On patriotism and sorrow: a personal history of the flag

You will seldom read about sports here, but Roger Goodell’s statement on national anthem policy today provokes many thoughts about patriotism and how the ties that bind us can also divide us.

When I was ten years old God got mixed into the business both of patriotism and daily household purchases. This is the year (1954) that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, not without controversy. I remember stumbling over the word change every morning after Congress passed the Joint Resolution that mandated this change to the Flag Code. Two years later Congress passed another Joint Resolution stipulating that the words “in God we trust” must appear on all U.S. currency. 

These changes mixed strangely with warm feelings of standing with the multitudes at Cleveland Municipal Stadium to sing the National Anthem on pleasant summer evenings, followed by the pronouncement: “Play ball.” And even more strangely with the grainy apoplectic faces of Senator Joseph McCarthy and company: McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, conducted hearings into his charges that the U.S. Army was “soft on communism.” This is among my earliest memories of television. Also 1954.

Flags stood at the front of the classroom in elementary school, and flew from poles in public places. We were taught that Betsy Ross was a seamstress who “made” the first American flag. This may be an apocryphal story first recorded by her grandson. We were not taught that as an apprentice to an upholsterer she also made and repaired curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas and Venetian blinds.

And then – in 1954! – President Eisenhower standardized the dates and time periods when the flag was to be flown at half staff:  Memorial Day, Peace Officers Day, upon the death of a president or former president (for 30 days), upon the death of a vice president, Supreme Court chief justice/retired chief justice, or speaker of the House of Representatives (10 days.)

My first memory of the flag at half-staff is following the assassination of President Kennedy – nineteen years after Eisenhower’s proclamation. The period of mourning was one of extraordinary national unity.

 

All in all my relationship with the flag was respectful, if perfunctory and transactional. 

So I was more bemused than triumphant when astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong planted the flag on the moon in 1969. More bemused than horrified by flag-burnings during Vietnam War protests.

It was President Nixon who adopted the flag as a lapel pin. He was also the first President to end a public speech with the words “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.” (The speech was an attempt to exert damage control over the escalating Watergate scandal.)  And flag pins were not uncommon during the First Gulf War (1990-91).

But it was after 9/11 that President George W. Bush – and his staff – and some news anchors, began not so much wearing as displaying them.

 

This is when I started to feel queasy. 

As if something that was a standard fixture in my life was being appropriated to stand in for something that I did not stand for at all: the display of patriotism. As if the terrible assault on our civilian life required the display of a symbol for us to rally around. I’m not talking about fireworks displays or parades on Independence Day. Or the display of respect when a folded flag is handed to the family of a fallen military member. 

What I mean is the display of the flag as a badge of chosen-ness, of righteousness or self-righteousness, the display of the flag as if it is a political brand. Or a team brand. This is where Goodell’s statement of the day comes in:

It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.

This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.

And then there’s the mixing up of patriotism and God. The God I believe in is not the God of American currency, a deity of patriotism, or a deity who favors either a set of political or religious beliefs or any tribe or nation.

 

The flag for me has become real. It has become a sorrow.

Not a symbol of sorrow but a sorrow in itself. Because it is flown at half-staff with such frequency that I often have to inquire of people  – or Google – just who is being mourned and for what reason.

And because in 2018 the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag does not confound a 10-year-old trying to remember to add two new words to her daily recitation, but inspires a six-year-old to decide, all on his own, to take the knee. And because in 2018 a team member can be relegated to the locker room for “bad” behavior (choosing not to stand for the national anthem) the way I could be sent to the coat-room at the back of my classroom in 1954 for behaving out of order.

 

So I heartfully propose that we decommission the flag, the pledge, and the anthem all three as badges of anything. 

Let us rid all three of sanctimony. Instead let us return them to their essential nature, a true sanctity. Let us consider the values they inspire us to embody, in support of the indivisible Union to which we continue to aspire. Humility shoulder to shoulder with pride. From the depths of our humanity.

I can think of no better antidote to

the American flag as sorrow.

Ardent reader, Pt 1: good stories & perennial wisdom

stack of books

As an ardent reader, I relish both good stories and perennial wisdom. This week I share a few of my favorites with you.

 

Thankfully, Dick and Jane did not quench my love of reading. I lose myself in a well-told story.

I read to find heroines and role models, to understand villains and evil. See the world afresh.  Escape.  Time travel to other places and by unfamiliar means – horseback, sleigh, trans-Atlantic steamer, dragon- back (Anne McCaffrey’s specialty). Drench myself in strange tastes, smells and dialects. And find myself anew, with widened eyes and a wiser heart, some enhanced capacity to be more human. Enchanted by language. Refreshed to return to my own daily “story.”

Hefting a book in my hands, I treasure the tactile – the feel of the binding and texture of the paper. I’ve kept notebooks of quotes, even extended passages. I’ve underlined and scribbled in margins, highlighted and tabbed with post-its.

I love being pulled forward page to page…and if the story is a good one, I ration the pages to slow myself down and savor the experience.

