

Lydia dropped her eyes. "I want him to be a part of the world."

"I see what you want, " replied her mother and empathy touched her voice. "But I want you to know that it isn't patriotism."

Lydia thought about this for some time, after the holiday decorations had been packed away, as the subject had been dropped and as her mother got on a plane and flew back to California.

She thought about her childhood. It had not been a bad one. She had run like a wild thing amongst oak trees, making tiny dolls of acorns and lichens. She had learned to listen to ravens, to catch bullfrogs. She had taught herself to read, three years too late and grade levels higher than her peers. There had been space. So much space you could lose yourself in it, like tule fog. She had lived in a world that was just as good, but utterly separate. Learning to navigate this one had been hard, the rules obscured and tucked under. She constantly had to tease them out.

This world apart, this abandonment of America inside America, was not patriotism either.

Patriotism, she thought, is something that is rare. It is a quality that cannot be found in a five year-old child, cannot be imparted by curricula or evoked with the use of flags. It is cultivated in the bold consumption of truth and the identification of an enormous group as a family of which one is a part. It is present when the criticism of a nation is self-criticism and joins together with continued hope for something more.

This saluting of a flag, this National Anthem, all of it is immaterial and it is ceremony. There is no reason not to play along. Every group has its traditions. They are part of how we belong.

At the New Year's concert, the school music director began, as always with the National Anthem. Lydia sang louder. It just didn't matter. So she sang as loud as she could.

What does patriotism mean to you? How is patriotism different from nationalism and is patriotism, by necessity, a responsibility that we have as Americans? Is it impossible to be critical of our own country and be patriotic?


  1. Brilliant!! Such a well written moving piece!!


  2. Good post!

    Anything can be taken too far, but... I mean, feelings for your own tribe are going to happen. Those feelings ought to make you want it to do better, shouldn't they?

    I improve myself when I take a cold and sober look at myself, and it's probably the same with institutions as well.

    At the same time, most self-proclaimed patriots remind me of people who can't accept even the lightest constructive criticism.... Oh, and I've never been able to figure out what "The Greatest Country in the World" MEANS.

    1. I totally relate to your last two paragraphs there. I've always been aware of the America Lydia talks about, the one with the darker past (and present, for that matter). Those unflattering things are true and I think we all need to know about them. I don't think real patriotism lies in lying to ourselves about our past, or our intentions, or in pretending that we are somehow greater than everyone else. And I've never been able to relate to those attitudes. We're No.1 is lost on me as well.

      I guess I think the mistake people make when thinking they are patriotic and therefore that we can't criticize America from within is in that they think we're set in stone, maybe at some fictional point in the past. That point, that moment, at which they felt good, THAT is America. But America is always changing and always will. It is composed of different moments, different leaders, and different ideologies. It should be. There is really no America to "get back to."

      Here's the truth: in terms of the National Anthem thing, I still can't make myself feel warm and fuzzy about it. I have a hard time understanding nationalistic, tribal feelings. But I just don't think they matter, are patriotic or unpatriotic as long as we are also able to think and take responsibility for the direction of our country and what we do in the world.

      So, I guess Lydia and I are a little different although not so very much.

  3. Exceptionally done! I agree! However, I am old enough to remember the shootings at Kent State...I am old enough to remember the Vietnam War..I am old enough to remember being told I was unpatriotic and a terrorist because I didn't not want to begin the war with Iraq. However, that being said. To me, patriotism is caring enough to do the right thing, based on real and honest information. I still would not have gone into Iraq, but I still care very much for the young men and women who serve. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks much. Like so much of what I write, I think this piece doesn't really communicate my own feelings. Of course, it IS a work of fiction so it is also true that the character isn't me and her feelings and experience isn't mine. That said, I am too young to have lived through the events of the 1960s but not too young to have lived through the hubbub following 9/11, which was largely the same. I have always belonged to the group that was considered "unpatriotic" for daring to suggest that our country's foreign policy placed us at risk.

      I couldn't agree more with your assessment of true patriotism.

