In every generation, there are a finite number of stories that authenticate, define the generation. In every event of significance, every catastrophe, every jubilation, there are a certain number of stories, thirty six, thirty, one, ten thousand, thirty six stories that define the catastrophe.
The defining story for me of 9/11 is the story of the fire fighters of New York City, and a particular account of those fire fighters given by a Board member of the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Vena Drennan (sp?). Her husband Capt. John Drennan was killed on the job in 1994.
She was interviewed by Noah Adams on All Things Considered, this is what I heard listening to it on the radio:
Mrs. Drennan: We went down to the firehouse which is below Fourteenth Street. I went to the wake of one of the firefighters. They have a sense of optimism.
They had decided to pray to my husband who they feel still watches over them. And they said, Capt. Drennan — show us where the eleven [missing] members are. And one young one said, I knew just where to put my shovel. Ladder Five is so comforted that they were able to find five of their own and return their bodies to their families and honor their deaths in a proper and magnificent funeral.
ATC: Mrs. Drennan are you saying that those on the scene believed that the spirit of your late husband helped them to find those who were fallen?
Mrs. Drennan: Yes, you lose your religion after a large crisis but you sure get a spirituality about it.
ATC: There’s a photograph of something you don’t often see in the magazines in the recent US News and World Report, of firemen carrying a dead man, the Reverend Mychal Judge fire department chaplain you know him, sixty eight years old,
Mrs. Drennan: He was one of my best friends,
ATC: As you know he was administering last rites and was killed by falling debris.
Then she told the story of Mychal Judge and how he had comforted her after the death of her husband, and how he had remembered her on her anniversary every year thereafter.
Mrs. Drennan: When he prayed, it was the most blessed thing,
you felt that his prayers were a direct hotline to God.
ATC: He was a Franciscan priest.
Mrs. Drennan: Mychal was administering last rites to a firefighter that had just been hit by a body of a woman. People were falling out of those towers so they wouldn’t burn.
In the midst of this here he is kneeling and giving last rites. The firefighters when they realized he had perished they carried him up to St. Peters church and they laid out his body on the altar and they put his rosaries in his hand and they pinned on his fire department badge and they prayed over him. Later that night they wouldn’t let his body go to the morgue.
They brought him to their firehouse and they laid him in the back room and the friars across the street of St. Francis of Assisi came and they lit candles and said a vigil.
He was beloved by every firefighter in the city and the fire department will grieve many many years for the loss of his beautiful life.
That is the defining story for me, the fire fighters story, a story of such piety and beauty that I know we are going to be all right. There were many such stories, this is the one for me. There are a number of stories that define an event, and one of them, one of those stories, may be the one that saves us, this is the story that is saving me.
How will the world be saved? Not by this, not by that, but through hope and poetry, beauty and piety, story.
Hey, we need jobs. The mayor of the city of St. Louis sent an aid to the site where a 25 year old man brandishing a knife at police was shot and the young men hanging around there said: we need some jobs. So he offered them job training and signed up a bunch of young men right there at the scene. I’m going to take this as a sign for things to come, a clue that something good can come out of this terrible chapter in America’s history.
But why did that man have to die? I would have thrown a bucket at him and jumped him. Look at the video. That man did not have to die. Everybody is tense here. The mayor of St. Louis has the benefit of mistakes made before him he practiced transparency and the police chief was better trained and they all made the case for shooting. It’s only four miles from Ferguson.
The thing about Ferguson is of course it’s America. One America. We’ve been forgetting that for a long time now. We’ve been safe in Two Americas. One America now. This may be the enduring legacy of this shameful, tragic chapter.
Because Ferguson is a nice little town. I know a bunch of people who live there. Of course there are two Fergusons also. I wonder: does everybody get that, watching the events on television, popping corn?
Ferguson has a Target. And a Schnuck’s. And a kind of Target plaza or whatever the hell you call it you know standard sandy brown strip mall construction with a Gigantic parking lot.
