Yeah, the pole bearing a rebel flag and an American flag on my way to work makes me mad. No, I don’t accept Vladimir Putin as my personal lord and savior, but I don’t think of myself as a patriot, either. I’m not even sure what it means. My sense of entitlement to all good things, contempt for politicians, and dedication to Mountain Dew remind me that I’m all American all the time. As September 11 has rolled around again and the internet is ablaze with ‘merican pride, I started thinking about who I am as a part of this vast landscape and complex culture. What does make me a patriot? What does run in my veins and quickens my pulse?
–I’m a child of Reaganomics. A child of poverty, of parents with mental illness, of Jesus. A child of the hills, of love and bewilderment, of crisis and peace. A child of the 1980s. My mom said my name meant, “Child of our hearts.” I still believe in that.
–My generation went from wandering the halls at school to practicing lockdowns. In high school during a locker clean out, someone threw a piece of fruit at an English teacher’s cleavage and exclaimed, “Bank shot!” I remember that teacher saying that in 30 years she’d never been so maliciously assaulted. Columbine happened my junior year. We didn’t know what it meant at that age. I was afraid of the chaos. Adults were afraid of me as some part of a discontented and isolated youth culture. It made a person miss the simpler days of tornado and fire drills. Natural disasters instead of human disasters.
–I didn’t understand why my mother walked out of the theater during Forest Gump. I didn’t understand why she hated anti-war protestors as much as she hated war. But I suppose when all that returns from Vietnam is the body of your brother, the whole world looks different. We didn’t talk about war, and we didn’t talk about Louis. My mom’s mind was bonded to the pieces of shrapnel that tore into his flesh. The memories we don’t have can take precedence over the ones we do have.
–Quiet and bashful, my paternal grandfather was rejected from the draft for being “gouty.” His brother went and returned. Stationed in North Africa. Elmer couldn’t believe in any kind of god after the things he saw, my dad said. I can only see my grandpa in his garden with a milk carton bill stapled to his hat, bending over vegetables to assess the bunny damage, inspecting tomato stalks for signs of the dreaded tomato worm, large gloves on his medium hands. He was a man who touched life gently. There are many humans who are so gentle but have not been as fortunate in the state of their gout.
–My maternal grandfather was a Marine. You’d have known it by his mouth. Filled with four-letter words, empty of teeth. He never wanted to tell me much about the Marines. My mom said the dentists there hadn’t used Novocain.
–I went on a mission trip to Russia at 17. Having never crossed a major border, I wanted to travel away from Ohio to see everything else. I had friends whose families visited Europe or the Caribbean for vacation. That wasn’t a possibility for my family. In Russia, I stayed in an orphanage with my all-adult group. To the kids there, I was like a shooting star that had landed in their palms. Nerdy, shy, uncertain me. I was fashion and opportunity and freedom and family to them. When we use the term privilege to deride others in the United States, I think we have failed to see the rest of humanity. Because everyone has a privilege of some variety. Privilege isn’t a dirty word. It’s an obligation to share your own resources as best you can with the world. It took infant-sized 8 year-olds living each day in cribs to help me see. It took tiny arms reaching up to me at a time in my life when I didn’t know how to hold anyone. It took two 13 year-old girls pressing my hands to their cheeks and petting my hair and asking if I had parents. It took the knowledge that one girl’s family likely dumped her because of a misaligned eye that could have been operated on when she was a baby. If she had been here, it could have been repaired. There are more privileges in our lives than we will ever understand. I came back from that trip a lost girl. A rich human, but a lost girl.
–Sometimes I hope the story of Tecumseh will be different. I hope that he will succeed in uniting Native Americans and holding the land. I hope he will succeed where Blue Jacket did not. Blue Jacket signed the Greenville Treaty that gave eastern Ohio to the United States. Tecumseh did not sign. Tecumseh fought on and was killed. We learned about Blue Jacket in Ohio history, and Columbus’s hockey team is the Blue Jackets. And I don’t know if Ohio remembers Blue Jacket to celebrate his effort at peace or his unwitting aide to genocide. Everyone here wants to claim their 1/8 Native American blood regardless of history. Why didn’t we learn more about Tecumseh?
–We all have our own tale of 9/11. My favorite is my friend’s lisping film professor who said something like, “Apparently, there’s some kind of national emergency. Here’s Tootsie!” What collapsed for me that day was my sense of existing in an impregnable nation. That day did shatter the existence of so many humans, not just Americans. I can’t pretend that it was the most meaningful day of my life. The truth is that it’s only a single heartbeat that separates living from dying. But it’s an entire lifetime of forces and impacts and privileges and moments that lead to the choices that lead to the living or the dying. Compelled by occurrences on that day some went to war, some to Canada. I finished college in Kentucky as my heart kept beating. I turned to those things most precious to me and ignored the rest for about a decade. We all have our “here’s Tootsie” moments.
I am a person who doesn’t understand. But I try. Gender, sexuality, religion, race, avocados. I try to hear the voices of many and to find my own. On Facebook, that land of platitudes and messy quotes superimposed on sunrises, a friend posted this from Elie Wiezel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” I’ve never been much inclined toward speaking, and I’ve ridden many a fence. But I think of it now, the utility of my words and the weight of them. I consider what I return to a world where I absorb so much. My American ideal is finding the balance between speaking loud enough and learning when to listen. My American ideal is a commitment to life—not pro-choice, life-at-all-costs—just quality and equality in that opportunity. Not stuff and money. Not flags and guns. Pulses and leaves and toads and thunder. Oxygen for us all. Enough security and enough love to make each of us the lord of our own heart. Enough security and love to share, to toss into the wind with the thistle down and let take root where it falls. Consider that my unfurling flag and act of patriotism for this day. For each day.