They called it Freedom Day, and I was skeptical.
That’s what I’ve learned to become in my four decades on this planet. I was taught to feel pride. I was taught to feel exceptional. I was taught to feel lucky to have been born in the greatest country on Earth.
I learned instead to be skeptical.
This is a hard thing to learn for a romantic. When everyone from your grandfather to your preacher to the guys who announce the football games teach you the same thing about your country, skepticism doesn’t come easy. Pro tip: it’s easier to wash down with a healthy shot of cynicism.
So, that’s what I downed—no chaser—before departing for Freedom Day a few weeks ago. I rolled up to the elementary school drunk on 140 proof skepticism cut with a toxic dose of the last 12 months in America.
I’ve been to a lot of these things with the kids. There is always a flag. Many of the songs are the ones I was taught when I was in school. We’re meant to walk out with our patriotic hearts aflutter.
My eight-year-old was on stage and seemed less uncomfortable than I was when he walked to the front and led the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a couple hundred adults. He said every word just as he was taught. He joined his classmates on the risers, and they began to sing. Their voices cracked when they hit the high notes in “sweet land of liberty.” I hoped my neighbors in the crowd were watching the kids close enough that they didn’t see me knocking tears out of my eyes.
Anyone would have forgiven me for being overcome with emotion as our sweet American children raised their voices in honor of our country. Unfortunately, that wasn’t why I needed forgiveness.
I felt the tears at the very same moment I looked at all of the kids nervously honoring their country. All I could think was, “My God, they have no idea, do they?”
I am past the point I wake up feeling certain I know what is going to happen in America.
That point was probably September 11, 2001, but I’ve been reminded of it many times since then. Over the past year, the reminder comes almost every day. I never know what it’s going to be. Dorothy Parker’s “What fresh hell is this?” was meant to be funny, but in 2017 I can’t laugh without shaking my head.
I don’t have the time to list it all, but you don’t need me to. Every day, it’s something new, and it’s almost always terrible. Today, for instance, an alleged child molester in Alabama stands a good chance of being elected to the United States Senate. Why?
You will hear a lot of reasons. Because tax reform is more important than our basic moral code. Because he was backed by his party’s national committee. Because the President of the United States endorsed him. Because no jury has ever convicted him. Because those women took too long to come forward. Because she wouldn’t have dressed that way if she didn’t want it. Because better a pedophile than a Democrat.
The real reason? Because this country isn’t what we say it is. It isn’t the stuff we sang about in school. We can pretend it is. We can stretch a flag from end zone to end zone. We can tell people to love this country or leave it. We can send the bravest of us to other countries to die for a concept we pretend to honor. But none of that is what we say it is.
We pretend quite a bit. Right now, there are still people pretending that what’s happening in this country is normal. They are pretending that the fresh hell of every morning—the massacres, the scandals, the greed, the destruction of our most basic ideals—is the most normal thing in the world. If you question them, you are invited to have sex with yourself, leave the country, or both. Preferably both.
We’re supposed to believe that this is normal and that if we feel any differently, it’s probably just the mainstream media corrupting our brains. If we feel differently, it’s because we’re hypocrites who don’t look deep enough inside ourselves to find our own true corruption. If we feel differently, we’re not real capital P Patriots. We are supposed to wake up every morning, wrap ourselves in a flag and say, “I am lucky to be here!”
The divide in this country isn’t between north and south, rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats. The divide in this country is between the people who think what’s happening in our country is normal and the people who are terrified that it someday will be.
When my kid asked to have his picture taken after the Freedom Day celebration, I didn’t hesitate. When he insisted on being in front of the giant flag, I didn’t try to argue. Why?
Because he and his friends had not only sung the old hits. They’d also sung new songs, ones that talked about the value of immigrants in our country, ones that honored different cultures and ideas. During one section, my kid had again walked to the front of the stage and spoke about Harriet Tubman with the same reverence as anyone would have spoken about any other American hero.
