Ferguson Journal: New Normal
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Do not be distracted by Discourse on Pumping Iron and Viagra I get Somewhere
I forget now there is a new normal and I started Wednesday the same way I start every Wednesday when I’m well. I did my Wednesday morning pump-up with a trainer and when I was about dead I walked over to my city of sanctuary on Wednesday mornings one of two Starbucky’s within walking distance from my training gym in my fashionable suburban neighborhood that houses the County government center where the grand jury is meeting [met – ed.] and now is known all over the world and has been one of the sites of demonstrations: code Clayton, Missouri.
My routine is I walk to one of the two cities of sanctuary and sit and write until it’s time for me to visit the jailhouse which is also in the vicinity of homeland Clayton Missouri and in the same complex where the grand jury is meeting.
I am a transplant here. You have to be born here to belong here, it’s a feature of this region I find both charming and chauvinistic.
Charming is that I am not much a joiner so I appreciate the permanent outsider status. It gives me a certain edge when the truth is elusive and that term of new normal: nuanced. Also the heart of the other, the outsider, etc., it is permanently mine whether I went to high school around here or not. I appreciate not being landed here. It helps me in the realm of independence of thought, attentiveness to details and telling something somewhat true. Who writes history? I have re-thought that entirely.
Chauvinistic here means cheer-leading. There’s a lot of that: my team, my team. Sides. We’re the best we’re the best kind of thing that goes around everywhere I suppose but I have felt it keenly here, maybe because when I arrived thirty plus years ago, the area was in serious decline and teetering to revive.
The recent events code name Ferguson cannot possibly help with that, we are still in that phase teetering as far as I can tell, though there are signs of stabilization and growth in recent years — the development of corridors, a more serious effort at downtown development/re-development that I don’t understand why it takes so long with excellent sporting atmosphere here, good teams, serious hostage taking to share expenses of support, the promise from gambling to pour the miserable gains of those who can’t afford it into the community — a potential for development in a city well placed on an historic riverfront. So much story floated up and down this river.
It’s a riverfront Mississippi River waterfront downtown location and I bet if you sat a few visionaries down at a table and asked them to draw a plan they could do so in a couple of hours. Ask them to design from downtown out as a showplace for the rich history of this node on the mighty Mississippi a couple of miles away from the convergence of the Missouri and Mississippi where Lewis and Clark pushed off to explore the West, and you would get something.
The local newspaper did just that a few years ago, sat a few visionaries down, and they drew a plan for downtown that I see the deciders are starting to implement after planning commissions and visits to other cities, etc. It’s a riverfront a nine year old child could figure out how to develop, run out and find a nine year old child, we can’t seem to make heads or tails of it here.
Of course one of great problems is race. Race and class, that’s one of the biggest problems that’s holding this region back and so it erupts in code: Ferguson.
I walked to the Starbucky’s nearest to the jailhouse and the place was packed. Who are all these people? I thought as I sat down on a hard table and unpacked my machine to write a story. I plugged in and started to tap tap when a man and a woman sat in front of me asking permission to sit down in an accent I couldn’t identify. Of course, I said. They unpacked a load of sophisticated equipment with their own modem, etc., and started sending pictures and stories and stuff somewhere I could see they were consulting cards and addresses and names from local sources, mostly in Ferguson, to their homeland newspapers I surmised.
The guy sitting in front of me had a tag on his machine that read photojournalist and a western European address. So you’re a photographer? I asked. Yes. I opened a conversation. He asked me about television. Where he could get news from the world. CNN is on your television I said. He then said something about Niagra. There was terrible weather up around Buffalo and I had just talked to my friend near Rochester and said to him oh no you don’t have to worry about that weather (I assumed he was talking weather, Niagra Falls) it’s far away from here and the storm came in over Lake Erie my friend lives off Lake Ontario and I was just talking to him and I began to explain a little geography of the Great Lakes since I’m from those parts.
His girlfriend and/or colleague sitting next to him was writing stories about the Ferguson animal clinic (she had the card on the table) and she looked up at me just then and said: he’s asking about Viagra.
Oh Viagra. Yes, she said, he wants to know why on television when he is watching the news they are selling so much Viagra.
