The country comes round to its birthday again and with every birthday there comes the occasion for reflection. We might consider our history with pride for what is best in us, and even rue one or two failings. We might ask ourselves if we are old, or still very young.
Every birthday brings us back to our beginnings, and as I write this I find myself pondering that moment that we’ve chosen to identify as our birth, as our first national breath. It was the signing of a document. We don’t mark our beginning as the day of some decisive military victory, or the day some treaty finally recognized our existence. We mark it as the day we declared our independence, and the day we found some powerful language to define our meaning.
I think what makes that moment in our history, and our living understanding of that history, meaningful is something of the poetry in that document we signed 245 years ago. It is something of that poetry that establishes the moment of birth for our country as something more than the date some disaffected gentry signed a pact against taxes and unfair commerce, made a call for better representation of their interests in government. Had the Declaration of Independence merely been such a listing of grievances and some carefully worded political resolution, I don’t think we would celebrate July 4th in the way we do today. But there is something powerful happening with those words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” there is something still deeper as our founding promise is sealed with the pledge of our “lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” There is stirring music in that language, there is also something of substance to those words.
From the very first sentence, we define the American adventure as an episode “in the course of human events.” With those opening few words we state that the charter of this nation and its subsequent fate will be about more than one nation or its privileged people, but rather that these will be a comment on humanity itself. We go on to declare certain “self-evident” truths, and that in among these is the fundamental truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. These rights are not conferred by the state or its government, or defined as the due privilege of some select group. They are not ratified by our Declaration of Independence, they are simply, and profoundly, acknowledged, in truth, to exist for everyone.
This Declaration of ours is not about what it means to be an an American. Rather, it is about what we take it to mean to be a human being.
Among those who signed this document on July 4, 1776 were men who owned slaves. There were plantation owners and plutocrats who surely fretted about the dangerous aspects of this democracy they were about to fashion. There would be compromise and contradiction from the start. There would be war upon war, even war upon ourselves. It would be nearly another 150 years before the great great granddaughters of those first signers would be guaranteed the right to vote in this democracy, nearly 190 years before those descended of slaves would finally lay claim to the same self-evident truth of civil rights. Skeptics might be right to call into question some of the lofty rhetoric we celebrate.
But what of that question? What of men who can articulate ideals beyond their own failings?
What if Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founding fathers had chosen more careful language that made a more exact accounting of our nation’s founding compromises and contradictions, of their own moral limitations? Would subsequent generations have taken up the challenge, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “to live out the true meaning of our creed”?
To acknowledge hypocrisies, even profound failings in our history, is not to discount the profound poetry of that creed, of what we hoped we could be of at our beginning, what we had the courage to profess as our dream, even as we failed to live up to that dream at the time, even as we might still be striving today.
So I’ll leave it at this: Birthdays are about beginnings and also about what follows. We might indulge in a little pride or harbor a few regrets as we consider the gifts we must live up to and the mistakes we must live down. Each new year gives us another chance to do a little of both.
Yes, I’ll leave it at that, America. A little of both…
Snow bends the bare tangle of branches, the tree of a type I cannot name just now recalling its small purple fruit and the thick screen of leaves that hides me here from my neighbors —all summer. I’ve never bothered with curtains. Now, even the snow falls away.
There are times when you can see jet airliners way up high above my house. It has to be a clear day, they’re flying at a quite an altitude. You have to look for them. They seem to be moving slowly and silently. The way the light glints off their wings and fuselage, they can be really quite beautiful.
It was just such a beautiful day. I remember that gorgeous September day. I think it was a Tuesday and the kids were off to school. I was very much enthralled with the idea of myself as a singer/songwriter at the time.
I had just put the final touches on a song I’d written and I was wrestling my way through a rendition on my 12 string, sitting in the back yard. (I never did do justice by that guitar – I would eventually sell it.) I distinctly remember the sight of one of those rarely noticed, beautiful, slow, silent jet airplanes overhead – it was heading south, perhaps southwest, for New York or maybe D.C., I assumed, coming out of Boston.
The song I’d written was this enormously earnest, and somewhat overlong, ballad called “Whisper.” I think I was trying to write a peace anthem. At the time the Intifada was raging in the streets of Palestine, and every effort to quell the violence seemed to only make it worse.
In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Accords seemed to be, at best, a precarious hope, with old angry men and younger dangerous ones still shaking their fists over timeless ‘Troubles.’ Recent history in places like Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda hung heavy on my mind as well. I wondered if we humans would ever find the ability to live in peace.
On a beautiful day (such as that day in September) the world could seem to be offering us peace, like some quiet and simple instruction we only needed to accept. Why can’t we hear that whisper? That was the idea anyway. Perhaps I preached a bit much in that song, but that seemed like something worth doing just then. I was proud of myself for using a D-Minor 7th chord in the progression.
That beautiful clear blue morning, as I strummed and sang in the backyard by the white flowered hydrangea, my wife called me inside to the phone. My mother was on the line. Have you been watching TV? There’s been an accident in New York. A plane hit one of the Twin Towers.
As my mother told me what she knew, I assumed that it was a small plane, that this would be one of those small, sad tragedies that occupies the news without really touching us. There would be plenty about it in the papers, probably for a week or more, no need to turn on the TV.
No, this was something more, my mother said. As if only to humor her, I turned on the news. To this day I’m not sure (it was so confused at that moment), but I believe I was watching live as the second plane hit the second tower.
In the song I’d written I was trying to come to terms with the idea of peace, or rather, the lack of it. There was a line in there about forgiveness as an unspent coinage, one we were being asked to give, let alone spend. And there was another line about rage as an empty pavement for empty streets.
As I said, I was preaching.
There was a verse where I imagined a Christ-like figure arriving upon the scene of some safe suburban modern day American town; Christ with his message of even suffering forgiveness. How would he be received? As I think of it now, I suppose for all I was trying to write a song, I was also trying to utter a prayer.
At different times over the past six years I’ve had different opinions of that song I’d just finished writing that morning in September. Sometimes I think of it as a beautiful earnest offering, at others it strikes me as pompous and preachy, maybe even naive. The last time someone asked me to perform it I shrugged it away and begged off. I probably couldn’t play it right now if I tried.
Still, as I realized the date come round again I thought of that song, that light of a beautiful September day, the message that light seemed to convey.
In “Personal Histories,” poet and essayist, Tom Driscoll shares a collection of short prose written over the past fifteen years. Touching on topics of war and peace, social justice and citizenship, race and reckoning, politics past and present, historical fact and fiction, this is a book that illustrates the challenges involved with simply being, simply paying attention to the world around and the workings of one’s own mind. A trip to the movies, an online troll spat, an old photograph found in the desk drawer, a conversation overheard at a convenience store, light shining off the wings of an airplane passing overhead —these are the spurs for speculation, consideration and argumentation, even an occasional prayer.
Paperback: 164 pages
Publisher: lulu.com; First edition (August 10, 2020)
Tom Driscoll is a poet, columnist, and essayist. He lives in Framingham, Massachusetts with his wife, artist Denise Driscoll. His most recent collection of poetry, “Odd Numbers” published through lulu.com in September 2017. Previously he has released three collections of poetry, including “Instead of Peace” and “Absence Singing” as well as a volume of song lyrics, “Songs For All The Wrong Reasons.”
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
I grew up in a household that cherished books, not poetry so much, but certainly literature and history. My dad especially loved the wall of shelves he put up in our cramped little den, to make it that much more cramped, that he called his “library.” Early on I hankered to write on account of that reverence I had noticed. It was a little like growing up in a religious home and wanting to become a priest.