Loving Imperfect Things
Flags, faith, and fortitude
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Every summer for the Fourth of July my family travels up north with my parents and siblings and nieces and nephews. We put the kids in matching gingham outfits and sit them in red wheelbarrows, where they sit sweating until parade marchers throw them candy. We drink excessively bougie Bloody Mary’s before going on long boat rides, blasting 90s country and taking turns jumping in the lake.
If it sounds picturesque, that’s because it is. The past few years, as I’ve been up there, I’ve scrolled Instagram while waiting for my husband to make a fire or my dad to make me a cocktail or my mom to deal with my unruly children (passing your kids off to the grandparents on vacation: a grand American tradition). While I scroll, I see post after post of people expressing their distaste towards the country they call home, for any number of valid or stupid reasons. I don’t have a great finger on the pulse of what my everyday friends-and-family think about America, as we don’t really sit down and talk about patriotism between the mimosas and paddleboarding.
But I know what the online world thinks.
I hate it here, they say, even though America has the broadest free speech laws in the world, a bedrock of democracy, a principle that has allowed injustice upon injustice to be squandered.
I hate it here, they say, even though in America, I could start a news organization today. Just me.
I hate it here, they say, even though people from all over the world flock to our healthcare system when they need significant surgeries or medical procedures.
I hate it here, they say, even though the US regularly ranks higher than most European nations in terms of refugee acceptance and resettlement.
I hate it here, they say, even though you are allowed to practice any religion you choose—oh, I’m sorry, did the priest give a boring homily? At least you’re not in jail.
I hate it here, they say, and sometimes I want to scream in their faces in the name of the millions of people throughout history who have died trying to enter this country your ass was lucky enough to be born into.
Yeah, well, you’re welcome for the lightbulb, a friend yelled at a rude Australian with a beef against loud, drunk, American college students one night when I studied abroad. We all cracked up. There’s truth to it: America’s inventions have changed the world in an undeniably incredible way, from the sewing machine to the internet to electricity. Sometimes, that’s what I want to tell people. Listen, that phone you’re complaining on—that was made possible by America. XOXO, Steve Jobs.
But that isn’t the full picture, either.
And I’m not some bastion of patriotism. I don’t want to sing America the Beautiful at church. I don’t find frat boys with flags on the back of their pickup trucks are not endearing. I’ve long rolled my eyes at grandiose signs of America-loving; my version of “loving America” involves reading American Girl books and buying American flag tank tops for Fourth of July. But lately, due to getting #old and a new writing project and hard life things and a bit of a spiritual upheaval/rebirth/mess/don’t-ask-me-to-define-this-because-I-can’t, I’ve felt a pull towards my own history. I want to look at black and white photos and read stories of days past. My brother made an incredibly impressive family tree for us on Ancestry.com and I stare at the names, these people who lived so long ago, who had no idea that one day there would be a Claire Elizabeth Swinarski that only existed because of them.
Ah-MEH-ri-kuh, a phrase whispered by so many immigrants as they clutched together on a boat, 18 days of typhus and consumption, only to be picked apart by a lice comb and pushed out the door, living 700 people per acre in tenements on the Lower East Side. America, which sent away a boat full of Jewish immigrants during World War 2—not here, not enough room, we’re full, could be spies, try again later. Americana, that great nation with no common people, a common language but a thousand others bubbling up under the surface, a clash of cultures and religions and ideas.
This works in Finland. That works in Denmark. Finland, a country whose Kindergarten structure + anti-Russian chutzpah I admire, has 55 times less people than America. I googled Finland ethnicity breakdown and found that Finland is almost 90% Finnish. I couldn’t even find statistics that were broken down by skin color. When you google America ethnicity breakdown, you don’t find ethnicities, which are real—you find “races”, which are not.
We have no common ethnicity. That’s because some of our families were brought here in chains and sold on auction blocks; some of our families arrived in shivering huddles at Ellis Island with money sewn into woolen overcoats; some of our families have been here long before anyone could have claimed to “discover” the land; some of our families arrived with Green Cards and Visas. Our story isn’t really one of a people coming together to survive struggles, it’s the story of a bunch of people fighting.
I joke to my husband that all Polish men look the same. If he wasn’t so Internet-averse, I’d prove it by showing you a picture. He and his dad and JP2 and the president of Poland have bizarrely similar facial structures, until you realize it isn’t bizarre at all. Of course they do. They’re Polish. They have a people. There is a deep pride in my husband for the Polish—all they’ve been through, all they’ve suffered, and his own ancestors were in prisoner of war camps and sneaking Polish flags and hiding radios in outhouses. When Russia attacked Ukraine, he had a viscerally deep emotional reaction. Generational trauma is a real thing.
