The screen door slams at the back door of our old family home. It has a distinctive sound. No other screen door sounds quite like it, and when I hear it I travel through time. It is summer and my mother is carrying a load of wash to hang out on the clothesline. My dad is feeding his birds. My brother and I are heading out to roam the neighborhood. “Be careful, and be home before dark,” we are told. How times have changed.
The old farmhouse where my dad lived with his family of 7 has been unoccupied for many years. It was built by hand, of oak and chestnut and heart pine. Friends and neighbors pitched in to raise it up, and it grew organically over the years as the needs of the family grew. It has its own distinctive house smell, which still takes me back to the time when it was warm and rich with the aromas of sweet bread in the oven and a fire crackling in the fireplace. The old house is showing its age, and I think living memory keeps it standing as much as its hand sawed beams. Many younger houses have fallen while this one still stands. We don’t build things to last anymore. Times have changed.
Times always change. My childhood memories will look very different from those of someone born in the same place a generation later. There are things I value that were unknown to my forbears, and those who come after me will value things I can’t imagine. There is always a generation gap, but a healthy culture has continuity. We pass on our core values, our history, and our sense of place.
We have never done an outstanding job of that in our great nation. We are still a relatively young country, and we are the personification of change. We don’t have thousand year old cathedrals to anchor us in time. Chances are we would have knocked them down to build freeways if we did have them. But we do have a history. We’ve been through some hard times, and we’ve had our share of triumph and tragedy. We are young, but we are old enough to be “of age,” to have a sense of history and national character.
Those of us fortunate enough to have a sense of personal history and place and continuity are blessed. We have a resource which provides us comfort and stability; something that helps us map our course through life. Even the fastest ship needs an anchor, and a great nation, even a progressive one, needs these things also.
Our ship seems to be adrift these days. Our sails are furled and the winds of change are blowing. There is little agreement on what bearing we should take, even among those of us who still know how to read a map.
What does it means to be an American? Our opinions are divided between the extremes of those who embrace a form of patriotism that is martial in character and leaning toward jingoism, and those who seem content to drift with the currents of identity politics and relativism, or who feel that it is politically incorrect to even ask such a question.
At the right hand edge of those extremes are those who cling to a past that never really existed, a paradigm constructed by propaganda and reinforced by fear: terrorists, radical religions and Russians. At the left edge there is no absolute truth, and a vision which does not extend beyond the social matrix which sucks at our souls through the little windows we bow to and poke at throughout our waking hours. And Russians.
If we are to survive as a great nation, we will need to come to some agreement as to who we are. Still alive among us are traditions and core values which have seen us through many hard times. Peel away the obscuring layers of politics and we may be able to see again the humanity we have in common, and the shared goals of a civil society.
The world around us is changing at an ever accelerating pace, and we need to be able to chart a course through these unknown waters. We need to find a middle path between sailing angrily into the unknown, guns bristling, and drifting wherever the wind blows to run aground or be dashed against the rocks.
Soon enough, as happens to all great nations, it will be time again for all hands on deck.