We the People: Voices of the Immigrant Experience

Artist: Shepard Fairey / Photographer: Ridwan Adhami

Artist: Shepard Fairey / Photographer: Ridwan Adhami

At the beginning of this century, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago asked me to compile texts of the immigrant experience for a public reading in celebration of America’s rich diversity. In this shameful time of immigration bans and brutal deportations, may these voices remind us of our common origins as strangers and sojourners. In a country beset with what Canadian scholar Henry A. Giroux has called the “violence of organized forgetting,” remembering is a crucial act of resistance.

 

Sing to me, call me home in languages I do not yet
understand, to childhoods I have not yet experienced,
to loves that have not yet touched me.
Fill me with the details of our lives.
Filling up, emptying out
and diving in.
It is the holy spirit of existence, the flesh, the blood,
the naked truth that will not be covered.
Tell me everything, all the details – flesh, blood, bone.

– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall

 

From Asia, you crossed a bridge of land,
now called the Bering Strait, now swallowed
in water. No human steps to follow,
you slowly found your way on pathless grounds…
Travelers lost in time – walking, chanting, dancing –
tracks on mapless earth, no man-made lines,
no borders. Arriving not in ships, with no supplies,
waving no flags, claiming nothing, naming
no piece of dirt for wealthy lords of earth.
You did not come to own; you came to live.

– Benjamin Alire Sáenz

 

America is also the nameless foreigner,
the homeless refugee,
the hungry boy begging for a job,
the illiterate immigrant…
All of us, from the first Adams
to the last Filipino,
native born or alien,
educated or illiterate –
We are America!

– Carlos Bulosan

 

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
in east Chicago…
She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of
herself…She sees other
women hanging from many-floored windows
counting their lives in the palms of their hands
and in the palms of their children’s hands.

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
on the Indian side of town…
crying for the lost beauty of her own life.

– Joy Harjo

 

I am not any of the faces
you have put on me america

every mask has slipped
i am not any of the names

or sounds you have called me
the tones have nearly

made me deaf
this dark skin, both of us have tried to bleach…

– Safiya Henderson-Holmes

 

I know now that I once longed to be white.
How? you ask.
Let me tell you the ways.

when I was growing up, people told me
I was dark and I believed my own darkness
in the mirror, in my soul, my own narrow vision.

when I was growing up, my sisters
with fair skin got praised
for their beauty and I fell
further, crushed between high walls.

when I was growing up, I read magazines
and saw blonde movie stars, white skin, sensuous lips,
and to be elevated, to become
a woman, a desirable woman, I began to wear
imaginary pale skin.

when I was growing up, I was proud
of my English, my grammar, my spelling,
fitting into the group of smart children,
smart Chinese children, fitting in,
belonging, getting in line.

– Nellie Wong

 

These men died with the wrong names,
Na’aim Jazeeny, from the beautiful valley
of Jezzine, died as Nephew Sam,
Sine Hussin died without relatives and
because they cut away his last name
at Ellis Island, there was no way to trace
him back even to Lebanon, and Im’a Brahim
had no other name than mother of Brahim
even my own father lost his, went from
Hussein Hamode Subh’ to Sam Hamod.
There is something lost in the blood,
something lost down to the bone
in these small changes. A man in a
dark blue suit at Ellis Island says, with
tiredness and authority, “You only need two
names in America” and suddenly – as cleanly
as the air, you’ve lost
your name. At first, it’s hardly
even noticeable – and it’s easier, you move
about as an American – but looking back
the loss of your name
cuts away some other part,
something unspeakable is lost.

– Sam Hamod

 

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin…
Of course, the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paper son
in the late 1950’s
obsessed with some bombshell blonde
transliterated “Mei Ling” to Marilyn…
and there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic
white woman, swollen with gin and Nembutal.

– Marilyn Chin

 

“This is my country,” we sang,
And a few years ago there would have been
A scent of figs in the air, mangoes,
And someone playing the oud along a clear stream.

But now it was “My country ’tis of thee”
And I sang it out with all my heart…
“Land where my fathers died,” I bellowed,
And it was not too hard to imagine
A host of my great uncles and -grandfathers
Stunned from their graves in the Turkish interior
And finding themselves suddenly
On a rock among maize and poultry
And Squanto shaking their hands.

– Gregory Djanikian

 

If I am a newcomer to your country, why teach me about my ancestors? I need to know about seventeenth-century Puritans in order to make sense of the rebellion I notice everywhere in the American city. Teach me about mad British kings so I will understand the American penchant for iconoclasm. Teach me about cowboys and Indians; I should know that tragedies created the country that will create me.

– Richard Rodriguez

 

Names will change
faces will change
but not much else
the President will still be white
and male
and wasp
still speak with forked tongue…
still uphold the laws of dead white men
still dream about big white monuments
and big white memorials
ain’t nothin’ changed
ain’t nothin’ changed at all.

– Lamont B. Steptoe

 

My dream of America
is like dà bính lòuh
with people of all persuasions and tastes
sitting down around a common pot
chopsticks and basket scoops here and there
some cooking squid and others beef
some tofu and watercress
all in one broth
like a stew that really isn’t
as each one chooses what she wishes to eat
only that the pot and fire are shared
along with the good company
and the sweet soup
spooned out at the end of the meal.

