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Life as Performance Art

   When I was growing up, some of The Olds still called it Decoration Day.  They were participating in a tradition that dated back to the 1860s, just after the Civil War.  Late each May they went to the local cemetery to clean up the graves in the family plot and place flowers on the headstones or stone urns.  Special attention was given to those who died during the war.  A few days later, on May 30th, they would line the streets as the color guard from the Grand Army of the Republic led a parade through town.  Behind them marched or rode in open horse drawn carriages, the men and women who had been in uniform during times of war.  The observance ended at the local cemetery with a very well-established liturgy that included the placing of a wreath at the memorial, the singing of beloved patriotic songs, sometimes a speech, and a rifle salute.
    The old tradition continues to this day, although there have been some gentle changes. The carriages have been replaced by convertibles; the name has now been changed to Memorial Day, and since 1970, the date is on the last Monday of May.  At first, some of The Olds groused about the changes, but today we  have embraced them.  After all, it is not the name of the observance, nor the date of that matters nearly as much as our participation in it.
    The operative words for Memorial Day are, “our participation.”
     We are part of that long tradition.  Those of us who now might be one of The Olds, will recall our participation in past Memorial Days.  For some, their memories include going with parents and grands to the cemetery to plant flowers or leave potted geraniums.  For others, it will be watching the parade as it passed by us or participating in the parade. It was a day when we learned history and civics lessons to augment we learned in school.
     Being present at a Memorial Day ceremony does not come close to repaying the debt we owe who fought and died for our freedoms.  Rather, it is our participation in Memorial Day events that clarifies it, shifting it from theory to reality.  Because we made the extra effort to decorate a grave, whether a family site or working with others to make certain every veteran’s grave has a flag over it, it imprints important long-lasting lessons in us.  As the morning’s events unfold, we are changed.  We stand a bit taller because of those we remember, we feel a connection with the past, and it makes us appreciate the freedoms we have in our country. It is a humbling experience to understand that we owe so much to these men and women.
     President Obama was right when he proclaimed, “Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay.”
   Governor Granholm was right when she said, “Ceremonies are important.  But our gratitude has to be more than visits to the troops or once-a-year Memorial Day ceremonies.  We honor the dead best by treating the living well.”
    President Reagan was right when he said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.  We did not pass it on to our children in our blood stream.  It must be fought for, protected, and handed on to them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men [and women] were once free.”
    For me, the veil between the living and the dead is always very thin on Memorial Day. If only in my imagination I can almost see our heroes from past generations fall-in to line up   for the march down the street.  They are the Patriots from the American Revolution, the Boys in Blue who won the victory in the Civil War, Doughboys from World War One and GIs from World War Two, the men and women who fought in Korea and Vietnam, and the more recent heroes of the wars in the Middle East. 
    Real heroes never die.  They live in our hearts to inspire us, motivate us, and guide us in our lives.  As long as you and I remember them, whether by name or not, they never really die.  On Memorial Day, the living and the dead are connected, and you and I stand on the shoulders of those who went before us.
     That is why I have a real problem with those individuals who can never find a good thing to say or write about the United States.  They always find fault, but never seem to offer a suggestion on how you and I can make things better.  I pity them, and never more than at the end of the morning on Memorial Day. They have lost the plot.  Maybe someday they will wise up and stop their petulant fussing.  Until then, I think it is best to ignore them in hopes that they go away.
     The real work of Memorial Day begins when the Commanding Officer of the observance dismisses the crowd.  That is the moment when we take a last long look at the wreath laid in honor of the war dead, another look at the Stars and Stripes,  and at the people around us.  It is the moment when we ask ourselves what we can do to live up to the ideals emphasized just moments earlier.  It is a very personal question:  What can I do to build on the foundation laid by these men and women?
     It is not rocket science.  The answer comes with one word:  Respect.  Respect for our neighbors and our community.  Respect for our teachers and the entire education system.  Respect for the students who played in the band and participated in the observance.  Respect for the land, water, and air that provides our food.  Respect for those who work, for those who have retired, and those who have not yet begun their life’s work.
    All of that and so much more is part of our greater respect and honor for everything embodied in the Stars and Stripes.
    We all have work to do.  When we do it, we truly do honor the men and women we remember that day.

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