It’s All Relative

The Fourth
July 9, 2008, 1:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I watched the fireworks last night standing on the corner across from the restaurant where I work. The cops were directing traffic and we stood in a loose crowd; people too late or not interested enough to make it the four blocks east to the lake. Me, a bunch of strangers, servers and bartenders from the other restaurants on the block, all of us clumped over the edge of the sidewalk and into the street.

I don’t necessarily celebrate holidays. There are some (like Thanksgiving) that are personally meaningful to me, but I have a bit of an anti-social streak and I’m naturally resistant, even condescending, to the idea of celebrating because others are doing so. A social mandate for occasion makes me feel like part of a herd. It short-circuits the sense of personal uniqueness I work so hard to build and shield. So I basically ignored Independence Day.

My last 4th of July was noted only by the occurrence of well intentioned but unsuccessful attempts by Kenyan chefs to simulate BBQ sauce. I believe one of the other Peace Corps Volunteers may have had sparklers mailed to them, though I can’t think of how that’s possible.

I didn’t miss it then. I didn’t feel frustration with the blurry manifestation of the holiday. Indeed, I questioned the purpose of celebrating there at all. Why? Hadn’t I come to Kenya to experience something different? Why try to call forth the image of something that I wasn’t attached to in the first place?

So what surprised me last night, as I stood under the streetlight in my apron and nametag, was the sudden but subtle sadness I felt in not having taken any time to recognize the day.

Of all the lessons and conclusions I have drawn from my Peace Corps experience, the one I most wish I could transmit, the one that I wish was easily copied and pasted, is gratitude. The sense that not only do I live in the best of all possible worlds (because there are so many things I have seen people do without) but also that circumstance could have aligned very differently thru the effect of forces removed from any concern for me.

These things I have were not earned nor can they ever be so. They are gifts of the most astonishing depth and value. Standing in the dark amongst strangers, I wished I had taken some time to at least recognize that.

My mom was down at the lake for the fireworks. She said that what she enjoyed the most was walking down to the water at dusk and seeing the tremendous spectrum of families and friends, the variety of age groups and ethnicities. Languages and skin colors and an endless variety of meats slung over grills. In the grassy expanse between the street and the rocks that line the lake were children and grandparents, young lovers and dogs and all the other minor but vital pieces that compose a family, a community. Sprawled in this public space they moved in and out of porous boundaries; walking along the water, sitting on the rocks, waiting in line for the bathroom.

I have myself often disparaged the spectacle of the Fourth. (“Must our foreign policy and our celebration always match in tone and volume? Must blowing things up always be part of the equation?”) But there’s something to be said for spectacle. For the gasps and sighs in the dark as 10,000 people share a space. What other cultural experience can we all so easily and joyfully share? What else so effortlessly transcends race and money, language and gender as bright lights, brilliant color and punishing sound? It’s an egalitarian spectacle. An event aligned – in effect – with our aspirations for our home.

The finale was too low in the sky for those of us on the corner to see. Blocked from our view by trees, I could hear the crescendo and I waited for the end. I wanted to experience the moment after the sky at last goes dark and the last rolling boom passes over the crowd. I was waiting for the collective approval of 10,000 countrymen and women to roll in waves the four blocks up from the lake. I wanted to hear us united in voice, in experience, in joy. A cheer. A momentary manifestation of a larger elusive ideal.