What is America, Anyway?

Every Fourth of July I get a little nostalgic. I also get patriotic, but mostly it’s just nostalgic. Can you relate? I think most of us can. This grand holiday is at once a momentous celebration of American independence, a celebration of American history and culture, but also a day of memories. In fact I’d say that more than 50% of my day this Fourth of July will be spent thinking fondly back to the various Independence Days of my youth, and this is not in the least a sad or pathetic thing.

I’ll be thinking back to the summers in Oklahoma when the neighborhood kids would get together and set off fireworks on someone’s driveway, when we’d prance around under the humid summer moon, sparkler in one hand and melting popsicle in the other.

Or I might recall the various summers I spent at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Colorado, when the whole family was there, eating homemade vanilla ice cream and apple pie, waiting for me and my cousins to perform Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be An American” (complete with hand motions!).

Then there was the Fourth of July my family and I spent in San Francisco, watching fireworks explode over the Golden Gate bridge, or the year I was in Boston, watching fireworks on the banks of the Charles River, Boston Pops playing in the background. Or the insanely hot Fourth of July my family and I spent in New York City, watching an afternoon ballgame at Yankees Stadium, baking in the upper deck as peanuts and hot dogs and beer sizzled in the July heat.

And I remember one time, the summer after the Persian Gulf War (I think it was 1991), we neighborhood kids in Broken Arrow (Oklahoma) marveled as a local war veteran shot off some special “scud missile” firework. That was such a quick, clean, wonderful war. It was one we could name fireworks for.

I’m not sure Fourth of Julys are ever really about patriotism, at least not as much as they are about family, and the glory of summer, and the making of memories. And perhaps above all it is a holiday about time… It’s a day that celebrates America’s past, which is a rarity for a country that so thrills in the future. But it’s also a day that lets us stop what we’re doing and sink into the present, losing ourselves in the mesmerizing flashes in the sky, the Sousa marches, the barbecues.

It’s a day that captures what is ineffably American, and it has nothing to do with trite slogans (“United We Stand!”) or Gap flag shirts. It has much more to do with the sorts of complexities pointed out by people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who described in The Great Gatsby how the “fresh, green breast of the new world … pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the first time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

It has to do with Melville’s whale, or Hawthorne’s letter “A,” or Bob Dylan’s harmonica. It is crystallized in Citizen Kane’s Rosebud sled, or the moment in Badlands when Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen dance in the cold prairie darkness to Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell.”

It has to do with loss, and grace, and all that is good and bad about man’s ambition in the world. And perhaps Jack Kerouac captures it most clearly in his drug-addled prose in On the Road:

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…”

I’m not really sure what any of this means, just like I’m not really sure what America means—especially these days. But I do know that things don’t have to be crystal clear or black and white (or red, white and blue) in order to be beautiful. We can and should be thankful for this country, for our place in it, even if we don’t always understand it.