Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Let Freedom Ring

When I awakened this morning, no one stood over my bed with a gun threatening me.  Nobody growled at me to get up and get to work, or to walk, or crawl, or beg for food.  The air  kissed my skin with the pleasant caress of a mechanical chill.  I knew that there was a small chance that my old dog had peed on the hardwood floor in the front bedroom, but otherwise nothing the least bit unpleasant would challenge me.  The fridge holds plenty of food; a full bag of coffee beans sits on the counter; and regardless of how I might want the day to develop, I will be comfortable, clean, and probably a little bit lazy.

After all, it's a holiday.  July 4th.  Independence Day.  Our nation's birthday, when we celebrate the momentous decision to divest ourselves from British rule and start this grand experiment.

I slide into my red fuzzy slippers and don my zebra robe.  Tucking my new Android into a little pouch to keep it safe until the new case arrives, I move to the second of my two bathrooms to relieve myself in an ADA-compliant toilet, wash my hands in a little IKEA sink, and take the medicine which sustains my life.  Or at least, beats back the virus which makes my life less comfortable than it would be if I didn't pay a grand each month for insurance which covers 99.99% of the $4,500.00 that the medication would otherwise cost.  (Math challenges me; don't judge that fake percentage.  I have a co-pay.  What's the ratio between $12.00 and $4,500.00?  You figure it.)

After de-activating the alarm, I descend to the first floor and greet the little old epileptic rescue dog who shakes her groggy head.  We make our wobbly way to the back of the house where I release her to go commune with the lady bugs in the grass.  Then I flick on the gas burner and start a kettle.  The smell of coffee emanates from the grinder and then, stronger, beneath the water as I pour.  Rich brown flows into the carafe.  I turn on the warmer and reach for a mug.

I open my tablet, scroll through messages and social media, and then open the New York Times app.  My stomach quivers a little at the news of discord with China and North Korea.  I don't trust the current administration's erratic behavior. I don't understand how a president can spend his time blasting comedians and journalists when serious situations demand his attention.  That behavior frightens me.  I remember the jokes about Bill Clinton having affairs, and how we would all prefer a sexually satisfied guy with his hands on the nuclear button to one with nothing to hold him here.  What the hell, a less cheerful guy might say, as he sends us all to eternal damnation.

I wonder if our current president might be so careless, not because of any personal discontent but because of petulance, arrogance, or an insatiable need to prove his superiority.

I look at a few articles about New Jersey's pathetic governor, a court ruling barring the EPA from an abuse of its discretion, and a telephone call between the U. S. and Chinese presidents.  I pause to chuckle at the quotes around the legal terms of art in the EPA ruling.  I've never seen "arbitrary" and "capricious" separated like that.  The writer must not have consulted an administrative law attorney.

My smugness lasts only until I return to the article on the president's call with China.  I'm suddenly reminded of a lecture in graduate school.  The professor was talking about the  nature of true statesmanship.  That's what we need in leaders, he underscored.  Men and women who don't care about their own reputations, who work towards an end without regard for praise, or power, or personal gain.  He hesitated, seemingly reflecting on the seriousness of the situation, wanting to be certain that we understood.  If men and women serving our nation do not put aside their own ambition, we cannot trust them to protect the rest of us.

I gently set the tablet  on the table, and take my mug of coffee to the front porch.  My Stars & Stripes moves on the rising wind.  It hangs from one pillar.  On the other, I have a Rainbow flag.  It honors those who died at the Pulse in Orlando, but I also intend for everyone to see that our nation includes all of us.  I have a sign in my window welcoming everyone:  Gay, straight, bi-sexual, transgender, gender-fluid, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Muslim, native-born and immigrant.  I tried to be as inclusive as possible.  I edited the sign three times before I felt that anyone reading it would understand that they, too, would find safe harbor at my home.

The state of our country worries me.  The only problems which I face each day can be considered "first-world problems".   I'm one of the lucky ones.  I'm not rich; far from it.  But even if I fret about paying my bills every month, I know that I can find a way.  A significant portion of the United States cannot boast the luxury in which I live; far from it.  One in five children faces serious hunger in this country.  One in eight persons  in the world doesn't get enough food each day.  One million children in the world die each year from hunger-related conditions.

As I sit in my rocking chair (one of eight that I own) on the front porch, I hear Janis Joplin's voice.  Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.  I take the new Android from its makeshift pouch and toggle between applications.  I see an e-mail from someone in my Rotary district commenting on the great experiences that we had attending the Rotary International Convention last month.  A friend writes about her new job.  Amazon wants to know if I enjoyed my shopping experience yesterday.  You bet, I think.  I got a phone case for 1/5 of what my cell phone company wanted me to pay for the same item.

First-world problems.  Thirty-four million children on Earth suffer from severe malnutrition, while I grumble that I had to pay a thirty-dollar activation fee to replace the phone that I dropped in one of the two clothes-washing machines that I own.  One in six children in developing nations is underweight due to inadequate nutrition while I have to count calories every day to keep from gaining a few unwanted pounds.  This dichotomy surpasses irony and lands me in a putrid puddle of self-loathing and disgust.

I do what I can.  A sum automatically deducts from my account each month to help Rotary International with its quest to stamp out Polio once and for all.  When we've gone three years without a single case, we'll switch to another major cause.  I will contribute to that effort, as well.  I fill a few bags with canned goods for each food drive that comes through my neighborhood and put out a food bank barrel in the lobby of my office building at Christmas time.

I'm not rich.  I'm not even "well-to-do".  I fall solidly in middle-class, with a meager retirement account and a modest home.  But I know how much more I have than a humongous portion of humanity.  I live in freedom; I can work harder and earn more. I can drive my car with a full tank of gas.  I can pay to have my grey hair highlighted; and I can go to a restaurant once a week and dine on food cooked by someone else, served on plates which others will wash.  At the end of each month, I might grumble that I blew the budget, but the lights stay on, and the television blares its reality shows, and I can download a book to read on one of five computing devices with which I amuse myself.

It's America's birthday.  Two-hundred forty-one years of this grand experiment.  I've lived through almost sixty-two of those years.  I've learned to value freedom.  I joke about being on an FBI list for my liberal rantings, and that joke might cut a little closer to the bone these days.  But I still believe that my freedom to rant, to vote, and to go about my daily life will be protected by the dictates of the federal constitution which memorializes the social compact of our nation.  That protection might be threatened by the current administration, but so far, it holds.

However, this truth I know:  My freedom means nothing unless I use my unfettered condition to help those who don't share the luxury of a full belly and an easy sleep.  We must remain free, but we also must use the benefits of our freedom to reach behind us to others so much less fortunate than we.  We must not slam the doors on those who turn to us in their desperate hour, whether they are refugees from war or the children in our city streets whose drug-addicted mothers cannot feed them.

Let freedom ring.  Let it peal throughout the land.  But let it serve as a call to all of us -- as a warning, as a summons, as a caution, as a challenge.  Freedom should not be taken as a license to luxuriate in comfort but as an opportunity to contribute to the society which affords us the chance to acquire those  luxuries.  As long as children lay down their heads at night in misery --  hungry, cold, and sick -- we dare not rest.  We cannot turn our backs or shrug our silk-clad shoulders.  We must not squander the freedom which we value.  Rather, we must learn to share its bounty.  Then, and only then, will the bells of freedom ring most purely.