– Wing Tek Lum

 

today
we will not be invisible nor silent
as the pilgrims of yesterday continue their war of attrition
forever trying, but never succeeding
in their battle to rid the americas of us
convincing others and ourselves
that we have been assimilated and eliminated,

but we remember who we are

we are the spirit of endurance that lives
in the cities and reservations of north america
and in the barrios and countryside of Nicaragua, Chile
Guatemala, El Salvador

and in all the earth and rivers of the americas.

– Victoria Lena Manyarrows

 

We are a beautiful people
with African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms,
though we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
brothers and sisters. And we labor
to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new
correspondence with ourselves
and our black family.
We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?

– Amiri Baraka

 

Living on borders, and in margins,
keeping intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity,
is like trying to swim in a new element…
There is an exhilaration in being a participant
in the further evolution of humankind.

– Gloria E. Anzaldúa

 

We are connected to one another in time and by blood. Each of us is so related, we’re practically the same person living infinite versions of the great human adventure.

– Maxine Hong Kingston

 

When both of us look backward…we see and are devoted to telling about the lines of people that we see stretching back, breaking, surviving, somehow, somehow, and incredibly, culminating in someone who can tell a story.    (Louise Erdrich)

I am a woman who wants to go home but never figured out where it is or why to go there…I have lost the words to chant my bloodline.    (Lisa Harris)

We are the sum of all our ancestors. Some speak louder than others but they all remain present, alive in our very blood and bone.      (Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall)

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews, and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93, and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates (and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no place in her Bible for ‘wherabouts unknown.’         (Etheridge Knight)

 

When the census taker, a woman of African descent…came to my door, I looked into the face of my sister….She did not ask me my racial background but checked off the box next to Black American/African American/Afro-Cuban American/Black African….

I met her eyes and said, “I’m not Black; I’m Other, Mixed, Black and White.” …She did not smile, smirk, or frown, but checked the box marked “Other,” and lifted her eyes quickly to mine again. I wanted to see her erase “Black.” She did not do so in my presence….

I had been focused on my personal freedom, on my right to define who I am, on my responsibility to my sense of self. The dignity of the census taker was not a part of my mental equation…

She thanked me. But the price of my self-definition had been the wall I felt I’d built between us before I ever closed the door.         (Sarah Willie)

 

I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return…I am not european. Europe lives in me,  but I have no home there. I am new. History made me….I was born at the crossroads and I am whole.       (Sarah Willie)

 

Auntie Raylene, an accomplished chanter and dancer, told us about the necessity of remembering and honoring where we come from….During the question-and-answer session, a worried West African immigrant brother asked her, “But…what if our parents and grandparents refuse to tell us anything? They don’t want to talk about the old days. They are afraid. Or they don’t remember.”

She looked at him with great love and said, “Then you go back further, to the source,” and her hand swept back with assurance to the beginning of time, to the birth of life.

– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall

 

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth….

Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe
and that this universe is you.

Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
Remember.

– Joy Harjo

 

Related post:   Remember

We the People art images are available here as free downloads. The texts are drawn from several wonderful collections: UA:Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry , ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan & Jennifer Gillan (Penguin,1994)… N: Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity, eds. Becky Thompson, Sangeeta Tyagi (Routledge, 1995) … and another anthology which has vanished from my library and my memory, though I have traced original sources for most of its selections. In order: Hall (N 241), Sáenz (Calendar of Dust), Bulosan (http://bulosan.org/in-his-words), Harjo (UA 29-30), Henderson-Holmes (UA 60), Wong (UA 55), Hamod (UA130), Chin (UA 134), Djanikian (UA 215), Rodriguez (source unknown), Steptoe (UA 250), Lum (UA 322-23), Manyarrows (UA 330), Baraka (UA 155), Anzaldúa (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza), Kingston & Erdrich (third anthology), Harris (N xv), Hall (N 241ff.), Knight (The Essential Etheridge Knight), Willie (N 276, 278), Hall (241ff.), Harjo (She Had Some Horses)

Members of the Same Body? A Post-Election Homily

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1828)

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1828)

What just happened? Has half the country endorsed hate, fear, ignorance, racism, white nationalism, misogyny, sexual assault, xenophobia, environmental suicide, nuclear instability, and a war against the poor, the immigrant and the “other?” It has certainly given us the sickening prospect of unprecedented vulgarity, cheesiness, immaturity, dishonesty and self-dealing in the White House for the indefinite future.

Is this a case of “they know not what they do?” Those who proudly wear swastikas or Klan hoods, or wallow in the swamp of alt-right delusion, knew exactly what they were doing, but they are relatively small in number. A far larger faction has argued that while Trump might be a “scumbag” (to quote a Facebook friend who voted for him), his opponent, seen through the lens of misogynist fears and Republican fictions, was far worse.