In the Target is a Starbuck’s. Now there is not an urban environment on earth that is in social collapse that has a Starbuck’s. I grew up in Detroit. I guarantee if there was an equivalent event in Detroit these days it would not be in a neighborhood that has a Starbuck’s.
But Ferguson is not really urban. It’s down in the mouth suburban. The city of St. Louis encroached onto Ferguson and brought all the attendant problems of urban life. It’s a story of race, race and class, as are so many of our stories.
Race and class. We need a job. We need a living wage. We need to be known. We need to be listened to, We need to be heard. We need to be treated with respect. We are America too, one America, hey we want some America too.
Hold on. There’s a guy on television that says he’s a physician and an attorney. And he’s advertising as “a semi-truck lawyer.” I couldn’t make this stuff up. Plus his name is poetic, it’s almost the same first name, last name. Dickens! Are you listening? You would love this. Nabakov. Vonnegut. David Foster Wallace. You guys must be cracking up. Semi-truck lawyer. He wants clients who got hit by trucks.
Anyway, tonight I marched with a line of clergy to the County government center to ask the Prosecutor to recuse himself. Love this language. So Franz and Fyodor. They would be laughing too except they didn’t laugh though they totally got irony got everything they just didn’t laugh. Too serious too sad.
We marched to the County Government Center. In addition to the Prosecutor’s office the jailhouse is there. I do a prison project and visit the jailhouse right there every Wednesday afternoon. I couldn’t go today. They closed it up tight to outsiders. There I was on the street right under the side with the obscured windows. I know the prisoners are up above.
That’s another side of this story. Up above as as we stood hollering on the street are the forgotten ones who have fallen out of the system entirely, hidden away behind those windows. I’m down below thinking about them up above, wondering if they’re watching us. Hey there’s the rabbi! He’s preaching!
Well I wasn’t preaching, I was praying for peace. Up above the angels behind the windows received my prayers and relayed them straight to heaven. People think there’s a hardening of the hearts out here, they should only know what happens up there.
Tonight I made a prayer at the march, and it seems as if the Prosecutor and the Governor are at war and well — who needs that mess. This is too important. Why not let someone else do it? Maybe that physician and lawyer on television I just saw. He’s so qualified for everything.
I think qualified people should do what they know. I can’t stand it when CNN is trying the case on television, though I have to admit that Lawrence O’Donnell just dissembled entirely the New York Times reportage on MSNBC and he’s not even chasing anybody around the streets of Ferguson. He’s sitting there behind a desk thinking. I kind of like that. Everybody else; let the qualified people try the case.
On the other hand, if you’re quiet and sensitive and deliberative, you can figure some things out. I mean the long term systemic social adjustments we will have to make to become one America. We can figure that out together.
Heck the top law enforcement official in the country came to Ferguson today to meet the family of Mike Brown and hug the Highway Patrol. That was beautiful.
I can’t think so big because what I call my mind has limitations when it comes to organizing the Universe so I have to keep it simple. This is what I’m going to do, I swear, I’m taking an oath.
I don’t go out much. I don’t go out to dinner and all that stuff, don’t go shopping, etc. (except grocery stores), my perfect day is the coffee house and the library reading and writing but from now on when I do go out, I’m going to Ferguson. People are always asking to meet with me and I’m not a sit behind the desk kind of guy so I meet people in coffee houses and such. If people want to meet with me, I’ll be at that Starbuck’s in Ferguson (as soon as the French video team departs, they leave their junk everywhere and wear a fragrance that makes me gag).
When my beloved wants to go out to dinner, or lunch, or maybe even an occasional breakfast, we’re going to Ferguson. I was there in the daytime yesterday and there are plenty of restaurants in Ferguson. I’ll go to those places and I’ll get to know the other people who go there too.
Getting to know people there. I’m taking a vow to do that. This is a harder one. I’m a shy person. I score introvert on that test I’m sorry I took, the one with the boxes. The mother of Mike Brown works at a store where I shop for groceries, I found out that she worked there and I go there a couple of times a week and I don’t know her. There is so much wrong with that.
