Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fourth of July

In Garrison Keillor's book We Are Still Married, there is a short essay that has always been a special favorite of mine. It's entitled "Laying on Our Backs Looking Up at the Stars" and I try to read it every Fourth of July. Given our current situation, I think it's especially important to do so this year.

The story recounts a Fourth of July that Garrison spent with friends and family at his rented farmhouse in central Minnesota:
On the Fourth of July, 1971, we had twenty people come for a picnic in the yard, an Olympic egg toss and gunnysack race, a softball game with the side of the barn for a right-field fence, and that night we sat around the kitchen and made pizza and talked about the dismal future.

America was trapped in Vietnam, a tragedy, and how could it end if not in holocaust? We were pessimists; we needed fear to make us feel truly alive. We talked about death. We put on loud music and made lavish pizzas with fresh mushrooms and onions, zucchini, eggplant, garlic, green pepper, and drank beer and talked about the end of life on earth with a morbid piety that made a person sick, about racial hatred, pesticides, radiation, television, the stupidity of politicians, and whether Vietnam was the result of strategic mistakes or a reflection of evil in American culture. It was a conversation with concrete shoes.
No doubt similar conversations will be taking place all across America this Fourth of July. But Garrison did not indulge his "morbid piety". Instead, he snuck outside with his son and a few friends to lie in the grass and look at the stars:
The sight of the sky was so stunning it make us drunk. I felt as if I could put one foot forward and walk away from the wall of ground at my back and hike out toward Andromeda. I didn't feel particularly American. Out there in the Milky Way and the world without end Amen, America was a tiny speck of a country, a nickel tossed into the Grand Canyon, and American culture the amount of the Pacific Ocean you bring home in your swimsuit. The President wasn't the President out there, the Constitution was only a paper, and what the newspapers wrote about was sawdust and coffee grounds. The light I saw was from fires burning before America existed, when my ancestor John Crandall lived in the colony of Rhode Island. Looking out there, my son lying on my chest, I could imagine my grandchildren, and they were more real to me than Congress.

I imagined them strong and free, curious, sensual, indelibly cheerful and affectionate, open-handed - sympathetic to pain and misery and quick in charity, proud when insulted and modest if praised, fiercely loyal to friends, loving God and the beautiful world including our land, from the California coast to the North Dakota prairie to faraway Manhattan, loving music and our American language - when you look at the stars you don't think small. You don't hope your descendants will enjoy your mutual fund portfolio, you imagine them as giants of the earth.
Looking into the great beyond, Garrison gains perspective, and his attitude towards America passes from ambivalence to deep affection. Yes, in the grand scheme of things America does not matter much, and it certainly has its sins, but it's the only land that he can imagine for his grandchildren. For their sake, he will not abandon hope.
Perhaps in 1776 our ancestors, too, were rattled by current events and the unbeatable logic of despair and had to go out and lie in the weeks for a while and think: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Indoors, the news is second-hand, mostly bad, and even good people are drawn into a dreadful fascination with doom and demise; their faith in extinction gets stronger; they sit and tell stories that begin with The End. Outdoors, the news is usually miraculous. A fly flew into my mouth and went deep, forcing me to swallow, inducing a major life change for him, from fly to simple protein, and so shall we all be changed someday, but here under heaven our spirits are immense, we are so blessed. The stars in the sky, my friends in the grass, my son asleep on my chest, his hands clutching my shirt.
These days, it's tough to avoid the "unbeatable logic of despair". Iraq, Guantanamo, global warming, our broken politics and coarsening culture - the list is almost endless. But tonight my wife and I will sit in a field with a few thousand of our fellow Americans and watch the fireworks overhead. We will sing that corny Lee Greenwood song ("From the lakes of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee") and eat some greasy cheese curds. And we will count our blessings.

1 comment:

Jeannelle said...

Thank you for this timely, thoughtful post! I happened upon your blog last week and it immediately went into my favorites list. Keep up the great writing!