Monday, December 5, 2016

Cracking it Open

My writing has turned on me. It no longer offers me a place of refuge, where I can go to escape challenges of everyday life. Nor a place to freely and safely explore and experiment with the various dimensions of me. Oh…the exploration and discovery still go on. Writing is an ever fruitful, always reliable path of self-discovery. But it no longer feels so safe; no longer is it always encouraging, or pointing toward possibility. Rather, writing has become a persistent challenge and demand on me: to know what I know, and to do what’s called for.

These days, my writing consistently points out to me – NO, it shoves it in my face, under my nose and down my throat – how huge a gap there is between the self I’ve spent a lifetime fantasizing and dreaming about, imagining that I was growing toward, and the entirely other being I’ve become. And this latter being that I’ve become has too often been protected and coddled, kept safe and secure from the demands of that other self.

It seems that whenever I write, the contradictions of my life find their way onto the page. I can’t escape the realities of my living, and all the ways it strays from what I know is true, what I believe is possible, and what I feel is right.

I think of James Baldwin, whose writing I’ve always admired for its naked honesty. He put all of his own contradictions, struggles and compromises on paper, for the world to read: his crisis of faith when faith could not peacefully co-exist with his humanity, the confession of a sexuality which labelled him perverse, the impossible demands of being an aware Black man in a world that demanded his complicity in the systemic devaluation of Blackness. How could he so boldly expose his every vulnerability and insecurity and still breathe? And have a public life?

There is so much contradiction and tension in every part of my life, so much challenge and sense of danger. And just as I don’t have answers to so much of this, (and have so many ready answers to so much, without courage to embrace them), I just can’t see how to allow my thoughts and words to flow freely, without constantly considering the consequences of doing so, in my relationships, my work, in all the places and roles I occupy in life.

I believe that the only way to deal with this challenge, to break through, is to go forward, to embrace this persistent flow in my words, my writing. A kind of letting go and acceptance is involved. A degree of unselfconscious courage is called for. Why does it feel so scary? Is this what’s held me up all these years?

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Day is Here!

Over the weekend, I carefully and scrupulously read over my Voter’s Guide from Washington State, completed the lengthy ballot, then emailed it back for tabulation in this quadrennial exercise of participatory democracy. Emailing got me in before the deadline, but my votes won’t actually be counted until my paper ballot is received later this week through the mail, properly signed and dated.


Though I’ve lived in the Greater Toronto area for almost a quarter century, I remain a legal voter based on my former address in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle. I’ve now been an absentee voter for more years than I was a resident voter. I’ve been a registered voter in a few states: New York, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, and Indiana, in addition to Washington. I never actually voted in New York, because I was away at university in Massachusetts in 1972, the first year when eighteen year-olds could vote, and my absentee ballet wound up in a college administration building instead of in my dormitory mailbox, as I’d expected. So I never completed that first vote. It turned out not to matter very much, as that was the year of the Nixon landslide. My first presidential vote wound up being cast in Massachusetts four years later, for Jimmy Carter. Next time around, after primary season and my first caucus, in Kansas City, and disillusioned with Carter by then, I cast a vote for my first third party candidate, in the person of Republican defector, John Anderson.


In 2004, I did a vote swap. I wanted to give Ralph Nader a boost, but didn’t want to risk Kerry losing a vote he might need to prevail. So I voted for Kerry in Seattle, while a trusted friend promised to vote Nader in New York. But, I wasn’t actually in Seattle. That vote was already my 4th absentee vote for President, made from Canada. This is my seventh.


A few years ago I became a Canadian citizen, and my dual status allows me to participate in the electoral process of two countries. The voting experience is quite different here from what I became used to in Seattle. In Canada, which has a parliamentary system, one usually gets to cast only a single vote, that is, to make a determination on only a single matter. One reason is that municipal, provincial and national voting doesn’t generally happen at the same time. But the more substantial reason is that, here, you essentially have to align yourself with a party. In last year’s federal contest, I cast a vote for the local candidate for Member of Parliament who represented the party of my preferred national leader, and that was that. Had I really liked the national leader, but thought the local candidate an idiot (or vice versa), I’d have been stuck with a “neither or both” choice.


Contrasting with that, the ballot I just mailed back to Washington was a hefty eight pages. It included dozens of votes. In addition to my choice for President, I also made choices for Senator, Congressional Representative, Governor, lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Treasurer, Attorney General, and several judgeships and memberships on school boards and insurance commissions.


My favorite part of voting in the U.S. – and this varies widely from State to State – is the presence of Initiatives and Referendums. An initiative is a ballot measure put forward by a citizen or citizen group. All that’s required to get a measure on the ballot is a required number of signatures, enough to demonstrate that there is considerable interest. A Referendum, on the other hand, is a measure that the legislature has decided – for any number of reasons, practical or political – to refer back to the electorate for approval. Sometimes there will be competing Initiatives and/or Referendums, representing different solutions to a problem. These measures reflect a degree of direct citizen participation in government. Often these measures have a high public profile and generate huge campaigns that rival those of contenders for office.

