Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds to all, according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the Temple every day, but met in their houses for the breaking of bread, sharing their food with glad and generous hearts.

–– Acts 2:44-46

 

In November of 1972 I participated in an Episcopal Church project to engage with American communal movements in a process of dialogue and mutual learning. For three weeks in the snow and cold of New England, five people and a couple of dogs wandered the back roads of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in a 1953 school bus with a rebuilt, unreliable engine. Amid occasional breakdowns and blizzards, we visited a series of communes, ranging from an upscale geodesic dome to an isolated farm with neither plumbing nor electricity. The nights we spent on the bus were cold, and we were one dog short!

As people of faith, committed to watch the horizon where divine intention meets human possibility, we wanted to learn from the modern pilgrims who were making their exodus in search of a new society. What did they hope for? What had they learned? Did their utopian experiments in communal living bear any resemblance to the gospel message?

The Rev. Bill Teska, the priest behind the project, saw in the communal impulse an apocalyptic rejection of the political and economic structures which have been so fatal for both love and justice. The communards, he believed, were saying NO to this world for the sake of something better.

“By thousands, and tens of thousands, they are walking out of this world into a new one. . . In their capacity of standing as living examples of communities whose lives are ordered according to values entirely different from, and in many ways opposed to, the values of this world, the new communes fulfill for our society the same role which monasteries have performed in past centuries.”[i]

Exploring new worlds isn’t for the uncommitted. The trash bin of history is full of failed utopian quests. Even in Eden, there is always a snake or two. And the work can be strenuous. The transformation of consciousness is as daunting as the reformation of society. Every exodus feels the gravitational pull of the “Egypt” in its rearview mirror. But the biblical God has always encouraged the risk-takers: Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

And as Teska wrote at the time about the redemptive hope shared by both church and commune: “The future which the communards envision is one in which triumphant and transfigured Humanity reigns in Love.”

That was many years ago, and I have no idea whether any of those collectives still exist, or to what extent they made a difference in the lives of their members or in the world around them. But I have never forgotten their idealism––or their courage. Blessed are the pure in heart.

At a fairly new communal farm in Maine, I asked someone how their experiment was going. “Ask us in the spring,” he said. “We haven’t gone through our first winter yet. A commune hasn’t proved it can survive until it’s been through a winter.”

In the Plymouth Colony of Puritan immigrants to Massachusetts in 1620, only half made it through their first winter. The ones who survived threw the famous feast of Thanksgiving legend in the fall of 1621, with some combination of European wheat and native corn. About ninety locals––the Wampanoag people––showed up for the potluck, which included some deer meat but no turkey. They outnumbered the immigrants by two to one, but everyone seemed to get along. It would be an example too little followed in the years to come.

However tragic the subsequent history would prove, the early Puritan immigrants idealized their story as a great communal experiment, a chance to revise the tired narratives of the Old World in “a second Eden, rejoicing and blossoming as a Rose, Beautiful as Tizrah, Comely as Jerusalem.”[ii] In that sense, the New England communes we visited in 1972 were heirs of that Pilgrim vision. Liberated from the structures of the past, they hoped to forge a new kind of society and perhaps a new kind of humanity.

But America has always had its dissenters from the glowing narrative of a new people in a new Eden. As Alexander Hamilton would grumble in November of 1787:

“Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses and the evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age?”[iii]

In an America now ruled by a billionaire oligarchy, a raging lunatic, and an unprincipled Congressional majority verging on treason, Hamilton’s cynical doubts would seem to carry the day. The utopian dream of the Pilgrims, or the 1970s communards, has no where to take place in a land so polluted by ignorance, hate and greed. From sea to shining sea, where is Eden now?

For those of us who still dream of a just and loving society, this is a winter of the utmost testing. Many may wither in its icy blast. And yet, come what may, I still believe in divine imagination and human potential. God has a better idea than our despair.

This eschatological idea has been described with biblical eloquence in a poem by Judy Chicago.[iv] May it be sacramentally reimagined at every Thanksgiving feast, and then fulfilled in fact through our daily prophetic acts of compassion, justice, and hope:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

 

Related post: No Place Like Home

 

[i] From a report on the project, written in Advent, 1972, by the Rev. William J. Teska, Eleanor Leiper Hall, and the Rev. Jim Friedrich.

