This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
In a place called a city (Philadelphia), in another place called a state (Pennsylvania), in yet another place called a nation (America) the unsayable comes to life as me. Upon arrival I know no one; not even myself. Where I come from there is nothing to know. There has been a visceral experience of my mother, from being in her, of her, for a time. That womb world is all there is. A 1954 cesarean section, removed only after mom had been in labor for a day and a half, a nurse bundles me away from my mother, puts me in a "preemie," which is how they call an incubator in which premature babies are kept. First sensory details outside her womb are likely that microwave oven-like place, a ﬂeshless mechanical isolation with oxygen plentiful. Where was mama? It was a no-mama, no-womb, small glass metal room. Although not premature, that is apparently what they did then with cesarean births. My head is pointed, I'm told, from being squeezed in motherʼs birth tunnel. She hears later that dad, seeing my conical head, thinks I am deformed and goes home in tears. If there were no way to do a C-section delivery, would I be in a tiny grave right now? Would mom have survived? Mom tells me she was not conscious during delivery. They injected her with something that put her under. When she wakes up she is in stitches. I am out and away. She has no chance to hold me ﬁrst. Being removed from what gives us birth, from a mother or an earth, is what, it seems to me right now, it is to be expatriate. "Exmatriate"? Alienation. Isolation. That's what it is for me from my beginning. Born into it. Born to it. Dissociated. It is true that I shy away and do not plunge into child's play or adult social interaction. Someone has to invite me, coax me, suggest that I join. Otherwise there I am sitting on a curb along a street in front of a house we just moved into watching boys across the street play basketball in a backyard.
It is a relief when someone comes over to invite me to play. As a newcomer Iʼm nervous. Acting corny makes a bad impression. Comfortable, entered into the play there are good times. Sometimes not good. ***** Beginning with my mother and father, some years back (2003) in their living room in Florida where they live their lives retired from formal work, there is discussion--as there often is on my return visits from Japan--about matters in America. Mostly it is my father's views that are aired and at times my mother's views are in line with his opinion, though her thoughts are usually softly expressed. At times my father and I argue about political things. He likes that; it's a kind of bonding for him I think. My father's views are what I call rough neck tough talk. I remember in my early teens there is something on T.V. news about anti-(Vietnam)-war protests at Columbia University. Dad says “They oughta take 'em out and shoot 'em! We oughta send 'em over to Russia! That's what they'd do to 'em over in Russia, [if] anybody protests against their government!" It is hard for me, 13 or14, to understand what dad means. Does he mean that America should be more like the Soviet Union? At home the environment growing up is, looked at from our present stage of human experience, and looking at it through a particular dimension within this particular stage, what might be called by some a male-centered household. My grandmother, who lives with us through much of my childhood, and my mother, who works through much of my childhood, prepare dishes my father likes, or that I like, and the way to prepare whatever it is we have to eat is the way “the men” like it. As opposed to what my grandmother or mother like. They cook for the men of the household as do many other women in our social class. Sometimes though the scene is "take what you get, like it or not." It becomes more difﬁcult to write about even so simple a matter as our dining dynamics since what we eat depends too on what my mother or grandmother can make and what kitchen technology is available to us. Besides that our ﬁnancial circumstances determine what we can buy. At the time, our consumer society is increasingly presenting us with readymade foods such a frozen T.V. dinners. Our location determines what is available to us at local small town/ suburban markets or supermarkets. The list of variables can go on. So much goes into making mashed potatoes. In that sense, to say that what we eat is determined by household males is to focus on only one aspect of a complex scene. At any rate cooking is part of what is thought of as serving each other. My father, too, besides providing for us all, takes my mother "out," which means
at times to some event he has no real interest in. To a museum, for example, or to a movie, a concert, or a play. He'd rather be watching a ball game, but as a service to my mother he takes her to those events. ***** After the gulf war [I purposely did not capitalize a war's name] my father says “we," meaning America, "should've gone in there and taken that sonuvabitch Hussein by the balls and put a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets." "Oh my goodness," elderly women visiting from up north would respond. I never know and probably never will know whether he is serious, or if he is just trying to get a reaction from people, to stir things up. Because he likes to do that, it seems, likes conﬂict. From what my mother tells me, he was raised in conﬂict: his mother and father argued at the dinner table every night, and it may be that he grew attached to it, thought it was “normal.” Or it may be just an act, to get attention. Either way, to my knowledge he has never taken any personal initiative to act on his rowdy opinions. There are some who enact their thinking, like those who go to Iraq taking food or medicine to those who were sick or starving due to economic sanctions. To my knowledge dad has never travelled on his own to Iraq and tried to capture or castrate Saddam Hussein. He just stays home and spouts off. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Many do just that. Even me at times. It may be part of our cultural heritage from Scotland or wherever to have these harsh opinions at home which we never act on. Or it may be a social rite of passage: when we reach a certain age we gain a right to complain about our country or about the world. Too, given how it is we're sort of captives of our own civilizations, boxed in by civ., it might be said that we have nothing better to do and that our cultures often are geared to producing frustrations and are not supportive of or set up to foster more tranquil ways of being. though now with meds maybe. It's not that there is nothing in our societies teaching us what to do with this entity we call mind. There is much that is conditioning us. The problem is that most of that conditioning is not the kind that might lead us to live more peacefully. From childhood, in homes and at schools, we seldom connect with our internal ﬂow, with non-resisting ways of being. Usually the scene is a matter of will: a parent's will against a child's, child's against parent's, teacher's against child's, child's against teacher's. Corporate will against public will. Conﬂict becomes the way of relating. Living becomes a battle of wills. Opinionated, argumentative people spread over the land. There is much unpleasantry within which I don't know how anyone can be "happy."
***** Beginning with something my mother says. We are talking about America. I ask her what do people mean when they say America? Are they talking about American society at present? Are they talking about American government, the country's present administration? Are they talking about principles set down by founding fathers? Are they talking about geopolitical area, something drawn on maps? Do they mean a political-economic system, free-market democracy, American style capitalism? Are they referring to culture, to WASP mono-cultural America that is rooted in settlers who came from England supposedly ﬂeeing intolerance and persecution, or to multicultural America, or to America's people, peoples, or what? Or do they mean a set of shared assumptions or beliefs about ourselves within which we all move and live? Or do they mean institutions? Or do different people mean different things or does America mean different things to different people and is there any consensual deﬁnition we can work with so that we can assume, when we talk about "our" country, that we mean a certain something, that we are all on the same page? Such things I ask. Being American becomes a dimension of life I am more conscious of living outside America, in Japan, where people might ask me "What do you Americans think of" such and such or "As an American how do you feel about" this or that. Some lump us all together: "Americans are frank," "Americans are aggressive," "selﬁsh," “powerful.” My being designated American and the whole idea of nationality are things that are simmering, then, on back burners, for these many years of expatriate living. Just what is it America people mean when they use this word? This is what I ask, and my mother, so asked, gestures with her hands as she often does, making in air with her foreﬁngers a larger or smaller circle or square as if to illustrate something. This time she makes an all-inclusive circle as she tells me that what people mean is everything. A sum of all its parts type thing is what I take her to mean. An integration of various things, various traditions, religions, classes into a single entity. Yet that is what nationalism supposedly is in other countries as well. Is it just that in America the ingredients are different? What IS that, that single entity? What image or idea or thing is there to grasp? Does all of that synthesize into something tangible? Nation. What is a nation? Is there anything but mishmash, this that and the other all in orbit around this one word, this one bit of modulated breath, this quatrasyllabic sound-4
America--or seven letters together on paper or screen? This assignation of breath: is it empty of meaning as sky is empty of meaning? Yet sky is sky and doesn't need to mean anything. What is America? Isn't it, though, so alive with possibilities, this word? Mysterious. So open to interpretation, so impervious to any absolute intellectual or emotional determination? Such an impossible word. Is America just an idea, then? So many people who consider themselves American, so many brought together not by blood-tribal, dynastic loyalties, or genetic ties, but connected only by written words expressing ideas that are initially thoughts in human heads. Inventions. Those founding fathers are cerebral gents, much taken by intellectual discourse. Argument. There's not much gushing feeling that comes through our original documents, nothing to be sung. Is it all ratiocination, our nation? Our nationʼs texts are legalistic documents illuminated, so to speak, with elegant writing. Such were the times before functionalism took its toll. Though written in a style that may have its appeal in those days, we dropped that dimension as our society moved in different ways. What became a tradition is not elegant writing but a weakness. Our forefathers set down a predisposition for not seeing a true state of things. Some of the fathers who feather pen their names to these documents hold others in bondage. As ofﬁcials they all preside over the American Indian pogrom. They think the people to be called Americans are those more akin to themselves and with these documents they pen themselves away from those peoples perceived as different. They lay the foundation for not wanting to look, for thinking the ones we cause to suffer are not us, for thinking ourselves different. They set a precedent. Words on paper. Parchment. Words that are not even, usually, anymore, spoken words, not even a lived living language. Because the way we write and speak changes. Mainly their words are put to use for politico-commercial purposes: T.V. ads and election campaigns. Postings on Facebook. Nation indoctrination, hearts and minds. Junk language, advertisement. Who ever hears anyone talking about America as America outside of some special interest, to get votes or support for one or other plan or project or cause? As if these partial takes were the whole of what America is to us. Always the fragmented usage. What, then, is there--beyond any particular purpose--that America is or is about that anyone and everyone can speak of?
