Robert A. Teegarden's Blog

July 5, 2011

Our Birthday! Reflections on the 4th of July

Happy Birthday America!  A good number of its citizens are enjoying this three-day weekend by enjoying picnics, parades, a day’s sail on a bay or lake, bar-b-ques with family and friends, and the once-popular neighborhood fireworks display.  I always remember the day after in our front yard: sooty black trails of snakes, charred wires—remnants of a sparkling night, and pungent cardboard—the remains of fountains, geysers, and Roman candles.

Americans sure know how to lay back, relax and have a good time.   But there seems to be something missing from this birthday celebration.   We need some kind of storytelling and ritual and recapture the meaning of the day.  We have all the festivities but none of the fundamentals.  Just what do we celebrate on this birthday?

We are bombarded with birthday images: soldiers marching, bands playing, beach walkers, bar-b-ques, fireworks displays, flags waving and people crying. These are all great symbols.  But why do some cry?  Where’s the story-telling? Where’s the history? Where’s the meat?

At most birthday parties one gathers family and friends for a celebration.  There are games in which one can laugh and learn.  There are decorations and hats to draw us together.  There are gifts.  There is cake.   But there is ritual—we make a wish and blow out the candles.  Or there’s a ritual “spanking” with a “pinch to grow an inch.”  There’s  story-telling.  The older members remind the younger ones about when Mary or Joey was born. Her dad was doing this and mom was doing that.  The world looked like this and here’s what life looked like in those days.  There’s a passing-on ritual.  This day’s important because Joey or Mary came into it.

Where’s our story-telling on the 4th of July?  Announcing the parade isn’t enough.  Blowing out candles isn’t enough.  How do the elders engage the youngsters in the meaning of the day?  Where are the questions?  What are the answers?

In a recent testing of the high school seniors of the state of Arizona, only 4% were able to achieve a passing grade (70%) on the Immigration and Naturalization test for citizenship; the test has a number of questions specific to American history and the 4th of July. Only four percent!  If these natural-born citizens were just coming to America they couldn’t legally get in.  And these are the government schools. Well, if it’s not being taught in the schools (and I think most parents presumed it  was), then we need some sort of national or family ritual to remind of us what the 4th of July is really all about.

The form of this ritual could be many.  But like any good lesson, it should have a beginning, middle and end.  And like any good lesson, it should have as many modalities as possible: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.   We currently have a lot of sights and smells with fireworks and the like (and bar-b-ques).  But what do we want our kids to know?  What’s the lesson?

There has to be music; there has to be a song or two.   There are many; they are legend.

There need to be symbols.  Why 13 red and white stripes on the flag? Why red? Why white? Why 50 stars? Were there always 50? Why the blue background?  Why do we honor the flag?  What does it symbolize?  There have to be questions and answers…specifics. Why tea?

Somewhere in this ritual of remembrance there should be a discussion about the lowly penny and the lowly dollar bill—each the smallest denomination in our coin or paper currency.  Yes, there’s a presidential sense of history on the penny with Lincoln’s portrait so prominently displayed. But it’s in the details of the small print on the back that I think we find America:  E pluribus unum.  From many—one.

At the heart of this celebration is the fact that, as a country, we are one.  The very heart of America is to celebrate that “oneness.”  Indeed, very nature of government should focus only on that fact: we are one.  If we dwell on why each of us is different, then we lose.  American is a country  where we choose to be one, not because of a religion or nationality, appearance or color, family history or entitlements. We are one because of an idea.  What separates us is easy to see; in fact, it’s too easy—it’s obvious.  Getting past the obvious takes work; it takes time and ritual.

We need to somehow examine the dollar bill, not because it’s money, but because of the myriad symbols it contains. We need to ask and answer: what does “novus ordo seclorum” mean?  What is this “new order of the  ages?”  Why is it new? Is it because of what’s written on the penny?

We need to note that “in God we trust.”  We.

The 4th of July is the celebration, the birthday really happened the day before; our Declaration of Independence was signed on July 3rd.  But what’s significant is that it had no meaning until it was read and absorbed by the people. We, the people. Not you and me… we.  The very birthday celebration is a party about us… about “we.”  Maybe that’s the heart of our ritual, maybe that’s at the heart of the Declaration.

We need a celebratory food in our ritual; maybe a cake will do.  The very ritual of eating symbolizes a choice not just to enjoy a baker’s delight but a willingness to share in this feast and to share in the fact of this country. We choose… we.   And when we finally blow out the candle/s on  our cake, we should make a wish and it should be aloud.  What is your wish for your country?  Not the politicians or pundits… what’s your wish?

I wish that people will come to know our country and its Constitution.  They are hinged in history and have historical roots and meaning.  That despite political attempts to sabotage, subvert or alter its meaning, the Constitution is the locus around which we grow and live.

We need a Birthday ritual that’s more than candle-blowing, parade-watching and hot dog eating.  We need to tell the story about an unique history and moment in time.  We need to tell the story about us… we.

P.S.  Just after World War II had ended in the Pacific, my parents were enjoying a 4th of July fireworks show in Pasadena, California.  My folks had to leave the show late in the evening.  They went to St. Luke’s hospital.  It was my birthday, too.

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