I never thought I’d wake up one June and find that the blazing headlines of the moment would not be about Gay Pride month. That cyclical liturgy is now so much a part of the American experience that I have been shocked to see it unseated on the daily twitter scroll. But when I go over to that great stream of common humanity (that’s a joke) the covid updates are still fixed at the top, and all the stories underneath are about racism, the police, and other kinds of politics.
My side of town hasn’t forgotten though. On May 31st I noticed the furtive placement of certain new glossy rainbow flags in windows and nestled into the well manicured shrubbery on the lawns around me. The flag that has a sort of rainbow superimposed over the American Stars and Stripes seems a particular favorite. It is the virtuous marker of our time. It shows patriotism and tolerance in one bright image. It is the best way to be known as a good person.
I walk by all these mostly tasteful banners in the late evening, trying to take some exercise to burn off my covid bread addiction, wondering about the people inside the houses. They are all regular, ordinary people like me. Some of them even voted for Trump (not me, but our county went red, though I’m sure my own street did not). One beautiful house with a gorgeous ginger cat hanging around on the capacious porch, if you peak through the wide open front door, has a big wall hanging with the face of Che Guevara woven in a tapestry of yarn. Almost none of the people around me wake up and go to church on Sunday morning. They do garden splendidly though. All our peonies are blooming right now, and later the Black-Eyed Susans and roses will be a blaze of glory.
The question of virtue has always been at the center of the human heart. What makes a good person? What do good people think and do? How can you tell a good person from a bad one? I have always had the singular good fortune to know that I am a bad person. From very young I was spared the poisonous thought that I am special and smart and important. I think I was always pulled out of myself by circumstances and books and interesting people doing interesting things. When I had to think about myself at all it was usually to confront some lack, some trouble. I was never encouraged to let other people know my virtue, if I even had any. I never found it within myself to trot down the long aisle of a church for any kind of altar call. I always sat in the back and prayed for the sweet release of death. Letting you know this about myself, of course, confirms my own goodness. Look at me refusing to virtue signal. Thank goodness I am not like all my neighbors who do.
On the other hand, letting other people know your goodness is essential for an ordered and basically peaceful society. You let society know you are good and honest by your clothes and pre-covid hair, by mowing your lawn. In the olden days you would greet the neighbors and take casseroles and pie around to those in need or distress. You would follow the law. All these externals were far more morally important than your feelings about certain political or religious issues. And people agreed upon, in one way or another, what it meant to be “good.” Unless, of course, you were in a group who hadn’t any say about what is good or bad, unless every time you tried to participate you were told no in a thousand different ways. Some of those “no’s” are very good, even by a confused and hypocritical society, as in the case of homosexuality. Others are wicked, as in the case of racial hatred. The hard “no” of God towards our deep faux-virtuous selfishness is the most painful of all goodness. The lack of consensus, to put it mildly, illumines the fractured confusion of being human at all.
I imagine that if I asked everyone on this placid street of houses what it means to be a “good” person I would get a lot of different answers. There are some Muslims here, who are likely as bemused by the rainbow flags as I am. There are varying degrees of Roman Catholic—some faithful and observant, many not. There are lots and lots of atheists and a couple houses sporting Tibetan prayer flags. Last month someone had an elaborate sort of shrine set up on the lawn that must have been of Celtic inception. There was a half ring of evergreen and some twigs thoughtfully arranged. Every day the display became more intricate until finally there was a bronze triptych with little doors—it’s hard to describe exactly. I was always too embarrassed to stop and gape. Paper and a pen adorned the trunk of a budding spring fruit tree and when you walked by, if you wanted, you could write something on a paper and put it in a jar. My sardonic child thought we should write, “Better to be without sense than misapply it as you do” on one and hang it with all the others. “Not on your life,” I said, to her great disappointment.
At the end of the month a lot of the little rainbow flags will be taken down. No one around here leaves their Christmas decorations or festive harvest decorative gourds up a day too long. It’s important to observe the seasons. It shows goodness of heart, virtue even, and tolerance.
Meanwhile, I will continue to furiously garden, evermore at odds with the culture around me, trying to cling to a God who is good, no matter what I know or feel about it, and whose very symbol of the rainbow is one of mercy, of his own just wrath at my ruinous evil directed straight at his own heart.
*For Rusty Reno’s epic covid diary start here.