The essay originally appeared in Palo Alto Patch.
When I was five, we traveled back to my mother’s home country of Norway to visit family. While there, we joined the nation in celebrating its National Day, an annual tradition marked by parades and speeches. I remember ticker tape falling like snow as I watched from the window of my grandfather’s office building. But it was the sea of red, white, and blue flags dancing in the breeze on that cool May day, hundreds of them held high by parade participants and viewers alike, that I remember most of all.
Flags are a symbol of pride for Norwegians. Nearly every home has a flag pole and on that pole you will see the country’s flag waving, not just on special occasions, but each and every day.
In California of the1960s, flag burning was more common than flag waving, particularly where we lived. When I was growing up, pledging allegiance to the flag was considered reprobate, the antithesis of morally correct behavior; at the very least, it was totally uncool. We ripped up old flags and used the pieces to make shirts, purses, and even patch our threadbare Levi 501s (button-up, of course). We certainly didn’t display flags on poles for all the town to see.
Well, actually we did.
My mother insisted on having a flag pole in our backyard. On it, she flew a Norwegian and an American flag. She wanted her dual-identity to be known and honored. She wanted the world to know that when you choose your country, you have a different relationship to the symbols that speak to patriotism. She didn’t care if it was “uncool.” My mother chose to be here and she was proud of her choice.
As I grew older, displaying the American flag became closely aligned with right-wing politics. This left me and my left-of center outlook feeling disconnected. The flag, and what it symbolized, seemed unsophisticated, narrow-minded (yes, I see the irony), and too, well, patriotic.
Until September 11, 2001.
Suddenly, I found myself looking for a symbol that would communicate solidarity with my fellow countrymen no matter of their race, religion, politics, or heritage. I was not alone. In the weeks and months that followed I saw flags on cars, flags in windows, and flags on newly installed poles. Even some of my most progressive friends were proudly waving the flag.
As I consider the myriad of changes our country has journeyed through since that day a decade ago when our innocence was finally and fully lost, I think our relationship to the American flag, and what it means to proudly display it, has changed. Not much good seems to have come from that tragedy, but at the very least we have let down our cynicism just enough to reclaim our flag.
No longer is it a symbol of one political party’s rigid idea of America. Now, as long ago, it is a symbol of common ground, a symbol of the place we choose to call our home, a symbol for all Americans to honor.
This week, I am waving my flag. It may not be cool, but finally, I am old enough to not care.
Endnote: My prayers go out to those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001 and to those who have been moved to fight on our behalf in the decade since.