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Mitchell: The Fourth of July felt different this year

July 11, 2013

 Two themes have twirled mercilessly in my head over the past week, and so I suppose I am destined to address them: 1) It has been one year since my life took a different direction; and 2) July 4 felt different this year.


Most days, I can’t even imagine that a year has passed since I took the first step toward working in the Rule of Law program in Afghanistan, because I remember with such stark clarity standing at the Columbia airport on Sunday, July 15, getting ready to step far out of my comfort zone. My stomach churned, my mouth dried out, and I waited, visibly shaking. I was terrified about where this step would lead, and yet I felt as if I had to take it. Max stood with me, calmly, encouraging me, telling me that I would be fine. After all, I was headed only to Washington, D.C., and I would be returning in a mere 11 days.


But I knew that this step meant I would be taking other steps that would carry me across the world to a war zone for one year, where I didn’t know what to expect. After all, I had been out of the country only once, in 1976, when I had joined a group from Central Missouri State College (now the University of Central Missouri) to travel to London in July, thereby missing the United States’ bicentennial celebration (lousy timing!). And they speak English in London.


It took every ounce of courage I had that day now almost a year ago to turn away from the familiar and march toward the unknown. Part of that unknown turned out to be that I would not be away from my family, friends and home for an entire year, but would return unexpectedly after only a six-month absence — returning to my seat on the municipal bench, to my seat on the piano bench at Broadway Presbyterian Church, to my seat at the computer instructing writing students, in essence returning to what my life had been before I left.


And yet, things are different. I have new energy in my role in our justice system, and I have taken on an additional role at the church. I find myself hoping that my students will understand what a gift education is. I have more patience with my family and less with those who seem to take for granted what our country has to offer, such as drinkable water and drivable roads, and who are not acutely aware of how difficult life can be for some who have little.


So when I woke up on July 4, my first thought was not the usual one of hustling downstairs to watch one of my favorite movies, “1776,” but was instead of the Americans I worked with in Herat and Kabul. I wondered what they had done, if anything, to celebrate the day and its historical significance. I wondered if they were safe, and whether our soldiers would be safe for another day.


My second thought was remembering sitting outside our barracks at a patio table — without the patio — and missing home and all the things that home meant, including time with family and friends, and enjoying the back yard (mosquitoes, heat and all). That was what I wanted for the day.


Seeing fireworks would be fine, but what I really wanted to see were the faces of the people who have made my life pretty wonderful up to now. What I really wanted to think about were the brave people who had an idea that was this country, and for those who fought and died to bring that idea to fruition. We hear a lot of squawking about what “the founders” meant by the words they wrote on the fateful document we celebrate on July 4, but I believe they meant that the people of this country should be free from the tyranny of a foreign power in order to make their own way.


So on July 4, after a year of change, I also hoped that the Afghans I worked with and now care about will soon have that same opportunity.