In Washington State, the Initiative movement has been very strong, at least in the 34 years since I’ve been voting there. This year alone there are initiatives to:

-         Increase the minimum wage

-         Create a system to finance political campaigns

-         Allow family members to restrict access to guns by the violent or mentally ill

-         Increase penalties for fraud and identity theft targeting seniors

-         Create a carbon emission tax on fossil fuels

-         Push for a constitutional amendment to deny the rights of persons to corporations
In addition, there are a couple of other advisory measures, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, a city of Seattle initiative to improve health, safety and labor standards and protection for hotel employees, and a measure to fund the expansion of the light rail system. The ballot comes with a booklet containing non-partisan explanations of the measures and arguments and rebuttals, pro and con, as well as links to information about supporters and financing of each side.


It took me several hours over the weekend to read up on all of the measures and to make my choices. But it’s a wonderful exercise that forces one to carefully consider the responsibilities of citizenship. And it leaves me feeling that, though I’m long gone, I remain a citizen of my native land, and that I still play a role in shaping the future of a community that I continue to love and that was my home for quite a few years.
This election season, which has been so tortuously long and divisive, is finally ending. It’s been a perfect demonstration of how ugly and messy democracy can be. But as they say, it still seems like about the best system going.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Coming Into The Kefar

Dimona is a city in Israel’s Negev desert. It’s the home to about two to three thousand ex-patriot African Americans known as the Black Hebrew Israelites. I should say African Americans and their offspring, because more than half of the population was born here, since the community was established in late 1960’s. It is a prolific community, created by its founders “to establish God’s new kingdom on Earth”, and as such, it’s very pro-children. Families are the fundamental unit of the community, and many of them are very large. Some of the men have two, three or even four wives, and sometimes a dozen or more children between them.
My father immigrated here in 1973, part of a large group, mostly from Chicago, Detroit and Gary, Indiana, who came here with very little but their faith in what they were creating. There were many hard years, during which they faced financial struggles, deportations, and a fair amount of desertion. Since that time, they’ve won allies and admirers, certainly acceptance. But I’m not here to write a history, but to share the experience of welcome and community I experience coming here.
I first came here twelve years ago, to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday with him and his two wives. The lived in Tiberius at the time, part of a small contingent of “the Nation” settled in that northern city on the Sea of Galilee. But even then, it was Dimona I was most eager to see and to visit – to see the heart of this community that my father joined so long ago.

Emmah Kaninah, 96 & Abbah Avraham, 92 (9'16)

One of the things that always strikes me here is that the Kefar – the perhaps ten acre square of mostly single-story, densely-packed apartments that holds the heart of the community – is full of my people. They are the people I was born among in Detroit, lived among in my teens in New York City, and encounter in the Black communities all over the U.S. They speak my language and I speak theirs; we share common roots and culture and growing up experiences. In some ways, they remind me, who has lived mostly among white folks through most of my adult years in Seattle and Toronto, of the communities of Black students I belonged to in boarding school and in college in New England: we were from all over the country, but were conscious and intentional in over-coming whatever differences we might have to support our togetherness.
Emmah & friends on the Kefar (9'16)
The other thing that makes an even bigger impression on me, is how healthy, vibrant and truly communal the Kefar is. For years, I worked in Toronto’s Regent Park, Canada’s largest public housing development. I love Regent Park, and it is certainly home to real community, with powerful, loving bonds, healing, grassroots energies and movements, and a powerful sense of identity. But Regent Park’s beautiful community existed on top of and inter-mingled with other communities that were disruptive and discordant and constantly draining it’s health – like the subculture of its violent, street drug trade.
Life in the Kefar, on the other hand, while I don’t suppose it to be trouble-free, is guided by a single vision and a fairly strict code of values and conduct that prevent any oppositional culture from setting roots. I don’t know that I could or would live within this particular vision and code, and this isn’t a time to explore that. By virtue of my father’s belonging, I have a foot in the community, and find acceptance here, but I am a visitor, an outsider. And yet, I look upon the Kefar with love, admiration and even a little, wistful envy.
Kids on the Kefar (9'16)
The Kefar is beautiful. It is humble and simple, but clean and welcoming. Though dense, it feels open. It is the village it aims to be. But it’s the life of the children here that speaks to me most. When I was first here, I wanted to return to Regent Park and scoop up all the children and bring them here. It is safe. Children play unattended, because all adults here share responsibility for their supervision and care. I observed a child of about four approach an adult to ask for assistance crossing the street that borders the Kefar. The adult called over a youth, who promptly responded, escorting the child to the school yard across the street. There are no glass shards, cigarette butts or other kinds of trash lying about. No obscenities or threats are being shouted. When I asked the children for permission to take their photo, they gathered around, eager, giggling and polite, showing no fear of the stranger.
In so many ways, life here is as it ought to be. And it makes me wonder at the extent of what most of us have sacrificed for our modernism and ‘progress’.
Rofe Amadyah's Cactus Garden on the Kefar (9'16)

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What We Believe

I’m in Israel. It’s one of those countries on Earth where belief systems have played an incredibly historic and inspirational role, but have also given rise to generations of war and hate. It’s a place of pilgrimages and combat missions, of devotions and heresies, where the concepts of good and evil are probably more present in people’s thinking, and also more contradictory in expression than in most other places. In this part of the world, people seem to be blowing themselves up every day for what they believe.