Oh, well, that’s their market you know the generation that buys Viagra and the television is basically a retail notion here. Buyers. Ah, he said, satisfied though he was perfectly willing to listen to me discourse about the Great Lakes. His English was not so ay yai yai and I might not have been listening closely enough either.
But why on the news? He asked, as if the news were something sacrosanct.
The news is selling too, I said, selling story selling Viagra. Everybody is selling something.
At that moment we experienced an international incident of the highest significance: we each said the same thing at the same time, real slow: strange world, and a meta-personal cross cultural understanding passed between us.
I looked around and the whole room was full of foreign journalists this Wednesday at Starbucky’s and I imagine all of them were perplexed by this oddity and a hundred others about the United States of America but they were here to cover the story of Ferguson and from this station they were dispatching their missives to their hungry public.
Do you live near? The photographer asked.
Do you know where the justice center is?
Yes. I’m going over there in a few minutes.
Why do you go there?
I go there every Wednesday and without filling in details I told them I visit the jailhouse. I then realized they perked up when I said I go over to the justice center, the woman companion lifted up her head and looked at me closer and I saw she was wondering if she had the good fortune of bumping into somebody who knew something.
I assured her I knew nothing, surely she knew that from my inability to understand the foreign correspondent sitting next to her and the discourse on Niagra and Viagra. She asked me a few questions anyway which I evaded because I had to go and how interested might she be about the side of the story I did know about, those who have fallen out of the tale entirely and end up in the jailhouse waiting for transfer to one of the institutions that will be their home for the next number of years.
But she wanted story. Every correspondent in that room wanted story. They were traffickers in story. Not the part of the story I know, the story I know has no voice. She wasn’t interested what happens once someone enters that part of the system I visit.
The guys I see in the jailhouse know all about every side of the story code name Ferguson they are experts on it and they are the most forgotten sources and I often wonder what they are thinking as they gaze out the obscured windows up above the street where the demonstrations are taking place, what must they be thinking about all this as they watch from their perch in the sky.
So I asked them.
Each of them had of course an adversarial story having to do with the justice system, every form of it, from the police on the street to the court room experience, to the corrections arm once incarcerated. They knew who they could get a fair shake from and who they could not trust, weighed heavily in the latter category.
They were powerless once caught in the web of the system, they all knew that, nevertheless they seemed to make the best of it, and the worst of it meant they spent time in the hole, in seclusion, segregated from the rest of the prison population.
I have written elsewhere about the nature of the hole, it was an eye-opening experience when I visited there, I will post that next, and seclusion is rank enough to serve as a deterrent, unless a person cannot manage anger or frustration or hopelessness. Which is frequent.
The inmates I teach are all aware of the problems frustration, anger, poor impulse control has caused them in their lives. They do not avoid that responsibility. When down (in prison), it becomes worse. They are trying to manage a raging beast and every trip to the hole feeds it. With every passing year, they become more hardened. Institutionalized.
On the news now is the latest chapter in the continuing tale of grand juries and death and failure to indict. The news people are using the wrong language. In their questions are the words restore confidence, return to trust. Restore and return is the wrong language. Restore and return to what?
There has been little trust in the entire system for a long time among the people I am dealing with, return and restore as vocabulary seems remote and out of touch. We have to start over. Use words like earn and demonstrate and create.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Don’t be distracted by the introduction; it begins with a discourse on the advantages of wearing a suit in a riot. Or a rebellion.
I came from work and even if I hadn’t I wear a suit almost every day every night. I feel good when I dress well. I admit the externals help me.
I also find people treat me differently. I have ideas outside the perimeter of the circles I belong to and I get away with a lot more when I am wearing a nice suit.
I buy all my suits in a boutique elegantine in Detroit, my homeland. They have my size and preferences on file. My size has also changed since I entered this phase. It has diminished.
Wearing a suit also simplifies my problem with colors. There are certain zones of the color spectrum I do not see well. I don’t have to think about that and now that my daughters have left home, I am less embarrassed by uninformed tie and shirt selections. So for me, a suit means a simplified life. In some situations, a suit draws attention to me in an advantageous way.