A political-commercial-emotional unity entity under god formed to better conduct affairs of state business/business state with other such entities? Many of us, it seems, are Americans willy-nilly. Passive recipients, despite all participatory going through motion devotion. There we are born and there we grow up and there we are schooled--indoctrinated--in the glories of American democracy and how wonderful American society is and we sing the songs, the secular hymns; we are taught to salute, pledge, stand up, say solemn words of allegiance to multicolored cloth, which, yes, is better than groveling before some in the ﬂesh authority. If exposed to anything else will we each choose to be American? If, for example, we the people are presented with places and ways of life to select from as with menus at restaurants, if we could go and live and try out some different scene would we then choose to live where we, how we, do? What would be criteria: How much money there is to be made? The degree to which we can participate in government? What rights are granted us by law? Safety of streets amount of crime taxes air quality and water or what? Scenic beauty? Unspoiled nature? Whether there is public health insurance? Access to education or even free education? Are there drug problems? Are there satellites armed with nuclear weapons patrolling outer space protecting us? Do people live in security-patrolled gated communities in fear that their BMW might be stolen? Do citizens feel they need to keep arms close by? Are they afraid? What gap there may be between rich and poor? Are there rich and poor? Religious freedom? Is there hunger? Are children starving in slums? Are there slums? Social classes? Weather? Is there racism, sexism, homophobia? Have inﬂation-adjusted wages declined so that two members of a family must now work in order for their material dreams to materialize? Are sophisticated mass marketing techniques directed at small children in a free market economy? Is obesity widespread? Are there prisons and what percentage of the population is behind bars? A quality of life index? Generation after generation, and now with Geroge W. Bush the leader the prospect of continual war, do Americans ever tire of having their young people going off to do battle here and there for one reason or another playing the world's police ofﬁcer protecting American interests? Are Americans, with so many homeless in their own cities, truly so very deeply concerned with what goes on in far away places? Does playing worldʼs police entail police state USA? It looks as if a lot of donuts are eaten. From what I see in the media there, America is a prison for many hearts and minds.
Is this even in an American's life quality index? Do Americans really want to be citizens in a country that is so often at war, where violence is preferred as solution even among members of the same nation? In the U.S. more people are killed as a result of violence between persons than are killed at war. The strongest man is the last to take up violence. So sayeth a Shaolin priest. If that is the case then is America a land where feeble are guiding political action? *****
There is a place nearby my hometown. We live across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in a small town called Riverton. In New Jersey. The place is a market. It is called The Pennsauken Mart. It advertises itself to be the world's largest mart under one roof, which I assume is not true. That billboard is probably older than I am. Compared to some super malls that appear these days, such as in Ft. Lauderdale or The Mall of America in Minnesota, The Pennsauken Mart is small and ramshackle. Compared to nearby Cherry Hill Mall, which is in Cherry Hill, a township named after a mall and which is one of the earlier malls in our nation--and so in the world--the Pennsauken Mart exudes underclass. When I go there I come out feeling slimed. Some are obese, dumpy-looking people that smell like a blend of body odor and pizza. They are our local counterpart to the dirty unwashed Mexicans Hollywood shows us in movies. Some shoppers are eating pizza as they waddle along. A slice in one hand, a pint-sized paper cup of soft drink in another. One's hairy belly button blubbers out from a red bowling shirt that comes to its end above his navel. Who knows what kind of people they are: good folk, simple folk, morally lamentable folk? Are they inbreeding? Has daughter, fourteen, already given birth? Is her own father her baby's father? Is father beating mother having bedtime with daughter, is mother doing it with sonny or milkman or next door neighbor or her own father who knows? Or are they god-fearing, church-going, bible-reading folk who believe in virgin birth--and why not?--who bake pies or make casseroles to take to neighbors when those others are sick, who take in children abandoned by others and who work two jobs for what little they have? There is no way for me to know. Maybe they are all a combination of positive and negative traits and beyond that maybe they were all still quite a mystery even to themselves. I do not look down upon them. Nor do I romanticize them as submerged peoples, as some genetically challenged creative unit, as Volk. They look like
peasants. It is like going back in time to another century. Saturday go-tomarket day and peasants come in from the countryside--only The Mart is open every day. Once I fancy it as a bazaar in Istanbul only there are no exotic spices and scents, no ﬁne cloth--just cheap stuff like sneakers made in Salvadoran sweat shops. The Pennsauken Mart. Then came K-Mart, then came Walmart. Mostly an unattractive people they are. Where do they come from? The city? The country? Do they work in factories and live in constant employment insecurity? Will their plant close down or downsize or move overseas seeking cheaper labor or will they have to accept lower wages where prices are steadily rising--look at tuitions!--where inner city low income neighborhoods are being bought by developers planning inner city malls and squeaky clean urban residence for snappy professionals? They may think they do not live under tyranny, but living under money--is it much better? Some have bodies that are deformed. Skeleton thin fellow, limps, one leg rodlike the other "normal." One fellow whose hand is tucked under his wrist. A claw. Some look mentally retarded, or challenged or exceptional or the term it happens to be when you read this. They need to be led by hand. One big fat kid is picking his nose as he walks along. His companion asks for a sip of his drink: "Gimme a sip!" Nosepicker comes back with a deluge of obscenities. What is America to these people? A place to live, to work, to raise children? Our ancestors, from what we're told, most often came to America looking for better life. Land of Opportunity. ***** Someone tries once to make a song of America. It needs song, real song--not just patriotic poop--to go with the writing in our nation's original documents, which, though possibly eloquent, do not bring tears, do not move my hand to beat my chest. Walt Whitman tried in the way of some European philosophers to envision a spiritually creative potential in these people I see in The Mart. These and all
the rest of us. His poem embraces us in that, as that, potential; it is "good vibrations," good reverberations that he sends out that, hopefully, will transform our thinking as well as our behavior. Whitman is indeed America's bard. Will nosepicker and his chum move us if they are presented as a long lined Vedantic chant or operatic gush on perfect mothers? Perfect women and perfect men. Perfect young nosepicker. Whitman did not show us nose picking or foul mouth. He adds the young men to one of his long lists of Americans acting out a cosmic destiny while going to market, sawing wood, bathing, getting married, having sex, bearing and raising children . . . which may be as true as nose picking and profanity. George Evans [in A Working Boyʼs Whitman] and others (back in my college days I hear Roy Harvey Pearce talk on Whitman's incapacity to look evil in the eye) have pointed out that the good gray bard, though a maker of a new kind of poetry, is in other ways a man of his nation. Like founding fathers before him and like many in the white community of his time and after, male and female, Whitman, because he is said to have "overlooked the darkest aspects of their [the common people] lives in his poetry" (Evans), must have brainwashed himself about America. It may be, as George Evans calls it, wishful thinking on Whitman's part. Or it may be a willed projection of positive thoughts into our culture. Positive thoughts, which, were they to catch on, Whitman (like a swami yogi) hopes will soften the negative behaviors that make America such a violated experience for many. (There may be many who don't even know they've been and are being violated; it begins when we are so young and innocent. We come to accept it as natural.) The founding fathers' idea for a nation is supposed to be all-inclusive, allembracing, but in reality it is not. Liberty, for them, is an exclusive idea. While proclaiming it for one group the fathers deny it to others. Their decision to deny it makes skin color one ground for exclusion. (This racism those fathers set forth upon this earth grows into a home grown ﬁeld of scientiﬁc study, a basis of knowledge itself, into a eugenics and racial hygiene movement. It grows into the inﬂuential writings of men such as Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant. Grantʼs book, THE PASSING OF THE GREAT RACE (1916), was in 1925 translated into German by order of the Nazi's. Hitler is said to have written to Grant “The book is my Bible." Then the U.S. ﬁghts a war against Germany, but it wasn't really a war against Nazi racism, is it?)
