The rockets’ red glare…well, they have a way of making me glare…and the bombs bursting in air…are clearly not the smart variety. And with America pounding so vociferously on its relics, making craven images of its founding documents, it is easy to be cynical. Not to mention blasé. Although both stances run into serious competition within the life of a disabled person. For as soon as one is exerting effort, which is most of the time, things become real.
Such as the schlep to the Campbell Heritage Theater, in that suburban home of the brave, you guessed it, Campbell, near San Jose, California. Where Jane and hundreds of others swore their fealty to these United States and were all pronounced citizens. All of which had a profound affect on virtually anyone observing. Largely because those on hand from the nation’s Immigration Service made a point of celebrating the melting pot. As the proceedings began, all were invited to stand, those huddled masses, as each ‘country of origin’ rolled through the loudspeakers. Only a couple of people from the United Kingdom. Perhaps 100 from Mexico. Maybe 25 from the Philippines. Along with a smattering of new, diminutive or downright odd places like Slovakia. All represented, all celebrated. An unexpectedly urbane moment, and a moving one. God bless America.
Which is a much cozier song, to my thinking. From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans…I can really get behind this. My home sweet home. Whatever. Even if I find the militaristic dimension disquieting, there is more good than bad here in what is transpiring below me. For I am above, in the balcony of the Heritage Theater. For which I must thank the enforcers of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for without this legal fact of life, no one would have bothered to install an elevator. Those being naturalized…a strange term when one considers it…are seated in one section, we, the admiring citizens, seated elsewhere. And one of Jane’s Episcopal congregation, and there are several here, has spotted her seated in the right orchestra. As the proceedings get under way, voting instructions are presented in Chinese, Spanish and Tagalog and I open The New Yorker.
I close it as a woman on stage sings the national anthem. She is good, and she is live, in contrast to the video that follows. Actually, it is pretty good as well, presenting as it does all the races and skin tones and appearances of these new United States. Emma Lazarus features prominently. Still, it is canned, and this event is nothing if not live. Fortunately, one of the new citizens leads us in a welcomely halting Pledge of Allegiance, read from a sheet of paper. Those in the audience follow the text on screen, a fine and appropriate use for electronic media.
The main event, the swearing in, includes a string of curious oaths. One is to renounce all allegiance to foreign potentates. The actual word, not mine. The importance of willingly, and it is implied enthusiastically, picking up arms to defend the nation dominates a good chunk of the oath. Which at a time when the nation is being defended by a combined force of mercenaries and working-class youth, does just rankle a bit. But so much of this rather brief ceremony is aimed at the higher level of melting-pot commonality and idealism, that one does not quibble. Acknowledging that being a democracy, it is our God-given right to quibble. To wave, or not wave, the flag. Deciding to wave at each other, as has happened this afternoon, often being the better choice. And not to let anyone drive us to cynicism. For it is still a grand experiment, America, Newt Gingrich notwithstanding. Yes, we have much to overcome. The Electoral College. Exxon. But there is time.
Now is the time to roll back to the elevator, down to the ground floor and meet Jane in the globally warmed afternoon. I feel somewhat irrelevant being here in the balcony. Not to mention ineffective. I actually tried to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, but in my portable wheelchair the task proved daunting. Also, the seat is slightly uncomfortable, my torso slumps into a worsened scoliosis. And the wheelchair is less maneuverable, that is the other thing, which I demonstrated on the way from the elevator to the balcony, crashing just slightly into the wall as I made my turn. All of which can, with remarkable ease, drain my sense of confidence and convince me of my own feebleness and, yes, irrelevance.
And after years of attending the Minnesota Men’s Conference and hearing its resounding message – this is the human, and particularly male, experience – it comes down to this. Stand. Stand up. Take a stand. Be upstanding. Which can be done, by leaning forward in the wheelchair, shoving my hand back along the surprisingly wide and solid armrest, and levering myself forward, over my center of gravity, and into the vertical. Which seems so inadequate, the sort of small effort for which one applauds a child. The cripple doing his best. And the thing which should, or should not, be surprising is that Jane can see me here. She notices her man, which is not the way he usually refers to himself. Perhaps I notice myself too. Being. Not looking the way I expected, and with more effort than anticipated. But present and wholly accounted for, being as utterly part of things as I wish to be.
For it is a strange and foreign notion, that being can suffice. Outside in the October sun everyone is scurrying around, a family from Swaziland or somewhere close, a woman tall and thin and blushing with her citizenship certificate and so evidently moved that her ultra-short-black-leather-miniskirted-euro-hipster attire actually seems like what it is, a costume. Mexican-American families aglow. Chinese families close and shy and proud. And I would love to take a picture of Jane, for she looks so fetching and festive with a small American flag stuck in her hair. And it doesn’t matter. Someone else will take the photo. And yes this wheelchair is heavy, and I cannot help her fold and stash it in the car, but she has signed up for this and will get her own help, stopping a teenage kid in the parking lot. For I will help when I can, and I will be when I can’t. And it is all enough. And I have been here, and I am here. And we are citizens.

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