But Americans—what should I be proud of, really? None of my ancestors were here when they signed the Declaration of Independence. That document belongs to him just as much as it does to me. I didn’t invent the lightbulb, “my people” didn’t make the iPhone. I don’t see my face in anyone else’s face: American men don’t all look the same. My seventh grade teacher said the melting pot metaphor is bullshit; we’re more of a tossed salad—you can see our differences and taste them in every bite, but they influence one another. Most of us would rather have a salad than a bowl of black olives.
We are a nation full of problems, spilling at the brims with these clashes. Anchovies and blue cheese don’t taste well together, yet here they are, trying to get along in a salad bowl.
Has many states that allow for the legal killing of its own unborn children, with much greater flexibility than most other nations
Has maternal mortality rates that rank terribly among developed nations
Has gun violence that’s an outlier among peer countries
Has the audacity to charge me $8,000 per birth of my children, $1,200 for each ER trip (and oh, there are many in hyperemesis pregnancies), bills upon bills upon bills in my mailbox, reminding me that world class service means world class price$ (More and more, it is Americans who are going elsewhere for medical procedures, purely for the cost.)
Was founded by people who thought owning people was, like, a perfectly acceptable practice
Is seeing lower life expectancies due in large part to unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as rampant drug use
Imperfect is an understatement. My breakfast sandwich I’m eating right now is imperfect. America is a freaking mess. Geez—maybe I hate it here.
America, you great unfinished symphony.
And yet: we love imperfect things every day.
Our children, our friends, our annoying next door neighbor who lends us an onion but also never mows his lawn and makes the neighborhood look decrepit.
Ourselves, too. Oftentimes, we’re more critical about ourselves than anyone else. But we also, fundamentally, tend to think we are good. That we make mistakes, but we are good. That we’re flawed, but we’re worth love.
We know how to do this. We do.
An activist I admire, Chloe Valdary, said in The Atlantic that “All individuals are complex and multifaceted. If we treat any human being, any group of people, as a conglomerate, we run the risk of stereotyping them, reducing them, in our words and in our actions, and turning them into an abstraction. That’s not going to be helpful or sustainable for anyone. We have to treat each other like family.”
I am America, and you are America, and I do not hate it here. Our country is complex and multifaceted; it is a hard earned spit-shined chunk of land that has saved millions of bloodlines from starvation and destitution.
Because here, if I want to draw attention to our lack of red flag gun laws, I can do so. Loudly. I can vote. I can write. I can do so, so much. If I want to advocate against abortion. If I want to call out politicians and popular figures. If I want to change things, it’s possible, here. It is not, so many other places.
America is not like other countries. America is an opportunity, one that can be used, abused, or squandered.
In the book of Esther, the titular figure is absolutely terrified at the thought of having to go beg the King to save her people. She has to reveal she’s a Jew, and ask the King to actually not completely eliminate her people. Her father Malachi asks her, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Who knows but that you have come to America for such a time as this?
North American Martyrs, pray for us!
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, pray for us!
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!
St. John Neumann, pray for us!
St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us!
St. Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for us!
Servant of God Dorothy Day, pray for us!
Servant of God Augustus Tolton, pray for us!
Servant of God Fulton Sheen, pray for us!
On My Nightstand
Here are some things I’ve been reading lately that have made me think!
Return of the King by JRR Tolkien: Now that I fiiiiiiinally wrapped up Les Mis, I’m moving onto the third Lord of the Rings book! I tried to read this series 8 times before I finally committed. All it took was permission to skip Tom Bombadil, ha. These books are strange and interesting and I plan on doing a longer letter about them in the future.
The Paper Girl of Paris by Jordyn Taylor: A YA book about a girl who inherits her grandmother’s Parisian apartment, and finds family secrets stretching back to WW2 encased in its rooms. Kind of a boring love interest in my opinion but a quick, compelling read!
10,000 Times: Katie Blackburn is one of my favorite writers on motherhood, and this treatise reminded me of my own piece Again and Again and Again (only hers is, like, much better). It’s lovely. “Anyone can do something hard once or twice. I’m interested in what you are willing to show up and do 10,000 times.”
In case you missed these Letters:
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing - for subscribers
Honest Prayers for Mothers - for everyone
Gatekeepers and the Eucharist - for subscribers
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