If liberty is not fully realized in our nation's beginning, is it in the centuries since? Liberty is greedily manipulated by practically everyone. Liberty is equated with access to power, and power, as we say, corrupts. Whitman, due probably to his transformative spiritual and physical experience, imagines his Self to be universal and imagines a universality to his poem, but his poem, if read as an attempt to sing about they way things really are, has its share of blind spots. Perhaps that is why Whitman is George W. Bush's favorite poet. A human being is enigmatic. If Whitman is a hypocrite he is typically American and in that sense is the voice of the people. Does this mean that we Americans are perpetually afﬂicted with incurable denial? Or is it just plain ignorance, layer upon layer? A friend tells me once that the puritan fathers reached a stage when they could no longer see their penises. This is not because they are too fat; it is because a penis was a horror to them, an abomination, an obscenity. The body, the ﬂesh, the oneeyed monster. Through psychological twisting--called repression by Freudians--they become unable to see this dangling ﬂesh that plagues them. Their own sex organs are inadmissible evidence. They develop blind spots on their own bodies. Certain dimensions of the world around them disappear. They brainwash themselves into believing they are in a garden--their bible tells them so. Like Adam himself, they are ignorant of--and through fear and repression are blind to--what is outside their garden, outside their fortress of belief, their "city upon a hill." They know not what they do? Or are they just plain humans manifesting what is ill-natured in them? The negative thoughts they project onto those not in their community of chosen ones leads to ill treatment of those others. Riverton, New Jersey. My hometown. A tri-borough area is what it is called by the local media. Palmyra, Riverton, and Cinnaminson. There is an elderly gentleman who is a respected member of our Riverton community. He is active in local events, he has a good job, a nice house, and he is a historian of the area. The history he writes of where we live is called TALES OF THREE TOWNS. He distributes copies freely. It is a labor of love in his later life. Our family receives one and a few years back I read it. It is interesting in many ways since there are many things in it that are unknown to me even though I grow up there. Our family hasn't been there generation after generation. He does a thorough job, it seems to me at ﬁrst. He's been to records ofﬁces, he's seen the archives, etc. It would be a ﬁne piece if everyone in our community were white. How I would feel as an American with dark skin reading this local history, because they, but for one part of sentence about high school athletics, are
totally ignored. The Black citizens, maybe one-tenth of Palmyraʼs population, live mainly in a section of Palmyra locally known as "The West End." Of how they come to settle there, their experiences and activities living there, of how they contribute to the community, of their entire existence--nothing is mentioned. A blind spot? A delusion? This history book is a sample of the society as a whole, they way it used to be, and, as is obvious with this history book (published in 1981), still is. ***** These persons at the Pennsauken Mart, though, no matter how squalid their minds, their lives, might, do--I imagine--have hopes, have dreams, are divinity within, which is what Whitman sees and what he is singing of. Even through the detrimental environment they grow to be part of and express their lives as. Divinity. Even though their native spirit might be often governed by some environmentally induced afﬂiction, something goes on within and they are capable of love, kindness, endurance, courage, creativity and invention. Poverty is artʼs source. Making do from nothing. Because this young man smells of beer baloney, is sloppy, poor, uncultured, according to test results intellectually inadequate--in so many ways just not in one's beautyhood [sic] of person--it is easy to deny that we live with him. It is easy to pretend that we do not live with him and do not feel with him. That is us, the great pretenders. These are people who are dumped on generation after generation. Drunk in Podunk, hung over with destiny. Physical projections of dumpiness as we all might be if we lived their lives. They can become so much more than what their surroundings offer. Some do, some donʼt. Some are resigned to what they are used to and do not want betterment. What rational--or irrational for that matter--choice have these people made in determining their own nationality? Or even their own destiny? Yes, I know, they can leave the country if they don't like it. But that choice usually does not present itself to ﬁve-year-olds, and by twenty-ﬁve it's too late. We are already culturally, socially, and psychologically conditioned as “Americans,” and what that means is what I'm trying to ﬁnd out. By then we have twenty-ﬁve years training to call ourselves Americans. Do they give it much thought or are they simply born somewhere along the Delaware and live there and die there? Do they muse on what it is to be in America, to be an American, or are they passive recipients of the constant media bombardment and results of the latest polls? Do they get their opinions from Rush Limbaugh or from Michael
Moore; from Noam Chomsky or Norman Podhoretz? Do they have any original ideas at all about America or being an American? Is being American living an idea? The American dream? No ideas but in things? These are questions I ask. Just as I ask myself what America means or what American means I ask it of others. American: what do I mean to be? Is national identity just an arbitrary acquirement in the same way that gender is culturally constructed? Is it just to differentiate those of one nation from those of another? Just as a masculine mode of existence in a world depends on there being women to be other than, just as an identity of self in a world depends on there being others, being American is about not being something else. Period. It is a functional identity without any essential substance.
***** Why does it not seem right to go more deeply into what boundaries there might be to this identity "American"? It doesnʼt feel right because there is nothing there? Where does an American me begin and end? Just as I can ask myself if there is another me apart from my male identity I can ask if there is a me that has nothing to do with being American. A few years back I read a book called AN EXAMINED LIFE. Written by a Harvard professor named Nozik. It is an okay book, as far as it goes, and it won a National Book Award. It has twenty-ﬁve chapters but not one deals with being an American. Nothing about national identity. Is the experience of being a particular nationality an area of life not worthy of examination? A book is not likely to win a national book award if it tells the truth about there being no essential substance to nationality. It's not easy to say; if there is anything sayable. It's not as if we as compatriots share an ancient tribal mythos about who we are. What America means to me is nothing. No one, no powdered wig president or lawmaking body or court or church or theocrat or group or mob or anyone is going to tell me what America is or what it is to be an American. It's natural. I don't see it as "rights" or "principles" or “propositions.” It means I can look through my heart's eye and have that eye, that I, uncluttered by preconceived notions or predetermined perceptions or prescriptive formulas for feeling or thinking. National identityʼs essential nonexistence is an openness for me.
