Patriotism: Chico State, #America, and the 209

ar129783092997168-1In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis speaks of patriotism as first and foremost a “love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells.”

Many writers have understood the love of country in this way.

#obligatoryGeorgeEliotreference

“With this love for the place,” Lewis continues, “there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language.”

Then he makes a compelling point about the support of one’s country in war–that on an ethical level it is a step backward to fight for one’s country for the sake of “justice, or civilization, or humanity.” If our allegiance to our country does not arise out of affection and rootedness in a place but rather out of a commitment to moral principles, then every war becomes a holy war, a “war of annihilation.”

It seems that England, at the time of Lewis’ writing, was still holding on to its assurance in the moral high ground of its empire. Conquest was made in the name of duty, or even the name of Christ, and patriotic songs, Lewis observes, had begun to sound more like hymns. (The London Olympics of a few years ago might indicate that those days are over–Why can’t every person be a reincarnation of Ziggy Stardust? seems to have been the prevailing concept.)

What can we Americans have to say for ourselves? At least England has a history to hearken back to–“the dark places of the Earth,” King Arthur, the period when everyone played cricket all day in Hobbiton. I’m pretty sure America, since its first conception, has been continually conceived as a “city upon a hill.” I mean, the founders of French democracy wanted bread; the American forerunners wanted representation without taxation. We didn’t want property or even happiness, its less-controversial stand-in–just the vague pursuit of it. Our every love has been clothed in abstraction and idealism from the start. And can we name one patriotic song that’s more about the places we call home than it is about liberty, justice for all, and war/purity?

Wait: isn’t there something to be said for the fruited planes? And thine alabaster cities? Apparently not, if we take the song at its word. The purple mountain majesties are immediately overshadowed by God’s grace being shed and by brotherhood. And “from sea to shining sea,” seems to be less about the ability to sing about both Cape Cod and Santa Cruz in the same bar than it is about manifest destiny and tracking down Chief Joseph.

As I pause to reflect (#selah), I realize that Lewis’ beliefs are also held by many over here. And especially if one listens to folk music, his sentiments are echoed. In this spirit, I offer three experiences that emerge for me when I think of my love of my home and how this love may have shaped me.

* * *

1. When I visited my friend Tyler up in Chico last summer, he showed me around the university. Our path from his apartment to campus, mostly covered in the morning shade, took us under train tracks, past rocky creak beds, and through dust, mosquitos, and bicyclists to a world of silent brick buildings, strange, beautiful art, and a student center filled with banners flickering in the wind and proclaiming, “At Chico State, we value sense of place.”

2. When I was in college and had decided not to return to Stockton one summer in order to stay in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I wrote a poem and sent it to my family, saying that it summed up my feelings about not coming home. It included images and thoughts like these:

words like soft corn husks, foothills like warm silk, ripening oranges, ripples in the delta, itchy grass, digging as a child to find clay, the screen door that creaks and squeals when I tap it, sunsets on Mount Diablo, brown fog, hot streets that extend (like Amsterdam) only in circles, silence in the green tree, quietness, deadness, the drone of taillights when descending into the valley, waiting in the summer for the city lights to die down, catching just one star from every constellation, and holding on to the rest of these images in my dreams

3. In the mornings when I drop my students off at P.E. or Art, or Music, I walk back across Weber Avenue to the main building of my school. When it’s foggy, I think of my high school days and hear the scuffle of newspapers blowing down the sidewalk. When it’s sunny, I see the sway of palm trees and gaze down the street at the fronts of colorful old downtown buildings, which I understand are mostly facades, and most mornings I think, “I wish my friends from college could understand what this is like.”

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Imitation

TragedyI’ve often been aware of how the way I write is influenced by what I am currently reading.

This is why, for instance, when I was reading a lot of George Eliot during a summer break in college, I tried to write this sentence in a story:

“Her pensive glance did not signify any more deeper yearning than her exactness in dress and manners emerged from unacknowledged desires for her friends’ approval—just a judicious gesture, her brother thought.”

Don’t ask me what it means.

It is also why, in a less painful way, I think, I included this image in the same story:

“As she lifted her glass to her lips, she peered out the window, past the murmuring crowd, to take in the end of another hot afternoon thickening in the trees.”

We take on other writers’ prejudices, their comfort with certain emotional content and symbols or with braver (in my case foolhardy) attempts at syntactical complexity. We take on their narrowing of focus on a character’s inner life, and in rare instances for me, their sensitivity to the physical details of a scene.

I mentioned that I have been reading Mes Mauvaises Pensées by the French author Nina Bouraoui. Some of my recent writing bears this mark.

Bouraoui talks about knowing someone by their “silences,” about writing that bleeds, of lives inside of life, of never being dishonest with oneself even if one is too weak to handle it, of a life other than our life that envelops us, about past nights of dancing when one wants to cry, of needing to write a book with silence, of writing a book with prayers.

And here is a poem I wrote while I was caught up in this way of reading, this way of looking at my life:

too many times

two nights ago
I said that there are too many ways
to break my heart

by dropping it or letting it fall
by bending it in ways it shouldn’t want to bend
by freezing, by overheating, by chilling it again

I saw that my heart was either ice or metal
and that neither of these was a real heart
of flesh and blood and throbbing

I wondered where my heart was
in the depths it lives in
and who I was on the surface

and I had another vision:
my heart was a rubber ball in a theatre
a giant orb glowing green in a black night sky
waiting to shatter
into hundreds of bursts of light, take cover
I told you, from the rain,
from the pieces of my heart when it shatters
take cover from my looks,
with my eyes that only want one thing—
to be the kind of guy
I think you want me to be,
that part I used to act out
that role I’ve played too many times

but when I said to take cover
I was talking straight to myself
because I’m tired of breaking my own heart
because I don’t want to let you down

I wondered where my heart was
who I was deep down
and on the surface