Categories
America Music

We Americans

This Fourth of July, the words that are echoing in my mind more than any others are the lyrics of “We Americans” by The Avett Brothers, from their recent album Closer Than Together. They beautifully capture the cognitive dissonance I feel about being an American, and even made me tear up the first time I heard them.

Here they are in full. Happy Fourth of July.

I grew up with reverence for the red white and blue
Spoke of God and liberty, reciting the pledge of allegiance
Learned love of country from my own family
Some shivered and prayed approaching the beaches of Normandy
The flag waves high and that’s how it should be
So many lives given and taken in the name of freedom
But the story’s complicated and hard to read
Pages of the book obscured or torn out completely

I am a son of Uncle Sam
And I struggle to understand the good and evil
But I’m doing the best I can
In a place built on stolen land with stolen people

Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco
Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco
Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco

A misnamed people and a kidnapped race
Laws may change but we can’t erase the scars of a nation
Of children devalued and disavowed
Displaced by greed and the arrogance of manifest destiny
Short-sighted to say it was a long time ago
Not even two lifetimes have past since the days of Lincoln
The sins of Andrew Jackson, the shame of Jim Crow
And time moves slow when the tragedies are beyond description

I am a son of Uncle Sam
And I struggle to understand the good and evil
But I’m doing the best I can
In a place built on stolen land with stolen people

We are more than the sum of our parts
All these broken homes and broken hearts
God will you keep us wherever we go
Will you forgive us for where we’ve been
We Americans

Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar
Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar
Blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar

I’ve been to every state, seen shore to shore
The still open wounds of the civil war
Watched blind hatred bounce back and forth
Seen vile prejudice both in the south and the north
And accountability is hard to impose
On ghosts of ancestors haunting the halls of our conscience
But the path of grace and goodwill is still here,
For those of us who may be considered among the living

I am a son of God and man
And I may never understand the good and evil
But I dearly love this land
Because of, and in spite of we the people

We are more than the sum of our parts
All these broken bones and broken hearts
God will you keep us wherever we go
Can you forgive us for where we’ve been
We Americans
We Americans

Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory
Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory
Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory

Categories
America Life Religion

Rhythm Sand Booms

giphy

We stayed at a beach community in Michigan for the Fourth of July extended weekend and went to the chapel service they had on Sunday. One of the pastors began with a quote from Erma Bombeck:

You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.

I get nervous in churches around the Fourth of July. Celebrating a secular holiday within a religious environment can lead to grotesque displays of nationalistic idolatry, or it can produce something more appropriate for a church that celebrates its country while respecting the benefits of separating church and state. Luckily this was the latter. We sang hymns, heard a good message, and that was that.

What was more powerful to me happened the next evening, when the whole community gathered on the beach to watch a fireworks display, as they do every year. We brought beach chairs and set up facing southward along the beach, where the fireworks would be. Slowly more people congregated and added to the festival-like atmosphere. Families took pictures against the amber sunset, teens tossed a frisbee, kids twirled sparklers, and I read The Iliad until it got too dark to read.

Then we all sat and waited for the twilight to fade to black enough to allow the fireworks to be that much vibranter. When they began, I remembered once again what it was like to share something with a group of people that wasn’t on a screen. I didn’t notice many if any devices out. The rows of heads I saw when I looked behind me were only tilted upward, not downward as they would be with a smartphone in hand.

Many of these families had been partaking in this tradition for decades. I only recently married into it, yet it still impressed upon me the power of ritual, and how, when combined with the spirit of a place, it can foster an acute state of grace. I was grateful for Lake Michigan. I was grateful for the opportunity to look at the stars and contemplate my place in the universe and my nation while watching the fireworks burst before me. I was grateful to lie back with my fellow Americans and enjoy a celebration that didn’t involve guns, tanks, and soldiers.

The scene, like the fireworks themselves, dissipated as quickly as it materialized. We folded chairs, shook off sand, filed off the beach en masse, and trundled to our beds to begin another American year.

Image: the view from the beach at sunset.