To see clearly is something that America, in the fact of its meaning nothing, enables me to do. Thank you, America! Thank you, me. If America were to ever have substance its meanings would be giving shape to my mind and shaping how I see things and I would no longer be able to see clearly. I would see things only “as an American.” In such a case America would disable me. History does shape us. More often than not we participate in our own debilitation. Better off doing nothing, instead we make history. America, then, sad to see and say, has become for many an obstruction of vision, a means of mind control and conditioning. That is the way illusion works. In America many are trained by othersʼ illusions instead of feeling (for) themselves. Not only in America. Seeing no meaning I'm free as a bird. It is freedom that comes from within me and is not given me by any government or piece of paper or any laws. Must I ﬁght for this freedom? Must I ﬁght to keep free of illusions? ***** Back to Pennsauken's Mart. In high school some of my playmates call it a freak show. Seeing these fellow Americans as so pathetically ignorant and ugly makes them feel clean and beautiful. Superior. Something tells me though--intuition?--that ours is just a better groomed ignorance, ignorance with a speech indicative of a different social status. Ours is human nature wearing a more expensively tutored behavioral mask. We are exposed to what are said to be ﬁner things and there are others who are exposed to still ﬁner things. Yet I never think of using these to snub someone. Even though, yes, I feel slimed. Yet I feel a connection with people such as shop at The Mart; they are fellow humans, for better or worse. It is a short ride, The Pennsauken Mart, maybe 10 minutes by car, from where on Mickle Street in Camden Walt Whitman lived in his old age. He mentions bathing in a creek that was somewhere “back of Camden,” writes of immersing in warm shallow waters and sunbathing naked on creek-bank. The Delaware River, which is where his creek would lead eventually if followed, has been cleaned up some. Two years ago--back there for a visit-the river doesn't smell so metallic, doesnʼt smell so much like the industrial waterway it does at times when Iʼm a kid, when the wind blows a certain direction.
When Whitman bathes he ﬁnds by that creek a secluded dell of bushes, trees, grass, and a group of willows. It is an abandoned marl pit which nature has lovingly grown over. Efforts are made now to let some natural grace return to this South Jersey area. Here and there. Whitman thinks it is healing to immerse in the scene--not only in water. He bathes in its love. Standing not far from his back of Camden creek are ﬁne old Haddonﬁeld homes, homes of the well-heeled. There still. Along nearby asphalt arteries are crappy housing developments and industrial parks, companies with names ending with “-co” or “-ron” or “-tron” or “-tech” or “-tel,” or that end or begin with a “con-.” Whitman's bathing place and other graceful South Jersey scenes, its wabisabi Pine Barrens, even if “protected,” swarm now with dozens of ordinances, zoning laws, and other buzzings from our mental power box projected onto, into, earth. ***** Going across Betsy Ross Bridge I get on 95 south to Philadelphia International Airport. On my way I pass sports stadiums. Lincoln Financial Field that is being built then and is now sporty with corporate-sponsored games. Vet Stadium which is new in my high school days. The Spectrum, where I watch Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain dunk--the announcer shouts CHAMber-lain!!! each time and the speakers quake--and toss his underhanded free throw. Are they still there? Airport. I check in early, walk by shops displaying luxury duty free items to people who--a majority of them--the airlines will cram like cattle into economy class seating. Making my way towards the departure lobby, taking my time, looking at things, watching people. Some are elderly grey haired big businessmen and some are younger future elderly big businessmen. Some big businesswomen. With their brief cases and laptops and carryon luggage nicely toted on their own private little luggage carrier, these men and women in corporate hairdos, these ones early middle aged, ready to board before everyone else, ready to ride ﬁrst or business class over land and sea. I watch them enter and exit from the upper class VIP gold card red carpet excellent superb elite passengers' lounge. Denatured music emanates brieﬂy before powerful sliding doors swish closed. Sneaking a peek inside, on the walls there is corporate sponsored art (corprart; “crap,” for short).
Fresh with world news from twenty-seven televisions, primped with high priority information from laptops and palm pilots and cellular phones, they exit and enter, many with anxiety on their faces. Most look as if they are under pressure. In business suits of ﬁne cloth these MBA merchant monks, so serious, cowled in weighty matters of a corporate hood, what do they see in America? With their corporate sponsored education, educated far beyond that shabby bunch across the river roaming Pennsauken Mart's ﬂattened chewing gum plastic wrapper strewn ﬂoors, more able to make knowledgeable and informed decisions--why do they live in the United States? Same reason The Mart people do? ***** As kids we are trained to hide under our desks at school. Elementary school. In fear of Soviet attack. The bomb. The big Bomb. The A bomb. Or the H bomb. They would bomb us. We, the people, the strong the brave courageous and bold, are preparing for a possible attack by people we learn to call Russians or Soviets or commies or reds. We are never asked to distinguish between Russians meaning Russian people, just common people, and Russians in government or military some of whom, yes, may want to destroy or bomb us. We lump them into one big single purpose national all-embracing entity: The Russians! Maybe they all do want to bury all of us. At age 6 or 7 who can know? Even at 50. Watching Bugs Bunny is more fun than thinking about such matters. But can we have Bugs Bunny if the Russians bury us? Some of us are ready to bury ourselves in underground shelters. Do Russian families construct backyard lead lined atomic shelters? I wonder. But, just think: our leaders have us practice taking cover under our desks as preparation for A bomb attacks. Stand lined against school walls. Now the U.S. government recommends duct tape as preparation for bacteriological terrorist attacks. Duct tape your windows and doors, everyone. We have never been lacking for things to fear about China. We are afraid of our fellow Americans. We lock our doors and have household alarm systems installed. We keep guns to defend ourselves against “our own people.” This helps us feel safe long before there is any terrorist threat. People have alarms and guns in their cars; mace in makeup kits. Lip stick stun gun all in one. Open a blouse, an electroshock taser gun from our nipples ﬁres a million volts.
Our nation's birth certiﬁcate, the Declaration of Independence, parchment copy, is enclosed behind seven inch thick bulletproof glass in the National Archives and is under guard night and day. Duct-taped. As if some unhappy gun-happy citizen might want to shoot it. It is a document that may have special spiritual powers. A relic? Pursuit of happiness emanates from it, spreads all over the land. Other peoples for ages and ages have their own happiness magic. Gods, temples, shrines to pray to for happiness. We Americans have a declaration stating our right to pursue happiness. Happiness is a big word in America. White man's happiness is heap big medicine. Are you happy? I'm happy. Are you? I'm basically happy. Happy birthday. Happy New Year. Happy 4th of July. Happy Halloween. Happily married. Happy Days. Happy Thanksgiving. Happy the Clown. Happy family. Happy camper. Happy anniversary. Happy holidays. Happy go lucky. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Kwanzaa. Happy life. Die happy. Happy hour. Happy life after death. Happy trails. Happy Meals. Happy ending. How can there be so much happiness in a land of so much fear? Protection of property is what they mean. They, some of those original declaration signers, don't really want it to say “pursuit of happiness.” Clearly, the happy word catches on. Property is their means of survival, as a propertied class. They are aggressive about securing it, obsessed with obtaining more. Land drunk. Land happy. They aren't smart enough to not wear out what land they have which is mainly why they want endlessly more. Planters, many of them. Or are they just a very greedy bunch and greed is what brought their progenitors from the old world. Greedy for material or spiritual goods and goodness. Maybe they all have greedy genes. We'll have to ask geneticists about that. They tell us there may be a happiness gene. Isn't that nice? Maybe someday infants will be born smiling instead of crying. “We come smiling” is what a future Shakespeare will maybe write. Does happy mean property protected? Does happy mean security-patrolled gated communities? Having many securities and stocks makes some happy I suppose. Life insurance is an American invention. So much in America is about feeling secure, ﬁnancially secure. Physically safe, ﬁnancially sound. Sleep tight. Not abnormal concerns, granted, especially in a society that preys upon its own people. People will go to extremes to get themselves a security ﬁx. Like junkies. Products are generated constantly to feed that addiction and fearful things are continually publicized to create new demand.
