Independence Day

You’d think that seven years of marriage would have done the trick. Or the five years of mortgage payments. Nope. It wasn’t until last night at about 7:30 that I finally became a real adult. What did it was the fifty or sixty pairs of eyeballs all fixated on me, waiting expectantly for their 4th of July burgers and dogs. Somehow I had been entrusted with grill duty.

There were additional pressures. I was tending the grill for a gathering of English as a Second Language students — a community of students, refugees, and wanderers from China, Ethiopia, Korea, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Poland, Morocco, and all parts in between. For most, this would be their first and perhaps only experience of an American Independence Day celebration. I did my best, and everyone seemed delighted, which is the best you can ask for, I guess.

I’ll admit that I haven’t been feeling particularly patriotic lately. But there was something indescribably beautiful about sharing this particularly American experience with this particular group of friends. Near the end of the evening — after the eating and the frisbee-tossing and the boat trip down Lake Loudon — one of the Americans, a missionary home on sabbatical, grabbed her guitar and began singing “This Land is Your Land.” Always the cynic, I chuckled to myself. Woody Guthrie. Unbelievable.

But then the song ended and another one began. And the group closed in around this woman with her guitar, and when they knew the words they began to sing along. She worked through an impressive repertoire, including songs in Spanish and Arabic, building gradually the chorus of voices around her. She regretted only that she knew no songs from China. But our students from China were having too much fun. They circled up, argued and laughed among themselves, then turned toward the rest of us and broke into a song whose origins I can only imagine.

I was startled by one woman’s face in particular. She looked, in a word, ecstatic. When the first Chinese song ended, she began another, sailing into one of those lilting melodic lines that so mesmerized Debussy a century ago. We in the West would probably classify it as “atonal” because it doesn’t conform to our strict harmonic structures. It was so natural for my Chinese friends, though. They listened silently for a few seconds as the ecstatic woman sang solo, then they joined in. Just beautiful. Woody would’ve loved it.