Fourth of July preparations are in full swing at our house as we get ready for a block party and the annual parades.
I love the small details about the Fourth — streamers on bicycles, pinwheels, cookouts with tri-color salads, Rice Krispies treats with patriotic sprinkles, homespun parades circling through Champaign-Urbana neighborhoods. The essence of summer.'
But I’ve been thinking about what my kids glean from this holiday. They know about the fireworks, and Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, and Paul Revere’s ride. And in that youthful view of the world, they know intrinsically that freedom is a good thing, and they’re indignant at the thought of dictators, repression and violence.
They’ve also started noticing political differences among people we know. How some support President Obama’s policies and some don’t. They want to know where we stand (along with other sensitive information like how much our house is worth).
My friends and I have talked about the country’s economic and political polarization — over bank bailouts, gay marriage, immigration and most recently health care reform. People on both ends of the spectrum are threatening to move to Canada. They worry where it will end and if the country can survive.
Experts can debate whether this level of vitriol is the worst it’s ever been. Things were obviously more polarized in the lead-up to the Civil War or during the McCarthy era (when people were just afraid to speak up). But in the social media era, we’re barraged 24/7 with opinions and accusations, and spin control has become its own profession.
This freedom business is messy. We each define it differently. We tend to shout and speechify instead of listening to each other.
But on this holiday, I will tell my children, we celebrate our freedoms — including the freedom to argue.
As a mom, I’m grateful for the freedom to work — or not. To have more than one child — or not. To worship — or not. To send my children to public or private schools.
I’m grateful for the freedom to vote, to wear what I choose, to travel without showing anyone my papers. For freedom from hunger.
These are things not everyone enjoys, even in our own country.
A friend said she appreciates the freedom to cheer whomever she likes in Champaign-Urbana’s eclectic Freedom Celebration parade — knowing the people next to her may have opposite views.
The parade features everything from Girl Scouts to Lawn Rangers, from gay pride groups to the Shriners, from towing companies and funeral homes to the Twin City Derby Girls, and politicians of all stripes — sometimes right next to each other.
It’s one of my favorite parts of the holiday.
This year, we’ve also been invited to the Elm Boulevard neighborhood parade — a tradition dating back to at least 1985 — where people play kazoos and blare John Philip Sousa music from their windows, dads dress up like Uncle Sam and kids ride decorated bikes over brick streets.
Similar parades will be held throughout the community, from Washington Street to Robeson Meadows, as neighbors who may disagree vehemently on Obamacare or abortion come together for at least one day a year.
“I think we’re all looking for a sense of community,” says longtime Elm Boulevard resident Ellen Harms.
Julie Wurth writes and blogs about families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette in Champaign. Leave a comment below, or contact her at (217) 351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org  or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Nathaniel Thomas rides his bike along the flag-lined curb of McKinley Avenue as he warms up for the 203 Clark Park Parade in Champaign. Robert K. O'Daniell/ The News-Gazette
Kids get sprayed by Matt Haizlib of the Eastern Prairie Fire Department during the 2011 Freedom Celebration Parade on Kirby Ave in Champaign; at bottom, Emily Kittivanichkulkrai of Urbana is decked out for the Fourth during the parade. Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette