This Saturday in America, I learned a new way be a patriot.
The occasion was Prairie Home Companion at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA—a traditional event that was new to me. The parking lot itself was a lesson in Yankee ingenuity. I thought I was doing well with sunscreen, a blanket and a package of trail mix. I wrapped a beer in a blanket in case it was contraband and jammed all that stuff into a canvas shoulder bag. My cleverness became clunky as I lurched to the gate behind tribes of seasoned Tanglewooders gliding their Coleman picnic sledges over the path. On the lawn those wagons transformed into tables with four-course spreads and seasonal centerpieces. Some families even planted miniature American flags at their settlements. I’d like to think that if I’d put more time into it, I would’ve thought to strap a folding table on a dolly or serve chicken Caesar salad on a skewer. Tiny stakes waving Old Glory, though, would never have made my list.
At least they wouldn’t have before.
I flopped on a patch of grass near the edge of the concert shed, swigged the beer and sifted through the best bits of the snack mix. I started to feel confident that I’d prepared as adequately, if not as elegantly, as my neighbors. Then a wave I never saw coming wiped me out of that comfy pose.
It started with the hum and buzz of the crowd as Keillor wound his way across the lawn to the stage, pausing at those picnic displays that now looked like sub-stages set for this Polaroid-perfect moment.
He brought a swell of loose and candid joy that sets a crowd to humming along with familiar tunes. The giddy awe of the star-struck crested at the opening bars of “America the Beautiful.” Keillor reached the stage the chorus slid into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and anyone not yet on his or her feet faced front and projected with gusto. I looked back and caught it all head a misty wistfulness washed over all of us, chased with a collective sigh of pride. Even the infants looked nostalgic, somehow, bouncing their elbows and thighs in time as if they’d heard this tune before.
In a way I felt as if I had never heard this tune before. Of course I had, but it never made me feel this way. The marching and the terrible swift swords were symbols of strife and righteousness that I could relate to rhetorically, but not personally. My awe might take the form of visceral shiver at the pierce and rattle of the fife and snare. This time, I surrendered to the linen trills and rumbling basses dragged up from the bottoms of old loafers. I felt in tune with the spirit of a patriot in the simplest sense: “a person who loves her country.”
Perhaps those with the star-spangled setups anticipated this wave of love for our homeland, and I suppose that in that enthusiasm they also contributed to it. Maybe more so than those tiny stakes, the ground itself. While my neighbors and I may well be patriots wherever we stand, I think the where and when of this encounter with America had a good deal to do with how it struck me. Nestled in the knees of the Berkshires under the round shadows of extended twilight, we sat on the floor with America’s Uncle while he sang and told us stories. Neither Keillor nor the landscape insisted on awe or fearsomeness or allegiance, the way a furrowed forefather or a hall of flags might.
Credit is due to Keillor of course, for at least inviting and perhaps even conjuring the secular miracle of getting a herd of stiff Yankees to loosen up their Sans-a-Belts and get their sing-along and sway on. His gentle tenor and good-natured teasing strike just the right tone to invite participation and summon kinship.
More so than to any one person or to the words and tunes he chooses, I attribute the communal feeling to the land itself, the virtue of which Keillor might downplay or deny—at least if his witty little ditty in homage to New York City is to be believed. He’s a poet and he knows it, and why not embrace the comfort of a climate-controlled library? But I’m also confident that Keillor knows the power of place and that his stories and songs are beloved, in part, because they into the rhythms and punctuation of the natural human habitat. The well-worn story and the smack-dab pun and even the woeful misery of winter can delight us because they remind us of the world we all know, the stuff and juice that make us and make us go. Out there we revelers did look like a crop of a certain colorful and abundant species, sprouting from our respective picnic patches. From our sunburned noses to the square toes in the dirt, carbon atoms tumble through us and our neighbors and the land we share, in a circle that’s unbroken, by and by.
That substrate of our common experience is the country in its original sense, the unfettered physical knowledge of the earth and its textures, scents and shades. Sometimes when we try to define country with our reasoning brains we try to sort and straighten all those loops and clouds and the messy essence of a shared land, Our Country, gets hammered into boxes and lines: Your Country and My Country. Once the lines are drawn we might start to fret over crossing them: who and when and how it’s allowed. Here come the bayonets and fifes and red cards and air horns.
Now when I see and feel those lines, I’ll try to sweep them away with the force I learned to feel last Saturday—the Common feeling of living and of and for a place I love. Notes and laughter and carbon molecules will not obey imperial imaginations. I can be a patriot when I sing, laugh and dance in the dirt, then shake hands with my neighbor. Then when I put my loafers back on, I’ll bring a little of that common feeling with me down whichever road takes me home.
*In tune in the figurative sense. I am always off-key by any musical standards.