I think tonight, with President Obama giving his final State of the Union address, it might be a good time to do something patriotic — like learn all the words to the national anthem. Let me begin by saying, whatever your political beliefs, I support your right to them. This post is not about that.
Patriotism, I hope, is still something we can all share despite any political differences.
I know the first verse of the national anthem, but it’s important to me that I learn all of the verses. (It will be important to you that I learn to sing them silently to myself. Very silently.)
If you didn’t already know–Francis Scott Key wrote the poem, “Defense of Fort McHenry”, in 1814. The poem was later set to the tune of The Anacreontic Song, by John Stafford Smith, and retitled The Star Spangled Banner. (A bit catchier now, don’t you think?)
Congress proclaimed The Star Spangled Banner the U.S. National Anthem in 1931.
Though watching Jennifer Hudson sing the national anthem on TV before the Superbowl made me jump to my feet, I have also had other moments in my life when my love for this country made me feel part of something larger and meaningful and filled me with national pride.
Back in 1989, I was visiting my not yet husband who was working in Baltimore, Maryland. We decided to go to Washington, D.C., on a drive during the long weekend. We happened to arrive at the National Mall on Memorial Day, just as an epic motorcycle parade was riding by. There were thousands of bikes. The parade stretched out for miles. The engines were loud and the sun glinted off all the chrome and mirrored sunglasses and blinded us. Beards and black POW-MIA flags waved wildly. The mall was thick with people; some were in wheelchairs, some were on crutches, some walked slowly with old snapshots clutched in their hands as they searched the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the names of loved ones. Uniformed men openly wept. Young soldiers escorted the elderly. I felt self-involved and ignorant, as I looked around at the display of so much loss and so much honor. It was sad. It was also beautiful.
A few days after September 11, 2001, my four-year-old son was scheduled to be in a play at preschool. I was nervous about taking he and his little sister and brother out of the house. He was excited about the play, however, and we were being told that we should carry on as usual. I ironed his little shirt and put a fresh part in his wet hair. For the first time in days I turned off the news. I buckled the children into their carseats and off we went. We sat in a classroom with a makeshift stage, and the kids filtered in with decorated hats and vests. I didn’t realize that the theme of the play was America until the children began to sing.
To see their earnest smiling faces and hear their sweet voices all lifted in “God Bless America,” while we were all so raw and sad, was staggering. It broke our hearts. Tears streamed down all the parents’ faces. Whatever was happening in the world, we were connected, and in that small room, in that large moment, we were bearing witness to that which we would give our lives to protect.
It was awe inspiring, to say the least.
Two years ago, I arranged to see the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks show in New York City. We had spent the morning in pouring rain watching a hot dog eating contest on Coney Island. Everyone was tired and unhappy at my suggestion that we should get there six hours early to get the best view. We sat there in our damp clothes, on concrete benches, and we waited. And we waited. People got hungry and cranky. I said a silent prayer that it would all be worth it.
Fireworks began to go off in the distance. Far, far in the distance. They were being launched from a boat and I was worried. We could scarcely see them. I looked around and I thought surely the thousands of people wouldn’t wait so long for this? I could feel the hot stares of everyone I’d wrangled land on me.
Just as I began contemplating a plan B scenario, fireworks started blasting from one of the three tanker ships docked in the East River right in front of us. For the next half hour, I sat with mouth agape watching the largest, most spectacular display of fireworks I’ve ever seen. Fireworks were even shot off the bridge, sending a fountain of sparks raining in dazzling smoky splendor into the water below.
I looked at all the people around me. We looked like a poster for diversity. We spoke different languages, wore t-shirts that advertised different sports teams, had different playlists on our iPhones. We were light and dark, fat and thin, pimply and wrinkled, weird and lovely. And here we all were, peacefully sharing space, celebrating our independence, loving our cranky families, and oooing and ahhing over a rocket that sent out a fiery spray of red, white, and blue stars and then lit up, fantastically, in the shape of the American flag.
People will try to make you believe that we are divided, but I will always believe that we are more alike than we are different. I will always believe that if we lift up our eyes and look in the same direction at something real that unites us, there will be a way to ooo and ahh through all of our ideas on how to govern ourselves. We just need to stand together and look up.
I have driven from Los Angeles to New Orleans to Vermont to Mt. Rushmore and back, all in a big loop over nearly two months. I’ll tell you that it’s helpful to your national perspective to see how large and grand a place this is, and to see it from the ground. It gives you an understanding that simply staring into a box in your living room will never give you.
If you decide to take that road trip, here’s a song to get you started:
Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand,
Between their lov’d homes and the war’s desolation;
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
353 days to go!