For well over a decade, I made an annual trip to Door County, WI for a 4th of July celebration. Months ahead of time, I would stew in blissful anticipation of the affair – long nights of deep conversation and stargazing that ended with sunrise, bocce ball and boat rides, coolers filled with beer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade (which we all loved, despite incessantly denying it), Mrs. E’s couscous salad and Mr. P’s ‘Sven and Ole’ jokes.
In the summer of 2002, our country was still in the deep wake of 9/11, and a few folks – close friends of the host family – were going to be with us for the 4th. These friends were from New York, and so to urge on the healing process the matriarch of the event asked if I would play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ on my trumpet as a prelude to their fireworks show. And so, I played. The familiar tune left my solitary horn and was sent out over calm waters, echoing and reverberating into the deep night, a haunting but hopeful sound. As I held the last note, the darkness was filled suddenly with bombs bursting, rockets glaring red.
I’ve missed the previous seven 4th of July extravaganzas, a happenstance result of entering religious life. The party has tamed a bit – a smaller crowd, no fireworks, and no trumpet performance; different than it was all those years ago when I gazed up into that deep Door County sky, half-drunk and fraught-less about the realities of the world. The sound of my trumpet did help us heal, but at that point in my life, I wasn’t aware of the fullness of the pain I played through. It feels more real to me, more urgent now after 15 years. Imagining playing that song again, I am filled with lamentation and left doubting whether the anthem means anything to me anymore.
When I go to the gym, I see one of three things on flat screens that surround my sweaty companions and me: news tickers revealing the latest fireball from Senate hearings and Spicer briefings gone awry, Chicago Cubs baseball highlights, or Shark Tank. I give all of them their due, because when it comes to screens in public places, I’m like a moth to the flame. Call me unpatriotic if you like, but there’s not too much of front-page America that I readily celebrate these days. I don’t care much if the Cubs repeat or if Mark Cuban tries to purchase 50% of the latest health food fad. I expect the words ‘Russia,’ ‘email investigation,’ Flynn, Sessions, and Trump to incite talking heads. What once was the chaos and unknown of America has become, well, predictable. Or perhaps I’ve become numb to all of it.
And in that, I’m reminded of the simplest reality of my own response to the pain that exists here today – I don’t have to respond. America was built for people just like me – privileged in every way. I don’t have to explore any of it further. I could get away with playing bocce and enjoying couscous and going to an air-conditioned gym forever. If I have been numbed, it is because America hasn’t changed for me at all. I haven’t had to let it change me. It has always been free for me. It is easy for me to say I’m brave.
I recently made a silent retreat, and one afternoon just before dinner, I took a short walk outside. The sun had begun to set, white billowing clouds piling high and casting playful shadows across vast fields.
But as I meandered through a small grove of tall cottonwoods, a harrowing chorus of crow calls cut through the cool summer air. I had a sense that some evil was building behind me, a murder of crows moments from swooping down upon me and tearing at my neck. My pace quickened; I was suddenly desperate to be out of those woods. As I escaped and my heart settled, I knew that if anything like that ever happened to me – anything that would jerk me out of the safety the world offers me – I would never be the same. It’s easy for me to say I’m brave when the world doesn’t demand that I be fearless. But fear often sits just below the surface in my life, and I realized just how deeply I hold on to my own security and comfort.
But still, I am invited to something different – to seek and co-create a world in which all people are free and in which bravery, not fear, takes the lead. A world in which the songs we sing don’t only herald a fiction of home that is free and brave, but a place that has established justice and will honor it.
I reread the lyrics of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ recently. O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? The last line is a question, one that demands an answer in our and for all time. Does that flag still wave over a free and brave land? Has it ever?
In spite of everything, even in spite of myself, it still could. And so, if ever invited to play it again, I will play it as a new song, not of what is, but of what could be.