I wonder how this loss will change her life so I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to know her in the future, but I will never again make a shop twice a week anywhere, take my laundry in, go to a coffee shop, use the library, without knowing the people who are working there, helping me, living with me in my world. One world. One America. This is what I’m going to do, I swear.
It’s small, but it’s do-able. And I think if we can help Ferguson, we can help all of it. Ferguson is a microcosm, the nature of the microcosm is that people learn from it. Also there’s always some mysticism between the microcosm and the macrocosm, what happens in one instance impacts Everything. What if Ferguson became the almost perfect garden. Why not Detroit?
Feverish working of the media a call for the cessation of fervor would have been right, solutions immediate and long range systemic both, always reason together.
What was not part of the Story: it wasn’t hot that summer. Still we were tinder ignited, the news making news, banter filling up time between sales spots selling eyeglasses and automobiles.
I heard the street groan cracking open with lava. History politics and psychology converged at the intersection it was summer time and all dramas were heating up by tweets and the war for faces, there were truces now and again all parties rolled into un-safe places.
Good-hearted people with solutions handed out their business cards. Believe me, they said, salvific fervor all around.
Nature is the symbol of spirit — Emerson talking. It’s raining today.
Sunday, August 17.14
I took a sabbatical and went to Israel to sit at the feet of a great master and learn the playing of my instrument from the source. It’s the voice of Arabic music, though there have been many great Jewish players, the instrument today is typically identified with the Arab world. The oud, ancestor to the lute; without frets one can reach the micro-tones that distinguishes eastern Mediterranean, north African, middle Eastern music.
I had made an unlikely connection with the teacher in the States and he invited me to learn with him where he lived, in one of the largest Arab towns in the Galilee.
His town is northeast of Haifa. That means that in driving to him, I drove through the three largest cities in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.
Israel is a small country, and such a trip is only about 110 miles long. But getting through the cities is difficult, and I had no idea how long it would take me to make the journey.
After I settled into Jerusalem, I took directions from my teacher over the phone. It wasn’t until I hung up and reviewed what I had written that I realized that in all his directions, through the three largest cities in Israel, through the several different geographic zones that in Israel are so close upon one another, in all the complexity of his directions that required three free hours of driving and navigating, in all those directions there was not one street name. It was all right at the bridge. . . left at the garbage dump. . .two o’clock at the rotary. . .etc. Not one street name.
I would spend three or hours with him one day a week. The rest of the week: practice in my little room in Jerusalem.
The town is named Shfaram, there are no Jews there today. Today there are Christian Arabs, Moslem Arabs, and Druze living in Shfaram. There is an ancient synagogue there and I was told by an elderly Arab man on top of a nearby mountain that there were Jews living there as recently as the early Seventies, but none since. At one time, not long after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) met there.
I started off on my first journey to Shfaram on Sunday, which is called in Hebrew yom rishon (Day One) and is so named from the account of Creation. Six days of creation followed by Shabbat, day one, day two, day three, etc. The Muslims identify their days the same way. Sunday is therefore a full day of activity in Israel, there is no such thing in Israel as a weekend, there is six days of work, one day of rest, just like in the Bible.
I hurtled through Tel Aviv and found my way onto the coastal highway that runs next to the Mediterranean all the way up to Haifa. About half way up the coast toward Haifa, the road relaxed from the tension of Tel Aviv, curved even closer to the Mediterranean, and for the first time I saw the sea. I could smell it in the air.
This is the new road, that is how it is known to Israelis. On maps it is designated by a number, two, but Israelis know it as the new road. The old road which is marked on the maps by the number four, is parallel to the new road a little inland and often you can see one from the other. The new road is under constant renovation, especially around Tel Aviv, and it would take a few more trips until I realized that the old road is faster, more interesting for sure, especially when there is traffic.
I came to Haifa. Both the new and the old roads lead to Haifa. I would later discover a road that leads to the north and avoids Haifa altogether, winding around the gentle sweep of Mt. Carmel. Haifa is the port city of Israel. It is built mostly on hills that roll down to the natural port on which Haifa is built. There are beautiful places to go in Haifa, but I didn’t stop.