[ii] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 71.

[iii] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers No. 6, “Concerning Dangers of Dissensions Between the States.”

[iv] Judy Chicago, “Merger Poem,” 1979.

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

July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson rose before dawn, recorded the temperature at 6 a.m. (68 degrees), had some tea and biscuits, and made his way to Independence Hall. Sixty-nine years later, Henry David Thoreau chose the day to begin his sojourn at Walden Pond. On July 4, 1863, Lee’s Confederate army began its decisive retreat from Gettysburg, and on the same date in 1895 Katherine Lee Bates published “America the Beautiful”. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Foster, Louis B. Mayer and Obama’s oldest daughter were all born on July 4, and both Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50thth anniversary of the Founders’ Declaration. So what do the rest of us have planned for Independence Day?

It was Adams who predicted that the Fourth would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] We have more or less fulfilled the externals of Adams’ vision, but the mindfulness with which we keep the feast is subject to question. In 1975, just before the American Bicentennial, a Gallup poll revealed that 28% of Americans were unable to identify what significant event happened in 1776.

What should we remember as a people? Do we create simplifying myths that unite us with some intoxicating blend of nostalgia and amnesia? Sanitizing and depoliticizing the past is a way to reduce conflict, as in the efforts to heal sectional division after the Civil war. But that can leave grievous social ills unaddressed and unhealed. The current debate about the Confederate battle flag shows how deeply embedded such sanitizing mythology can be. Preserving “heritage,” we discover, is a massive process of forgetting where, in Joan Didion’s memorable phrase, “no one is bloodied by history.”[ii]

Some governments try to supervise the formation of collective memory. The late Soviet Union is a notorious example, but there are also more benign forms of cultivating shared cultural identity (mais oui!). But in America, as Michael Kammen has noted, “people forget and remember largely on their own.”[iii] We have no ministry of culture, and national memory is contested without official referees.

But few of us will give much thought to either politics or culture tomorrow. As a radio talk show guy put it in his summary of America’s military mission: “Those guys are fighting so we can have barbecues and drink beer.”[iv] Pursuit of happiness indeed. But as Daniel Webster noted, it has always been so. “The tavern,” he said, “was the headquarters of the Revolution”[v] – a gathering place where ideas were exchanged and debated. In these latter days we have retained the conviviality of the tavern while dispensing with the ideas. The long-winded orations of old-time Fourths are long gone. There will be little thoughtful discussion of liberty and the common good around the barbecue. No radical challenges to tyranny and oppression will be issued. We’ll just enjoy a day off with our families, friends and neighbors as we pursue happiness together. And in a society fraught with so much division and disconnection, being together in peace and play and joy may be as good a way as any to keep the American feast.

One of the moments when I feel community most vividly is after the last fireworks fade to black above our local harbor. All of us who have watched from the beach begin to make our way along a forest path back to the road. It is too dark to see faces, or anything else that distinguishes one from another. We are an egalitarian procession of shadows, walking together. No longer pursuing happiness, we seem to have found it. Being there together in the night, for a few lovely minutes, is the most important fact about us.

The wonder I feel in the holiday’s concluding moment is beautifully expressed in Samuel Hynes’ memoir of his childhood in the 1930s. Although he grew up in a very different America, his description touches on something timeless:

The last rocket is always the best of all – burst after burst, the echoes rebounding, and then another burst just when you think it is all over. And then it is. The families rise slowly in the sudden silence and fold their blankets, and walk home through the dark, still streets, not talking much, purged by the high splendors they have seen, satisfied that another Fourth is over, another summer has been celebrated with a proper hullabaloo.[vi]

[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203

[ii] Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 667

[iii] ibid., 700

[iv] Overheard on a Montana roadtrip a few years ago.

