On any other 4th of July I’d be waking up in Maine in my childhood home. The hum of the fan. The noises of family emanating from the floorboards. The smell of bacon and fresh coffee drifting from the kitchen. NPR on a low drone.
I’d wake up and eat a light breakfast and then head into town with my family where people would be gathering for the 4 on the fourth–a small town race that attracts a surprising number of people. In recent years it’s always been a clear sunny day. Red white and blue mixed with sun and azure sky. Main street is lined with people and vendors. The rotary club selling hotdogs and running a race for rubber ducks. Lawn chairs perched on grass in preparation for the parade. The town’s generations coming together to check in with each other.
The start line crowds with swarms of people by the grocery store. People stand on faded tar that crumbles at the edges and gives way to sand. Locals, tourists, kids from the surrounding camps scattered around the lakes and woods. The race organizer, a Korean War veteran, would stand on a stage and introduce the race and remind us that all proceeds go to the local library. The town is waking up now. People stretch. The national anthem plays. There’s a gunshot. The crowd funnels off down the road to snake around the four mile course, meandering past old downtown houses, through streets lined with oak and pine trees, and along the lake before a final sprint down main street to the finish line. Classic rock blares on the loud speakers: Thunder Road, Purple Haze, Sweet Home Alabama, Fortunate Son, Go Your Own Way. Songs played so many times that, for better or worse, they’ve lost their meaning.
At the finish line volunteers cleave giant chunks of watermelon for race finishers next to kiddy pools full of iced water and Gatorade. People snap photos. Light-hearted celebration is in the air.
But this 4th of July is different. This time I wake up in Seoul. The 8am streets are quiet as I lace up my shoes and walk down the stairs. My feet pad along the pavement finding their way to the Han River. Some early risers drift around seeming a little lost. At the river, a few bikers whiz by on the path.
I hit play on Born in the USA. The snare hits in my headphones. I start my GPS watch for my private race and sprint and sprint and push my muscles until a dull painful churn sets in. The first few miles feel great. I’m cruising and confident. People float by. The river glides to my left. I hit the turnaround and know that I can’t keep the pace. At around mile 3, it happens. My legs become heavier and I ease back the pace. I’m bleeding time and willpower won’t propel me any faster. In the real race, I’d be coming into a corral lined with revelers. I’d be pushing it to shave off a few extra seconds in full sprint. I’d be feeding on the energy of the crowd. This time I lackadaisically come to a stop when my watch reads 6.44km. I walk it off, listening to the deeper tracks on Born in the USA: Glory Days, Dancing in the Dark, and My Hometown. Later I’ll send in my time to the race organizer.
I revisit the river in the evening for a sunset stroll. Crowds of people donning masks. People caring for each other through public display. Everyone in it together.
This summer I miss my country. I miss the 4th of July in my memory that I don’t think I’ll get back to. I spend some time at night listening to classic rock songs and pondering the country that has revealed its flaws so openly and naively since the last time I saw it. These songs are a tradition of the holiday for me. These anthems of progress and protest that have dulled and rusted before being stored away in the safety of white small town America.
But there’s hope embedded in the dissembling. With an unraveling comes the chance to reconstruct. The small town dream of those 4th of July summer mornings was a facade that needed to crumble eventually. There’s a lot to untangle and it’s going to take discomfort and patience and letting go and new welcomings. Everything needs to be rescrutinized. A physical division has happened in a country that was split up to begin with, and eventually it will be time to start putting it back together in a reimagined form. New traditions replace the old.