Once through Haifa, I headed toward the western Galilee. Just north of Haifa, the scenery once again changed dramatically. In the distance I saw small villages nestled into the sides and on top of the hills. It was green and beautiful, open, less populated compared to the Tel Aviv – Haifa corridor I had just passed through; the air was clean, cool, fresh. I followed the signs to Shfaram where my teacher lived.
I had never been to an Arab town before. My teacher’s directions were precise but of course none of the turns were marked with the names that he gave them. I had found my way by intuition and a pretty good road map tucked into my sun visor. I found the town easily, with not one wrong turn, and it was only when I entered the town itself did I get lost. I would later find out that there are two entrances to the town, I had taken the wrong one.
I was contemplating how to turn around on the gravel path in the foothills where I ran out of road. I got out of my car to reconnoiter whether I could make a turn in the grass or just retrace my way in reverse.
I saw a man in robes with some sheep, and the thought: oh my God, a shepherd. He came up to me and we gesticulated; my Arabic not so hot, his Hebrew likewise. I showed him my instrument thinking that would lead to directions to the oud teacher I was hoping he knew, and he sat down on a rock as if he were an audience. So I played for him.
This is great, I thought. This is terrible. It was beautiful in a field with the shepherd sitting on a rock, myself leaning against the car playing some oud, he started singing with me, sheep bleating (?) nearby, where in the world am I and what’s next.
I asked directions back to Shfaram and he guided me into a U turn and a jaunty farewell as if we have been bonded in a familiar way; I could not have dreamt such a scene.
My teacher and I had scheduled to meet each other at the gas station; there were several gas stations in the town and I came to the wrong one. I drove out in search of another. Then I got hopelessly lost again in the dirt roads of the town. Everyone stared at me as I passed
I was an hour late and looking for a phone to call him (pre-cell phone era). I finally found a phone and just at the moment when I was about to exit my car to use it, I saw him in his car at the very same moment he saw me. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He had given up on me and was on his way home; we exchanged stories, and I followed him to his house.
He lived on the edge of the town (the other edge), overlooking a meadow below and the Galilee spread out in the distant east. He lived on a road with the rest of his family as is the Arab custom. It was a beautiful view. All the windows were open and the air rustled our papers on the music stand. His wife served me cola and some fresh figs and other fruit, I assumed that she spoke no English. Later I learned that she taught English in a school in Acco.
We went right to work. He began by showing me the basics, how to hold the instrument, how to manipulate the plectrum, called a reeshi which means eagle feather in Arabic, because that was the traditional way to pluck strings. We discussed the intricacies of extracting sound out of the instrument, we talked mostly in metaphor and he intuitively illustrated his points sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in Arabic (he was delighted that I read and wrote Arabic), sometimes in English. He showed me the traditional modes, called maqamat, of the music.
It was very difficult, a complete re-education for me from the way I had taught myself. It required a tremendous amount of concentration just to play through all the examples he was showing me. Learning to use the reeshi, the plectrum, was difficult because I was accustomed to playing oud with my fingers, as I played guitar. We were head to head for about two hours. He gave me a reeshi that he no longer used, made of bone.
The reeshi was especially difficult for me to use. I worked it too hard over the strings. He lifted my hand and taught me an exercise, my hand floating up and down as if lifted by a pillow of air. I practiced the exercise while driving, sitting in a chair, watching television, walking down the street, gently lifting my hand up and down isolating the motion of the hand at the wrist. Do this everyday, he said.
He heard something in my playing that I myself would not hear for months. When I began studying with him, I said to myself, I’ve taken on too much here. I cannot possibly do this. He listened to me and said, we will accomplish much in the months we have together. After every lesson, he congratulated me. I felt foolish, I could not even hear the notes at first. Micro-tones. Half-flats.