***** I'm not anti-America though I ﬁnd myself often suffering from overexposure to America. It's hard to escape from the USA. In a Ho Chi Minh City hotel I have to hear about a White House scandal; I have to watch the Cosby Show in an airport lounge in Seoul. Fed up with America might be the case; daily intake of it is like eating all your meals at McDonald's. It's as if Ronald McDonald is in the White House (our "trusted friend"), as if Ronald McDonald runs schools, writes books, makes T.V. shows, provides news, raises kids. Is Ronald McDonald Big Brother? ***** Even though we may be accused by our leaders or our neighbors of being disloyal, what common (= public) goal is there that is distinctly American towards to which we the people can aspire? What common something is there that we are all of us supposed to be participant in? To live a genuine life in a society that is true and good? Generating wealth it seems is the goal. What is there that might guide immigrants if they are to assimilate? The creed and the greed? So, outwardly, if immigrants can recite the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution and sing the national anthem and wave the ﬂag and walk and talk like corporate elites and demonstrate their belief in middle class wholesome goody goodness goods they can then inwardly identify with other Americans? There are individuals and groups who try to make life a bit better in certain ways for certain people. Other groups try to make life worse. Disloyal to what, or which? Only one goal is so widespread that it might be called common. That is pursuit of happiness, which, ideally, means multidimensionally being able to get along in such a way that others--human and nonhuman alike--can get along too. In practice, though, happiness means money. Pursuit of wealth means self-interest and all the land wasting, war waging, oppression of others that happiness brings with it in America. It brings unhappiness to others, those who are not us.
***** Long ago what is to be this nation called America is advertised in Europe as a land with much to offer. (This is before there is an independent entity to offer liberty to anyone.) Gold and all sorts of riches. And land itself; almost any white male can become land rich--no matter what humble beginnings, no matter what natives happen to live there already. Isn't it strange how in mainstream narratives of our national beginnings--the narratives that make up our Ronald McDonald compulsory school education-we never hear settlers question their right to be here, never hear doubt expressed? Do they believe so fervently--are they so indoctrinated--in their “right” that they simply overlook the existence of others inhabiting that land who are there before settler Europeans arrive? What so impairs their sight? What illusion can override that reality? Does their Christian religion give them a righteous go ahead? Is it a few words in the Book of Genesis about how their god gives Adam dominion over all that unleashes this--seen from a victim's eyes--terror? Or is it just plain old human viciousness that isn't hard to ﬁnd wherever one group comes to dominate another? A better way of life. Gold Mountain (as the Chinese called it). Rich. Some good deal of it is hype as it is now when land developers want to attract people to their projects. People go to that land, we the people, our ancestors, we go, moved by material wants, we swarm, eventually, as shoppers do to bargain sales. Cars lined up along highways for miles. Ellis island. Wagons lined up at western land give aways. A Blue Light special at K-Mart: Attention all shoppers! For a limited time only on aisle eleven . . .. This is who we are in terms of values: price-buster kind of value, who we come from, many of us. Those, and the others who come to be free of persecution, which is basically an economic thing too. They are Puritan settlers, they are the people from whom, a Harvard professor [Samuel Huntington] recently says, talking about his recent book [WHO ARE WE? THE CHALLENGES TO AMERICAʼS NATIONAL IDENTITY], we get core values which give us our identity as Americans. For many it proves--not without some difﬁculty--to be somewhat better than what they leave. Economically, religiously or socially. Undeveloped as America is when they arrive, it is more attractive to them than where they come from. Where they come from are places that cannot or will not provide a chance for decent life--for various reasons--not for many, judging by the numbers that come. From old country Europe and elsewhere, depending on the times.
Of course there are those--who we do not mention in the same breath with that “chance for a better life” wording--who have to seek refuge from those who come seeking refuge, those persecuted by those ﬂeeing persecution, those bought and sold as slaves by those seeking economic opportunity. Talk about absent minded: mister Harvard professor has completely forgotten that aspect of settler "morality" or ideology--that core identity he says we all inherit through our American creed culture. Is it okay to treat others so badly because they are not like us, mister professor? He doesn't tell us we're creeps. It's hard to sell books that don't lie. Ronald McDonald runs Harvard too, as well as the publishing business. ***** There is no land give away that I know of. Not now. No gold rush. There is dot.com bust, gene rush, space dust. Some ﬁnd ways to keep themselves excited; they jump off cliffs or out of airplanes, skydive to feel alive, get that adrenaline rush. Some empower themselves with drugs. Others get abducted by aliens. Still others are given antidepressants. ***** Is it not an inspiring idea that men and women from different backgrounds can come together to live, live together, work and play together, enjoy diversity, enjoy feeling no inferiority, feel that one is being treated fairly, equal to anyone? Is feeling equal what is really wanted? Under cover of respecting an equality creed (sometimes, maybe, in principle), most people derive pleasure in feeling superior and search high and low for what lets them feel that they in some way have it better than another, are in some way better off than someone else. Better than those in foreign countries and better than their fellow Americans. Does it mean we are all equally driven to feel better off than others? At a deeper, less social, more personal level, we are each searching for power--not necessarily over others--but power over life itself. We want control over our lives, want to bring life under our direction. Snap it up and be happy. We think we can. I dream along with Martin Luther King, Jr. It's not bad, that dream. It's good, even if it is just a dream. It's good to have dreams: how things are supposed to be, how they should be, wouldn't it be ﬁne, even though, yes, that's just
dreaming. Dreams can alleviate some of life's frustrations, some of its horror, life's trauma, how things really are at times, the screams. How can anyone not be depressed, living in a society where relations between humans can so often be characterized as predatory exploitation, as greed, envy, and conﬂict, where relation with what is not human is, if not wholly destructive, nearly nonexistent, and not be spiritually worse for it? Unless of course we ﬁnd some special way to be real. Meditate or something. Write poems to breathe. Love, sing, live a genuine life. How does one become a spirit in America, how can one be a spirit among so many ghosts? What goal might there be that isn't destructive that might be what it is to be American? America is its people. So let people be? If they are open-minded and gentle America is open-minded and gentle. If they are narrow-minded bigots America is narrow-minded and bigoted. There are so many different kinds of people and each person has various dimensions. I don't know who all is gentle and who is not, who's been naughty, who's been nice. Often we don't see ourselves as we are. Nationality, the secular religion, tends to prevent that. People it seems want there to be religion; they want there to be god where it all begins and ends. People want there to be nation, some responsible authority which will advise us to use duct tape. Some entity that is answer for it all. (Cause it all?) ***** Cold war comes. More money to chase, people get colder. Society decays, morality is answer experts say. Morality, nation. Nation, morality. Fear. Morality means Joe McCarthy just before I was born. Patriotism. Is anything ever any better for all the morality? Nation. If people are afraid we cling to false morality. If people aren't afraid (= free) who needs morals, which is what real morality is: doing what is in our heart at any given moment, which is what it is to be free. Whoʼs to say what that should be? Atom bombs come cold war comes assassinations come. Vietnam war comes morality gradually means a way out of that war; warmonger patriotism is out. More fear comes bringing with it more morality immorality (if you get confused about what morality is go jump in a lake. Lakes are free beings, be with them). Nonstop fear is here forever. The country is ever more badly run by ever more falsely moral men meaning those who are most afraid of all who
