July Fourth Without Fireworks

We’ve been here before. My generation well remembers the “love it or leave it” era: Vietnam, civil rights, Earth Day, marches and demonstrations versus “My country, right or wrong.” The newer version appears to be “My country is never wrong and never has been.” Blind patriotism is as old as the mythical emperor who wore no clothes. And thus we swagger and jostle our way into Independence Day, arguably the most patriotic of holidays. 

It’s a quiet Fourth where I live. Due to the imminent threat of wildfire, fireworks are illegal. Usually, sales are brisk at fireworks stands on the Colville Indian Reservation. The night of the Fourth, folks gather at the large East Omak Park on the reservation, directly across the river from my house. As dark descends, the crowd starts shooting off rockets and missiles, sparklers and fiery fountains in a disorganized spectacle of light, color, sound, bravado and glee. 

The lack of all that brings a somber if not sober atmosphere to the Fourth. We have time to reflect, starting with the Declaration of Independence, the beloved document that laid the foundation for our democracy. The document that lists “the repeated injuries and usurpations” committed by the King of Great Britain, including that he “has endeavoured to bring [up]on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages …” 

“Savages” like the Iroquois, whose advanced system of government inspired Benjamin Franklin and other founders? “Savages” like the indigenous bands where I live who for thousands of years mastered the art of wildfire to maintain healthy forests and grasslands? “Savages” whose descendants are now wisely saying, we catch you shooting off even one firecracker and it’ll cost you five thousand bucks. 

The Declaration was written by a brilliant but not perfect man who owned slaves and left a legacy of unacknowledged Black descendants. I recall a Fourth of July decades ago when my late husband was drafted to read the Declaration at a community picnic. John was uncomfortable with the “Savages” line but recognized that it reflected the imperfect views of the time.

I’ve been thinking about how my love for John is something like my love for our country, or at least the ideals of our country. He was an imperfect man with high ideals, married to an imperfect woman. We were well aware of each other’s imperfections, occasionally made note of them, usually in an objective or even humorous manner. Embracing imperfections tightens the bonds of love. When John became gravely disabled, I did everything I could to care for him, to help him heal.

Many see our country as gravely disabled, our democracy at risk, in need of healing. All the more reason for caring, not for some abstract ideal or political “ism,” but for each other. All the more reason for acknowledging past imperfections and the resulting wounds that fester. All the more reason to shine a light on our imperfections, on our wounds, in search of healing and truth.

“America! America! God mend thine every flaw,

“confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”*

*Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929)