He told me to close my eyes and listen, to hear the notes first and then to find them on the fingerboard. I couldn’t find them in the beginning. Microtones are notes that we do not have in Western music, notes that are closer together than adjacent keys on the piano, or frets on the guitar. I could not hear them because I had never played them before, you cannot reach these notes on the guitar (unless you bend the strings), nor can you play them on the piano. They are not ordinarily a part of Western music at all.
Listen, he said and I closed my eyes and heard the note in my head. Then I found it on the fingerboard. It was more mental than physical. I could only find the note when I paused to listen for it. I sat there in his living room overlooking the western Galilee with my eyes closed, trying to imagine in my mind the note I was trying to find on the neck of my instrument. Then I plucked the note, and I began to find it the more I listened.
The real work of playing an instrument at this level, I realized, is internal. You have to listen, he said, then you play. One time I sat in a master class with a great Spanish classical guitarist. Someone in the audience asked him which finger exercises he used to warm up for a concert. None, he said, is not physical. Is entirely mental.
Like matter and energy, the relation of which is fixed deep within the structure of things but not perceived, the relation of mental and physical, inner and outer, clarified for me on the fretless fingerboard of my instrument.
I realized that in our time together, we exchanged not one sentence of personal information about each other. It would be this way the entire time he taught me: I would show up, we would play for two or three hours, discussing only music. He knew nothing about me; I knew little about him. We spoke only music to each other and it was through the music that we came to know as much as we came to know about each other.
He gave me my assignments for next time. He seemed genuinely delighted with me as a student, he saw that I learned quickly, and he knew how eager I was. We will do a lot, he said again. He gave me more directions, and I headed back to Jerusalem just as the sun began to find its way home in the west.
I was back on the road toward Haifa, as the darkness settled over the north, I watched the villages on top of the hills in the distance light up. I didn’t stop on the way home, I gobbled up a couple of sandwiches in the car, and I was home in Jerusalem just over two hours later.
I was not at all tired, as a matter of fact, I practiced for two more hours that night. By the next day, I had begun to read the pieces he had given me. I realized that through the music we had entered a place deeper than our differences, before the separation of Isaac and Ishmael, the music of Abraham. The oud had opened my mouth, and it was singing the world.
I ask myself now, what brought me to him? At first, it was something organic. Physical. It was love of the music. I heard these sounds for the first time in a park in Jerusalem in 1976. It was the first time I visited there. The sound I heard that day I took back with me to the States, and it eventually replaced whatever it was that I had come with.
When I returned to study music, Shfaram seemed far away from the Israel I knew. I spent three or four hours there once a week. I bounced all over town, sat in the cafes, went to the souks, hung out on the street. People stared at me at first, I’m sure wondering what was I doing there. Then I became familiar and everyone I guess assumed I was doing something for real otherwise – why? My Israeli friends mostly thought I was nuts.
Music opened all doors. After music was the relation I formed with my teacher that was meta-personal. We only spoke music but music was enough. I felt the music, a common grounding in the forms I was learning. It felt entirely familiar to me. Music. What does it mean that we met there? I am still working that question. What are the implications and – how to communicate that to others? It seemed to me that this experience should not be secret.
I was coming to know something deep within me that was deep within him, though we lived far away from each other. Within this little country, we lived far away from each other. Until music.
Peace Vigil these are the pieces
When Nachman’s first plan failed, he began to tell stories. Nachman had a theory of story: story was a method for the soul to side-step the heart and speak directly to the mind. The soul, Susan said, what is this thing called the soul? It’s deeper than the heart. Maybe that’s what sustains us when our hearts are broken. Our souls.
On the phone she said, my husband is dying, can you come? I drove out to her apartment, she was sitting in her front room and she wanted to plan her husband’s funeral. Her husband was lying in the other room in a hospital bed. Two sons came in.
She wanted to know what the order of prayers and events were at the funeral. I suggested that the first thing was to accompany him properly through his passage. What do you mean passage she said innocently. The passage of his soul. His soul, she said, she said it again, his soul, and again. His soul, yes, she said. There was a moment of good silence.
