I am sitting on my couch listening to the slow whine of my youngest child from the other room. It’s 10:30, and he hasn’t quite adjusted back to Eastern Standard Time following our vacation out west. The neighbors aren’t helping. Outside, fireworks erupt in a never-ending chorus of pops and crackles with the occasional resounding boom that shakes our windows and sends the dog off to his kennel for cover.
As I hear the baby cry out again, frightened by the sounds rattling his bedroom, I want to shout obscenities and classist slurs out my backdoor. It’s almost the Fourth. I get it. You’re patriotic…or easily amused. I’m not sure which. You want to blow stuff up into the wee hours of the morning, and that’s your God-given American right this week, isn’t it? It happens every year, and every year, I get annoyed.
I should probably lighten up and just enjoy the free show, but unless these explosives are at a safe distance (which would mean not in my backyard) I don’t really enjoy them. When I was a little kid, fireworks evoked a trembling fear in me. I remember watching them from our car one night in a field. That field caught fire off in the distance, and I was terrified after that. I was a nervous kid who asked my parents, every night, right before I closed my eyes, if the stove was shut off. Fireworks were too much.
Over the years, that fear has morphed into a strong distaste for the amateur fireworks display. I appreciate a regulated Fourth of July show as much as anybody. I “ooh” and “aah” with the rest of the crowd and always clap for the ones that look like willow trees. Sometimes I even “woohoo” a killer finale. But the DIY firecrackers that light up the night – I liken these things to chain smoking, scratch-off lotto tickets, and cases of Mountain Dew. I’ve become a city-fied snob somehow, despite my dirt-baby feet, relatively poor hygiene habits, freezer full of venison, and undeniable rural upbringing. I have become too big for my britches, and I was reminded of this during our most recent vacation.
Our last night of the road trip led us to Cody, Wyoming and the Stampede Rodeo, a nightly event that showcases talent from the states and abroad – male, female, white, black, Native American, Aussie and Canadian competitors would be riding that night against the backdrop of a limitless western sky, the essence of America. My aunt had taken me to local rodeos when I was young and having always loved horses (and cowboys), I loved the rodeo and was determined that we spend our final evening showing our kids what it was all about.
We got there early and pointed out the livestock to the boys, my middle man holding his nose as we passed the pens, shouting, “It smells like puffin poop!” The closest he had come to manure was the scent of the penguin and puffin exhibit at the zoo. My grandmother was raised on a farm and so was my dad. My kid didn’t even know he was smelling cow shit.
When I dressed the boys for the night, I knew we would stick out, but given the chill in the air and the limited warm clothes I’d packed, it was useless. They settled into their seats with L.L. Bean trucker hats, shiny Columbia vests and tennis shoes. I had on a sweater and a Calvin Klein packable down coat. My cowboy boots were a thousand miles away and I haven’t owned a Carhartt in years, so we would assume the role of city slicker as the kids kept asking when they would get to see the “buffaloes.” “Bulls,” we would say. “Yea. When are we gonna see them ride the buffaloes?” It was a lost cause.
I asked my husband to go find us some beer, so I could retain some semblance of my former identity, and as soon as the Bud Light hit my lips, I wished it was a microbrew. The kids munched popcorn, dropping half of it onto the stands. I downed my beer and glanced around the crowd, feeling out of place. Where had that little girl gone? She used to fit right in to a small town crowd, but lately, our national leadership had kept me at a distance from anything too “American.” I was starting to lose a part of myself. Then, the announcer clicked on his microphone.
He started off by declaring that we lived in the most blessed and free nation in the world, that above all else we enjoy the freedom of speech and religion, basic rights denied to people in places around the globe. It was odd to me to hear someone speak about our country in this way, right now, when we are in what feels like the very bottom of a valley that we might never climb out of. We are a polarized nation, and yes, we have had much more tumultuous times in our past, but I wasn’t there for that. I can’t speak to those days. I can only speak to how this feels to me – now – and it feels like the world is on fire and we are standing here with a gas can watching it burn.
He said a prayer over the livestock and the cowboys and cowgirls that were about to compete, putting their bodies on the line for their own pride and our casual entertainment. He openly prayed in a very public place that was not (for most folks anyways) a church. He introduced a woman riding horseback, carrying the stars and stripes as Johnny Cash recited “The Ragged Old Flag.” I was starting to crumble. I can’t listen to Johnny with a dry eye.
Then came the anthem, and for the first time in a long time, I actually sang along – after I had composed myself a bit. I needed to hear someone with real pride in their voice for this country when mine has all but left. On our last international trip to Belize, I found myself looking down every time someone asked where we were from. I was in Europe during the George W. administration and am used to the negative way Americans can be perceived throughout the world, but I’d never felt this particular brand of embarrassment before. I was ashamed to say I was American, and I was ashamed that I was ashamed.
I used to sit and click from news station to news station, nose in the newspaper, trying to wrap my brain around the divisiveness and hatred, trying to understand how we had gotten to the point where our options had become misogynist reality stars and the Washington elite, trying to figure out where my family, my friends, my future fit in to any of the pussy-grabbing, money-grubbing shame of it all. My television has been shut off for a while and so has my patriotism. I needed that turned back on, so I could feel connected to this place again.
What is a descendant of Native Americans and Northern Europeans whose brothers work in the oil fields that my aunt protests, who loves red meat and yoga, supports the LGBTQ community, foul-mouthed God-fearing, educated feminist from rural America trying to raise three small boys with my conservative husband supposed to do? I don’t fit into a box. I don’t like boxes. They make me claustrophobic. You keep breathing in the same stale, regurgitated air, depleted of oxygen. You can’t survive in a box. You think you can, but you are slowly suffocating and you don’t even know it.
In the big, wide open arena, I took a long inhale of Wyoming wind, puffin poop and all. We had spent the last ten days driving across truly awe-inspiring country, and with each new view and welcoming smile, I found a renewed sense of pride in this nation, my nation. I have seen a lot of pretty places in my life, but to be absolutely honest (despite my near obsession with Canada – as I’m sure you will find in future posts) this place, our United States, offers such beauty and warmth, hospitality and diversity, and history both hideous and brave, that it would be shameful to give up on us so easily. There’s too much at stake.
The pops and crackles from next door have finally subsided, and my youngest is now quiet. Irritated with the noise from both the neighbors and the baby, I finally got off the couch and walked him over to the window. I pointed to the sky and let him know that all that noise was what made those beautiful lights. He watched for a moment, testing my explanation, then turned himself around and climbed into bed. I stayed at the window a while longer to appreciate the beauty for myself. When I turned back, he was asleep. That noise had lost its power and the fear it held over him once he understood it.
Maybe you are far-left, maybe you are deep in the right, maybe you sit somewhere in the middle like me. My conservative friends call me a “bleeding heart liberal” and my liberal friends call me “a Republican” (which is the worst insult they could think of given the flames that engulf our broken two-party system) but at least we are talking, at least we are breaking through the noise and the orchestrated sound bytes in search of an explanation. Maybe that’s the most important thing to do when the powers that be work so hard to keep us at each other’s throats. If we allow people to shove us back into our little boxes where they think we belong, all we are left with is our own recycled air, slowly poisoning us while we believe the lie that it’s the only way to survive.