We Americans are flagoholics, and The Fourth is our day to binge. If you doubt it, consider the subject of our national anthem. Is it the people, the land, the ideals of democracy? Nope. It's the flag.
A confession is in order: When I conjure feelings and thoughts about America, the flag is not the first thing that comes to heart and mind. Granted, the Stars and Stripes for me is a powerful image and an object of reverence. Keep in mind that I'm sitting safely at my keyboard in Northern California. For our men and women laboring in the sizzle and peril of Iraq and Afghanistan, the flag can symbolize the cause – however they define it – for which they risk their lives. A transitory piece of cloth can stand for the eternal values of hope and courage.
Yet for me, America is not epitomized by the flag.
When I was a boy, Mom and Dad showed me America. They drove me and Randy and Gloria and Vic through Chicago's near southwest side, down some pretty rough and ramshackle streets, to wake us up to how good we had it on our own safe and tidy street. They walked us Protestant evangelical zealots through Holy Name Cathedral to give us a taste of the splendor of Roman Catholic worship. I don't recall my parents summing it up for me, but I know now what I took away from those exposures: America is diversity.
Is the prime American virtue a tolerance for diversity? Sounds like a working definition to me.
My parents exposed me to another kind of diversity, not of the people who occupy this land but of the land itself. Our family vacations might not have spanned sea to shining sea, but I as a boy I saw enough of America to be smitten by it as deeply as I was smitten a few years ago by a woman named Leia. The physical attraction of America's mountains and forests and coastline is second to none among the things that come to mind when I contemplate the land of my birth.
We Americans disagree about many things. One thing we can agree on is the phenomenal diversity of our country's natural beauty. The briefest account of it echoes the cadences of the Book of Job: Have you seen the snowy crown of Mt. Shasta flushed with the rose of dawn, or descended the banded ancientry of the Grand Canyon? Have the Everglades revealed their sultry wonders to you, or have you glided on Minnesota's cerulean lakes? Cliffs of ice crash into the sea on Alaska's coastline, and mists enshroud the rainforests of Maui's Haleakala. Declare, if you have seen all this.
In fact, here in humble East County we get to see quite a lot: spacious skies over the San Joaquin, amber waves of wild grasses undulating along the Vaqueros hills, the purple majesty at sunset of a mountain called Diablo. And in July, as we celebrate the fruited plain of East County's cornfields, orchards and vineyards, it's inarguable that God has shed his grace on us.
Now, if we could only crown our good with brotherhood, we'd have a nation truly for the ages.
A three-hour drive east of East County puts you in a place called Yosemite Valley, its soaring walls of granite unchanged for 14,000 years – 8,000 years before the first Native American set eyes on them; 14,000 years, rounded off, before the United States of America came into existence. In my wanderings there I've run across, shot the breeze with and snapped photos of as many foreigners as Americans. Like me, they all crane their necks, rotate a slow 360 and say "Wow" in their native tongues. At those moments we become citizens of the planet; our flag – as yet unsewn, its sapphire orb adorned with clouds and continents, floating on the black ocean of the cosmos – an object worthy of reverence. Maybe even an international anthem.