Thursday, July 05, 2007

Notes on the Fourth of July.

In my experience, the Fourth of July isn't what it used to be. In writing these words, I don't mean to suggest that Independence Day has been diminished in a broad, sweeping sense. I simply mean that my own experience of the holiday isn't what it once was. Somehow, the Fourth seemed more magical when I was a kid - growing up in Rochester, I would typically mark the holiday by going with my family to Silvershell Beach in the neighboring town of Marion, sitting on blankets and listening to a brass band play patriotic standards as the sun went down and the beach grew more and more crowded. When it got dark, the band finished its program and the town's annual fireworks display began. Afterward, the few thousand people who had assembled for the fireworks would wander en masse down Front Street in search of the vehicles they had left a few hours earlier on now-darkened side streets. The resulting traffic jam meant that we usually didn't get home until close to midnight, but no matter - the night of the Fourth often occasioned a kind of patriotic réveillon, especially if Mom and Dad were off from work the next day.

Thanks to the strange workings of memory and nostalgia, my youthful experiences celebrating the Fourth of July in small-town New England set a template by which I measure each year's experience of Independence Day. Twice, I've found myself outside the United States on July 4th - first in London and then in Lima - and on neither occasion did I feel a great desire to celebrate the holiday, though in both cases I attended Fourth of July barbecues with other U.S. nationals. For me, the Fourth of July is as much about a sense of place as it is about one's sense of national identity. Celebrating the holiday on foreign soil just doesn't feel right to me, though I'm sure that for many American expatriates such celebrations provide a needed sense of connection to the homeland. Since entering the Society of Jesus, I've celebrated the Fourth in two American cities - Denver and San Jose. Both times, I've done the usual barbecue-and-fireworks thing and enjoyed myself, but something has still been missing. That something, again, is the sense of place - not just a beach, not just a small town, but a particular beach in a particular small town.

Though Independence Day is an inescapably communal event - as all holidays are - I believe that for each individual it's a unique and personal one. We all have our own particular experience of Easter and Christmas, and so too the Fourth of July. My Fourth of July unfolds on Silvershell Beach in Marion, Massachusetts. How about yours? AMDG.


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