I went down to the police station in Ferguson last night in response to a call for clergy. Nine PM. Our purpose was to be a presence between the youthful protestations and the Ferguson police, who have been unpredictable and not measured in their responses since the shooting of Michael Brown. The night before there had been conflict and arrests.
I made sure I had a dramatic head covering, kipah (yarmulke), in addition to my nice suit so I could be identified as a clergy person, rabbi. My wife, also a rabbi, is in the thick of this story and has demonstrated sensitive leadership and other attentive skills, she was also present and suggested a prayer shawl but I thought that might be excessive and ungainly.
I showed up. I stood on the street in front of the Ferguson police station.
We stood on South Florissant Road which is the nice part of Ferguson I suppose one would say with a celebrated open air market on Saturday mornings and some restaurants that are not fast food and even a brew house, unsure what a brew house is but I saw one there. And a corner bar. Next to the police station is a charming looking Italian restaurant that the proprietors I am sure thought they were getting a privileged spot right next to the police station. I don’t think so.
Every night this week there have been demonstrations up and down South Florissant Road this is old town Ferguson a semi-cute stretch of thoroughfare a different environment from the Canfield Green area where the shooting of Michael Brown occurred and the West Florissant Road where the burning and looting took place during the difficult days after Michael Brown’s death.
The protesting has moved to the police station, a newish building on South Florissant Road next to the Italiano restaurant, etc. down the street from the open air market location. Across the street is Andy Wurm’s Tire and Wheel store with a large black top parking lot where most people have gathered.
The police station looks new, I was told that the jailhouse part of the jail was still under construction. One of the fellows arrested the night before (Sunday night) was taken to the St. Ann jailhouse he later told me.
The protestors made chants and marched up and down South Florissant, pausing at the market grounds to drum and dance and chant. There was good use made of a bass drum that worked well to punctuate the chanting which was musical and youthful and a nice groove from a purely musical point of view, a good use of a single bass drum it was working except for the puppy dog that one of the young women was holding who was scared of the booming drum and thus doggie and her handler withdrew to the perimeter.
There was some smell of weed in the air, not a lot, and a great measure of youthful enthusiasm. Once we returned to the police station on South Florissant some of the young people approached the Police Department building, after the 11 PM noise ordinance that the protestors were violating. The police also suggested in the most vociferous manner that the protestors vacate the street and go to the sidewalk on the other side. They did not.
They moved into the middle of the street and sat down. By then there were about twenty five people sitting in the middle of South Florissant street right in front of the police station and a gathering of uniformed police officers in the parking lot of the police station, about the same number. It was 11:30 and I wondered why there weren’t more police officers. There were about the same number of police as there were protestors sitting and making chants in the middle of the street.
A masculine voice from a loud speaker from somewhere on the police parking lot demanded protestors move out of the street and onto the sidewalks. I noticed that at about midnight the voice changed to a female voice.
The protestors didn’t move. They sat down in the street and there was still some traffic moving through with the help of protestors guiding cars and trucks through the small crowd on the street, some of the cars and trucks moving a little fast compromising for sure the safety of those on the street.
One of my pals who was taking pictures went over to the Lieutenant of the Ferguson police across the street and suggested that they close the street off to keep the safety of the protestors. I thought that was a great idea, then the protestors could make the chants, etc., and no one need get hurt or arrested.
The Lieutenant was rude and said to my friend, we’ve thought through all the possibilities and dismissed him. The police lined up against the protestors and began to converge on the people sitting and making the chants in the middle of the street, telling them to disperse.
Some of the clergy knelt down with the protestors and they spent some time together in prayer. That changed the rhythm of the evening; what seemed to me to be moving toward a youth riot became quiet. There was quiet for fifteen, twenty minutes and though the group returned to chanting and hollering in defiance of the police, the tension had been broken and the rhythm changed. We were now in the realm of rebellion, not riot.
A half an hour later the police closed off the street, just as my friend suggested. A minute later Captain Ron Johnson, the celebrated Captain of the Highway Patrol who the Governor had appointed during the most difficult days after Michael Brown’s death, showed up and moved right up into the crowd on the street. The protestors got up off the street and gathered around him. He had come to talk.
