We throw hats. And then we lay flowers.
What an odd weekend we’ve given ourselves here.
It’s easy to miss. Heaven knows I usually do. On the one hand, we send our young people into the world with love and benedictions and way too many recitations of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.” And then we’re asked to stop a moment for those who have already left the world, wanting to protect it and to build a better one.
Graduation day. Memorial Day. We set them side by side: the flag and the Mylar balloon, the endless drone of “Pomp and Circumstance” and the quiet sound of “Taps.” It’s the strangest of couples, as if someone wanted to talk about Batman and Hammerstein, or Ernie and Juliet.
And yet, it does fit.
It all starts with the quiet.
That may sound even stranger. After all, between graduation parties, backyard grills, and the Indy 500, this can be a loud and busy time. Too busy for some. From the 1870s to today, it’s been traditional to lament that the fun side of Memorial Day (and Decoration Day before it) has overwhelmed the call to stop and reflect, that we’re doing it wrong.
Which, now that I think about it, is a strange way to put it. Because uniquely among American holidays, we’re not asked to “do” anything on Memorial Day. Not buy presents or string lights. Not fire rockets and sing songs. Not pass around cardboard hearts, or drink green beer, or talk like a pirate from a bad Errol Flynn movie.
What we’re asked to do is remember. But that’s only the start.
Because memory unacted on is lost.
Our recent graduates can attest to that, or soon will. Most spent hours trying to memorize as much as possible for their final exams. (Or desperately wishing they had.) At this time next year, most of those answers will be gone – except maybe for some lasting embarrassment at writing “Lin-Manuel Miranda” instead of “Alexander Hamilton” on a history test.
What will stay, or should, is the memory of how to think, how to research, how to organize, how to interact with others in a productive way, and even how weird and amazing other people can be. Why? Because that’s what you did. That’s what you practiced. That’s what you learned.
So this Memorial Day, after memory – what next?
It’s good to remember the fallen. It’s necessary to tell the stories, to raise the ghosts, to bring their memories to life again. But if the sun sets and the memory falls back into the dust until next year, how much respect have we really shown?
Memory unacted on is lost. And the way to act is to build.
Build the world they wanted to see and never did.
Build anew the freedoms that were worth their life – including the freedom to argue and disagree, to challenge and question, to preserve the nation by daring to examine and even improve its underpinnings.
Respect, yes. Live together as a nation, yes. But even more so, live together as a free nation, recognizing how many ways there are to live in freedom. And stand together against those would abridge even an inch of it.
Just as those we honor once stood.
It’s not about glory and uniforms and parades. It’s not about watchfulness and fear. It’s about carrying on a promise.
Remember. Then act. That’s how we learn. And it’s how we create something worth remembering.
Shall we commence?