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Once, there was a beautiful bird who loved flying high more than anything in the world. She was a daring kind of bird, was never afraid of anything. She always flew higher than her friends, even when the weather was frightening and dangerous. Flying made her feel so free. With the wind on her face and under her wings, she was sure there was nothing she couldn’t do. The other birds all watched with envy as she soared high above the treetops, swooping down to rest only when the sun began its nightly descent. Some called her foolish for taking such chances. Some admired her for it. She was a small bird, sometimes mistaken for a young child, but her eyes were bright and her heart happy. Until the storm came. It was a dark and misty night when it rolled in. The clouds grew fat with moisture, they were harder and harder to break through. Birds scattered everywhere, seeking shelter. Except the small bird. She was naive, thought she could weather it. Even when the rain began to fall, she flew on, certain she’d have time to find a good tree to rest in before the danger became too great. It wasn’t a normal rainfall, though. Instead of a drizzle, it was an instant downpour. Thunder and lightening crashed. The bird began trying to fly down to a tree, but she’d been too high in the sky, it took her longer than it had if she’d been flying at the same altitude of e other birds. Panic seeped through her bones, making her flap her wings faster an faster. The tree was in sight, surely she’s be safe. She never saw the strike of lightning, but she felt it. Her whole body trembled, unable to move, and she felt herself hurling toward the ground, faster and faster. She cawed loud and long, but no one could rescue her.

The impact must have knocked her out, because the next thing she remembered was waking up. There were bars around her. She was in a cage, had been captured and caged while out of sorts. The storm ended, but the cage remained around her. It was kept outside so the bird could still see the sky. Every day, she looked up at it, remembered the feeling of being free and fought valiantly to escape. Again and again, she flew into the bars but she’d always get stuck and have to fight her way out. The bars were too small, she was never able to break free of them. Day after day, she tried squeezing herself out. But she couldn’t. She stopped eating, then stopped trying to break free of the cage. She would fly as fast as she could from one side to the other but the cage was so small that she was never able to fly long enough to feel wind under her wings. She wasn’t able to feel the rush of speed, or the freedom of wild flight. Eventually, she stopped flying from one side of the cage to the other. She could hardly remember anymore what it felt like to look down and see the other birds flying so low. She could barely remember what it was like to be free, to see something besides bars, to fly until she was breathless. She could barely remember that there were different towns, different types of trees, different landscapes. Instead, she could see only the bars and the busy, congested street outside the cage. She could hear other birds and, every so often, she could see them too, if one landed near her cage on the ground. But the other birds were always just a hair shy away from being able to hear or see her. She sang but no one recalled her song.

Until one day, the blue bird landed near her cage. She saw him, sung out. He hopped toward her, and the small bird became more and more excited, perhaps this bird could help her het out of the cage. She called again. And this time, the blue bird looked toward her, he did see her, she grew excited. “Open this cage, get me out of here.”

But the blue bird looked at her strangely. Maybe he hadn’t heard. “Come on, please, just unlock the door,” she pleaded.

“What are you talking about?”. The blue bird asked.

“I mean this cage. Quick! Help me unlock it.”

The blue bird looked at her strangely for a minute, then said slowly, as if he were talking to a child, “What are you talking about? There is no cage around here, you’re in a nest, bird.”

Only then did the small bird look around him. Suddenly, the bars she’d always seen looked more like tree branches. The sky seemed brighter too. She took a deep breathe, flapped her wings a little, then sprinted off. There was the bar, she panicked, it was coming up. She was going to hit it! Instead, she went through it! The bar was gone. The cage was gone. Laughing, singing, chirping, she darted off up, up, up into the sky. The wind! She had forgotten how cool it felt on her feathers and under her wings. The sky was so blue and clear. She was free! She was free! Fear’s cage was broken and she had flight once again.

****

If I’m ever given the choice between taking a risk or playing it safe, I will almost always choose safety over the unknown. I have no grand dreams of moving or traveling the world. I have no ambition to achieve unrealistic wealth: my idea of prosperity is a quiet, uneventful, stable home full of children and a love that’s mutual and real. Unlike the small bird, I don’t enjoy or thrive off risk: in fact, I tend to avoid them. But, like the small bird, one of the greatest dreams I have is that of being free. Free to be uninhibited. Free to voice my opinions and thoughts. Free to make decisions without second guessing myself. Free to enjoy myself without feeling guilty. The feeling of freedom sometimes flies just beyond my reach. I can see and taste it, but in order to grasp it, I have to leap from a mountain. Freedom requires trust: trust of others and trust of myself. And yet trust is the greatest risk of all: how many girls have given their hearts only to have them broken? How many men have done the same? How many people spend hundreds of dollars a year on lottery tickets, trusting in fate or probability, only to win nothing time and again? How many people move to a new state each year, trusting and hoping for that elusive, proverbial “fresh start” but find that life is really the same wherever you go? To trust is to accept the possibility of disappointment, loss and heartache. It’s the greatest risk there is. So, instead, I willingly walk into a cage and leave the key outside it, within sight but not reach. Fear traps me, making me choose caution and predictability over adventure and risk. I always think it’s funny when people say I thrive off pain because, actually, I do most of my living making decisions designed to safeguard me from further pain.