Then there are the pragmatists and cynics who accept the Trumpian nightmare as unavoidable collateral damage in the war for political victory, ideological supremacy, “moral” and “religious” agendas, control of the Supreme Court, and economic privilege. They might cry a few tears for the victims, but somewhere deep down they “love the smell of napalm in the morning” because “it smells like victory.”[i]

And for the many who have swallowed Trump’s vague promises at face value, he is the strong man who will cure what ails them and make America great again. But the authoritarian dream is a con game, “a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”[ii]

Trump has great appeal for the dispossessed who burn with resentment and pain, the ones so long ignored, laughed at, or forgotten by a world which has left them behind. Trump’s very awfulness makes him the perfect weapon for striking back. “To those ignored, suffering people, Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites.”[iii]

Of course, my own sense of bewilderment and shock at the outcome brands me as one of the arrogant and clueless elite. For the crime of writing my last post, Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now, I have had to sweep up my share of broken glass. But where do we go from here? Are truth and reconciliation viable options in such a divided America? Can’t we all get along?

I addressed this very question in a homily following the presidential election in 2004. It was preached at the Episcopal cathedral in Philadelphia, where I had spent a week getting out the vote. The same lectionary readings will be read in the churches this coming Sunday. Portions of what I preached then remain relevant today, and I publish them here:

At the end of the eighteenth century, the President of the United States, supported by the religious right and a wealthy elite, began to round up dissidents and throw journalists in jail. And he garnered support for this assault upon civil liberties by stirring up fears about war and foreign enemies while dividing the country along the fault lines of self-interest and resentment.

The Vice President, deeply disturbed by this mockery of America’s founding ideals of liberty and the common good, tried to summon hope.

“A little patience,” he wrote, “and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. … If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.”

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1798.

Eighteen centuries earlier, Jesus surveyed the prospect of imminent public disaster, and how the game would run against his own followers:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be earthquakes, famines and plague.
And you will be hunted down, arrested, thrown in jail.
Some of you will be killed.
But don’t give in to fear.
Endure. Endure. Keep the faith and you will be saved.[iv]

Jesus’ prophetic vision mingled the political with the cosmic. Jefferson’s concerns were more specifically political, but he also sensed that larger issues were involved. “Principles were at stake.”

But if principles are at stake, is any common ground possible between opposing views? Compromise is the enemy of conviction. As the prophet Malachi wrote:

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts…[v]

In the end, Malachi suggests an alternate possibility: The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.[vi] But is that only possible once the demonized “other” has been eliminated?

The dream of forging a new order with blood and fire has mesmerized much of human history, and the Bible sometimes veers in that direction, the direction of “sacred violence”—violence that intends a better world.

Sacred violence has its allure: the dream of remaking the world with force. It’s the dream of terrorists, it’s the dream of the Christian right, and if we ourselves are honest, it’s a dream each of us can understand. Who among us could not suggest a few “arrogant evildoers” as appropriate stubble for God’s cleansing fire? I’ve got my list.

But the Bible, unlike the terrorist, tends to take the point of view of the victim of violence, a perspective which destabilizes all notions of violence as sacred or good. The Son of God hanging on the cross makes all violence suspect.

When the last of the prophets, John the Baptist, considered the tree that fails to produce good fruit, he said, “Chop it down and burn it.” But if we did that, if we really did that, what would be left but a world of stumps and ashes?

When Jesus began his ministry, he renounced the Baptist’s axe, and let himself be nailed upon that barren tree. And by his act of powerless love, he awakened us from the mesmerizing dream of violence and vengeance and victory over our enemies, and made the earth fruitful at last with the feast of forgiveness, the banquet of reconciliation, the food and drink of new and unending life in God.

But how far we now seem from such reconciliation in our civil war between red and blue, rich and poor, rural and urban! If right-wing extremists hate the idea of being in communion with progressives in America, the feeling is certainly mutual. How do we live with these people? How do we dance with these people? Are we not in fact “two nations under God?”[vii]

O Jesus! O Jefferson! Where lies our hope in such a time? Can we endure, as Jesus counsels? Keep on keeping on. This too shall pass.

An imperial, bellicose, gluttonous America is unsustainable in the long run. Reality is simply against it. Whether it’s environmental disaster, economic collapse, civil strife, a Middle East quagmire, or the spiritual costs of building our politics on selfishness and lies, the bill will come due. Must it be the cleansing fire of apocalypse?

Or is there a way of national transformation not so costly to the earth and its people? Is it possible to forge together a political and economic life guided by the better angels of our nature?

In 1630 a little ship called the Arabella brought a group of immigrants to the shores of this country. Their leader, John Winthrop, preached to them before they disembarked: We shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

His words would be taken out of context in the 1980s to celebrate a selfish and greedy America of unbridled private interest, where it was believed that the opposite of “wrong” was “poor.” But in fact, the heart of Winthrop’s sermon proposed a vision of the common good that remains unsurpassed in its description of public life as the space where we act out our essential connectedness:

…we must be knit together in this work as one… We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.

Is this really possible? Can we truly delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together? In one of the darkest moments in American history, this is the work we have been given to do.

Jesus says, “Endure. Keep the faith and you will be saved.” [viii]
Paul says, “Never tire of doing good,”[ix]

Is anybody listening?

Related Posts

We Are the Singers of Life, Not of Death

Is the American Dream a Con Game?