[v] Angel in the Whirlwind, 494

[vi] Samuel Hynes, The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 111

Simple gifts

Shakers dance

Who will bow and bend like a willow
Who will turn and twist and reel
In the gale of simple freedom …

– Shaker spiritual

John Ciardi said that the poet is known by the valor of his refusals. So too the saint. But the austerity of self-limitation is not what we might have expected from the Wooster Group, the edgy New York City troupe long known for its Dionysian blends of experimental theater and multimedia technologies. Their latest production, however, not only reincarnates the music of the Shakers, it does so with a minimalist restraint worthy of that nearly extinct American sect.

Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation presents all 20 songs from side A of a 1976 LP recorded at the dwindling Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After the liner notes for each song are read aloud, four women in plain 19th century dress sing along with the actual spinning record as it is transmitted to them through wireless receivers. The voice of Suzzy Roche is especially haunting, lean and lonesome and saturated with pastness like a faded tintype. While we listen to these contemporary reproductions of long departed voices, we sometimes hear the faint traces of the original recorded sound leaking into the room from the women’s earpieces. As the New York Times has written: “The aural effect is subtle and eerie, suggesting a kind of phantasmal possession of the present by the past or, if you prefer, the eternal.”[i]

Sitting quietly, passive and still, replicating out loud what they are hearing in their ear, the singers seem to be channeling something not of their own making, a transcendent voice entering the present world by first passing through their own souls and bodies. It feels like the spiritual ventriloquism of biblical prophecy. What shall I sing? Sing this. How fitting for a repertoire which the Shakers often attributed to the gifts of unseen spirits or divine inspiration.

The contrast of the singers’ personal inexpressiveness with such passionate, ecstatic and sometimes eschatological song texts (“with leaping and with dancing / we’ll hail the jubilee”) only strengthens the sense of otherness. What they sing does not come from them, but through them. It is not a spontaneous construct whipped up by emotional display. Such unassertive transparency achieves a strange oracular force. We hear a message from beyond.

Even when the singers rise from their chairs to approximate the original Shaker dances, it is not an exaltation of the self, but a yielding to the higher rhythms of divine choreography. As they reel, turn and twist to “shake out all the starch and stiffening,” they do not express. They surrender.

When I saw this compelling performance the other night in Los Angeles’ Redcat Theater, I was transported – whether to the past, or to the eternal, who can say? But I came away touched by a larger world than my ordinary domain. Voices distant in time had spoken to me. And is this not analogous to the eucharistic liturgy? We listen to ancient voices as if they were here and now, and speak their words from our own lips. Transparent presiders at the altar reproduce actions first performed in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. If we manage to keep our ego out of the way in the liturgy, the eternal Word, like that 1976 Shaker recording, may be heard and received in the fresh particularity of the now.

Some of the Wooster Group might take issue with my theological interpretation. Frances McDormand, the ensemble’s best-known actress, has resisted the religious dimensions of the Shaker tradition, preferring to stress the communal qualities of their musical environment. “It’s not religiously based,” she said in an interview. “It’s more poetic. There are parables to it, but it’s not about Jesus so it’s a little bit easier to take.”[ii]

Such indifference to Christian theology and practice is the common currency of secular modernity, the default position posing a perpetual challenge to those who would speak of faith. Many people think of Jesus and Christianity as something over and done, at least for them.

And yet, here is a cutting edge theater troupe performing religious songs without irony or ridicule, in a creative simulacrum of the otherness of the music’s reputedly transcendent source. While I won’t presume to baptize the Wooster Group, or attribute overt belief where it is explicitly denied, I still wonder whether there might yet be something larger at work in the world than any of us are able either to understand or admit. Whatever the Wooster Group actually thinks about what they are doing, and whatever ideas I might have about it, the “simple gifts” of love and delight go on being given and being received. Whether the mechanism of that exchange can be adequately described or named is perhaps the least important part of the whole thing. Experience trumps the language we put to it. In the end, you don’t need to possess the perfect map before you can dwell in “the valley of love and delight.” You’re already there. Its song is already whispering in your ear.

[i] Ben Brantley, The New York Times, May 29, 2014

[ii] James Kim interview with Frances McDormand, KPPC radio, Jan. 21, 2015