A Birthday Story
I have a story I’d love to share with you; an Ash-type story about home, celebrations, unity and love.
I was eighteen when I was fortunate enough to visit Europe with my classmates, a sort of Senior trip. There are no words to convey how excited I was about this. I was in my third year of studying French and had a decent grasp of the language but, even more importantly, everything about France fascinated me. I knew stories of its history, of its people. I even knew some of the nation’s favorite songs. I dreamed in French; I wasn’t overly obsessed with the culture or the people or the country but I was interested enough to research those things on my own. But I lived a very chaotic and stressful life. Promises weren’t guarantees, they were more like wishes. I’d been “promised” a whole bunch of things over the preceding eighteen years; not too many of those promises ever materialized. So, even when I was initially told I could go, I didn’t really believe it. We went the informational meeting at my teacher’s house; we filled out the paperwork and applied for my passport. Still, a small piece of me remained convinced that some last minute catastrophe would prevent me from being able to go. Dreams never feel really real. But, lo and behold, departure day finally arrived. And I got on the plane with my teacher and classmates. It wasn’t until the plane was in the air that I relaxed, that I truly believed I really was going to see France. Icons I’d only dreamed about like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre—I was going to get to see those things in person. My teacher would not allow us to see the Eiffel Tower upon first arriving in France; he told us that it would take away its full magic. We had to wait, he insisted, until nightfall. When, at last, the time finally arrived and we walked through the cobbled streets to reach it, I stood in wonder. I could not believe I was actually there. It was beautiful. None of my nighttime pictures taken really capture how beautiful this monument is; this one was taken by a professional and does a better job of it:
But the Eiffel Tower wasn’t the only surprise in store. My teacher loved France as well and was very enthusiastic about sharing it with us; he took us to places not listed on the itinerary, like Napoleon’s Tomb. Plus, I got to stand in front of the original Mona Lisa. As I did, I saw what the big deal is about that painting; I saw the beauty and mystery in her eyes and her smile and, as thousands of others have been, I fell mesmerized by it. I tasted my first crepe, a banana and chocolate filled one, and loved it so much I wanted to stick it in my suitcase and take one home. It was eight days of wonder, and I loved every minute, even the parts where stupid Frenchmen tried to cheat and rob me silly — twice! But then… After a visit to Madrid, Spain, it was time to board another plane to come back to the United States.
Home, for me, was kind of like a kaleidoscope. Many pieces within it were broken and many were discolored with so much pain and confusion it was hard to appreciate any of the other colors. Some of the pieces, though, were whole and still bright, like my mother and sister, and I missed being able to see those pieces of home. Nonetheless, the vacation had seemed like a small sanctuary. I thought coming home would be hard. But something happened when the plane touched down at the runway in Nashville. I knew this place. This was home; this was Nashville. It’s just a place but, at that moment in my life, it represented a place of rest. It represented familiarity; a place whose streets I knew and whose citizens I recognized; a language I understood with words like ‘y’all’ and ‘ain’t.’ It was a place whose streets held my memories; a place where the only people I really loved lived. I was so happy to see the Nashville skyline that, while I didn’t actually do it, I distinctly remember wanting to kiss the ground.
Tomorrow is the fourth of July, y’all. It’s one day out of the year citizens of America come together and celebrate unity and camaraderie instead of worrying about division or discord. It’s a day that we celebrate our Independence, our freedom; a day to remember that this country was founded on the idea that everyone deserved a certain amount of respect and dignity. And, no matter how complicated this insane world has become, no matter how many Supreme Court rulings create controversy or threaten to divide us, we all live on the same piece of Earth. We all breathe her air, bathe in her waters and see the same stars in her sky every night. It’s a day to remember that we’re still more alike than we are different and that progress doesn’t have to separate us. On one night of the year, we’ll congregate under the blanket of a humid July air to watch fireworks, listen to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A” and eat barbecue. We’ll wear red, white and blue because those are the colors that whisper of home. We’ll hold small flags high in the air and wave them back and forth while our children dance in the grass to patriotic music. You see, tomorrow, I’m going to be celebrating more than my freedom, wonderful and priceless that it is. I’m also going to be celebrating the people of this land that have made it what it is.