[i] Robert Duvall utters this famous line during a battle in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979)

[ii] Wikipedia reference: Barnard, Rita. “‘When You Wish Upon a Star’: Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West,” American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51

[iii] David Wong, “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind”, Cracked, Oct. 12, 2016: http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-reasons-trumps-rise-that-no-one-talks-about/  Wong’s analysis is a must-read.

[iv] Luke 21:10-11, 16-18

[v] Malachi 4:1

[vi] Malachi 4:2a

[vii] Thomas Friedman, New York Times, Nov. 2004

[viii] Luke 21:19

[ix] II Thessalonians 3:13

Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now

bosch-hell-cub

Whatever happens on Election Day, the fact that close to half of American voters are willing to embrace the most dangerous and disgusting presidential candidate in American history makes me tremble for my country. With just three days until we choose our fate, here’s my top ten of the catastrophic nightmares currently slouching toward Washington.

1) Climate change       Environmental policies rooted in denial, ignorance, and greed would do irreparable damage to this planet. Time is literally running out. Four years of suicidal idiocy could be irreversible. For this alone, a vote for Trump is both senseless and unforgivable.

2) Nuclear threat      Giving control of the world’s most powerful military, not to mention the nuclear codes, to an emotional toddler is clearly insane.

3) Fascism       Believe me. I alone can make America great. Everyone else is stupid. Trump is part of a worldwide erosion of democracy by a resurgent authoritarianism. Fear and hate have made many sell their souls to naked power. When fascism spread in 1930’s Europe, Americans were confident that “it can’t happen here.” Now we aren’t so sure.

4) Hatred     Racism, bigotry, misogyny, bullying, scapegoating and political violence have been making a shocking comeback, with Trump as their enthusiastic cheerleader. He has endorsed and normalized the most vile sins of the American shadow. God help us should he and his alt-right thugs and cronies ever come to power.

5) Supreme Court    Imagine a Trump majority for the next 25 years.

6) From Russia with love     Trump’s crush on Putin, combined with his own stupendous ignorance, would make him Russia’s perfect fool. Throw in Trump’s extensive financial ties to Russia, and the downside risk to global stability is considerable.

7) Republicans strike back      If the right gets its way, millions will lose their health care, the rich will get richer, the earth will be plundered, minorities will be oppressed, the debt will explode, and the lucky few will escape to Canada.

8) Cultural debasement      Under Trump, the Puritans’ shining city on a hill would become a putrid swamp of vulgarity, sleaze, bigotry and selfishness. I don’t really understand why so many Christians love this guy. To quote Holden Caulfield, “Jesus would puke” at the shameless vanity of Trumpworld.

9) Corruption     Trump’s businesses, already suspect for their history of exploited workers, unpaid contractors, cheated investors, and shady international ties, would not go into a blind trust, but be carried on by his children. That should go well.

10) Stupidity     When I was laughing off the Trump candidacy in a London pub a year ago, a British woman gave me a sobering warning. “Watch out,” she said. “When Boris Johnson ran for mayor of London, he made the whole political process dumber. Trump could do the same thing to you.” And as we have witnessed, the bar has been lowered beyond belief. We are in danger of electing a man of unfathomable ignorance and stupifying shallowness, who has neither capacity nor desire to learn or grow.

That’s my list and I’m sticking to it. God save our country from such a fate. I have recently read about conservative pastors warning their congregations that voting Democratic would condemn them to hell. I myself would never presume to foretell the afterlife of any voter. But I am pretty sure of one thing. No one need go to hell if Trump is elected. Hell will already have come to us.

 

Related posts

Can This Be Happening? Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

How Far Can We Sink? – Donald Trump and the Vortex of Rage

It Ain’t Me, Babe: Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize

One of my prized 45s is this obscure single, released Dec. 21, 1965.

One of my prized 45s is this obscure single, released Dec. 21, 1965.

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.[i]

All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row [ii]

Little red wagon, little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like [iii]

Whenever the Nobel Prize for literature is announced, the American response is often “Who?” In our cultural insularity, few of us know their work or even their names. Not this year. Everybody’s heard of Dylan, and many can recite his lyrics.

The surprise in 2016 stems from the bursting of old academic wineskins. What constitutes literature, anyway? Some of the literary establishment are unhappy that a songwriter tainted with lower-brow genres of popular culture (and currently performing in Las Vegas!) should steal the laurels from more “serious” candidates such as Syrian poet Adonis or Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It’s “a joke,” fumed one French writer. A Scottish novelist dismissed the Nobel committee as “gibbering hippies.” [iv]

But if the linguistic arts trace their origins to the sung poetry of shared rituals, and Homer, the father of western literature, was a blind singer-songwriter who never put pen to paper, then Dylan can justly claim an ancient lineage, and stretching the definition of literature to include his work seems more restoration than innovation.

