We don’t forget whom we mourn on Memorial Day as much as we do why.
Yes, let’s all remind ourselves that this Memorial Day Weekend, while occasion for backyard barbecues and festivities, was wrought to mark the somber occasion of those heroes who charged into battle, who laid down their lives to ensure the light of liberty would endure.
This is the meme that surfaces for a breath every year, filling timelines with lines like “Our day at the beach is thanks to their day at the beach,” over top a photo from Normandy, or a little boy dressed in his father’s Marine uniform, lying prone against brilliant emerald grass, a tombstone in the blurry background.
Yes, people–men, women, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, some little more than children, others career-long servants–these and many more died for our country.
That’s a harder and harder thing to remind ourselves of. This age of modern warfare, evidenced by the shrinking numbers of American fatalities from battle, makes it less likely for any of us to know someone who paid the ultimate price. Ironically, as our killing machines become more and more precise, we the defended have a harder time finding some appropriate measure of gravity for what’s going on.
But I don’t mean to focus so much on the somber tolling this weekend brings about.
Any holiday celebrating inherent American resolve is made more poignant when one takes a trip outside the country for a while. Last week I took a Europe trip I’ve taken every spring for the last few years–not a big trip by any means, just a jog over the pond for business. This time I stayed put in the UK, moving around in London, walking the city over, taking in mass at St. Paul’s, hearing the London Symphony Orchestra play Tchaikovsky in Trafalgar Square, laughing at one of Alan Ayckbourn’s brilliant plays.
I’ve spent time in lots of big American cities, but London has a title of its own. It’s truly a global city, very different from and in a separate league from New York or Chicago. In London you can hear a dozen languages in the span of five tube stops. It is a world capital, a place where you can have a good look around at how differently we all do things, big and little.
The English don’t keep appointment calendars, they keep diaries. Fast food isn’t ordered “to go,” it’s considered “take away.” An intense civility seems to govern traffic; rarely will you hear a horn blasted from a black cab. Transportation and construction men wear uniforms that add gentility to their work.
And when I land at Charlotte, with its Bojangles fried chicken, and watch our own TSA agents scouring the lines, Americans everywhere with their shoes and belts removed, bags emptied onto conveyor belts, postures arrested inside of glass body scanners, I’m a bit repulsed. CNN blares on about Donald Trump, and Bernie and Hillary are still fighting each other, and here another young man has died at the hands of a cop, and there’s deadly bacteria in the frozen vegetables, and somewhere there’s a drought and somewhere there’s a flood, and everything seems to have been spun into a whirl, and I find myself falling out of love with my country.
None of this is new–the political firestorms, the contentiousness, the angst.
Even so, this being the weekend in which we all pause to give thanks for people who have died for it all–for the Bo*rounds and delegate races and lawn sprinklers and strip malls–it makes me wonder whether or not we have any choice or chance to change it.
Indulge me in this exercise: imagine founding a country on a set of values. Which handful of values would drive you most?
If you could alter the American fabric to suit your own center, how would it look? The difficulty that is our democracy, of course, is acknowledging that your ideas and my ideas have equal footing–or at least, they’re supposed to.
That’s sort of what the great protest song, “This Land is Your Land” seems to drive home. Yes, this land is your land, but it’s also mine. Say what you want, but you have to listen to me, too.
Well, friend, are we going to let it come to this? A land in which we retreat so far to the poles that we no longer trust even the middle? A place in which we follow fear, and paint ourselves into corners so tightly that they can only unfold into hypocrisy? In which we have made politics into sport, security into theatre, religion into mockery?
I’m willing to bet there are a lot of sensible people in the middle, more than it ever seems on the news. I know this because I can go out with my baby in my arms and sit on the front porch rocking chair and look at the flowers and not feel spiraled out of control.
Let’s not forget the urgency, though. We aren’t getting any younger. I am losing aunts and uncles and friends from high school now. My oldest daughter is starting kindergarten. There’s no time like the present.
So yes, let’s remember the fact that our long national weekend was paid for dearly by those who gave it all. And let’s strive not to make America great again–this place isn’t any less than it ever was. Instead, let’s just resolve to get better.