A Mississippi 4th
This morning, July 4, 2023, as I was cleaning up the kitchen, my local music station, WEMC, was playing Charles Ives’ “Variations on America.” It reminded me of an evening dinner cruise Wayne and I took on the Mississippi River in 2014. We were on our way home from visiting a dear friend in Rapid City, South Dakota and had been driving all day long on our seemingly endless way home. This evening cruise sounded like a welcome contrast to the day of driving and a way to acknowledge the holiday.
I wrote: Fourth of July. Moline, Illinois on the Mississippi. Here I am on the most storied river in our country. I think of the many who have traveled on these waters for hundreds of years—slave and free, workers and pleasurers, literate and otherwise. Yet, the water carrying me into the evening is freshly here in this moment–it is not the water of one hundred years ago or of yesterday.
The last light of the day tips with gold the dark green of trees along the bank. High water almost swallows the lowest branches. Firecrackers pop somewhere just out of sight, and the sound carries sharply across the water. On deck I am surrounded by flags and the fading light of the setting sun with a half wafer of waxing moon overhead.
As I look between sets of stars and stripes at the blue of the sky and the silent trees my mind very uncharacteristically runs to a patriotic song:
Oh beautiful, for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain;
For purple mountains’ majesty
Above the fruited plain . . .
I’ve seen it all these past several days—blue sky that reaches from one edge of prairie to the other, the Black Hills, dark above the flat prairie grasses whose straw-blond heads dip and rise in the almost constant wind, truly “waves of grace” as my four-year-old granddaughter heard the words. Just now I look up at the clouds, pearl-colored in the west and gray on the night side of the sky, and I wonder at my sudden patriotic turn. Was it true, the Mount Rushmore billboard that promised “a life-changing patriotic experience?” My friend and I had joked cynically about it and waited for the change to come about as we looked to George, Tom, Teddy, and Abe. But all I experienced was a burst of contrariness that resulted in my deliberately walking behind a sign that said, “Federally closed area Keep Out.”
The path beyond the sign led to a free parking lot that had been closed in favor of a pay-only parking lot at $13 a car—a way to avoid enabling people to get in free.
Now I feel almost teary at all the beauty and richness I have lived—in these past few days, and in the rest of my life. Too often I only decry the excesses and evils committed by my country, neglecting to give thanks for the grace and goodness of living in these United States—still offering opportunities, still full of good people in spite of all negatives.
This quiet evening, I ponder how to treasure the goodness of my life without minimizing the unfair privilege I am heir to through no merit of my own, without negating what is wrong. I have filtered out the muzik from downstairs, pretending it isn’t polluting the quiet of the evening. Maybe I can filter out my misgivings and guilt as well for a few moments and simply give thanks for the goodness of living where I do in a land that has so much to offer. Or maybe, I need to hold it all together, the goodness and what is wrong–my bountiful life and the centuries of arrogance and supremacy that undergird it.
The past can’t be changed, but the Fourth of July, rather than being a celebration of a fictitious past, can become a day to challenge me to grow toward the ideals of all being created equal, of all having the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those are words I memorized years ago, oblivious to the lack of will behind them. I choose now to channel my will toward making these words a reality in whatever ways I can.