While Dylan’s jumping the queue ahead of American writers like Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and Don DeLillo might seem inappropriate to some, it is at least defensible. Oates herself calls the award “an inspired and original choice. His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the best sense, ‘literary.’” [v]

Dylan has certainly had his down periods of uneven albums and terrible concerts. I myself have endured one too many evenings of mumbled words, mangled melodies, and an almost contemptuous stage presence. But to sustain such an influential and ever-evolving body of work over half a century, bridging the cultural divide between high and low, making the play of language a lever to move the world, is an astonishing achievement. His poetic and musical gifts have so often given voice to the collective longing of our “subterranean homesick blues.” They have also taken us inward, to the places of the heart where “we sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” [vi]

As Bruce Springsteen has written, “Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become. He planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times, to the emotional and spiritual survival of so many young Americans . . .” [vii]

Dylan was the soundtrack for my own coming of age. During my first year of college in 1963, a classmate thrust Dylan’s first album into my hands. “You’ve got to hear this,” he said. As soon as that growling, barbaric yawp started blasting out of the speakers, I was spellbound. Like so many others, I took up the guitar just so I could play his songs. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (from his second album), was my first attempt (key of D with its easy chords). By my senior year, dozens of Dylan songs were in my repertoire. I even learned the ten-minute “Desolation Row” by heart, once performing it on Rome’s Spanish Steps, by the house where Keats died, during a post-graduate summer of hitchhiking Europe with my guitar.

In Berkeley on March 28, 1965, I caught one of Dylan’s final all-acoustic concerts, just before the release of Bringing It All Back Home, the first album in his unmatched trilogy (Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde would follow). Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg were sitting up front. Hippies and Hell’s Angels mixed with students and professors. The hall was charged with anticipation. From “Gates of Eden” to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” it was an amazing night.

It was the first time I ever heard “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Top 40 radio, or even Dylan’s previous work, had not really prepared me for the trippy ride “upon that magic swirling ship.” Behind its dazzling succession of vivid images, I recognized something primal and urgent, the call to leave everything and to follow, to look everywhere for the “windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”

As a poetic equivalent of the kingdom of God, the windy beach where the Spirit blows, the space of supreme aliveness, is too little found, and never possessed. And yet, now and then, I have danced beneath its diamond sky with one hand waving free, and hope to do so again as grace permits.

I was also in the crowd on September 3 of that same year, when Dylan played the Hollywood Bowl, backed by The Hawks (later The Band) along with Al Kooper on organ. There all the songs from Highway 61 Revisited were performed in public for only the second time (after a New York concert the previous week). Since the album had yet to hit the stores, it was my indelible first communion with the image world of Dylan’s surrealism. “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”[viii]  Indeed.

The encore was “Like a Rolling Stone,” the one song we already knew from the radio. Before beginning, Dylan searched among his harmonicas in vain, then spoke into the microphone, “Anyone got a C harmonica?” As I remember it, 17,000 harmonicas came flying onto the stage, and soon we were all shouting with one voice, “HOW DOES IT FEEEEEEEL?”

When, in 1966, I crossed the country to study at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my guitar and my Dylan records came with me. In a school play, I sang an adapted version of “With God On Our Side” to parody the horrific biblical conquest narratives. I wrote an article on the prophetic theology of Dylan’s lyrics in the seminary journal. And I incorporated fragments of his haunting religious poetry from John Wesley Harding into a multimedia senior sermon (you can hear the audio collage here).

In later years, Dylan’s preeminence in my life’s soundtrack receded, although his masterpiece of anguish and longing, Time Out of Mind, managed perfectly to coincide with my own midlife dark night of the soul. Lines like “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” may not have been balm in Gilead, but they kept me company until the dawn.

These days I occasionally sing old favorites like “Ramona,” “She Belongs To Me,” “Chimes of Freedom” and “Buckets of Rain.” And I never tire of leading friends and retreat groups in heartfelt renderings of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “I Shall Be Released.”

Everyone’s got their Dylan stories, but at their core is a mysterious absence. Dylan’s identity has always been veiled by a succession of fictions, evasions, conversions and withdrawals. He has given interviews full of absurd biographical narratives.[ix] Even before he was famous, he invented personae to protect himself from the prying projections of others. From fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem, that hype you and type you, making you feel you gotta be just like them. [x]

Does it matter whether we ever know the real Dylan, or find him a relatable personality? Or are the songs enough? Is their mysterious power to speak to us and for us enough?

“It’s like a ghost writing a song like that,” Dylan said about “Like a Rolling Stone” 40 years after recording his greatest hit. “It gives you the song and then it goes away. It goes away.”[xi] The ghost, the geist, the spirit blows where it will. The artist prepares to receive it, and learns how to give it away.

Another Nobel Laureate, poet Czeslaw Milosz, concurs, insisting that the artist’s vocation is to be “a secretary of the invisible.” Deliver the message entrusted to your keeping, then get the hell out of the way. It ain’t me, babe. This has been the essential kenosis of both art and spirit since the beginning.

Take Caedmon, for example. An illiterate herdsman in seventh-century Britain, he was suddenly commanded in a dream to sing the story of creation. Without learning or training, he began to sing words unknown to him, gifts from the same ghost who visited Dylan. Thus was English poetry born.

Denise Levertov imagines Caedmon’s in-spiriting in a poem of her own. He is huddling for warmth at night with the beasts of the barn, when suddenly the air is filled with “feathers of flame, sparks upflying.” The cows remain oblivious and calm, not seeing what the poet sees as “that hand of fire / touched my lips and scorched my tongue / and pulled my voice / into the ring of the dance.” [xii]

 

[i] Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm” (Bringing It All Back Home)

[ii] Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)

[iii] Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain” (Blood on the Tracks)

[iv] “Writers divided on whether Dylan deserves Nobel prize”: https://www.yahoo.com/news/writers-divided-whether-dylan-deserves-nobel-prize-180943929.html

[v] ibid.

