Saturday, July 5, 2008

United States, Oregon, Portland

Ah, Fourth of July--yet another opportunity to clumsily explain an abstract concept to a preschooler. Answering "How do they make fireworks?" was hard enough. SB tossed that one to me a couple of days ago and I deflected it to Alex, who mumbled, "It's made out of gunpowder." You can imagine how that started us on a road we didn't want to be on, but I think she was satisfied by the time we were able to compare a firecracker to a candle, but one that exploded, because candles, though scary, are at least real and understandable.

The harder question came when she overheard an NPR segment of Americans talking about the Fourth and what patriotism meant to them.

"Patriotism is when you love your country, when you feel loyal to it and all the people who live in it," I said. Realizing I'd slipped and used the word "loyalty," I braced for the follow-up question.

But instead she asked, "What's a country?"

"You know, America."

"Oh yeah," she said, suddenly confident. "We live in the United States, Oregon, Portland."

Though I felt the urge to try to better explain “patriotism” to her, dissatisfied that the slim weight of my words seemed incredibly simplistic, I just said, "Right.”

But later, it occurred to me that her reversed order of place, from largest to smallest, from nation to city, was actually a pretty accurate way to describe what seems to be happening in our corner of the world today: Though patriotism usually refers to love of country, I've been feeling patriotic to local communities and trying to support these smaller economies rather than the larger ones that, we're told, keep our country afloat (e.g., the churches of Gap and Target, of cars and McMansions).

To me, local patriotism means cutting down on gasoline consumption and instead riding to work on my bike over the Hawthorne Bridge and along the waterfront with a long line of other cyclists. Or resisting the allure of Trader Joe's (wonderful as their foods are) and joining bulk food buying groups or hanging out at the Eastbank Farmer's Market on Thursday evenings with friends old and new, picking up beautiful locally grown fruits and vegetables, and munching on delicious, handmade food (TodBott's Triangles and Sol Pops are two favorites). Or, after a long day at work, resisting the urge to hunker down in front of the TV and its barrage of advertising, and getting together with other families for picnics and play at Portland Parks concerts instead.

Because when you get down to it, the biggest reward of patriotism is the sense of belonging that it brings. And belonging can be hard to come by in a country of more than 300 million people. It's much easier to feel the love in these smaller communities that are clustered around shared ideas and interests, and, most important, that brush up against other small communities from which we can pick up new ideas, passions, and ways of living. For example, though I’m more into bikes and local foods than I am into DIY crafts and raising chickens, I love being able to brush shoulders with crafters and chicken folks on the internet, through media, and on my travels through town.

Sure, this is all sickeningly romantic because of the season: we Oregonians are pretty giddy and lovey-dovey by July after being locked indoors during several months of rain. Come winter, I'll probably be in my car, at TJoe's, and watching The Office like everyone else. But patriotism is a romantic notion, anyway, because it's not merely the love of a place and its people: it's the love of an idea. What we're really celebrating on the Fourth is not necessarily the birth of a country, but really the anniversary of some ideas that we all still think are pretty great: the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And those ideas trickle down to show up as things that matter to us in our daily lives, in our relationships with other people and in the choices we make with our money.

Without a doubt, being a mother has made me a better citizen: not only have I become more loyal to the ideas of America, but also I've become more involved with my communities and more demanding of myself. And this has translated into a daily juggle with the tensions of loyalty and criticism, which, when you really think about it, is the balance that prevents us from falling into complacency and keeps us accountable to one another.

So when my daughter asks me hard questions like “What is patriotism?” instead of feeling dissatisfied by my inability to explain, I should, perhaps say nothing and just hand her a raspberry or take her to play with a good friend or point out the bikes that flood our city’s streets. There's lots of time ahead for words.

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