God Bless America: A song-turned-slogan, sometimes performed at sporting events; an attitude; an expectation.
I love the romance of wanderer. I imagine myself with a backpack and a worn pair of TOMS, walking the earth. I want to be girl who can pull off dreads and a sweet bandana; I want skin that is porous enough to absorb the beauty of a thousand different cultures.
But during my year on the other side of the earth, I learned that I am rooted.
I sought out fragments of home with a kind of desperation. I ate crap just because it had familiar labels. Snickers bars. M&Ms. Entire cardboard tubes of Pringles. Every week, on our night off from teaching, my husband and I took the train 45-minutes to Jiaxing to eat McDonalds. I gained a lot of weight.
I missed neighborhood playgrounds and blocks of cheddar cheese. Signs I could read and hair stylists I could communicate with and thin, frozen pizzas. Garage sales. Quiet coffee shops. The same twenty rotten pop songs looping on the radio.
The Century Mart down the road from our school with its big plastic bins of chicken feet and its cardboard boxes of “milk” did not do it for me. I wanted Target. Cub Foods. The big-box stores of America that we rage against except when we don’t have them.
In China, I understood that you are not just from a country. You are part of it. It is part of you.
Tomorrow is the 4th of July, and Pinterest is a blaze of red, white and blue. Food coloring! Frosting! Stars and stripes and sparklers and handmade pom poms. Little individual flags on sprinkle-covered cake pops.
Americans everywhere will dress their children in red, white and blue and Instagram them eating corn on the cob, watching a parade, waiting for the fireworks.
When I say I am American, I mean it in the best way and the worst way. I am the good and bad of it. The quiet and loud. I am humble roots, pulling up, up, up by the bootstraps. Working hard. Earning my keep.
But also, I am brazen selfishness, taking for granted things others only dream of having. Overeating and overspending, every day throwing away uneaten food.
It is in me to be brave, to fight for the oppressed. It is in me also to take. To elbow and push to get what I want. I come from those who led slaves to freedom under the cover of night; I come from slave owners, who believed it to be their God-given right to own other humans.
I was raised in the wild beauty of freedom and democracy. I grew up among finger paint and outdoor recess and Ducktails on television. Every year I wrote an essay titled “What I Want to Be When I Grew Up,” and I understood that anything was possible.
But I tend to use those Big Dreams to excuse me from the hard, daily work of love. I have an unbelievable amount of resources, and more often than not, I use them to make my life easier instead of to alleviate the suffering of others. I am free but often live as if I am not. I have the right to “pursue happiness,” and so I chase it, this phantom thing. I let myself believed that I deserve it, that it is the most important thing.
I am asking always for blessing. I forget that I’m already blessed.
There will be a parade. The Shriners will drive by on their little carpets, wearing those little hats with the tassels on them. There will be marching bands and horses and politicians flinging candy. The whole thing will be hot and sticky. It will smell like sunblock.
We celebrate the day that a country was born, and you don’t need to look farther than your TV to see that the whole thing is hopelessly flawed. Just notice the angry political commercials and commentaries. Look at the signs and slogans; listen to the monologues.
But then, we’re all hopelessly flawed, each of us carrying the weight and the light of our own country. The fireworks explode against our life’s landscape.
Night darkens into day, and we who run free in the wide love of God have a choice: to give into fear or to be brave; to take or to give, to dream or to do, to hate or to love.
We can demand to be blessed. Or we can be the blessing.