Friday, October 26, 2007

A Banner Where It Counts

I was paging through a study guide for Ken Burns’ “The War” this afternoon, casually looking at photos, when suddenly, my attention was riveted on a black and white of a banner strung across a merchant’s store front. It announced to all in capital letters “I AM AN AMERICAN”.

At first I puzzled wondering if this was a disclaimer because of his ethnic background. Was he German or Japanese and needed to assure his neighbors and clientele that he was a good guy during troubled days? America was nacreous with peoples from all around the world. Was he receiving suspicious glances from his neighbors because his accent was guttural or his eyes heavy-lidded? Was business dropping off and he needed to invigorate it by stirring patriotism?

But then I got to thinking … whatever happened to the plain declaration, “I am an American”? The banner took on new life to me. What would happen if I put something like this across the front of my house? How many special interest groups would slobber all over themselves to get me to take it down because it made non-citizens (and, heaven forbid, people in other countries) feel bad?

Two years ago, while being interviewed for jury duty, I got to know a fellow from Lafayette Square. During our conversation, he referred to me as his European-American brother (he’s black). I laughed out loud because it sounded so absurd. I told him that I was no more European-American than he was African-American; we were Americans and that should be sufficient. That the whole point of becoming American was to not be European or African. America was something distinct, desirable, liberating. Europe was a place with rulership that was too old, and laws that were too entrenched, and traditions that were too stuffy and lifeless. Europe was a place where boredom pushed the thinkers to embrace enlightened philosophy which then tolerated Nazism and Stalinism.

America was freedom, America was opportunity, America was possibilities and innovation, America was shedding those old alignments and starting fresh. Between 1870 and 1920, more than 20 million people did whatever they could to get here so they could have a new life. When they came, many Anglicized their names so they could be a part of this new world, this country. America, as G. K. Chesterton states, was founded on a creed, and those who came here believed that creed enough to become a part of it. They weren’t “Other-American” anything.

But even more than that, there were some who were so convinced it was the right thing, that they pledged their lives, and their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish it. And others who were so convinced it was the right thing that they gave the last full measure of devotion to preserve it. And still others who were so convinced it was the right thing that they poured out their life on a foreign shore to push back the long dark night of villainy that threatened to swallow up the deeply-rooted liberties it offered. Tell them that they are “European-Americans”. Each one of them had a banner on his heart in bold letters that read, “I AM AN AMERICAN.” And so must we if we hope to keep what we have.

Today’s influences and soundtrack:
Alexander McCall Smith, The Kalahari Typing School For Men
John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership
Will Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew
Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dulcinea
Lyle Mays, Lyles Mays
Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Norwegian Rhapsody No. 1 and No. 2
J.S. Bach, The Goldberg Variations

Friday, October 5, 2007

Full Throttle

A life oriented toward leisure is in the end a life oriented toward death – the greatest leisure of all.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird.

I have a friend who is perhaps 15 years older than myself. I’m afraid to ask her age, mostly out of respect, but also because of self-preservation. The weight of the obligation in knowing may prove to be too great for me. You see, she is a silver-haired, full-throttle, start-a-holic. She is always beginning some new project that will have lasting significance in some part of the city. Really. I don’t think she does anything that doesn’t contain future blessing for others. Thus I view her as an inspiring role-model.

Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) once commented that “Forty is the old age of youth and fifty is the youth of old age”, in which case, I’m a few strides into my youth. Which makes me ashamed when I think about my friend. I’m looking for ways to settle in to my culture and she is busy shaping one. I listen wistfully to acquaintances who are enjoying retirement, diverting my mind and heart with desires of daily rounds of golf, afternoon hours with a trash novel, and evening chats on the deck while sipping Pinot Grigio. She is off to a meeting about how to start a college or where to confront the next social issue threatening the family or who should head up a neighborhood renewal program. I’ve a growing suspicion that when her body finally gives up the ghost, we will come to the visitation and discover a petition of some kind pinned to her blouse, which she will expect us to sign as we go by.

My friend lives as though Lamott's quote is her launch point. Retirement isn’t part of her vocabulary and it really shouldn’t be part of mine. Leisure and rest will come soon enough. Until then the best use of my time is labor that contains future blessing for others.

Today’s influences and soundtrack:
Paul of Tarsus, Letters
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating For Shalom
Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head
Pat Metheny, American Garage
Charles Butterworth, English Idylls