[vi] Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)

[vii] Bruce Springsteen autobiography, Born To Run, q. on Springsteen’s website: http://brucespringsteen.net/news/2016/bruce-springsteen-on-bob-dylan

[viii] Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man” (Highway 61 Revisited)

[ix] To delve into the strange world of Dylan interviews: http://www.vulture.com/2007/10/the_ten_most_incomprehensible.html

[x] Bob Dylan, “Ramona” (Another Side of Bob Dylan)

[xi] Robert Hilburn, “Rock’s Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2004

[xii] Denise Levertov, “Caedmon”, q. in Edward Hirsch, Poet’s Choice (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006), 15

Why Do We Work? A Labor Day Reflection

"September" (Labor of the Months), Samos monastery dormitory, Camino de Santiago, Spain

“September” (Labor of the Months), Samos monastery dormitory, Camino de Santiago, Spain

Good work is a way of living… it is unifying and healing. It brings us home from pride and despair and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are, not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone. (Wendell Berry) [i]

Labor Day began in the late nineteenth century as both an homage to American workers (parade, speeches) and a time of re-creation (picnic, dance, fireworks). Congress declared it a national holiday in the aftermath of a contentious railroad strike in 1894, where 30 workers died in violent confrontations. It was hoped that honoring workers would ease tensions and foster social harmony. As the Department of Labor currently describes it, the first Monday in September “is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” [ii]

The holiday’s explicit homage to labor has long been overshadowed by its seasonal significance as the American farewell to summer—one last stretch of fun in the sun before the year gets busy again. But in our overworked culture, where the inbox follows you everywhere and vacations are a fraction of what Europeans enjoy, could we not make some time to reflect together about the nature of labor? What if churches were to revive the notion of Labor Sunday, where our tools could be blessed and the spirituality of work considered? [iii]

In the Bible, the pleasures of a perpetual weekend in Eden ended abruptly when God created Monday morning as a curse upon the first humans, who evidently needed to learn things the hard way. “By the sweat of your face” will you earn your daily bread,” said the Creator.[iv] The story was a way of thinking about the question, Why do we have to work so darn hard? Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were given light duties of tending the well-watered garden, more like an aristocrat’s hobby than the grueling subsistence farming bequeathed to their descendants.

Hard-working humans have been reminiscing ever since about the “happy Eden of those golden years.” [v] Stephen Duck, an eighteenth-century English poet-priest, voiced the complaint of the exploited farmworker.

Let those who feast at Ease on dainty Fare
Pity the Reapers, who their Feasts prepare …
Think what a painful Life we daily lead;
Each morning early rise, go late to Bed …
No respite from our Labour can be found;
Like Sisyphus, our Work is never done …[vi]

The justice issues arising around working conditions, exploitation, and economic inequality are themselves the shared work of any society worth its name. My ideal Labor Day would involve some serious community conversation—more listening than talking—about these things. But I would also be curious to explore the spirituality of work as well. Why do we do whatever we do? Does it give us joy? Does it matter?

An old Scottish drinking song provides a succinct answer in its praise of various occupations. The carpenter’s verse suggests the inner satisfaction of work well done, honors the process as well as the product, and celebrates the interdependence of the social world where each of us benefits from the labor of others:

Here’s a song for the carpenter, may patience guide your hand,
For the dearer your work to you, the longer it will stand.
And when the wind is at our door, we never will forget;
We’ve sung your praises many a time, and so will we yet. [vii]

Like our Creator, we are all makers and doers who enjoy the fulfillment of intentions and the solving of problems. It’s in our nature to see what needs to be done and then take a hand in making it so. We also find pleasure in the solidarity of labor, not only through our relationships with coworkers but also in the awareness of practicing a skill handed down by so many mentors and predecessors.

In an imperfect and often unjust society, not everyone has access to employment that delivers pleasure or meaning in itself, but one’s paying job may still be part of a larger labor which is absolutely worth doing, such as supporting a family or funding a future dream. Studs Terkel, who collected oral histories of countless Americans, believed that all of us long for meaningful work. “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job,” he said. “Most of us … have jobs that are too small for our spirit.” [viii]

Lewis Hyde makes a useful distinction between “work” and “labor.” Work is done by the hour, on the clock, usually for money. Its value is quantified, and has economic exchange value. Labor, on the other hand, keeps its own schedule, sets its own pace, and may include time off or even sleep as part of its process. Its social value may be clear, but its economic value is hard to quantify. Its product is not a commodity to exploit but a gift to share. “Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms—these are labors.” So are volunteer work, ministry, visiting the sick and the prisoner, gardening, personal soul work and “the slow maturation of talent.” [ix] Such labor is priceless.

Most of us have done both work and labor, as well as hybrids which include elements of both. And while Citizen Kane’s financial advisor said, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money,” the truer and nobler task is to cooperate with the Creator in repairing the world, that it may be a place of beauty, love and justice.

So my Labor Day question is this: Where and how can we perform the labor to which we are uniquely called, the thing which Etienne Souriau has called the “Angel of the work” [x]— that which gives us joy and blesses others?

