On Life: Celebrating America's Birthday. It's Complicated.
Fireworks and picnics and a day spent with family. This is what the 4th of July always meant to me. A time of celebration outdoors. It also marked the halfway point of summer, when the days are long and lazy and, as a child, school was still a long ways off. I never put much thought into the reason for the holiday. Of course I knew July 4th was the day America declared independence and our nation was born. But as a child, it was more of a summer holiday. It meant a day of parades and running through the sprinkler and staying up late to see fireworks explode in the sky. The freedom I felt was a freedom from responsibility, a joy that only summer could bring. I viewed the holiday with the eyes of a child lucky enough to be born in the land of the free.
Today, though, I wake up on the 4th with a heaviness in my soul. Never before have I been so conflicted about what it means to be an American. Of course, I love my country. It is where I was born and grew up; my identity as an American is as much a part of me as my own name. America always stood for ideals I believe in strongly . . . democracy, equality, and freedom for all. When my family moved here in the 50s, they were escaping a land where they had been persecuted because of their religious beliefs. They believed in the American dream, and they worked hard to discover that dream.
I was born in the Midwest and raised in the comfortable suburb of a larger city. My upbringing was very "Norman Rockwell," with two loving parents, a younger brother, and a family dog. I didn't know how fortunate I was. One of the families who lived down the street from us had adopted two daughters from Vietnam. These girls became my childhood best friends. We had so much fun together trick-or-treating, having sleepovers, going on bike rides, . . . sharing so many of the moments that define childhood. When my friends officially became American citizens, their mother threw a party for the neighborhood. We ran around their back yard waving sparklers and catching fireflies as the adults mingled around a table laden with food. American flags hung from the windows of their home. Our fingers were sticky with melted red, white, and blue popsicles, and I'll always remember the layered red, white, and blue Jell-O mold their mother made. At that time I was proud to be American. Growing up, I believed there was no country better than ours, and every country wanted to be like us.
This illusion was shattered on September 11, 2001. At that time, I worked for a local art museum in their education department. Coming into work that day, I marveled at how perfect the weather was. There was not a cloud in the sky and the air was crisp and clean. Shortly after settling in at my desk, one of my coworkers rushed into the education office and announced breathlessly that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
"Was it a private plane?"
"How many people were on it?"
"Was it an accident?"
Questions resounded in the hallway of our basement offices as we gathered in the small security room to watch the news on the TV. We saw the billowing smoke rise from the North Tower, the gaping hole in the side, and heard the confusion in the newscaster's voice. And then, as though in slow motion, we saw the second plane fly right into the second tower. Deliberate. Intentional. Frightening. The collective gasp in our small room was followed by a deafening silence. The moment was surreal and one I will never forget.
The rest of the day played out like a nightmare. We watched the goliath towers, a long-standing emblem of the New York skyline, collapse one by one. We saw the streets of New York turned into an apocalyptic scene of panic, fire, and ash. The image that haunts me to this day is that of the individuals who jumped to their deaths rather than perish in the burning buildings. Destruction was everywhere. We quickly cancelled all museum tours and were sent home. I planned to meet my husband at my parents' house, and as I drove with tears in my eyes, I wanted nothing more than the safety and security I always felt within the walls of my childhood home. I stared up at the sky outside my window. It was the same sky I had seen that morning, blue and cloudless, yet somehow it was different, . . . a pretty illusion of safety hiding the dark truth that we were vulnerable. Everything was different. Everything had changed. I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed on American soil. Our once impenetrable country had been subjected to terrorism on a scale never before seen. In the days that followed, we were all in a state of shock. The one thing that never wavered, however, was our national pride. Songs about America's strength played day and night on the radio. We listened to our leaders and sought comfort in their words. It didn't matter our personal beliefs or political affiliation. In our grief and vulnerability, we were all united. All Americans.
My awareness of our place in the world changed in that moment. My childhood innocence vanished. I started having a national identity crisis. I started questioning what it means to be American. While I cherish so many of the ideals on which America was founded, I am aware of the hypocrisy as well, . . . of those that were abused or hurt or killed by the creation of this country. That pride I once felt has been marred by the reality of history. And in recent years, there's no denying that tensions within our border have reached an all-time high. Lately, as I read the headlines or watch the news, I am overwhelmed by the unrest, divisiveness, and polarity that has seemingly split our country in two. The fighting and overall ugliness of politics has left such a sour taste in my mouth that I no longer respect the parties in place (though I still respect the process, and I hope and pray our democracy stays a democracy). In my opinion (and I know some disagree with me), America has become the spoiled child in the global family, where something as simple and courteous as wearing a mask to try and stop the spread of a deadly disease has become a political statement. The sense of entitlement on our soil is astounding. When I wrote my novel, I tried to imagine what it would be like to leave the only place you called home, to cross an ocean with empty pockets in the hopes that what waited on distant shores was better than what you were leaving behind. Would I have the strength to leave my country if I had to? Even if I disagree with so much of what it stands for right now, I still love what it symbolizes. My heart breaks to think that might ever change.
Like a child who has opened her eyes to the reality of adulthood, I no longer see my American identity through rose-colored glasses. There is much work to be done in our country. There is much healing that needs to take place. If we stay stagnant in our polarized beliefs, we will never change. My daughter turns 18 this summer and has the right, privilege, and responsibility to vote, a right that no American should take lightly. So yes, I still love America, though I am aware of all its flaws and imperfections. And I can only hope that, like any living organism, America can continue to evolve to become what our founding fathers (who were also only human) once dreamed, a land where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed to all who call it home, and its borders are open to all seeking a better life just as my family did.
Happy birthday, America.