I’ll watch a black and white show that comes on with a whistling tune as a father and son walk down a dirt road with a fishing pole. I might let my girls watch Mr. Rogers change his shoes and put his coat in the closet. I’ll think of brave icons like Rosa Parks, who was just so weary one day that she did the unthinkable and told a white man no. I’ll say a prayer of gratitude for selfless Americans who have left their own families at home to fight for the ideals this country holds as precious. I’ll remember horrific days that sent shock waves and pure terror through the hearts of us all, days that forever altered all of us in some way or another, days like 9/11; I’ll send a v-card to Sandy Hook Elementary and pray over our schools that will soon be filled with our most precious heartbeats; I’ll remember and whisper “thank you” to Boston for showing me how to be “Boston Strong.” I’ll think of 19 firefighters. And I’ll remember these tragedies not to lament on the evil that sometimes seems too commonplace these days, but rather so that I can recall with tenderness how Americans rally together with a greater force than they ever fight one another. I’ll think of Dr. King and how, though it took time and hard work, his dream became a reality; a symbol that the dreams I have, the dreams my children will come to have, can also become realities. I’ll look at pictures of the Statue of Liberty, holding her lamp and shining her light of hope and inspiration, and see a beauty that is precious to me. Tomorrow, I’ll remember that her beauty outshines the monuments of other countries because she means something to me on a personal level that not even the Eiffel Tower can touch. I’ll sing songs like “Amazing Grace” and our national anthem; my girls and I will start the day by saying the Pledge Of Allegiance. And then, when the sky turns dark, I’ll gather with other Americans to watch fireworks, eat hot dogs and iced tea and enjoy my family. We’ll play games like Frisbee, ball and jump rope and I’ll buy sparklers for the girls.
One of the greatest documentary series I’ve ever seen was the History channel’s “America: The Story of Us.” Watching that series made me proud to be an American because it demonstrated the ingenuity, resilience and sheer determination of the people who helped America grow. We’re not perfect and this land is not God; we have our shortcomings and our flaws and sometimes the road we seem to be walking scares me a little. But it is the places we live, and the people we’ve learned from, that forge deep paths in our hearts. My name’s been carved in a tree planted in Tennessee soil; I’ve played in the red clay of Georgia. Teachers here in the U.S. have seen right through me and embraced me anyway. I’ve watched the sun rise over the ocean in Hawaii and I know what the Batman building of Nashville is. I know the sounds of Broadway here at night; the honkeytonks with their neon lights. Music runs deep in Nashville’s heartbeat but it was the people of Nashville that rebuilt the city after it was flooded. I know where the best playgrounds are here and Art at the Shell station still smiles as he says “Have a good night, young lady” to me when it’s an early nine o’clock in the morning. I’ve fallen in love here and am watching my children grow here. When I am hurting, I know the best sanctuaries: the prayer tower at my church, the creek in Spring Hill. It was on American soil that a man who never knew my name held that door open for me. The people I’ve met in this country have been the only ones who have ever breached the walls surrounding my heart; they’ve been the only ones to ever really try. Tomorrow is Independence Day; a day to celebrate all that our country has been, all that it is now and all that it will be under God’s guidance. It’s also a day to recognize the selflessness of the heroes gone before us and of the daily sacrifices of the average single mom who works two jobs to support her children. It’s a day to recognize the father I saw the other day who ran up slides to hide from his son and then chased him around the swing set; fathers that would never dream in a million years of ever deliberating inflicting emotional or physical pain on a child. It’s a day to remember how the person you’re angry with because they support the Supreme Court’s decision is the same person who stood in line beside you to give blood on 9/11. It’s Mint Thin Girl Scout cookies and how we were all a little sad when, last year, a reported announced that Elvis Presley is finally, really, dead. It’s the beautiful, powerful and free bald eagle and the emotional response seeing one in flight evokes in most of us. It’s her dust clouds, wheat fields, rolling hills and majestic mountains. It’s the deserts and valleys, the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore. It’s in her Southern Charm and Northern pace; her soulful music and pride.
I usually don’t go downtown for the firework celebration; we go to McKnight Park in Murfreesboro instead because it’s more relaxed and spacious. But I might go downtown during the daytime, just to walk along the streets and look at places like the Ryman and Bridgestone; see the Batman building against the skyline from the bridge and allow the joy that this city, and this country, brings me to resonate in my heart. I can’t think of a better day to do that than on the fourth and I can’t imagine living anywhere else because, truly:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Gulf Stream waters to the redwood forest
This land was made for me and you
Happy Fourth of July, America.