Another verse in that Scottish song thanks the singers who keep their voices clear:

For the world as you would have it be,
you sing with all your wit,
And ease the work of Providence,
and so will we yet.

In that spirit, I leave you with two such singers, Joan Baez and her sister Mimi Farina, who “ease the work of Providence” by voicing the universal human right to flourish:

Bread, yes, but roses too!

 

Related Post:

Grace Me Guide

 

[i] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, q. in Karen Speerstra, ed., Divine Sparks: Collected Wisdom of the Heart (Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2005), 520

[ii] Department of Labor website: https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history

[iii] This was instituted by churches as a companion to Labor Day, but has fallen into disuse.

[iv] Genesis 3:19

[v] John Clare, “Helpstone” (1809) q. in Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 10

[vi] Stephen Duck, “The Thresher’s Labour” (1730), in Williams, op. cit., 88

[vii] The original, “Sae Will We Yet,” is attributed to Walter Watson, but I believe the carpenter verse is a contemporary addition by Ossian’s Tony Cuffe. A fine version by Gordon Bok, Ann Muir, and Ed Trickett is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h48Db_cvdDE

[viii] In Speerstra, op. cit., 519

[ix] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 50

[x] Etienne Souriau, q. in Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 464

American violence: Where do we go from here?

Contemplating Kehinde Wiley's "Morpheus" at the Seattle Museum of Art

Contemplating Kehinde Wiley’s “Morpheus” at the Seattle Museum of Art

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same … (Book of Common Prayer)

Every Sunday in the liturgical year has a Prayer for the Day, and this is the one recited in Episcopal churches annually on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, which in 2016 happened to be July 10. After a week filled with so much troubling violence in America, it was a prayer we badly needed. How in such times can we know and understand what we ought to do? Who will supply the grace and power to find a constructive way forward?

So many words have been written and spoken in recent days as thoughtful people try to grasp where we are, how we got here, and where we must go. It’s an important and necessary conversation, and I feel the imperative, as all responsible citizens must, to add my own voice to the dialogue. I should say something, but I don’t know exactly what. I can hear T. S. Eliot whispering in my ear: “Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”[i]

I have been on vacation, enjoying the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Oregon, staying in a house without television. I’ve heard and read some news, but have not been steeped in constant reportage. And I’ve not seen a single image of the violence. Although columnist Leonard Pitts interrupted his own vacation in Greece to write that “America has gone mad and there’s no place to hide,” I have maintained a certain religious distance from the immersive angst of endless news, since it is only at our peril that we compromise personal Sabbaths. So I am less informed than most about the events of recent days.

But I have read some commentary, and I was particularly struck by Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon article, “Death in Dallas and America’s existential crisis: Our new ‘civil war’ over the nature of reality.”[ii] He describes an America “divided not just by race, culture and ideology, but between competing versions of reality.” While political conflict, culture wars and violent acts have always been with us, today’s “mutual incomprehension” and a “near-total inability to communicate” have not. Competing sides live in alternative universes where mutually acknowledged facts are hard to come by.

At a recent confrontation between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, a reporter stood in the street between them, taking notes on the slogans and epithets being shouted from opposite sidewalks. A policeman told her she couldn’t stay in the middle of the street. “You have to stand on one side or the other,” he said.

But is there really no place to stand between irreconcilable polarities, no place where we can honor one another with the gift of listening? O’Hehir puts the question in vivid terms:

“Which would be more useful: For me to confront the fact that large numbers of my fellow citizens really believe that black radicals are waging a race war against white America and the police, and that Obama and Hillary Clinton hope to flood the country with Muslims and Mexicans while building socialism? And then try to figure out what the hell happened, and whether I can do anything to bridge the gap between that reality and mine? Or for me to carry on ridiculing others for their paranoid and superstitious beliefs, and congratulating myself for being a product of my class and educational background?”

Can we explore ways to listen to one another? To learn each other’s names, to hear each other’s stories, to understand one another’s language? To risk being stretched and challenged by alternate perspectives?

Such conversation ought to be be curated in churches, schools, homes and civic spaces. But what about the overheated environment of a protest situation? Even there? What would happen if there were a designated “argument-free” listening space at every demonstration, where people could speak without being judged, and the real pain and anxiety beneath the reactive and polarizing rhetorics could be received and acknowledged with respect and compassion?

Impossible? Then let the artists and saints show us how. Dostoevsky, for example, envisioned an improbable example of compassionate listening in The Brothers Karamazov. The brothers and their father are meeting with the saintly Father Zossima at his monastery in the hope of resolving a bitter family dispute. It doesn’t take long for the elder Karamazov and his son Dimitri to disgrace themselves before the holy monk as they bicker and shout and wish each other dead. But instead of intervening with words, Zossima suddenly kneels before Dimitri to kiss his feet. No one knows what to make of this unseemly action, but the monk later explains that when he realized the depth of Dimitri’s inner pain, and foresaw how much suffering it would bring him, he was impelled to make an extreme gesture of compassion. Instead of being sucked into the specific content of the argument, Father Zossima had perceived the pain and suffering behind it, and responded with unconditional love.

