I find myself feeling a little nostalgic this evening. As I sit out on the patio, listening to my neighborhood celebrate this nation’s independence, I can’t help but reflect to an experience I had while traveling abroad.
In the winter months of 1997, and for all the wrong reasons, I found myself in the Dutch community of Nijverdal, just an hour and a half east(ish) of Amsterdam. While I would like to say that I was there for myself, it was for matters of the heart that had put me so far away from home.
I don’t believe I made a mistake in going there. Okay, sure. Maybe I was a little out of my element. No. That’s not exactly correct. I was a LOT out of my element. At that time of my life, I had very little direction in life, other than where my heart led me. Unfortunately, the heart knew not what was best for me. That was something I had to discover on my own.
I was terribly alone in a place where I only knew one other person who spoke my language. Fortunately, I found shelter with a family who rented out a room for people such as myself.
I would like to say that I went out often, that I explored this strange new land, but if I did, I might be telling a taller tale that I am used to sharing. No. The truth is much more boring than I’ve ever admitted. Most days, when I wasn’t desperately seeking her companionship, I sat alone in my room, staring out a window, and wondering just how the hell I had gotten myself into this situation.
My hosts were kind, if not understanding. I think they knew why I was there, but they encouraged me to get out and explore when we weren’t together. Of course there were some days when I did just that. They weren’t many, but I did the best I could, given what I was prepared for. I did walk from one end of the community to the next. I explored few local places to eat, walked through a market just to see the differences in food, and I even found a pub(?) in which I stopped to have a drink from time to time.
Every morning they laid out an impressive spread for breakfast. I could never eat everything they had for me, but I enjoyed trying foods I wasn’t used to having. You could ask me to recount them, but sadly, I’ve lost most of those memories to the things I’d thought more important at the time. It’s weird how memory works. I can recall enjoying strange pastries, having a poached egg for the first time, and many different kinds of crackers and jams, but I can’t, for the life of me, tell you their names.
Never-the-less, it was a magical time. There aren’t very many people in my life who can say that they have had such an experience. Most have barely ventured outside of my home state, let alone into another country, and I am thankful for having been there when I did.
Tonight finds me comparing the differences between our communities and how we celebrate the holiday, and I am a little saddened at what I’m discovering.
Tonight, two-hundred and thirty-nine years after the fact, we continue to celebrate the day that the thirteen colonies declared their independence. It represents our freedom as a country, from another whose ideals we no longer wished to uphold.
It’s a night that should feel as important to us, as a people, as does the sanctity of our flag. But, I have to wonder how many of the people around me are truly thankful for what we celebrate. How many people have paused to reflect on why they are outside launching hundreds of dollars worth of colorful explosives into the air. Is it really about this day? Or has it only become about who has the better fireworks display? Have they, just once, thought about the struggles our forefathers had to overcome? Or are they simply concerned about drinking beer, eating good food, and the company they keep?
I have a very specific reason for asking these questions, you see.
I’m sitting out here, desperately searching through the trees and power lines for those pretty colors, but I am not feeling any of the magic that I did in Nijverdal. (But more on that in a minute!)
The air smells of sulfur and burnt paper. All around me, explosions interrupt the night with varying degrees of loudness, and the sky flashes as fuses reach the small amounts of gunpowder in each device. Sirens sound in the distance as emergency vehicles rush off to help some unfortunate fool who wasn’t careful enough not to blow off their fingers. There are screams in the distance, punctuating every firework. Some are from children not accustomed to the sound, while others are that of adults arguing over something trivial.
Perhaps my heart isn’t in it this year? Maybe I’ve been bitten by the humbug? I can’t help but sit here, close my eyes, and for the lack of displays in the sky, imagine I am on the edge of a war zone.
There is no sense of joy in this night. The colors in the sky are too far and few between for me to enjoy, and even the sounds seem a bit off to me this year. We, as a community, are failing at what should be the greatest celebration of the year!
It’s nothing like New Year’s Eve of ’97-’98, but then again, I don’t think anything will ever come close achieving that level of greatness in my eyes.
I’d had made no special plans for that night, except to turn in a bit early. I also had no clue as to what was in store for me!
Shortly after sundown, one of my gracious hosts knocked on my door and beckoned me to follow.
“Come! Come,” she said with a smile on her face.
How could I refuse? Her good cheer was infectious, and I have to admit that I was curious as to what was about to happen. She took me by the hand and all but dragged me down the stairs, out the front door, and to a lawn chair, where I would be teleported into another world!
The whole community was buzzing with activity! I was no fool. I had seen such preparations being made a hundred times before, but never had I seen so many people getting involved! Every family in the neighborhood was busy setting up tables, securing launch stations, and laying out the most impressive cache of fireworks I had ever seen!
I can’t even imagine how much money was launched into the sky that night, but for me, it wasn’t about just that. People wandered up and down the block, pausing to shake a hand and offer a warm greeting. Children laughed, played, and brought smiles to everyone around them. It was as close to heaven I think that a person could be on this mortal coil.
The night stretched on for hours. HOURS! The mood never lessened, and after the children went inside, strong drinks only helped to enforce the good cheer. All of these people, so happy to send out the old and bring in the new. It was absolutely amazing!
Yes, the air was thick with smoke and the smell of sulfur, but it was also as bright as day. There was a multitude of colors above me, before me, and all around me, that had it been a tangible substance, I might have drowned in it. If home and heaven were the same place, I knew that I had finally arrived.
It’s hard to imagine the feeling I experienced that night, but if I was to try to explain it to you, I’d be remiss to capture it in words. I’d like to think that I must have been a lot like those children from The Sandlot, when Benny hit the home run. Was it a home run? I think, only because nobody had their eyes on the ball.
Have I felt that way since?
Not in the way that you’d imagine. Any sense of community I’ve ever felt was left behind. I’ve never known my neighbors in the way that they knew each other, nor have I felt the trust or open hearts they shared with this foreigner.
The differences in our communities aren’t subtle, by any means.
There, everyone knew each other’s names. They celebrated their holidays with passion, and the day after? The day after, they ALL worked together to clean their streets and properties of all litter from the night before! By lunch, there was no evidence that thousands of dollars worth of fireworks had been blown to kingdom come.
Here, most people use today as an excuse to not go to work. As I have already mentioned, it’s a day used for cooking food, drinking large amounts of alcohol, and comparing their cache size, by seeing who can shoot off the load the fastest.
Okay, maybe that’s a little crude, but how many cries of “Happy Fourth of July,” have you heard tonight? Okay, how many have you heard past your initial greetings?
“Hey Joe, happy 4th of July!”
“Oh, hey Phil! Happy 4th to you too, man!”
And that’s usually it, right? Or, maybe you even close the evening with the same four words, but what I want to know is; “Do you use them as you eat, drink, and make merry?”
I’m not the most political person I know. In fact, I’m the farthest one can be from politics, but on this day I have two-hundred and six patriotic bones in my body. I’m thankful for the insight those men had so long ago, in signing that Declaration, and I think often of the men and women who continue to fight for the freedom we’re supposed to be celebrating.
Does every action need to be weighted with the reason we’re doing these things today? No. Only your thoughts. Because, ‘Murika, am I right?
I don’t know if I’ll ever find that level of awe I experienced that night, but I will always carry it in my heart.
Before I came in tonight, I shouted; “Happy Fourth of July!” I know I am the only one to do so, for even the person who responded wasn’t able to return in kind. Do you want to know what he said?
I think it was; “Hey! Shut the fuck up over there!”