What does it mean to be an American?
It was a wonderful birthday dinner, the kind we friends have come to expect whenever we arrive to celebrate the person who is about to blow out the candles. We leave feeling lucky to be alive, every last one of us.
This dinner, however, took an interesting turn after the guest of honor broke character and raised her hand to silence us. This is not her practice.
She had a question.
What does it mean, to each of us, to be an American?
We were about a dozen women, all of us over 50, sitting around her dining room table in the city of Cleveland. Our abrupt silence was unusual, not counting the times we have bowed our heads together in prayer, ever so briefly. We are used to one another and the laughter we bring to any room in which we are gathered. And yet here we were, suddenly quiet and perhaps a bit sullen as we mulled the issue at hand.
Who are we now, as Americans?
Implicit in the question is the acknowledgment that we are no longer who we used to be. If age has anything to do with it, it’s only in the depth and breadth of our experience, which we can’t ignore. We’ve never lived in a time such as this. Watergate feels so manageable now, a scary diagnosis with a positive outcome. Life with Donald Trump is triage, and no one has the necessary training to predict our odds.
One by one, we shared our thoughts. Each of us has our own definitions of citizenship and patriotism, but a universal theme unspooled.
We feel differently about America, and our role in it.
We are not an insulated group. Four in attendance are members of the LGBTQ community, with long memories of lives, and loves, kept secret. Several of us have divorced and lived, at least for a time, as single mothers. A few of us are lucky to have married again, this time for the right reasons — or maybe “better reasons” is the way to put it. We now understand that no marriage can meet our every need, nor should it. One woman is an immigrant who became a U.S. citizen and a journalist, and then a novelist. Another was a journalist and is now an artist.
Our birthday girl — we have permission to her call that, so don’t start with me — is a long-ago Catholic who became an ordained minister and a leader in the United Church of Christ. (She will object to this description as grandiose, but she’s not the one writing this column. Plus, I am right.) One of the women grew up in an alcoholic home but found early salvation in Broadway musicals. There’s not a problem that exists that she can’t pair with the perfect song lyrics. If someone can find a way to sing about it, we can get through it.
These small snapshots don’t begin to describe all the living we had done before we sat down at that table at that moment. Every woman has her stories, and isn’t it a shame not everyone knows that?
Defining ourselves as Americans requires a distancing from those who think their residency-at-birth was an act of divine intervention. We have no control over where we are born, and to credit God for our geography is to cast doubt on his motives for everyone else. We are lucky, perhaps, but not the chosen.
That evening, we couldn’t talk about being Americans without veering into a discussion about what it means to be a patriot. Knowing the words to the Pledge of Allegiance and flying an American flag on Independence Day is showmanship, not stewardship.
If we define activism as a refusal to sit on the sidelines, then so many women of my generation have become activists in ways they never thought they would be. They refuse to be invisible when so many want us to believe our time has passed. They speak up at family gatherings and refuse to apologize for the awkward silence. They write letters to editors and share their views on social media, and show up for one another when any one of them is under attack.
One of my closest friends, who has spent much of her life keeping the peace, now calls her Republican U.S. senator almost daily to demand that he stand up to Trump’s racism and violent rhetoric. She provides her name and address, and is never insulting or rude. When a live voice answers the phone, she assures the staffer that her outrage is directed at the senator because he is the one selected to serve the American people, and he is letting his country down.
On that night, at that birthday dinner, we talked about all of this, and so much more, filled with hope no matter what. That’s what happens when women gather. We draw strength from one another, and then we go back out into the world, for the world.
Isn’t it a shame not everyone knows that?
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist
and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.