July 4th and the Cult of Belonging

Today the river is very still as though it is holding itself together after last night’s festivities. I watched big spreading fingers of cracking, colored light all across the sky from where I stood on a patio, eating grilled squash and burgers. The kids ran down the hill with sparklers, people smoked by a bonfire and the dogs pricked their ears forward with curiosity.

July 4th, of course, is really about war. A war that won us our freedom, the story goes. And at the party, I wondered whether fireworks signified bombs or ammunition, but when I got home, I discovered that 2,000 years ago, a Chinese cook mixed charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter and BOOM, fireworks came to life.  They are thought to have the power to fend off evil spirits and ghosts. Which is funny because July 4th has always brought the ghosts on for me.  Somehow in the face of barbecues and bright colors bursting in the sky, I feel a certain loneliness.This loneliness is brought on by a stricture, an unspoken law in this country: We must belong to someone, to our children, to our friends, to our community, to our work, to a religion.  And the more we strive for this belonging, to facebook, to twitter, the more we are networked together like membrane, the more lonely I feel.

Belonging has always held terror for me.  Not because there is anything wrong with belonging but because it reminds me that not belonging is not an option. And I really like to have options.

Belonging goes back to tribes and packs and all the things related to the root chakra, which is about survival.  If you don’t belong, it is feared your wiring will develop differently, and you can wind up on the fringe, doing awful things, like heroin for instance or shooting yourself.

The belonging is about the microcosm, the family, and then it goes outward from there, and the largest fact of belonging is that we are a pact culture, a herding species. Where one goes we all go. Which is why Oprah is worth 2.4 billion dollars.  Oprah is okay.  As far as IQ and depth she’s probably pretty much average. But Oprah hit a wave and the herd followed, stampeding forward like blind buffalo and taking advice about our marriages from mediocre bald men because she said so. The herd likes the smell of money and the smell of luck and the smell of power, and they like beauty, though the person can just be affiliated or married to or friends with beauty and that will suffice. This herding culture is what makes a son say to a father, Well, everyone else was doing it. And it is most ironic that the father says back, Well, if they were all jumping off a bridge, would you? The kid might as well answer, But aren’t I supposed to do what everyone else is doing? That’s what he is taught, from the time he becomes conscious of the unspoken laws in his family to the time he enters school and learns the same thing as everyone else day after day.

Before I got married I couldn’t really figure out why everyone was hurrying up, trying to get married and have kids as though we were playing musical chairs and there were only so many seats and the song was just about to end. Didn’t they know how much fun it was to jump in your car with your music blaring, and drive to a commune in Virginia, go fishing in Mississippi, write the great American novel, date people you couldn’t possibly dream of marrying and not have to be back at any time special or telephone to say you’ll be late?  I couldn’t figure out why people were all tied into nine to five jobs, why not just jump in your car and go to the southwest and get a bunk on a hacienda, learn Spanish from the staff and ride horses for free and figure out what it was like to be a cowgirl? Why not play banjo on the streets of Guanjuato for money and wake up in a blue tiled hotel room with Mexican birds of paradise out the window?
This was all fun and games until I one fine summer day, I found myself walking down the sidewalk with another gypsy friend to the fourth of July fireworks, and I felt an almost blinding loneliness, not that I was ready to get married and have kids, I was having too much fun for that, but the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to be my free self forever, hit me like a brick in the chest.

Society doesn’t support nomadic artists, sooner or later, and preferably sooner, you have to plant yourself down and belong.  If you don’t belong, people look at you funny, you have to be in a state of having belonged or about to belong and preferably you should at least have a child if the spouse has disappeared.  You should really belong to a house and you or said spouse should belong to a company or an organization.  Sometimes this is a matter of life or death, if you don’t belong either to a marriage or an organization, you can’t get good health insurance and then not belonging can cost you your life.

Luckily, I fell madly in love with my husband, and we got married, though neither one of us ever thought we would, and now we belong. To each other. And we have a group of other people who belong to one another and we all watch the fireworks on July 4th. During these times, I try not to think about what would have happened if I hadn’t fallen in love with my husband? Or what if my husband falls off a cliff, proverbial or otherwise?  The fact that we are not going to have kids and don’t really want to be bothered with a house right now is already considered a little suspect in terms of belonging and so my only thin thread to this belonging thing rests entirely with him.  Which feels like a really faulty business plan.  Most of all, I try not to consider that blinding loneliness I felt that time walking down the sidewalk, which is the void we are all stepping around as we drink beer and light up the fuse on the fireworks.

The truth is, I feel sort of badly for that girl who used to fly across the country with her sunroof open and her music blaring, believing that the United States was born for people like her, people who valued freedom above everything else. But then again, maybe it was. Maybe those are our real warriors, the ones who refuse to belong.  Maybe it’s easy, after all, to belong, or to pretend you belong even if at home you can’t stand the wife and the kids get on your nerves and you hate the organization that gives you health insurance.

If we strip everything away and look at the real story of how our country was made, the marrow is about independence. It is about saying screw you to the cult of belonging.  It is about a group of people escaping the constricts of a very uptight country,  forfeiting security and admitting that our values were being compromised,  our spiritual self was being squashed, and we wanted freedom.  As we stand around belonging on July 4th , we might contemplate how, against all odds, against royalty and money and tradition and circumstance, our country fought for one thing that is becoming a scarce commodity in the United States: independence.

As always, this leads me to my grandmother’s diary. My grandmother seems so free on these pages, she can trail up to the Whitney to view a new exhibit anytime she wants to, drink champagne on her roof, she can be pampered at the hospital for three weeks while she has her baby and when she gets home a maid named Grace makes her meals and does her laundry, but  in fact my grandmother belonged whole cloth, as most women did back then, to her husband, my grandfather. She wasn’t educated, and she’d been trained as a dancer, which was completely dependent on age and not a good longterm plan. And now she had a tiny baby named Timothy, and so she really belonged, which can be a terrifying place to be.  Perhaps much more terrifying than a girl in her car who is sailing down the American highway towards god knows where belonging to no one, without a care in the world except her own freedom, her own independence.

February 28, 1938

Wept after baby’s early morning tea because M. twitted me on not caring about cold he’d caught from me, on account too taken up with baby’s affairs. He then decided we better keep Grace full time an extra week as in my right mind I should never have dissolved.  Felt pretty foolish but not capable of spurning idea. In afternoon put on beautiful housecoat to receive Edith and Lump and a few minutes after they had arrived in came Malrand and Anne, Anne with a cane which she forgot to use every now and then as she was the first to point out. They had been to see Clare Boothe Brokaw’s play The Women and enjoyed it enormously.  Joneses reported being entertained by spelling bee over radio and said one of the words given was flylfot, which we discovered year or so ago with glee. Talked of story in paper about fancy and libbing done when actress in Tobacco Road dropped dead in dressing room last night and no understudy available; also fine interview Roosevelt gave Arthur Krock of Times– exclusive we think and if so first time president has done this since Theodore R’s time according to M.  Explained his view of what he wants to do to Supreme Court and says not paving way for dictatorship in his opinion but guarding against it, and definitely announces that he plans to retire to private life himself in 1941.  Had cozy fire in fireplace.  Infant very good. Company left before 6:30 feeding, played sticks and had dinner at 9:15 so M would feel I was doing things again as Grace is always very prompt.  M. read Flowering of New England and I began Moscow Skies by Muarice Hindus.

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