Everyone gathered around Captain Johnson and shushed those who were bent on discord and said let him speak let the man speak. He began to talk with the protestors. He told them he was not in charge of the Ferguson police but if they wanted to continue their protests they could and they would be left alone if they just moved back. They were free to make all the protests they wanted. He tried to empathize without making promises, he was after all not in charge there. He had seen the confrontation emerging on television and came over to see if there was anything he could do.
The Ferguson police (and a few other uniforms) began to disperse behind him into the parking lot of the police station. Captain Johnson was alone with the protestors and there was a few minutes of civil conversation and more lessening of tensions. The police presence began to disappear and another night of confrontation was averted.
I stood across the street in conversation with one after another of young people who showed up for the protest. A lot of people wanted to know who I was; I was probably the oldest person there, and as mentioned above, I was dressed to notice. I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to engage people in conversation, I wanted to know who these people were, what they were thinking.
When I arrived, it felt as if a youth riot was brewing. I walked up and down the street with people and when we returned to the police station, I stood and waited and one after another of the young people who were chanting and protesting and hollering came up to me and with genuine kindness and respect, always referring to me as sir and many even commenting how dignified I looked (their word) asked me in the gentlest way: who are you? Why are you here?
I told them I was here to learn and listen. I want to know people. Every person I met, and I met many, were kind and communicative and respectful. There was one fellow who had been arrested the night before, spent the night in the St. Ann jail, he was familiar with all the places a person could go with mental illness kinds of problems in our area (there aren’t many) and he seemed to be a street person. Why he was there was unclear to me though the longer we talked the clearer he spoke and soon he was making more sense. He was kind of along for the ride. He brought me carrots and water and made sure I had somewhere to sit if I got tired. I was not tired.
Others I spoke to lived nearby and gave me an earful about how the community works, Ferguson and environs, the nature of these fiefdoms in our area. There are many of them in what is called North and West County. These were people who lived there and knew what they were talking about. Some white, some black, all of them had a take on the complexity of the story in Ferguson and all its implications, the history before the death of Michael Brown and the implications of the action since the death of Michael Brown. I learned a lot that night.
By then it was past one AM and the confrontation had risen and receded in front of my eyes. I’m familiar with police and jailhouses, etc. and there wasn’t enough policemen out that night in the incipient confrontation to be scary but there was some wildness in the street and real tension. Also a stirring and a hollering, a message of resistance and purpose, an expression of social critique and intelligent vocalization of perceived wrongs.
I’m glad I went and I’m going back again. Every person I spoke with that night thanked me for being there. This is what democracy looks like.
It’s kind of like Yom Kippur for me every day, actually, I am certainly guilty (that I know). Guilty of what, I cannot say. But I awaken with the thought: I am guilty. Perhaps on this Yom Kippur, I can apologize because I have learned there is a difference between asking for forgiveness from other people, and asking for forgiveness from G-d.
For aveirot — unfinished business, between human being and human being, Yom Kippur does not atone. That means I have to go to that person myself, and ask for forgiveness face to face.
For unfinished business between human beings and G-d, Yom Kippur does indeed atone. These are purely private matters, between G-d and myself, best taken care of with quiet, personal moments of prayer.
Now, let me go and find as many people as I can and say this to them:
If I have done or said anything in the past year that has hurt you, that has offended you in any way, I am sorry. I am truly sorry.
After I say that, perhaps I should stand and wait for a second with a look of expectation on my face. Oh, I am so hoping that the person will say, yes, yes! I forgive you.
However, they might say, well, you’ve done nothing, nothing at all to me. I’ll take that as a sign of forgiveness. That might be unsatisfying (for me anyway) since I am sure I have done something though what it is I cannot say. I don’t know.
Or they might say: you can’t hurt me, actually, I am not giving you room in my life to do that.
I will keep a tally, yes I will jot down a little chart, those who have forgiven me, those who have not forgiven me, those who don’t know what I am talking about, those who think I am nuts. Then I will take it back to my desk, and make a forgiveness chart.
Then I will spend some time in quiet prayer with G-d and ask for forgiveness for all and for everything.
I will also make atonement to myself, for myself most of all, for dwelling (in what I call my mind) on those who I think may have offended me.
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.