But tomorrow we will celebrate Independence Day. I was thinking about that today. About what it means. I thought of the founding fathers and those civilians who had nothing but dreams and a heart full of ideas. They moved their families away from the only land they’d ever known without a guarantee that what they would find would be any better. They picked up and moved across an entire ocean. Not only that but they did not quit and return to England when they finally got here and lost half of them to death in the first winter. No, they stayed. They planted tobacco and sold it. They fought. It was hard and every day they stayed danger and death and risk stared them in the face. What saved them was an astounding sense of unity and a dream of being able to soar higher than ever before, of being able to pray however they wished, of living in a land that valued their ideas and opinions. In order to achieve that dream, they trusted in each other and in themselves, even though they were merely ordinary people who fought feelings of self doubt and fear. The difference was that they refused to allow the fear to cage them in. They choked it back, focused on the matter at hand and comforted themselves in the harsh winters with friendship and a belief that the seeds would, in time, grow.

Although freedom is the most valued gift, what touches me more tonight is the knowledge that they believed in each other as much as they believed in a dream. They trusted that their neighbor would fight for them, if he had to, and would share his food if need be. They had no reason to trust the Indians, and the Indians had no reason to trust us…. But trust each other, we did. And as a result we learned how to plant and grow crops; how to survive here. Friendships weren’t reserved for those who had known each other their whole lives, they were willing to trust those they didn’t know because they believed in human kind. Unity allowed us to thrive, and to proper. It’s been that way for a very long time. Even today, even when we are immersed in a ridiculous need to “progress”, when crisis strikes, we stop and lend a hand.

Whether you live in Alaska or Maine, Texas or Washington, Tennessee or Hawaii, California or Georgia, tomorrow you’ll likely enjoy a feast of hot dogs, baked beans and tea. You’ll likely spread a blanket on the grass and allow the heat of summer to bake your skin as you wait on fireworks to light the sky. You’ll hear or sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” remembering to rise and lay your hand over heart as you do. You’ll spend the afternoon with family and friends, throwing a ball across a lawn in the afternoon and catching fireflies before the fireworks. Maybe you’ll roast marsh mellows or watch baseball. If you’re like me, you’ve made a handful of cards that you’ll carry around with you all day to hand to any veteran your path happens to cross. I don’t know you but I wager that you plan on doing at least one of those things tomorrow. I know because I am an American, and so are you. As such, our history and our tradition mirrors each other. We probably disagree on politics, and social issues as well. Your exact definition of freedom and mine may not be the same, but if push comes to shove, we can agree that it is freedom we both want. If you’re a male, I bet you have reservations about asking for directions whereas I ask, and then ask again. Our careers, our families, our personal mountains are different but we’re united under the same flag, our feet march on the same soil. What unites us is stronger than what divides us. What unites us is historically stronger than fear too. Our greatest strength lies in our ability to disagree and still compromise. We take risks of each other. We fight for each other. And, even though modernity has made us cautious, we trust each other. When terrorists fly planes into our midst, we give our blood to help someone we’ve never met, because it’s the right thing to do for one of our own. We hug the stranger in the elevator that looks shell shocked. And we tie yellow ribbons to our trees for our soldiers. When it comes down to it, we love this land and we love each other enough to stand united when it really counts.

I’ve lived in most of the states. I’ve also lived in Canada and been to Europe. I’ve seen the pace at which the New Yorker moves as opposed to the much slower pace of those in Kentucky. I’ve heard the accents of those in the North and used the slang of the South. I’ve read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Mark Twain. I know why Andy Griffith’s death made it a sad day. I’ve seen our beautiful hills and our rushing oceans. I’ve played in and thoroughly enjoyed our hidden creeks and woods. I’ve drove down her mountains, and I’ve stared in awe at them. I’ve saddled a racing horse barefoot and felt the wind in my face. I’ve located the Big Dipper in its same spot every night. The changing economy filled me with fear and then pride at how we’re rallying back. No critic will fill me with fear or shame because this country is more than statistics to me, it’s more than labels. I know her people, so I know her heart.

It’s hard for me to trust others because I don’t want to get hurt. It’s hard for me to fly higher than I think I should. Risk scares me. But my heritage assures me that sometimes risk is worth it. There are people worth it. And my history reminds me that my dreams should matter, and that chasing them, even if it means risking rejection, is the only way to see them evolve into reality.

And I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I’ll gladly stand up, next to you, and defend her still today
Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land
God bless the USA

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