Then we gathered around her husband’s bed and I sang prayers quietly into his ear and his sons kissed his forehead and rubbed his hands.
The father’s eyes fluttered as his sons kissed him. Later we were talking back in the other room.
Tell me about the soul, one son asked. Many names for the soul in Hebrew, I told him five, the last of which was yechidah. All are beautiful words, each referring to a deeper sense of personal essence culminating in yechidah, unity. This is the goal of the soul’s journey, one of the sons said, to return from where we came. Maybe that’s God, he said. There was silence in the room, all of us floating on our thoughts, and the soft whirring of a fan coming from the other room.
I feel his soul reaching for God, one of the sons said. Yes, I said, I feel it too. He has a big soul, his other son said. I feel his soul in a circle of great souls, he said. His soul is making its journey home. Yes, they all said enthusiastically. As I left they returned to his bedside, they kissed his head, read him psalms and poetry. I stopped and listened for a while to the breath of poetry rising from his bedside.
Peace Vigil these are the pieces
Peace Vigil: Story 1
As it heats up, I am thinking-doing what I can. Write. Sing. These are the pieces.
I am feeling ourselves spinning into the events of our time and their significance is elusive but perhaps it will clarify, just as Rashi the poet predicted, one day we will come to see that it was as it is supposed to be, the deep significance of events will clarify and the events will release their deep significance just as Rashi the poet described the emek of Hevron, the valley of Hevron — it’s not a valley it’s the depth of events in the Torah Vayeshev — the depth of the story.
Do I understand the obstacles to peace making? No. But I have spent some time there, I have some experiences on the ground, I have sat with artists mostly and musicians and I have even been their student. I apprenticed myself to the world sounds. I went there to learn at the source.
Everybody I met in Israel wanted to know what I was doing there. I told whoever asked that I had returned to Israel to study and to play the oud. When I first came to Israel, in 1976, I was part of a rhythm and blues show that toured the country. I appeared all over Israel playing exclusively American music.
To most Israelis I met, that made sense, but my mission to learn the oud did not. “Why don’t you play the guitar?” one asked me. “”I do play the guitar,” I said. “The oud. . .” she said, “it has such a whiny sound. Is that racist?” she said to me. We concluded that it was just uninformed. At least she asked.
The Israelis I hung out with were exceedingly aware of racism and were working at the deepest levels of self reflection to work themselves clean of that corruption. I felt this everywhere. I feel that eroding now, and I am wondering whether we are in the it will have to get worse before it gets better phase.
The Israelis I met when I was studying there were curious about me, I am sure they thought maybe I was a little crazy, most wondering why the heck I was interested in learning this instrument from an Arab in the western Galilee. It seemed like such an unlikely pursuit.
One night, I was having dinner in Jerusalem with a group of Israelis. It was Shavuot, as a matter of fact, we were getting together and then we were all going to hear Aviva guide us to Ruth, learning until dawn, walk to the Wall, and say the morning prayers as the sun came up. It was the thing to do in Jerusalem on Shavuot.
At the table, there was an Israeli academic sitting next to me who had just returned to Israel after having spent half a dozen years getting his Ph.D. at Penn in Indian Vedic philosophy. “So,” he asked me, “what are you doing in Israel?”
I began to tell him about the instrument, about the music I had come to learn, and half way through my exposition, I stopped and asked him, “how interested are you in this story?”
He said something beautiful and true to me. “When you love something, when you know it in depth, at its essence, every something becomes Everything. Every part of the story becomes the whole story, every part the Whole.” I told him everything.
But that is not why I am telling this story now. This story is being written as a reminder, a purely personal reminder, to me because I need it now. I need the memory of a time when I moved across the borders that now separate and isolate, when I wandered fearlessly between cultures that are now warring with each other, when I entered the mind of my estranged relations in the East, without knowing anything at all about them, them about me, but connected through something greater than our differences.
We met beneath our differences, before the exile from each other, we met at the intersection of the common sound we made, the music in our hands, and if we could find our way to each other through music, could peace be far behind?