  4. My father always said, American by birth, Texan by the grace of God. That is the kind of house I grew up in, the child of a Marine who served and was critically wounded in Vietnam, whose grandfathers and uncles all served with distinction, with honor, for glory of God and country and never, ever for themselves. It is a funny thing, honor, and what it means can be stretched and shaped to fit the most perverse definition. Patriotism, loyalty, duty, honor - those are things my father took out of the Marines and applied wholeheartedly to his family. It is something he taught us, in small ways. Patriotism is always tied to respect and hope, but never blind faith. Above all else, we were taught the value of love, and love trumps all. If everything we do stems from love - love of country, love of freedom, but most of all, love of each other - then it can not be all that bad. I loved this story, Tara, and you do such a good job of bringing an internal struggle we're all feeling into sharp focus in just a few paragraphs.

  5. Many made the ultimate sacrifice for all of the rights we have.

    1. That truly is such a profound and true statement Joyce. Many have served in the armed forces and given their lives for our freedoms. My father, my grandfather, my wife's grandfather were all veterans. We often forget though, that many have also been sacrificed as slaves or by way of our country's Indian policy. That we took Japanese American citizen's property and imprisoned them. That activists went south to stand for civil rights. That they too all made steep sacrifice which contributed greatly to our enjoyment of freedom today. This idea of sacrifice is such a complex and deep topic. I'm glad you brought brought it up.
      Interdependent Existence: Our Blessings and Our Curses -

  6. In my view, patriotism is having love and respect for your country. It is about seeking out the truth and doing what it takes to see that it is better for the next generation than it was for yours. It is about understanding the history of this great nation-and learning from what we did well and what we did not--embracing our past to make our future better. We need to hold on to what has worked and let go of what didn't, instilling in our children what we've learned and give them the sense of pride and courage to face their future, with the same sense of duty to make it better for the generation after them.

    Enjoyed reading your post.

    Cheers, Jenn.

  7. Years ago, I was in church on a July Sunday. We were talking about our country, and some women were getting very vocal in their 'patriotism'. In the seat next to me was a young woman from Australia. As the comments about our country's freedom were bantered back and forth, I heard this young woman whisper, 'We're free in Australia, too.' It was the first time I realized how overzealous we Americans can be with out touts of freedom and patriotism.

    I think patriotism means supporting our country. That, to me, means supporting and praying for our leaders, whether we voted for them or not. It means doing our duty by voting. And, if we disagree with what's going on,then we need to exercise that freedom and run for office, or join a caucus, or do whatever we can to make those changes, and not just sit around and complain.

  8. Awesome...the hope for something more.

  9. I agree with everything Jenn said and would add only Amen to her comment.
    You, Tara, did a wonderful job, as usual, laying out the feelings of many Americans who sometimes feel the country is going in the wrong direction. I have always teared up at the group singing of our national anthem. I reminds me every time of the men and women who have served our country and reminds me to be appreciative of each and every one of them.
    I also feel patriotism requires one not be blind to the faults, but rather move past them and learn from them. Find better ways to move forward as a united country for the greater good.

  10. You rock everything you touch.

  11. And there you have it! So much wrapped up in the idea of patriotism and how we use the word. It isn't simple is it?

  12. I think these lines best captured my personal brand of patriotism: "It is cultivated in the bold consumption of truth and the identification of an enormous group as a family of which one is a part. It is present when the criticism of a nation is self-criticism and joins together with continued hope for something more."

    The problem with a certain brand of patriotism is that there is no room in it for improvement. Those who believe criticizing our leaders, our policies, ourselves is somehow betraying the sacrifices of our military men and women miss the point entirely, in my view. It is because so many have given so much for us to be where we are that we need to work hard to continue improving--and part of moving forward and doing better is recognizing and fully owning the mistakes of our past and present. Patriotism that has no room in it for constructive criticism (or necessary apologies) is really more like the blind and wounded love a battered spouse feels for his or her abuser. Or, in a weird way, it is like the way a certain sort of parent views a misbehaving child--to see the child's faults may require the parent to look closely at his or her own mistakes and there are people who would rather imagine the child perfect than to look at their own faults and responsibility. Problem being, no change or improvement can be made until an issue is acknowledged.

    Of course, as this piece shows it is definitely possible to go too far in another direction and separate yourself completely from community--which is both drastic and ineffective in terms of making improvements for everyone within that community. Forgive the cliche, but it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


When you comment, it keeps fairies alive.

Don't forget to choose "subscribe by email" to receive follow-up comments. I almost always reply to comments, and you wouldn't want to miss that. It's all part of saving the fairies.

My Zimbio
Creative Commons License
Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License