I hang an American flag outside my home most days of the year. I’d like to say I’m good about pulling it down in bad weather, but I’m not. So, it hangs there — rain or shine — off a wooden dowel, wet one day and fading in the sun, another.
A friend, upon visiting our house, recently commented that she didn’t have me pegged a “flag waver.” It does seem a bit out of character for someone like me, an avowed globalist who can be counted on to interject a “non-American view” when discussing everything from politics and religion to sports and food. Still, I am a big fan of the American flag.
Woven into its linen fabric are all the freedoms I treasure most: The right to speak my mind without fear of imprisonment. The guarantee of a jury of my peers. That I can own a home or attend church at no one’s discretion but my own.
I’ve been to places where flags flew but freedom was nowhere to be found. Beijing. Bratislava. Nairobi. East Berlin. Cartagena.
I didn’t really care about the American flag until I spent a month in Eastern Europe in 1981 — a place then controlled by the Soviet Union. Churches were mostly museums. Home ownership was non-existent as were public juries. No one I came in contact with seemed able or willing to speak freely. The one exception, a woman in Russe, Bulgaria, haunts me still.
The woman, bent with age and clad in black peasant garb, was sweeping near a park bench where I sat with a friend, an open journal on my lap, a pen in my hand. As she made her way over to us, I could hear her murmur, “Write. Please write.” When she was directly in front of us, she clutched my hands, explaining that she had once been an author but that she was no longer allowed to write.
Some days later, I watched a cadre of border guards search our riverboat for contraband, including smuggled letters, of which there were a few on board. I was reminded of the woman in Bulgaria. A strange mix of sorrow and gratitude filled my soul. In her loss, I saw anew the value of the freedoms I enjoyed back home in America. The next day, as we crossed the Czech border into Austria, the sight of a single American flag hanging from a dock upriver made me sob.
Some 25 years later I remain devoted to our flag. Though I know there are Americans who raise flags in times of war, I am not one of them. Nor am I likely to pull down my flag in protest of war. In our flag’s red, white and blue, is see woven the freedom to think, to dream, to be. I believe this is a universal ideal, one that I, as a citizen of the world, never want to take for granted.
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