Seeing Stars

beams of rising sunlight shining through the fronds of a Joshua tree surrounded by golden grass with a hill and pastel-colored sky in the background

October 18, 2020 | 7:30 a.m. 

Out for an early hike. I can see my breath and need a jacket to ward off the chill as the sun peeks over the foothills and sets the world aglow. Sunrise is an hour passed, but dawn’s early light takes time to reach this canyon. Pausing to photograph the golden, back-lit grasses, I notice an odd shadow several feet away. Weaving my way through the prickly brush, the scene becomes clearer:

a battered American flag rests in tall dry grasses at the foot of a bush, as bright sun rays shine through the branches above it
“This flag… has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours… And yet, though silent, it speaks to us…”
President Woodrow Wilson, 1917

“Oh, damn.”

Breathing a mournful sigh, I kneel to honor the fallen, as Taps plays softly just for us, and tears flow. This is one of those inexplicable moments when a thousand thoughts flood your mind in a split-second, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The way memories and questions and things you wish you had said and things you wish you still had time to do flash past like an out-of-control psychic slideshow at a funeral. That’s exactly how it feels. Like a funeral. As though I’ve lost yet another dear friend – an all-too-recent experience – here, in this beautiful, brutal desert. Most certainly, having slept only a couple of broken hours isn’t helping, but I have to let myself feel this.

. . . . .

I lingered there a good long cathartic while absorbing the sad beauty of the crumpled flag lying still among the waving amber grain. Thoughts swirled and a silent, one-sided conversation – between me and the felled flag – ensued:

The timely symbolism here is a bit too on-the-nose. You realize this, don’t you? I mean, if this was a theatrical production or art installation, the critics would be calling you out for the overtness. But then again, Americans don’t get nuance much these days, do we? You have to smack us upside the head with a literal-stick (and some, it seems, could use being whacked by a literal stick… like your staff, perhaps) to get us to comprehend much of anything. Is it unwillingness or inability to acknowledge and accept T/truths which don’t fit tidily into our preferred narratives? Willful ignorance or ontological dilemma?

This is why I don’t discuss politics, by the way.

My head hurts. 

God help us. 

God bless America. 

So… where did you come from, and how long have you been here? Being, as you are, frayed and tattered on the fly, I suspect you escaped from the back of one of the local Trump-trucks, resplendent in all their pseudo-patriotic red, white, and blue glory, barreling down the nearby highway.

Truth be told, I get a thrill every time I see one of those bedazzled behemoths zooming by, TRUMP banners defiantly flapping in the gas-guzzlers’ gale-force wake. [Laughing out loud at myself.] Just yesterday I watched in awe as a parade of them passed me on the opposite side of the highway. I’ve always liked parades. They make me smile. And there is something refreshing, admirable, even enviable, in the outright zeal with which this crowd displays their convictions. Others’ opinions be damned.

Still, I can’t abide the blatant incivility shown by those who fly the American flag, or bastardizations thereof, on their vehicles. The hypocrisy is painful. How many of these selfsame nationalist prigs called for the boycott of organizations whose employees kneel for the national anthem – claiming disrespect of the flag – while concurrently flouting 4 U.S. Code § 8?

You know, it really is way too early to be debating the merits and morality of exercising one’s 1A rights as relating to the (mis)appropriation of a national symbol.

I wonder what my friends would think if they knew I have conversations with inanimate objects.

[Spate of laughter. Again out loud. Passing bicyclists turn to see what I am laughing at. Joke’s on them. Looking down and noticing a large, cold-slowed spider had crawled onto my pant leg – no doubt searching for warmth – I jumped slightly, laughed again, and then quickly escorted it back into the grass.] 

I suppose it’s time to get moving. There are some who would be happy to leave you here – jerks, the lot – but I do not happen to be one of them. So, up we go…

[I lifted the flag gently and brushed off the dust and vegetation. The fabric was vibrant, but stiff and crackly, as though it had been wet and dried in that spot. Lying in the shadow of the grasses and nearby bush, and without measurable rain for some 150 plus days, the flag had been relatively sheltered in its resting place.]

Awh. ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ You truly are an American flag.

What am I going to do with you? The Code says when a flag is in a condition unsuitable for display, it should be destroyed in a dignified way…

I think that is an unbefitting end for you, though. I mean – that timely symbolism we talked about earlier? – if you’re gonna start something, you need to see it through.

You may be weary, worn out, and a little ragged – so are we all, right now – but you are no less beautiful and certainly no less worthy of carrying the ideals of our nation than any other flag.

See the good.

Now is not the time to lose hope. Now is not the time to consign America to the dustbin of history. Now is not the time to say our union is imperfect, so to Hell with it. Now is the time to embrace our imperfections, and recognize they are part of who we are, and also that they make America no less great, because Americans overcome challenges. We don’t run from them.

So, you’re going to come home with me, and reside in a place of honor. Every day, then, I can look on you and remember what Thomas Paine rightly said: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must… undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

And so, I carefully rolled up the beautiful, tired flag, and brought it home.

my flag now resides on a shelf with mementos from my various travels – reminders, all, of how beautiful our country and its citizens are

footnote –

I wrote this before I began reading “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism” by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner. It says everything I thought, as I sat with this flag, so much more eloquently than I ever could. Do yourself a favor and read it.

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