Re-capturing the Flag

Turns out, I’m a patriot. I had no idea.

Fourteen days ago, Donald Trump became my president and the depth of my anguish has surprised me. I wake up to a fog of dread and fall asleep spent from worry. Things that used to matter—like the book I’ve been writing for three years—feel suddenly irrelevant. All those sappy, sentimental symbols of national pride (especially the Statue of Liberty) bring on tears. What’s happening to me?

Years ago, I visited my brother in suburban Atlanta. He’d recently bought a new home that reminded me of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse ‘Grand Prize Giveaway’. Easing up the driveway, all was beautiful—manicured lawn, boxwood hedges, crisp white shutters framing the windows—until I noticed a blot on the landscape, something out of place. Jutting out from a shiny brass fitting attached to his front door was an American flag. Old Glory. The star-spangled banner itself.

The sight of it flapping in the steamy Georgia air, made me blanch. My people don’t fly flags. Only Fox News watchers and members of the NRA fly flags. Had the south done something to my progressive brother?

For two days,  it rankled me until I finally blurted out, “What’s with the flag?” His reply was simple enough and, oddly, made me proud because he didn’t seem to care if his neighbors mistook him for a Republican.

“They don’t get to own it,” he said. “It’s ours too, you know.”

Of course, it was. While I looked at the flag and saw nothing but my country’s transgressions—drones, torture, the CIA, greed, racial and economic inequality—he was focusing on America’s promise.

I want to do that too.

Since the election, a darkness has fallen over my life. I’m familiar with this feeling, this looming shadow, this anvil I’m dragging. It’s grief.

I know about grief. My father is gone. My mother, an ex-partner, friends, colleagues, pets—all dead. The losses hurt but what I’ve learned is that we mourn in equal measure to our loss. We grieve because we love.

If I didn’t love my country, I wouldn’t be realigning my life and setting aside things that I thought were important in order to help all I can. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be screaming profanities into the air every time Mr. Trump opens his mouth.

We hurt when something we love goes missing. It seems I love my country.

It’s easy to focus on Mr. Trump. The stockpile of ammunition against him is endless and commiserating about his misdeeds over cubicle walls or the dinner table is so damn satisfying. Righteous indignation can be intoxicating. We’re smarter, better, kinder than them. They’re wrong and we’re right.

But here’s what I know: Complaining does not a citizen make—not a helpful one anyway. For eight years, President Obama called for citizen engagement and only at his exit do I finally understand. Citizenship is a responsibility and, like all responsibilities, requires action, even sacrifice. Do I want to pay my taxes, go to work everyday, clean the kitty litter? No, but I do it because I’m responsible.

So, this morning, I pledge to be a citizen—not just in mind and mouth—but in body. I pledge to call my representatives, to write postcards, give money and march in the streets. But none of that will be in opposition to Mr. Trump. He gets enough airtime. Instead, my focus will be on things I want—things I value.

I want what’s carved into the Statue of Liberty, chiseled above the Supreme Court and penned in the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. Safe harbor for all, freedom, justice, equality, peace, the right for everyone—yes, everyone—to pursue happiness.

That’s where I will focus my attention because those words are the promise. Those are the words of a patriot and, to my great surprise, I seem to be one.

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