seek to hide in power meaning those who need to be in power to escape their fear. Nation hallucination bad trip bummer, people wanting to be safe wanting guns to be safe so afraid of their own fear. Presidential power; power of the president, support the president, support gun power sonuvagun. Empowerment masterminding undermining. Head of the most lethal weapon mass destruction military humans have ever seen we the people's president our hired big gun. We let power go to our heads. It comes from our heads. Happy hunting. Surrounded by secret service deadly men presidential symbol of our national fear is protected. Power ring paranoia center rings of hell. Bulletproof glass in bulletproof cars in bombproof bunkers deep underground, deep set fear secretly bores to earth's vomit core the worm in the apple the pie is made of because there are many more maniacs out there terriﬁed, ones who couldn't get into the White House, ones who can't pay for high powered campaigns or high-powered protection who buy high-powered riﬂes to shoot those who can. Surveillance camera in backyard garden. Who will steal tomatoes? Missleproof cities. Truthproof minds. People without means live behind barred windows and doors, seventeen locks--how do they afford it on welfare?--police helicopters chop chop slum prison night. Sirens all night every night. People closed for life twentyfour seven. Viciously trying to escape. ***** It begins with birth. We get a certiﬁcate. Our existence is recorded, listed somewhere, sometimes lost. We are kept on ﬁle. But for connections with family and friends we become a lost soul in gray metal cabinet celebrations of life or as colorless odorless electrons in often square often ash-gray molded plastic machines. At birth we are given colorful nationality. I am an infant. Processed when we are born, processed again and again and again at school at hospital--everywhere we go. Have to ﬁll out identifying questionnaires to buy baby's milk with food stamps. Have to ﬁll out questionnaires did we ever have legionnaire's. At a public library twenty-ﬁve questions to borrow a book. Whatever is considered by whichever ofﬁciating agency or commercial entity to be relevant data they ﬁle and ﬁle (and on the sly for extra bucks slip it all to marketeers). Height weight medical history drug allergies employment social security number telephone number ID number credit card number identifying
marks blood type organ donor health insurance carrier license plate number credit history hobby nickname income bracket pets. All encoded. Privacy is not the issue here. It's people coming to think, to believe, that who they are or what they are is what is recorded in those ﬁles. Identity. As our society increasingly keeps us in isolation, genuine connections with other humans weaken. These are communal connections that in the past are rooted in actual survival. Now we hook up with others because he or she is a customer I sell to or this one is my boss or we're together for some reason in one nonessential pursuit or another: diversion. These are relationships we can move easily in and out of without too much life rending devastation should things fall apart. Human contact with a label (Facebook Friends?) Our very being amounts to what is considered relevant information. What is on record deﬁnes our existence. As if all we are can be accounted for. Lastly is the data inscribed on our grave: "Here lies Bill. He was gay," etc. Encaged by, as, identity. Ontological fear? Does this mean that we eventually come to think of ourselves as well as others as commodities with which no real relation exists? Which, if it does mean that, parallels how many of us view external nature. Do we come to think of others in terms of their opinions, their religion, their race, their ethnic background, their party afﬁliation, or as some information to use, to put to work for us? ***** Summer 2003 I am on Amtrak from Florida on my way north to eventually Philadelphia. America several months earlier launches an invasion of Iraq. Sitting in Amtrak's cafe car early morning, with book and tea, quietly to myself, for some reason our train stops on Main Street in some small still asleep town in Georgia, or is it South Carolina? Sunball is not yet visible but a lightening from east mingles with darkness; hazy forms quietly become brick hardware store, post ofﬁce, bank, cement pavement, asphalt street. Over Main Street hangs one trafﬁc signal blinking yellow as if there is something on the blink. I wonder if there is something wrong with our train. The cafe's booths are almost all empty when I enter but with breaking day several passengers shufﬂe in sleepily, looking rumpled and stale, as am I, not well rested. One young man enters, baseball cap over close cut hair, hooded thin sweatshirt loose over sleeveless T-shirt hanging on his slim upper body. He looks around. Mine is the only booth with one person seated; he asks if he
can share it. We talk brieﬂy. He tells me he plans to attend college, which is why he joined the military. He wants an education but cannot afford college so goes in the army to be able pay for his schooling. His eyes show sensitivity. An extended meaningful conversation with this young man seems promising. He tells me he's been over in Iraq and has been told he is to be sent back. People across the aisle from us overhear him and chime in, interrupt us, with praises, telling him how they all support him and what he's doing. People all over the car hear this. Many offer their thanks for all he and the troops are doing for us. One man about my age says how much they all appreciate what all “our boys” are sacriﬁcing. No one seems interested in what the “doing” in “doing for us” entails. Does it mean hospitals overﬁlled with armless, legless, eyeless, Iraqi kids? In an instant sun is blazingly up, it's light an operatic aria spilling all over Amtrak's Formica tabletops. This seems unnoticed by most, absorbed as they are in this little pep rally. I say no more until things are quiet again. Softly I say to this private: “I hope you come back in one piece, spiritually and physically.” That is all. He looks at me knowingly, knowing more than me it seems, knowing more than me because he is dark skinned in a country where a person can be beaten or killed because of color. “Yeah. Dig that,” he replies. He ﬁnishes his coffee and leaves. We wish each other good luck. Shake hands. I sit wondering: is playing soldier the only feeling of being “okay” he is allowed in this country's mainstream social life? Is that the only sense of solidarity with those he shares nationality with? Not a “successful middle class professional Black man,” if he is not soldier or ball player or entertainer are there forces doing their best to see that he is put behind bars? If passengers in that cafe do not know that he is off to kill Iraqis will some feel threatened, will they see him as a possible perp? ***** My father's only eye tears when our nation's ﬂag is raised in public. He has one outside his home on his lawn day and night. He “fought for his country.” His love for his country is similar, I think, to the feelings of men interviewed on a Discovery Channel program, marines who fought at Iwo Jima and who are old now and who say they are still overwhelmed--with what they don't say-with love, or with pride, or both--when they see our nation's ﬂag or hear our national anthem.
These Iwo Jima survivors are men who lose limbs in that battle. From Iwo Jima they go through life without a leg or legs, arm or arms. Even though they lose limbs they do not lose feeling for their country. There is no bitterness expressed in the program. The veterans speak no words of blame or criticism of their government or of the top brass who order the carnage. Nor do they speak against war itself. Is that war one of the main events in their lives? Dad says I am the best thing that ever happened to him. Though I do not go to war or serve my country in a military way, I sense that my dad's emotions and those of the Iwo Jima survivors are genuine. It's not something they pretend to feel; their feelings are not for show. Neither are mine. Would they feel that way if that war is lost? They've been through war's hell, are baptized by unnatural ﬁre, and what our ﬂag symbolizes for them is likely all that makes sense, what all the senseless death is all about. Sometimes what is called love isn't necessarily rational. Does a ﬂag also symbolize irrational nationality? They are not ﬂag-waving warmongers. I never hear my dad and don't hear those interviewed vets question war itself. Not the particular war they were in but war as human behavior. It's as if they simply accept that going to war is a necessary dimension of life, as if it's an unavoidable, preordained condition that comes with being human. No doubt that is the message they receive from their society as they grow up. They come to accept that unnatural behavior. We can grow accustomed to tastes and smells that are originally unpleasant. It begins for me, and for others in my generation, the training, when we are too young to know better. Toy shops full of playful armament things. After a certain age, Christmas presents, along with sporting goods, become abundantly militaristic: Mighty Mo cannon, plastic soldiers, battery powered machine guns that make sounds, army helmets, and fake dog tags. Hours and hours of playing war. Running around our neighborhood pretending to kill each other. One kid has a toy bazooka. We play Combat! or Gallant Men. We name ourselves after characters from those T.V. shows. Those men in the Discovery Channel show don't come across as particularly contemplative individuals. They seem to be, now, practical men, family men. Down to earth. They have great grandchildren. Is that what the director is trying to project? I don't know. It is a "documentary" so it is supposedly journalistically objective and ideologically neutral. Probably there is a certain amount of editorial concern given to who is interviewed or to which interviewee responses are selected for broadcast.
