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Since the morning of 9/11, flying the flag has become a daily ritual for Michael and Riley Ellen Martin.
After a trying year, one flag still waves in our neighborhood

An Essay by Riley Ellen Martin
I remember thinking when we inherited our flag that owning one was a really grownup thing. When it occurred to us, we flew it on the Fourth of July and sometimes Veterans Day. At 10 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, I ran to the basement to find it.

Since the flag leaned in a corner of the laundry room, I'd passed it often, noticing without much concern that it was rain-stained and covered with the construction dust of a 2-year-old remodel of the house. It needed the holder, which had been removed during the remodel. On Sept. 11, I carried that ragged flag outside and wedged the pole between the house and a hanging plant holder, and as it began to wave in the breeze, I took the first full breath of the morning. Flying the flag was one of only three things I could think of to do on the morning of Sept. 11. Then I did the other two: I lit a candle, and I prayed.

Later that day, a neighbor said she'd been consoled when she saw our flag, so she put hers out. Another put little ones in a row in the garden with the flowers. The neighbors on the corner pinned theirs to the arbor over their patio. One who had moved recently, and also was not prepared for sudden flag flying, braced a flagpole with rocks over a brick planter.

On Sept. 13, we bought a new flag and holder. After a few days, all but ours had disappeared, replaced by Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas decorations. Every morning, my husband still puts our flag out as he leaves for work, and every evening after dark, he brings it in.

Oddly, we didn't discuss this ritual until January. There was no flag-flying plan, just a yet undiminished need to stand. We're wondering now what made others decide to sit down again, what diminished that initial impulse.

There have been other changes. We're not being so gentle with each other as we were last September when we were all so shocked and fragile. Lots of people have expressed their discomfort — disgust, actually — with post-Sept. 11 flag-wavers. I understand.

The tragedy blew us over, coming as it did on the heels of an awkward election and the negativity of one half or the other of Americans on patriotism and its implied approval of governmental doings. I think that even before Sept. 11, and especially since, under all our indignation and bravado we're ashamed of ourselves. The shock is wearing off, the circulation is returning to our fingers and toes. We're full to bursting with paradox.

To be honest, like so many Americans, we hadn't given the flag issue much thought pre-Sept. 11. But it's a different world, and we're thinking about it now. For us, on the morning of Sept. 11, putting the flag out was about standing together in the storm, about doing something being better than doing nothing. It was a gesture of respect and sorrow for the people who were sacrificed to wake us up to our ignorance and to our part in the world's suffering, including our own.

Now it also reminds us that we are not alone in our confusion and fear. It's a ritual beginning to another day of learning about the world, beginning with acknowledging who we are. Something we should have been doing all along.

Flying our flag is an expression of hope, faith and confidence, in a time when these are scarce, that someday this flag will symbolize an America that has matured in compassionate leadership and world citizenship, in a world that has done the same.

It means that we understand that Sept. 11 was the beginning of the end of our adolescence. Our eyes have been opened. Although we may have different interpretations of the world we see. To us, flags waving in quiet confidence say that we have not forgotten that we have work to do — together.

Riley Martin is a writer and UW student. She lives in Seattle with her husband and son, the last in an illustrious series of three children.

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