I don’t know if I am a very patriotic girl. I don’t clad myself or my house in the trinity of colors that grace our nation’s flag on the 4th of July. I don’t cross state lines to buy hoards of fireworks. I don’t even know all the words to the Star Spangled Banner, although it wouldn’t matter anyway because my voice could never reach those high notes without sounding like the wail of a dying animal.
Still, I love my country and I love my freedom. So much so, that the thought of it makes me want to spin in circles until I am dizzy with the possibilities of life.
Think about it – not what you do or who you are or where you’ve been, but the possibilities of life that exist because you live in a country which was founded on the premise of freedom. When you think of it like that; I bet you will want to spin too.
And, when you consider the countless lives that have been lost protecting those freedoms you would pretty much be a jerk to not revel in at least one dizzying spin.
Of course, I don’t see this country only through the haze of a freshly baked apple pie. We have our problems. One of which in my opinion, is a culture infatuated with materialism.
Not to be crass, but what is more American than our propensity to accumulate excess? Shopping malls, shopping districts, shopping tours, internet shopping, and television networks dedicated to shopping – could anyone possibly need that much stuff?
Blame it on the media, the Joneses, the childhood we never had, but we obviously like to shop.
Anyway, I didn’t mean to get all preachy as I would be the last girl to throw a stone at anyone who just snagged a great deal on a fabulous pair of shoes. Still, every time I clean out our closets or the kids’ rooms I am kind of grossed out by all the stuff.
Yesterday, the focus was on my boy’s rooms. I spent an entire day sifting through every article of clothing, every toy, every pair of shoes and every measly sock deciding what should stay and what should go.
I filled the long stretch of our hall with toys that were once their favorite obsession which have sat idly for months, even years, like some cast off from the Island of Misfit Toys. I filled bags with shoes, clothes and bedding that were all once so coveted, but now were free to a good home.
I could have just dropped it all off at any of the usual places I donate to, but I wanted my children to see for themselves how much other people rely on their generosity. I am not suggesting that my boys felt generous either, because they really only felt annoyed at being asked for the gazillionth time if they wanted to keep a particular item. They likely would have happily surrendered all of their possessions to not be bothered with my endless probing. But that’s not the point.
Donating hand-me-downs certainly fulfills the work of mercy to clothe the naked, but it can accomplish another one that is just as valuable – instruct the uninformed. To have an opportunity to teach our children generosity and compassion is a priceless gift that they are never going to be able to buy on eBay.
So I got in touch with a woman I know who helps Burmese immigrants. I told her I had my children’s toys and clothes to donate. She offered to meet me after work to pick them up, but I asked her if it would be okay if we took them to their community house ourselves.
That evening we headed across town with our trunk full of donations. When we reached the last property on the dead end road we parked in front of a large structure that looked neither like a house nor a public building. Maybe some combination of both with some additions tacked on to the back.
A huge dog who looked like a German shepherd dipped in the color of darkness greeted us at the door. He seemed to serve as a friendly ambassador to the other culture we were entering. I later learned his name was Iggy – for St. Ignatius of course.
The only light in the building, besides what seeped through the windows and open doors came from the blinking glow of the television where a group of children were gathered. My contact, Sara, gave me and my family a tour of the building in the semi-darkness.
There was one room that they use as a chapel. Mass is said there every Saturday by the priest from their native land, which is now called Myanmar. He has been instrumental in helping many of these Burmese refugees come to America to escape the fighting in their country.
Adjacent to the chapel was a series of bedrooms where the male children slept. The females bunked in another building that was part garage, part school house. There were 4 separate toilets and one bathtub that only the girls use. The boys shower outside “with buckets and stuff.”
There was a large garden where they grow food, some of which is native to their country. Sara gave my husband, who is Filipino, a vegetable they grow called Opo. He is familiar with it from his own Asian heritage, and the yellow squash created a commonality between their cultures the way food so often does.
While standing under a carport seeking shelter from the relentless summer rain which had obscured the Florida sunshine, I saw a small shed with smoke billowing up to meet the saturated clouds. Sara explained that the wooden structure is where they do all of their cooking—on an open fire.
Inside, there was a young Burmese woman cooking over the flame. Within the large cast iron pan were tiny crabs and crab claws. I wasn’t sure how they could eat what was almost exclusively the shell of miniscule crustaceans. But I was so entranced with the romanticism of cooking over the open fire and half intoxicated from the smell of firewood mixed with the damp summer rain, that I didn’t ask.
To my excitement, she let me help her. Like a toddler who “helps” in the kitchen, I was of little use. I didn’t really know what I was doing and the flame was beginning to intimidate me. It wasn’t long before I relinquished my skillet duties and went off to meet the Burmese priest who had just arrived – probably to the relief of the woman I was helping.
The priest was very friendly and after a few minutes of pleasantries, he asked us if we were Spanish. My husband told him he was from the Philippines. I was surprised when the priest directed the same question at me, because no one ever asks me where I am from unless it’s to clarify the origin of my slow, twangy speech.
I told him I was just a white girl. We laughed at the crude description of my ancestry, but it seemed liked the simplest answer. It feels ignorant to say American when my husband and many other races are just as much so. I felt like Lady Liberty would cringe at that answer. Besides, I don’t see the point in getting into fractions of being part Irish, part Scottish and part Alabama (that’s kind of like its own country.)
After my husband assured the jovial priest that he knew how to prepare the Opo, we met the Burmese nun who teaches the children music lessons and keeps them under her tutelage all day while their parents are at work. She showed us some baby chicks that someone had donated so they could have fresh eggs. My boys and I were so excited to hold the pale, buttery birds.
Before we left I went back to the kitchen one last time. The same girl was now crushing those crab parts with a mortal and pestle. Again, I had to have a turn. The boys did too. She had added dried peppers, garlic and salt and other spices to the shelly concoction until it looked much like the flax seed I occasionally put on my morning oatmeal.
While Sara was beginning to scale the large fish that sat in a pot by the fire, we thanked her, and she us.
My family walked through the building to go back to our car escorted by the ever hospitable dog, Iggy, while the Burmese children were making plates with rice and some mustard colored sauce in the dim-lit room.
They too thanked us. Just as we reached the light that spilled into the main entrance, a young boy shouted out, “God bless you!”
Driving out of their world and back into mine, I couldn’t help but think how God has blessed us. All of us – the people like me who can only identify vaguely with their origins of ancestry as well as those who have recently come to this country seeking refuge, religious freedom, and the autonomy to retain parts of their heritage while peacefully coexisting with other cultures.
We may not always achieve the ideals of our Country perfectly, but we have the freedom to strive toward such principles, and that is indeed a blessing.
Our liberties afford us the possibility to accomplish the full measure of our God-given potential. Which when you think of the infinite possibilities that come from God…
Well, when I stop spinning from the dizzying thought of that, I see dancing lights in a multitude of colors cascade from the night sky — like a dazzling display of fireworks on the 4th of July.