How far? How long?
An American Dream of Life
James Stone Goodman
Celebrating July 4th as I write this with a tasty American lunch, walking distance from the confluence of the Big Muddy Missouri and the Mighty Mississippi rivers, where two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark set out to discover the Northwest Passage. It wasn’t the Northwest Passage but it was 1804, Lewis and Clark took off from here on their way to the Pacific, actually less than two miles from here, two hundred years altered the geography only two miles. In other ways we are more altered, more cynical for sure, the evidence is in, we are diminished.
I am also celebrating the birthday of a great American, my grandfather, who was born on July 4th, so proud a day for immigrant families that they often tried to talk, cajole, even buy their way onto the official record with a birthday of July 4th. My friend telling me about her husband’s immigrant origins: he was born twenty minutes to midnight, July 3rd, they tried to talk the doctor into altering the documents, he wouldn’t, even though he was a brother-in-law!. It mattered, because the immigrant loved the American dream of freedom, it drew millions of immigrant parents to new lives. What of their children? Could it take only a generation to forget the dream?
Every July 4th I renew the dream, in some bone-headed way I am a patriot, I feel something of what my generations felt, how their eyes filled up when they talked about sailing past the lady in the harbor, looking up at the dream advertised by her torch, and into Ellis Island, where our names changed, and we scurried into the unknown American night looking for opportunity. Tailors, seamstresses, butchers, barbers, smiths, artisans, dreamers all of us, none of us educated into America, but soon we would be because we knew that education would lift us up, on eagles wings, into the American dream of life.
The American dream of life. It renews for me every July 4th when I honor in a quiet way my grandfather on his birthday (was it really – or did he fudge the date, having been born on a kitchen table anyway, who would know?) What it was that he loved about this country was given to me when I was too little to evaluate it. Freedom, not theoretical, nor was it a cliché; it was the antidote to the Cossacks who came looking for us, later the Fascists who wiped up the rest of us.
Yeah, I’m a patriot. I believe the dream that he shared with me. I am lunching, spitting distance away from the confluence of the rivers, it’s July 4th, and looking off toward the west the way Lewis and Clark did before my people even got here, there are clouds in the air and birds singing American freedom songs. I take off my shoes and walk into the wet because I am too far away from their dreams right now, the explorers, too far away even from my own inherited dreams, the ones given to me by my generations, my grandfather whose birthday I celebrate every year with the conflation of the birthday of the country, this year at the confluence of the great rivers, great rivers, great conflations I am thinking of today, the lining of large ideas that I am wearing over my soul like a cloak.
Heck it’s only lunch, July 4th, but I am sitting here dreaming at the confluence of rivers and the conflation of ideas, I am Lewis and Clark wading through the loam on the great adventure of the American West that begins here, right here, I am my generations sailing by the statue with my arms around my family breathing deep these words I might or might not be able to read –
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I am Emma Lazarus, the poet of that piece, descended from Portuguese-Spanish Jews, intoning her words carved on the pedestal of the statue, I am pre-cynical, not diminished, I am some kind of patriot thanks to my grandfather who I remember was born on the Fourth of July, maybe so maybe not, who cares — I remember him and what he believed, I believe. What he knew, I know.
