I have always followed Camus’s advice, “Live close to tears.” There are certain predictable moments— Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, talking at a workshop about my mentor Avon Gillespie, delivering a eulogy at a Memorial Service—when the tears start flowing. But sometimes they surprise me.
Today for example. We have a Singing Time theme of natural landscapes—valleys (Red River Valley), mountains (I Love the Mountains), rivers (Oh Shenandoah), prairies (Home on the Range) and so on. Today we sang “America the Beautiful” and as the 1stthrough 5thgrade children sang this lovely anthem set to Katherine Lee Bates 1893 poem, it was all I could do to keep from weeping openly in front of the children. What was going on?
Simply this. This country that I have criticized my whole life for failing to live up to its promise is the same one I have loved my whole life. And when I thought about the ”amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain’s majesties” and “fruited plains” being sold down the polluted river for corporate profit, when I think about the deep values that were just beginning to bloom and the long-deferred dreams getting their feet on the ground, only to have it all trampled by a cold-hearted, mean-spirited, small-minded, tiny-hearted maniac supported by all those who want to “win” at any cost, even if the cost be the dismantling of the best this country has to offer—well, no wonder I began to weep.
I’ve never been a big fan of the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, My Country Tis of Thee, America the Beautiful (though the last the most benign of all in terms of blind patriotism), feeling unhappy about the hypocrisy of people who claim criticism as anti-patriotic. But now I’m feeling like the real traitors, the real unpatriotic folks are those who are supporting this madness or standing by and saying nothing or are simply mouthing the same old tireless platitudes without an ounce of understanding about what real freedom means. Now I am the patriotic one and I believe the Repugnantins are the ones that should “love it or leave it.” If you truly love those amber waves of grain, you better get your butt in gear to protect it. If you think you’re conservative, why, get to work conserving the beauty and whatever truth is left in our beloved country. If you want to live in God’s country crowned with brotherhood, you better start including every American as your brother—or sister—or gender of their choice— and not think you can pick and choose who is in your good ole boys club.
In a rare moment of restraint, I resisted telling the children all of this on the verge of tears. But I did feel it. Deeply. I want my country back, the one that was at least tiptoeing toward the end of the rainbow that bends towards justice. And beauty. And spacious skies with intact ozone layers unsullied by pointless greed. I will be singing this song more with the children and will encourage them to reflect deeply about what it means to preserve whatever beauty, physical or moral, that remains.
That is, if I can talk over my own sobs.