 

Winter comfort reading…fiction to be savored with afghan and tea

Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin (1983). The language and imaginative scope of this novel still absorbs me on my – 10th? 15th? rereading. Peopled by outrageous underworld characters, a master mechanic, a consumptive heiress, an epic competition between high-minded and low-minded daily newspapers, an elusive bridge-thrower, a howling White Wall, and a powerful white horse, all in the roiling streets of Manhattan during some time that never was but we dream of. Especially now that Helprin has engraved such a city in our minds.

All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

 

The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett (2007). Trailing her yapping corgis around a corner of Buckingham Palace, the Queen of England stumbles upon a traveling library. I revisit the life-changing pleasures of reading as she discovers her own. Full of Britishisms and good humor.

’The Queen has a slight cold’ was what the nation was told, but what it was not told and what the Queen herself did not know was that this was only the first of a series of accommodations, some of them far-reaching, that her reading was going to involve.

 

The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver (1988). Taylor escapes Kentucky “in a ’55 VW Bug with no windows to speak of, and no back seat and no starter.”  Headed west, she stops for a scant meal and leaves the bar with her “head rights” to the Cherokee nation: an abandoned, abused toddler. Taylor and Turtle end up in Tucson at Jesus is Lord Used Tires, which houses an auto repair shop and a sanctuary for Central American asylum-seekers. Full-bodied and warm-hearted characters, each down on their own hard luck, take care of one another, creating their own miracles along the way.

We looked where (Turtle) was pointing. Some of the wisteria flowers had gone to seed, and all these wonderful long green pods hung down from the branches. They looked as much like beans as anything you’d care to eat…It was another miracle. The flower trees were turning into bean trees.

 

Perennial wisdom … dip in, savor, open at random and contemplate

I take on a different reading persona with these works of perennial wisdom.  These are not cover-to-cover reads. I do start with forwards and prefaces and introductions for context. I often read the acknowledgments at the end: I enjoy getting a sense of the lineages to which such books belong and the village that may have surrounded an author’s or translator’s work. Then I read I-Ching style: open at random, read a few passages or pages, close the book and reflect on what light the words shed on any given current personal or world predicament.

 

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, translation and foreward by Stephen Mitchell (1984). First published in 1929 by Franz Xaver Kappus, recipient of these 10 letters from the Bohemian-Austrian poet. Kappus was a 19-year-old military cadet and aspiring poet. While addressing a life in poetry and art, Rilke’s words remain rich guidance for a vibrant inner life in the 21st century.

…it is clear we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition.

 

Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass (2005).  This volume is built around talks I first listened to on cassette tapes as I was running a gingerbread-baking business out of my kitchen. He spoke about the “mellow drama” of his own journey. And he mixed his personal stories with commentary on the themes of this ancient scripture, “themes…that touch on the various yogas, or paths for coming to union with God.”  The 700 verses of the Bhagavad Gita originally appear among some 200,000 verses of the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. This “song” takes the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna, his charioteer, as Arjuna is about to go into full battle with his own family members.

Again and again the Gita turns our perspective upside down…It shifts our sense of what our lives are about. So as we begin to adopt the Gita’s perspective as our own, we’ll notice that our focus starts to change. Instead of always preoccupying ourselves with trying to get what we think we want or need, we’ll start to quiet, we’’ll start to listen. We’ll wait for that inner prompting. We’ll try to hear, rather than decide, what it is we should do next…we’ll discover that we’ve lost our lives – and found them.

 

The Instruction Manual for Receiving God, Jason Shulman (2006). This slim volume offers more than one-hundred “seed passages”  for contemplation, along with commentary and suggested practices. He lays out an open-hearted path to accepting the wisdom and limitations in our human imperfections, and to encountering God at every turn. I have been studying this nondual work with Jason for over twenty years. He is the real deal.

There is a Japanese saying: The elbow does not bend outward. It is a smart saying. The freedom of the elbow, the wonderfulness of the elbow, is precisely because of its limitations. This is our awakened attitude. We are free to be completely human. We are not free to be aliens or cartoon creatures. We are free to be ourselves, with all of our imperfections and bruises.

 

An invitation: pay it forward and add one of your titles and why it makes your own list of favorite books!

 

Watch for Part II: fiction and non-fiction for writers and cross-cultural explorers.

 

A post-card from Eden: on retreat, dancing with a pen

It is Day #1  for me on retreat. A delight to be led through layers of exploring Embodied Kabbalah by my long-time friend and colleague Simona Aronow. Among the rich quotes  posted on the walls of our gathering space are these words of Friedrich Nietzsche:

Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education: dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?

I am grateful to be dancing in all these ways, and pen this post-card to you with wishes that you find your own opportunities to dance with life this week.

 

A post-card from Eden

by Sara Eisenberg

 

Where are you?

God is asking after me,  as if I were the First Woman.

 

Here I am,

a tourist with a three-day pass to fall

quietude,

down a sinuous route 810.

 

Here I am,

slithering into the Blue Ridge mountains

for a descent into my own rocky

terrain,

disinclined to converse with snakes.

 

True North: Kindness ahead,

Honesty at my back .

East to West, from Shining to Blending.

An eternity of Sky to Earth.

 

I exhale into my cupped hands:

breath births moisture births warmth.

You try it, God.

 

Here I am,

the yellowing leaves

tremble on a breeze,

my ear registers their subtle

crackling fall

one

by one

into my empty

bowl.