Mon. February 18, 2019: Love of Country #UpbeatAuthors

Monday, February 18, 2019
Almost Full Moon
Presidents’ Day

We survived Valentine’s Day. We all deserve a prize.

On this President’s Day, on a month of essays about love, it’s appropriate to talk about love of country.

This is a contentious issue right now in the US, with two factions with opposite ideas of the definition of “love of country.”

I can’t think of any country whose history hasn’t been built on blood and pain. We keep hoping culture and society evolve into a better form of humanity. Sometimes it moves forward for a few years, and then back for a few hundred.

Too often, we don’t know actual history, just propagandized bits of history. Although it’s painfully obvious we don’t learn from it.

What inspires love of country?

For me, it is a set of ideals about humanity, justice, education, art, compassion, and inclusion that I see the country in which I currently live abandoning. Ideals that were set out by the Founding Fathers, and built on by our Founding Mothers and children, and all the rest of the anonymous people who actually did the work. There are always people devoted to their country who are willing to fight for it — be it joining the military or working on various fronts at home. But a country survives and thrives by its citizens holding a shared vision of what that country stands for, and everyone working to bring that vision into reality for ALL its members.

One can learn a great deal by re-reading documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and then reading diaries and letters of regular people who actually lived through those times.

One of my favorite experiences was a discovery I made in the Philadelphia Archives. I was there to research Betsy Ross, for a project for which I’m still trying to find the proper form.

By accident, I saw a diary by a Dr. James Allen. I’d gone to elementary school with a nice guy named Jamie Allen, and I thought it might be fun to read about this Dr. James Allen. So I asked for the diary, which arrived, written in absolutely gorgeous penmanship.

Dr. Allen was a medical doctor. Well educated, well read, with a strong sense of justice. He was there, at Independence Hall, listening to the original public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776. It shook him, transformed him. He ended up joining the Army and serving under General George Washington. He was part of that Delaware Crossing.

I read his diary, knowing how it all comes out in the end, but, of course, he didn’t as he wrote it. His concerns, the times his patience and his integrity were tested — I wish I could get a grant to transcribe the diary, research his history, and publish a book about him!

I learned more from reading this man’s diary than I did from any history book.

It also reminded me how much more complex actual history is than a line in a textbook or a tweet or a sound byte.

Skipping ahead in history a bit, Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe are two of the reasons I became a writer. I admired both their work and their lives so much. As an aside, as much as I admire Emerson and Thoreau, I’m always reminded that there they were, talking and studying and writing and walking in the woods, while the practicalities of daily life were handled by the WOMEN around them. This frustration was reinforced by Susan Cheever’s terrific book, AMERICAN BLOOMSBURY (which I highly recommend).

I re-read Louisa’s diaries regularly when I get tired and discouraged.

Harriet is best known for UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. There’s plenty to discuss about that book on so many levels, both positive and negative, which could take up an entire college semester. But Harriet wrote plenty of other books, too, many of them domestic comedies. Some of her writing is very, very funny. She came from a large, lively, intellectual, daring, engaged, and flawed family. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher’s scandal when he led a church in Brooklyn, and, again, how the woman in the scandal was the one thrown under the bus, is detailed in Barbara Goldsmith’s wonderful social history, OTHER POWERS.

Both Harriet and Louisa were considered “difficult women” and
ahead of their time.” Reading their letters, their diaries, their books, one sees how they were both ahead of their time and PART of their time (and prejudices, although they were far more progressive than many of their contemporaries). We hope we’ve evolved in our understanding of humanity, although too often it feels like we’re going backwards.

History is made up of people and their messy, beautiful, terrifying lives. Societies are too often built on breaking the individuals that actually do the work to build the society. Where can you give someone room for individuality? Where does someone going too far become a threat to someone else’s basic human rights and dignity? What are basic social constructs that allow people with vastly different beliefs and points of view to co-exist in peace and dignity and prosperity for all? How does one teach people that having enough for all doesn’t necessarily mean taking away from anyone, but that everyone must contribute fairly? How can we craft laws that have more to do with justice, and less to do with religion, which, in my opinion, has been used as a tool of oppression ever since it was invented?

All of that feeds into our “love of country.”

It’s not an easy issue. Especially when competing factors have vastly different ideas of what the society that inhabits the defined “country” should believe, live, and build.

As a writer, of course, all this is fascinating. But living it (and we are all living history, every moment), can often be exhausting.

We supposedly live in a democracy (which is under serious threat), that is set up as a republic. Therefore, as part of our love of country, it is an obligation to keep up with the news (actual news, not propaganda feeds), to stay informed about upcoming legislation (you can read the text of past, present, and proposed bills on Congress.gov), and to interact with our elected officials, on local, state, and federal levels. It takes time, but the alternative is to lose our country. So it’s worth it. We need to vote. We need to serve on jury duty when called. We, as individuals and collectively, need to speak out when human rights are denied, and stop it.

This President’s Day, think about what you love about your country. Think about what you believe needs to be changed. And then take action. Because history is built by people.

Be a History Builder.

 

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