And so must we all. As Bobby Kennedy told a shocked and grieving black audience the night Martin Luther King was shot:

“What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”[iii]

Related posts

Beyond Punch and Judy: The Art of Nonviolent Resistance

After Paris and Beirut, What Kind of Story Shall We Tell?

[i] “East Coker” in Four Quartets

[ii] http://www.salon.com/2016/07/09/death_in_dallas_and_americas_existential_crisis_our_new_civil_war_over_the_nature_of_reality/

[iii] Speech in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Statement-on-the-Assassination-of-Martin-Luther-King.aspx

Is the American Dream a Con Game?

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

Oftener it falls, that this winged man, who will carry me into the heaven, whirls me into the clouds, then leaps and frisks about with me from cloud to cloud, still affirming that he is bound heavenward and I, being myself a novice, am slow in perceiving that he does not know the way into the heavens, and is merely bent that I should admire his skill to rise …

— Herman Melville, The Confidence Man

In Melville’s final novel, a ‘mysterious stranger’ boards a Mississippi riverboat on April Fools Day, initiating a series of scams upon the gullible passengers. Appearing in various guises, the stranger collects money for distant charities, solicits investments in get-rich-quick schemes, and sells miracle cures, all the while encouraging his marks to have confidence in the dream of better lives and a better world. He is the “winged man” who promises to carry them “heavenward.”

However, the marks soon learn that the hopes and dreams on offer are a total fraud. Melville describes the inevitable disillusion: “I tumble down again soon into my old nooks, and lead the life of exaggerations as before, and have lost the faith in the possibility of any guide who can lead me thither where I would be.”[i]

That riverboat still haunts the American imagination. We fall in love with dreams and schemes of better futures, better selves, a “life of exaggerations,” and invest our confidence in those who promise to deliver. This may work out for some, but more often there is the sting of disappointment, a sense of betrayal. As Greil Marcus has written, “America is a trap: its promises and dreams … are too much to live up to and too much to escape.”[ii]

Unattainable promises. Impossible dreams. The lonely crowd grows sullen, resentful, angry, like Nathanael West’s California dreamers in Day of the Locust (1939). Lured by the prospect of a New Eden out West, over the rainbow, they slave and save until they can afford to move to “the land of sunshine and oranges.”

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges . . . Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time . . . They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment . . . They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.[iii]

W. H. Auden described West’s novel as a parable “about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”[iv] Either way, it’s a figure we all recognize: the Confidence Man, duping the suckers with his promise to make America great again. “Believe me. Believe me. It’s going to be terrific.”

And what happens when the dreamers tumble back to earth? Most of us muddle on as best we can, but in Stephen Sondheim’s darkly comic musical, Assassins[v], nine embittered and unbalanced Americans find a single target for their anger: the President of the United States. In a carnival of lost souls, a smirking barker (the Confidence Man in disguise!) doles out handguns like cotton candy to a new crop of eager marks. If you keep your goal in sight,” he sings, “you can climb to any height. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

No job? Cupboard bare?
one room, no one there?
Hey, pal, don’t despair-
You wanna shoot a president?
c’mon and shoot a president…

John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, Charles Guiteau, Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, John Hinckley and a couple more broken dreamers line up to claim a gun as their means of grace and hope of glory.

And all you have to do
Is move your little finger,
Move your little finger and
You can change the world.

The climax takes us to Dallas, where the gang of murderous misfits pressures Lee Harvey Oswald to join their ranks and assuage their shared malady: “a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed and malignant sense of entitlement.”[vi]

In the finale, all nine assassins come to the front of the stage, singing out with all the confident uplift we expect from our musicals:

Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine!
Not the sun, but maybe one of its beams.
Rich man, poor man, black or white,
Everybody gets a bite,
Everybody’s got the right
to their dreams……

The smiling cast stretches out the last word, “dreams,” for a full twelve seconds as they raise their guns high. The moment the music ends, they all fire at once, a deafening volley, and the stage goes black.

When Assassins premiered in 1990, it was not well received. It seemed too dark and crazy at the time. But when I saw a rare revival this month at Seattle’s ACT Theater, it somehow made perfect sense, so dark and crazy has America become in these latter days.

We all clapped and cheered, of course. It was a fabulous production. The cast was great. It wasn’t all grim. There was plenty of humor. And Sondheim’s songs! But I had tears in my eyes as well. As Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country…”

As the applause went on, I thought of Kierkegaard’s story of a theater which had caught fire backstage as the show was about to begin. The manager grabbed the first actor he found to step through the curtain and warn the audience to evacuate. That actor, alas, was dressed as a clown. “The theater is burning!” he cried. “You must leave immediately!” The audience roared with laughter at the clown’s performance. Such pathos! Such irony! The more he shouted and pleaded, the more they laughed, until they were all consumed by the flames.

 

 

 

[i] Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade in Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd, Sailor (New York: Library of America, 1984), 452

[ii] Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975), 22

[iii] Nathanael West, Day of the Locust (from my personal transcription in a 1968 commonplace journal, original page unknown)

[iv] Wikipedia reference: Barnard, Rita. “‘When You Wish Upon a Star’: Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West” American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51

[v] 1990, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman

[vi] John Weidman interview, quoted in Misha Berson’s Seattle Times review, March 9, 2016