“We have a situation where the American flag is not the thing. It is the thing. And the thing is the American flag is not the American people. The American people are the American flag.
Of the many, many comments made on the wall of my New Orleans funeral home, perhaps none was more instructive than this one: “My father fought for you. My uncle fought for you. All of them. Not in Vietnam, but in World War II. They fought for us. My father did not. He had a heart attack over the Air Force One. And I know the difference. And I know the difference because I remember what it feels like to struggle and to hang on by a thread when there’s something so important as that.”
Lorie Shoup, the woman who died here Thursday after what appears to be years of unspeakable torment, seemed to understand the difference between my father’s experiences and her own much more clearly than most.
“We have a situation where the American flag is not the thing. It is the thing. And the thing is the American flag is not the American people. The American people are the American flag. Of the many, many comments made on the wall of my New Orleans funeral home, perhaps none was more instructive than this one:
The difference between the tragic situation is that the American flag can be put on top of something, and the American people can, too. And my father’s life wasn’t something that you could put on top of something. My father died because he was walking through an airport toilet for a little bit of time.”
Her words are so, so true. She understood that the American flag and its symbolism can come in and out of our lives. She understood that the American flag is part of the country we love, not the country we don’t. The same holds true of the people. Every day. No matter what.
And yet, she could, at times, seem lost in our collective confusion about our new President and the very meaning of citizenship in our country.
We are counting on you to fight the most fundamental fight for our country. It is not to win to be right or left, or to be liberal or conservative. It is not about one person in a position of power pushing out another. No. It is a simple principle about who we are as a country.
If you’re reading this on Saturday, don’t assume that it’s going to be a happy day at the office. We will need all of you to work even harder than you are fighting now, because it won’t only be about the new day, but also the failure to implement the change we need to make.
We all need to be in that “American flag” at any critical moment.
I was watching this in a Downtown New Orleans bar when a middle-aged white guy came in and saw the flag. He reached over the bar to get it off.
He was taken aback, I thought. There is more on the wall than the American flag. Everyone was aware of this. If he reached across to retrieve his own flag and actually went for it, then he was actually understood what we all were feeling here. It hit home that the American flag itself is actually something more than it seems.
And then I felt that again, when I was watching the tape of a young black man on the street telling another man, “I don’t want to be a president.” It made me really feel something.
Here was a young man, so many of us watching him, thinking, “Do I want to be this? What is this? Am I supposed to be moving through this? Or am I standing still, so that something new happens? What is it? Can I be both? I’m too black and I’m too white to know what’s it to be. I need to figure it out for myself. I need to step forward because if I don’t step forward, then I’m going to be nobody.”
The American flag is there, with or without you.
Therefore, it is up to us to be there, wearing masks for one day a year. And then again, not wearing masks at all.
Barton Quillen, his wife, and children, and parents, will begin a retreat at Walden Pond near Concord on Friday. Quillen is the founder of the Fishing Forefathers, which has raised more than $150,000 and given scholarships to about 70 young men and women over the past 30 years.