Yet for all their good common sense those men do not--at least on that program--see through the “ﬁght for your country” indoctrination. Is it that they are afraid to or maybe they choose not to see and think that freedom gives them the right to close their minds. If it is me I don't think I would want to go back to an event--a huge boulder of a presence looming in their lives--and accept that it was all about oil or about factories or cars or Coca Cola or McDonald's hamburger joints in Dresden or Tokyo. I want it to have been about something more honorable in our cultural scheme of things: protecting democracy; freedom. Making the world America-friendly? I do not feel as they do and do not feel devoted to my country in a way that makes me want to get myself to a battleﬁeld. I am alive to being beyond nations, alive to life that preexists nations, alive to and as life that will go on even as cockroaches possibly long after we humans wipe ourselves out (the sound of one hand clapping, the other waving goodbye). Are there any who fought in their wars who are turned off and revolted by the entire horriﬁc ordeal and who are turned off by patriotism expressed as warrior cult men in ribbons and medals ritually raising lowering folding saluting ﬂags presenting ﬂags shooting off twenty-one bullets twenty-one cannons jets booming overhead? Such men are not on that Discovery Channel program, but, if they exist--as Iʼm sure they do--are their feelings any less genuine? Because the idea of war makes them sick are they traitors or unpatriotic? Being alive is feeling enough for life. It's beyond anything symbolic, beyond words, beyond me. Yet it is me. War is a false teacher. There is what we call destruction. Fire tsunami earthquake hurricane ﬂood and everything else. There is no war in life we are made of. War is distortion. Milton projected a war in heaven. Such is what might occur to someone wanting to explain it all. There is no war anywhere in life but what's in our skulls. Animals, yes, ﬁght, prey, eat each other. Out of instinct; to live. Humans exist in that dimension as well. We must eat. That biological imperative requires that another living thing must die, plant or animal. We eat death. Eat is the heart of death. Nonhuman animals are different: they do not behave according to arbitrary abstractions or consciously fabricated rules as if they are involved in a game: Now, these people with the red cross it's against the rules to kill. It's okay to target this building but not that building. Don't bomb that because it's a cultural treasure. We'll stop killing from zero 600 hours until 1400 hours because it's a religious holiday. Time out. Resume play. Foul! The rules say you're not allowed to do this this this trying " to extract information. Well,
you're not allowed to cut off heads. Blow to bits is okay but no cuts to the head, okay? Shake hands. Let's get out there and have good, clean war.
Emails come. Ones that are at times patriotically fervent. About "Our boys," how they are ﬁghting for “our freedom.” Pics of yellow ribbons tied to ﬂagpoles. One ends: “If the language we speak is English we have a soldier to thank.” People get hype in the head; where is their heart? Because they are “our” boys, “our” team, do I wish them well even though I do not know who they are or what they might be like in person? Good natured, well-meaning women and men are they? Rapist, sadist, torturer--who knows what? Do I wish Iraq's people well? I wish no one any harm. Good ole well wishing me, tuning my thoughts to wishing wells. If these men and women on either side want to put themselves in harm's way, to consciously risk having their lives cut off or snufﬁng out someone else's, if they're young and stupid or so hopelessly depressed and hard up that they can't imagine something better to do with themselves, well, what can I say? I'll let freedom ring itself, thanks. May they not get hurt or hurt others. Wake up and go home. Live your lives in peace if you can. Forget the glory. Try to live this life you are given. Everyone: insurgents, terrorists, “our boys.” Everyone wake up and live. Freedom for some Americans is sending out for pizza. They pay others to go off to wars. They are told war is to protect freedom or American interests. Many people accept that; they have their “freedom” delivered, and it's usually poor excuse for pizza. These patriots are not aware that spiritual freedom--the freedom without which all other freedoms mean next to nothing--comes from within. They bamboozle themselves out of their own lives and replace life with something else, identity, opinion--ready made opinion taken from newspaper editorial or radio talk show or internet chat or president's lips. They get opinion somewhere, anywhere, but not from within. There are no opinions within us. All that goes into making a star as well as into making dark matter--or what makes this earth and makes us--none of it is opinion. ***** Once while back visiting my mother and father they tell me about a club they are thinking of joining. It's name is the Elks. Or is it Moose? Before that neither are members of that kind of organization, but this club has dancing
once a week or once a month and they have live bands that play “their” music, which means the big band sound. Jitterbug granny and gramps. They get invited to this club by friends as guests and so enjoy themselves that ﬁrst night that they are thinking of joining. They apply for membership. One afternoon after they mail in an application someone from the club's membership committee comes out to “investigate,” as my dad put it. Up front it is just old smiley face “howdy-do, folks” but perceptive dad realizes this fellow has come to see what color their skin is. And whether they are ﬁne upstanding Christian folk or poor white trash trailer dwellers or what. They do not follow through with their membership application because another time at this club, maybe it is another time as guests, before the dancing there is a meal and an awards ceremony honoring several local police ofﬁcers, one of whom has dark skin. The fellow sitting next to my father, not his friend but some other fellow, leans over to dad, nudges him and in a whisper reports: “You won't see too many black faces around here.” Once one someone from long ago America and his wife are visiting us here in Japan. The woman passionately, almost fanatically, reports not long after we meet--we are not yet together thirty minutes--that they don't like Chinese people. They like Japanese, but they don't like Chinese. There is this and that reason, which may make sense to her, but which sounds pathetic to me. Does she feel threatened or uncomfortable with all these black-haired different skin tones around? I don't know how much education old bull Elk has. My visitors have degrees in computer something or other. With enough brain power to get them through college and beyond. They live comfortably in suburbia, travel abroad for vacation. Neither blue collar Elk nor white collar visitors think for themselves. Yes, they think “I'm going to invest my money in this or that” or “I'm going to go into assisted living,” etc, but they are unable to put their thoughts in their heart or have their heart in their thoughts. Are they living closed in their narrow minded worlds, afraid to come out? Luckily for me and hopefully for them, deep inside them there is better; there is a human being that is not what appears at surface. There is potential, and the hope is that they will be enlightened by their own hearts before they die hopelessly miserable closed in hateʼs cofﬁn. What hurts is that from early childhood, in short pants and suspenders just learning to play outdoors, my mother or grandmother watching me from park bench or lawn chair or kitchen window, I want to be friends with everyone. What reason is there to dislike anyone? Until someone proves to be cruel,