What’s more, the crowd of kids around the flag had more than white southern faces. They were Indian, Chinese, and Mexican. They were little men and women who respected each other as equals. They still loved their country because when they looked around their classroom, their country looked beautiful, inclusive, and everything we pretend it really is. They could honestly honor that flag and deserved to have their pictures taken in front of it.
I value my childhood. It was ideal in almost every respect. Still, I look back on how often my education in and out of school focused on what I should believe about everything, and I wonder how different life might have been if I didn’t have to wake up as an adult and realize the fairy tales I heard went far beyond Hansel and Gretel.
The innocence that lets children love and respect each other is the same one that let me see past the horrors and corruption that surrounded me when I was young. That’s probably a healthy thing, but today I’ve come to feel I shouldn’t push it any farther than that. It will be hard enough for my kids to face America’s truths without also looking back at their childhood and wondering if their old man was lying to them or just stupid.
Put another way, I’m not going to tell my kids this is normal. It’s not normal that more than 500 people can be shot at a concert and it’s all but forgotten in a couple of months. It’s not normal to ban people from coming to our country based on their religion. It’s not normal for the leader of our country to taunt other world leaders with playground insults. No matter how upside down and terrible our country’s history has been, there is nothing normal about what’s happening right now.
And if this is normal, then everything you’ve ever thought about America is a lie.
So, yes, I’m past the point I wake up knowing deep in my heart that we’re all going to be okay. I’m past the point of believing we’re all in this together. I’m past the point of looking at the world through naïve eyes that lie better than any Washington D.C. lifer. I am past the point at which I look at a whipping rectangle of red, white, and blue and feel nothing but pride. Who in their right mind could still be so stirred by colors that they well up with joy?
The little guy had pulled on his coat this morning to wait for his ride for school. He was looking out the front window while I cut crusts off a sandwich and tried to remember if I’d actually put anything between the bread.
It wasn’t even a question, because I knew what. The dog had eaten something. Somebody had spilled syrup on his pants. There was a meteor careening toward Earth and we’re all doomed. The President had spoken disrespectfully about a woman again. Voters were having a hard time deciding between a Democrat and an alleged sex offender. Everything is corrupt and a lie. Who has to ask “what” when the answer almost never matters anyway?
“Daddy! The sunrise. Look!”
It was purple and pink. It was orange and yellow. It was rising again in the east as, I’m told, it does every day. Some days it’s harder to see. There are dark clouds. There’s smoke, and storms, and hate, and bias, and bigotry, and greed, and lies, and fear, and abuse, and harassment, and line upon line up line that we draw and cross and draw and cross and draw and cross until we’re a country inside an Escher sketch inside some random Dali brush stroke inside a box we built for ourselves so we could set everything inside on fire.
Maybe we’re the fire line. Maybe we corrupted and tired adults are scorching our own ground to save those who will come behind us. Maybe this is what it takes to reset. I don’t put much stock in hope these days, but that is a hope I’ll hold onto: that each time we shoot our ideals into a dark sky and blow them out of the blackness with a shotgun we call Normal America, we are at the same time saving a generation of little women and men who can still look up at a random assortment of colors and feel their hearts swell.
I stood there with my little boy on the front porch looking at the few perfect seconds of watercolor magic. His smile was genuine, unblemished by anything that may happen in Alabama, Washington D.C., or anywhere other than that eastern sky.
And I felt it, too, for just those couple of minutes on the porch as I saw the color and wonder swirling in his eyes. It’s the same sun that will rise over Russia, Ghana, England, and Alabama. No matter where you live, you wake up under that sun, the same one my son appreciated for every spark of its glory.
Looking at the sunrise and seeing my son smile, I could stop for just long enough to think of my short time on this planet with a little boy who still believes in the goodness of people and the hope of our future.
I could, at least for that moment, think, “We’re lucky to be here.”