And the Day And Night Are For You And Me And All
The first edition was only 12 poems
He kept expanding it throughout his life
A caution here to poets
Even the greatest can work it too much
Whitman designed and published it himself
Out of a printing shop in Brooklyn, Fulton Street
First in 795 copies about 200 extant today
Handset press no plates so the first edition
After a page printed
The type was redistributed on the hand-inked
Iron bed press
Whitman stopped the press a few times during publication
Once to fix a typo another to change a line
And the night is for you and me and all
And the day and night are for you and me and all
Some of the versions have the typo and some have the uncorrected line
For a long time critics thought it significant that what became known as
“Song of Myself” concluded with no period
a clue that the process continues
but we came to understand that the period broke off during printing
The cover dark green has vines and tendrils growing out of the
Leaves of Grass a pun leaf as in page also as in organic growth
Organic leaves one sprouts another
The book begins in ten pages of prose
Then twelve poems in eighty five pages
The soul third person present in the preface
The “I” emerging later in the poems
The preface with its origins in Emerson’s essay
“The Poet” the need for the American voice in poetry
The soul and the I circling each other
Articulating each other
Nourishing defining integrating sustaining
The complete manuscript of the first book is lost
Wish I could find it
Whitman worked out of a green notebook
Dated as early as 1847 [that I have]
Whitman said he left the manuscript with the printer
Who used it to kindle the fire or feed the rag man
On the frontispiece a bearded young man
Rakish tilt to the hat open collar
One hand in his pocket one hand on his hip
In some versions a bulge in his pants
I’m not kidding look it up
It’s an engraving based on a daguerreotype
The picture is not identified
And Whitman’s name doesn’t appear on the title page
This confused Emerson a little
But contributed to the sense that the personality of the poet
Emerges throughout the poems
The sense that the person and America and its language
Are growing out together off the page
Through the book
Out of the book and into the mind of the reader
The conscious unconscious of America
The voice in “Song of Myself” introduces himself as
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos
He is Walt Whitman he is America he is a dynamic
Integrating organic I am something Everything as is America
He is a fulcrum the mythic Whitman and the historic Walt
That barbaric yawp through the entire sweep of America
What came before
What he experienced
And what has come after
It all arises around and through Whitman
And his poetry his life when he lived
And that America teetering between what came before
And what after
The after we are still held in its arc
And this is one reason I think about him
And his Leaves of Grass on the birthday of America
And the publication date of his first edition
July 4, 1855
More the mythic America than the historic America
Though when I read him and think about his work
The myth and history are not so divergent
I learn and re-learn America in Leaves of Grass
Here’s a period I’m done.
July 4, 2014
159 years since publication of Leaves of Grass
I met the Baal Shem Tov Today
Or: Clever and Kind
It was said that the Baal Shem Tov before he emerged and began to teach
was a crossing guard — he took students to and from the Study house.
A humble occupation but none more important: to protect kids on their way to and from School.
Today I was driving down Big Bend Boulevard. Big Bend Boulevard is four lanes
two each way the road so named because it once led to a big bend in the Meramec River.
It is a large road for a walking street. In front of me a bumped up car –
white what was left of the paint — the rear lights extinguished I believe
(they had tape all over them).
The man driving I saw his hand go up inside his car — lucky I was to see it at all
we were all traveling pretty fast down Big Bend Boulevard — he pulled up and stopped with his hand up in the air and I saw a duck and six, seven little ducklings following crossing that big road in the middle where there are no stops and this man pulled up short right in front of them so all the cars behind him had to stop, me first and then he did something clever in addition to kind:
He pulled over into the next lane as they entered it and barreling down that lane was a big truck it had to stop too and that man angled his car so the truck could not pass the duck momma and the little ducklings they made their way to the other side the ducklings so little they had to jump up to make the curb but they made the curb.
Not only did this man do a kind thing he did a clever thing and it’s that combination of clever and kind — If we were all clever and kind we would triumph over the other side and the unprotected would make their way and jump that curb to safety on the other side – I think so.
Now: was this a black man a white man was he going to a job did he need a job had he come onto hard times was he an immigrant man trying to figure out how to get by was he hustling to make a living was he looking for a break in a hard hard life could he not afford to fix that dent of a car he was driving?
It makes no difference to this story because I caught up with him and I know.
I told him I saw the whole drama and how lovely it was and I know the answers to the above questions but those pictures in your mind make no difference as they make no difference to me.
It makes no difference what kind of man he was other than he was a human being who on Monday, May 12, did something clever and kind and that is what it takes to make a difference in this way: be clever and kind.
I have been everything in this story: I have been that mamma duck I have been those babies vulnerable jumping the curb –
Today I was that man driving the car clever and kind I have also been that truck
traveling the road too too fast to slow down safely.
I am every part of this Story.