small-hearted. I have to pretend to be friends with them no matter--or else who is there to play with? I come to accept others with whom play more often than not means conﬂict, and I learn to accept play that at times is not enjoyment. Thatʼs life? Happy. There are times early on they call me names, make fun of me, these playmates. Swivel hips, liver lips. I come to see myself as unattractive, unacceptable, inadequate. Not knowing any better, I allow them to control me so they will not hurt me. I let them make me their “friend.” Then parents tell me to defend myself. They tell me to ﬁght back, not to let anyone push me around. Physical violence or threatening others with violence becomes second nature. That and verbal abuse. At ﬁrst I don't know how to do it: how to ﬁght or threaten. I don't want to learn but do. In school, grades K thru 3, each day begins with mandatory Bible readings and ﬂag pledging. Each recess, lunch period, and after school walking home I feel threatened. Should I turn the other cheek? Love my oppressors? Can I escape into Jesus? Saying bedtime prayers does not fortify me against these bullies. It hurts because I learn to be like them. I have to become like them, suppress my gentle nature, to survive. Have to become less than I am. Become like them who too are being less than themselves. A world of not who we are. There is choice. My initial choice is do nothing, donʼt ﬁght back. They treat me badly: pick on me, threaten, call me names, push, trip, punch. My ﬁrst choice was wrong? So ﬁght. Fight back, a bully backs down, other kids come to me looking for protection. My own gang forms. I am a protection racket. Neither choice for me is a good one but ﬁnally my parents move to a neighboring town where kids in school are a bit more upscale socially and where there is no kiddie school gang scene. ***** “I love my country,” some people say. My mouth is closed on the subject of love. When they say “I love America” it makes me wonder just how it feels to love a country. I donʼt get the heart of it. How do they mean it? Are they blessed with an emotional capacity lacking in me? Do their words represent feelings they donʼt really have but they think they're expected to say as social ritual? Do they mean love in a shallow way
as when someone says “I love Paris," “I love New York,” or "I love football"? I don't know. Itʼs not for me to judge their love. Do they ﬁnd themselves able to rejoice in the fact that they are Americans? Is their love something like that long ago philosopher's “love of the good”? Have they looked for what is good in their national community and, ﬁnding something, felt that, whatever that goodness is, it far outweighs the bad, so much as to inspire love, reverence, devotion? Is my own lack of love then my own responsibility? I do not look for the good, or do not look hard enough? Should one really have to look for what is called “the good”? Should one have to look for love? Shouldn't it be apparent through us, in our everyday actions and behaviors? Wouldn't our acts as a national community be love? In the feel of being shit on what is good? Where's the love? Is love our nation's buried life? If America is a matter of belief in an idea, is a nation like a religion? True believers are its champions? This sounds like chivalry from long ago. Yet people look to beliefs for stability. Taking them away produces what effect? A sense of loss. There is only a territory--being alive and dying--but no map to live and die by. Persons of spirit do not get caught up in this. Itʼs a worldly, wordy, business. ***** Our house on Elm Terrace in Riverton, New Jersey, my family in it, our dog Buttons. White birch and sycamore in our back yard. Fruit from that buttonwood tree: itchy balls we call them. Neighbors. The hill up our street we sled down. That three story dark brick elementary school, the houses and little stores along the way. Fred's barber shop. Cott's candy store. Klipple's bakery. Friday's fuel. Our street is lined with elm trees. Seed pods we become dizzy chasing when they fall whirling in breeze. We open some to stick on our noses. Fall days playing in piles of leaves that are raked off lawns to curb sides for a leafsucker truck. Some winter days, snow days, we are up the street on a golf course double bunkers with sleds; dozens of kids. Snow bright and wet in sun. Slushy after that day's sledding. Our snow suits soaked. That place, those people, those trees and moons; that ground. A world we are of; a life we are of. In it are hurtful things that make that world too. Next door lives a man who beats his beagles; he kicks them and hits them with a chain.
Poor things yelp in pain. To hear it as a child. I plead with him to stop. “Itʼs discipline,” he tells me. Home life, home town surroundings that are breathed, absorbed. Personal experiences; all else is distant. We are bombarded with distances. What can be held close? “America the Beautiful” is a song in a book we learn to sing in elementary school. America is writing in textbooks in social studies class. It is a system of government we are taught about in school. America is pictures of men, long ago men in long coats and powdered wigs. Handlebar moustache civil war soldiers, or bearded. Lanky log splitting Lincoln. A few women. Bonneted Betsy Ross sewing her ﬂag. Clara Barton. What does being American really mean in that immediacy? Where is America? What is American? Is it us? Or do we have to behave in certain ways to "qualify"? (It is possible, I learn later, to be “unAmerican.”) Pictures of ourselves are not in our social studies books; our personal lives are not material for any course we have. Teachers never ask us to consider what America is in our lives, though they assign us patriotic essays to write for a contest. We make our language into a ﬂag we wave as words in hopes of some reward. Do we, as people, ruin the land we call America? Do we, Americans, we the people, foul it, pollute the land's rivers and lakes, gas up the air, make self government a joke high level execs chuckle at in corporate boardrooms? All that is around us and in us. Then to look around and look within and take it all in and think of it not as what it is but as America. Things are okay or not okay just as they are. What need is there to top it all off with a metaphysical maraschino cherry of “America.” Why not just “life?” Does the constitution say what America is, or is the entire document what it means? Maybe this is all taught in civics class. In our school we are made to learn things about America but are never asked to work out for ourselves on a personal level what it is to be American. As part of what it is to be a person. A man or woman in the universe examining what it is to be a certain nationality, as part of an examined life. The public schools I went to do not commit to speciﬁcs. We are just supposed to salute and pledge and appear patriotic. Recalling what little religious education I have--Sunday school classes and Bible readings--there is a deﬁnite program of predetermined meanings that are revealed through various stages of life in a church. Conﬁrmation is one.
In Boy Scouts there is a deﬁned character young boys are to model themselves after: be honest, prepared, helpful, etc. I do not recall being presented with any particular behavior as an American. Other than "ﬁght for my country," other than the notion that we, as a group, hold this and that and are dedicated to such and such a proposition, other than pledging myself to liberty and justice for all, other than the trinity of god, country, family. There is nothing that addresses me as a person. There are those who say that god speaks to them but my country never speaks to me. How would America sound? White noise? To make efforts to actualize a republic that is really about liberty and justice for all is more important than having kids repeat words in a schoolroom. ***** Wild places where things ﬂow without human intervention. Even though such places are now unlikely. Somewhere without designation. No name. Unmapped. Empty, uncolored, unknown. Nothing to proclaim possession or ownership. Then someone comes along, names it, by which act they bring that place into human thought, which means bring it under human control. Thought control. Establish dominion. We kill freedom. Now it supposedly belongs to some government, belongs to someone, belongs. As we do. We think we do. Before that, before anyone claims it, walk there and smell trees, soil, feel breeze, sun warm, earth under feet hard or soft, sky blue, air clear, or get wet with rain. Feel them. Feel with them. Each in its own ﬂow all ﬂow together. Then someone comes along and calls it America. Do trees meadow grasses bow down, rise and stand at attention, salute ﬂags or hint acknowledgement that they are now supposedly American trees, American grasses? An American sky? Trees are cut down earth upturned turned under turned to; mountains are blasted away, blasted into or through, rivers are dammed, cities built and empowered, city air is ﬁlmy with gaseous substances and urban smells. Our acts as a particular group in a particular place might be called American acts. We foul it and think it's fair. Itʼs our stench, the city smog. What is a word but its act? How about me? More deﬁnitely nature than nation, which, nation, is some encoded memory cells in part of my brain: I get ﬁlmy and fouled. *****
There are gentle souls in America. While growing up or later on in life I meet some. They seem able to go on living there and rest in their essential nature. Ignoring evil maybe. Nowhere is it easy. My hat goes off to them. I respect and admire too those who have been, and still are, confronted with, who have suffered, bigotry and small heartedness, the violence and mindlessness, in American society (though elsewhere it can be as bad or worse, or better too) and who manage still to remain open to love, to life, those who do not close down those who do not respond to stupidity with stupidity. It's an honor to think of them as friends.
Scott Watson Sendai, Japan