"Ever a Work in Progress" (Essay)

An Independence Day weekend spent immersed in the swirling and ever-present past. Dedicated with love to my uncle Douglas McKnight, USN (1928-2016).

We spent a day over the 4th of July weekend bringing my cousin to visit DC for the first time. We caught a glorious sunny cool day, more like May than July, so we slathered on the sunscreen and walked most of the National Mall. It was my first visit to the World War II, Korean War, and Martin Luther King Memorials, and of course we did the traditional visits to the Lincoln and the Vietnam Wall.

It was an amazing experience. Along with my cousin, my 9-year old daughter had never been to the monuments. So in addition to my own awe, I got to explain some of the significant pieces of what she was witnessing. She carefully and solemnly did a pencil rubbing of one of the eight women whose names are engraved on the Wall.

The monuments are always very moving, this time in particular seeing the ghostly figures etched on the Korean War mural. But I couldn’t help noticing something else during our visit. People of all shapes, sizes, colors, T-shirts, and ages, speaking many languages. All drawn to witness for themselves the memorials to these chapters in American history. To the imperfect men who rose above their time to challenge us to strive for more. To those who gave all far from home and loved ones. To read the words, recall the deeds, and see for themselves these touchstones of our continuing story.

The next day I did my “Tilling Our Common Ground” Special Music Service at the Unitarian Church of the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester VA. I am leading this service a lot this year, in these bitterly divided states; one man’s seemingly quixotic quest to help us find and nurture our common humanity and the broader ideals that most of us share. It was particularly poignant to be there on the anniversary of the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and in the heart of the Valley that is pockmarked with sites large and small remembering the incredible bloodshed and hardship that the War brought home. Winchester itself changed hands some 70 times during those four years. People here experienced viscerally the consequences of a nation unwilling and unable to resolve its disagreements over the bondage of fellow human beings.

I’m either hopelessly naive, or maybe I just take a longer view than most. I remain focused on our progress towards those lofty ideals of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and that "all men are created equal", even as we have coarse and often obsessive simultaneous soliloquies about the details of what those words mean. The endless and vitriolic restatements of “truth” and “how can you be such an idiot to believe that?” that passes for debate in 2016 certainly evoke other dangerous times in our history where we chose sides and have taken up arms against our neighbors - our own cherished Revolution and the horrors of the aforementioned Civil War.

My Independence Day weekend ended with the sad news that my Uncle Doug had passed away at age 88, - my dad’s brother, my cousin’s father. After dropping her at the airport for her sad but short flight home, I was left with a swirling head full of thoughts and memories. My Uncle was a Navy vet who served at the end of World War II. His life had its share of struggles and triumphs, like each of us. I remembered the tens of thousands of people from all over the country and the world who were with us that day on the Mall, visiting those monuments and reading those words. The aptly named Reflecting Pool. Reflecting on our collectie work in progress, and the words at the end of our hallowed Declaration of Independence that started us on this journey that we continue, 240 years later;

“…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

More than ever, I truly believe we do need each other, whether or not we agree about all the details. Perhaps that is our true journey as Americans, to be ever a work in progress, continuing to make small and occasionally large steps towards that elusive "more perfect union".


The haunting specter of the Korean War mural looking out over the statues of the soldiers moving forward, and reflecting the visitors.

Reverend King's place on the Mall looks across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial, two points along the long arc towards justice.

Reverend King's place on the Mall looks across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial, two points along the long arc towards justice.

If only General McArthur's words engraved into the World War II Memorial could ring true today.

If only General McArthur's words engraved into the World War II Memorial could ring true today.

Seaman Douglas C. McKnight (Feb. 11, 1928 - July 4, 2016), rest in peace dear Uncle.

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