On a white hot day in the summer of 1965, the riptide of curiosity carried me down the beach away from my family. I let the waves just break on my little toes, then scampered to higher ground, never noticing my drift from our familiar 80th Street dwellers into the unknown 70’s blocks. I realized my predicament when I looked at the lady sitting under the umbrella nearest me and saw that she was a stranger.
I have no clear memory of making my way back to the part of the beach at the top of 80th Street. I suspect someone noticed a missing 4-year-old and came looking for me. I do remember what my Daddy taught me that day. "Songbird," he said in his distinctive drawl, "do you see the flagpole high above the dune over there?" I nodded. "That flagpole belongs to the Huckleberry family. When you can see it, you are close to us, and if you walk toward it, you will find your family and your friends. If you remember the flagpole as your landmark, you will never get lost."
Those were innocent times. My father had the luxury of teaching me navigational skills rather than giving a lecture on stranger danger. And lest you think I am about to wrap myself in the flag as a symbol of our security, remember that it was the pole he indicated, not the flag itself.
We all need to know what our landmarks are and what they really mean to us and to others in order to find our way in the world.
This week I learned of a controversy surrounding the Famous Architect Namesake Chapel at The College of Knowledge in Virginia, my alma mater. Apparently the College President, in response to concerns voiced by members of the college family (students, parents, faculty and staff), discerned that the time had come to acknowledge the Chapel as a space used by people of all faiths. He created a policy about the use of the historic cross given to the College for use in the Chapel in the 1930’s by the Episcopal parish in town. The policy allows for use of the cross when requested, but serves to make the space more inclusive at most times, a sacred space without the sacred symbol of one faith.
As you can probably guess, this created outrage in some quarters. The College is historic! And so is the Cross! The President is giving in to the pressures of Political Correctness! A College alum appeared on Fox News demanding that the Cross be saved! More than 10,000 signatures have been collected for an online petition!!! Go to the website and see which of your classmates has signed!!!!
I did. I am saddened. It distresses me to learn that adults who had the same
advantages I did of living and learning at the College somehow missed the
lessons that I resisted initially but ultimately incorporated into my life. Sometimes I think my classmates, now comfortably middle-aged and living
in fair number in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., have forgotten the
lessons we learned in those long ago classrooms. We were taught, I
hope, to think for ourselves, to learn from the mistakes of those who
have gone before us, to attempt to break the heretofore persistent human cycle of hatred and
I learned that throughout history people would readily wield
religious symbols as weapons intended to confirm their superiority, particularly to themselves. That is a
very poor use for the cross in the College Chapel in the times in which we find ourselves.
Educated people, thinking people are desperately needed to bring perspective
to this world seemingly bent on destruction.
Newspapers and television report that the Doomsday Clock is counting down
closer and closer to midnight. But the clock itself holds no authority. It is a
symbol intended to heighten our anxiety and snap us to attention. Its influence
lies in what it suggests.
A symbol such as a cross or a flag holds our human projections of holiness or righteousness, or honor or nobility, but also of victory and triumph over those we hate for being different from us. Wood, metal, fabric have no power in and of themselves. It’s all in how you run it up the flagpole. It’s all in how you place it on the altar.
Thanks to my father, I will always remember that a landmark points to something and is not the thing itself.