My visit here is to a community full of true believers. My father’s Hebrew Israelite nation is founded on a pursuit of truth, a truth its members feel was historically denied, about the origins and true identity of Black Americans of African ancestry. It is a belief that directly challenges the truth as put forward by others who have claims to the territory and traditions of Israel. The beliefs of the Hebrew Israelites hold an invitation to me, one with great appeal on many levels. However, I cannot see a personal pathway to accepting the invitation, because it is loaded with so much belief that is contrary to beliefs I have developed on my own journey through life.
I hold to my own beliefs to varying degrees. My belief that the Earth is approximately round is pretty strong, despite my surprising, recent encounter with a sincere and adamant Flat-Earther (Yes! They exist! – though I wouldn’t have believed so before meeting one). This belief holds despite the fact that I have no direct evidence and have neither proved it nor had it proven to me. I believe it mainly because I’ve been told so, and because it seems to make sense, and because it fits in with lots of other bits of knowledge, gained through experience as well as indoctrination, about how the universe I live in is structured.
But my belief in intelligent alien life is much less certain. I belief in that largely because of the vastness of the universe (something else I take at the word of “experts” who’ve written books and have appeared on television). If the universe is truly as vast as they say it is, and populated by billions of suns and their planets, is just seems mathematically unlikely to me that we could be the only beings with the gift of intelligence. And, in the words of one of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” characters, if we are the only ones, “…it would be an awful waste of space.” But this belief in alien intelligence is not rock solid. I know it stems as much from wanting it to be true as from anything else. In the same way that my belief in Santa Claus persisted a good two or three years beyond being old enough to see through that one, because I so wanted him to be real.


This stuff is on my mind, in part, because of a couple of incredibly provocative books I’m reading. They are “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, and “Mindfulness in the Modern World”, a transcript of talks by Osho. Harari says that the ability to create “fictions” and to believe in them is the key characteristic that separates Homo Sapiens (Us) from Neanderthals and other near human beings, and the characteristic that made us so dominant over the rest of creation. Among these “fictions” are religion, democracy, human rights and money. Osho states that all of our ‘religions’, as well as the other life-style theories that drive us, are nonsense, and that we ought to overcome them if we want peace, happiness, enlightenment. Both of these writers, coming at the subject from totally different angles, say that nothing we “believe” has much of anything to do with Truth.
Having written this far, I have to add that I’m not yet twenty percent through Harari’s book. I’ve only read about half of Osho’s (but that’s a different matter, his not being a book that one will actually ‘finish’, I don’t think). There are certainly no conclusions to draw in this post. But my mind is open to looking at all that ‘I believe’ in a fresh way, maybe to looking inward for what generates belief, to understanding why I have often felt a need to believe in something; why, at varying times, freeing myself from a particular belief has caused me to feel lonely and isolated, afraid, or absolutely empowered and free. Harari points out how powerful belief systems are. Osho, how limiting they are. The profusion of today’s wars, and conflicts of religious and political extremism, would support both. One of the key questions to me is: Given that belief is about a deep level of acceptance of a viewpoint, sometimes based on proof, but often beyond the point of verification or evidence, how much choice do we really have in what we believe?

Monday, September 26, 2016

How is this Trump Thing even Possible?

It really concerns and worries me that Trump is doing as well as he is in the polls, and that Hillary is struggling as she is. It causes me to worry about the character, insight and values of the American electorate.

I understand that Hillary Clinton is not an ideal candidate, that there are things about her candidacy, past errors in judgement, and the Democratic party platform that one can question and oppose. What I don't see is how anyone can look at her lifelong record and doubt that she has a deep and long-standing concern for regular people, and that she's worked hard over the decades to promote change that helps them.

But looking at Donald Trump, even supposing that one feels strongly about the "Republican values" he supports, how can one not be troubled by the character and personal values of the man? What has he ever done that hasn't been about self-promotion, about accumulating "personal" power, wealth and influence?

I'm stunned by those who say they distrust Clinton and yet ignore the chronic posing, distorting, misrepresenting and outright lying of Trump? I'm incredulous that people seem to think he will be a good manager of the economy, when all evidence shows that, as a businessman, he's all about lawsuits and intimidation, image and bankruptcies.

I've been asking myself what the explanation could possibly be, for millions of Americans actually wanting the presidency to be in the hands of such an immature, narcissistic and uninformed person. And I haven't been able to come up with any explanations that aren't depressingly cynical.

That so many Americans are just so fearful, that they are soothed by the bragging and bluster of Trump, whether he demonstrates any capacity for backing up his promises or not.

That so many Americans are so hateful, that they simply cannot acknowledge the decency of a Woman who would be commander in chief, any more than they accepted the decency of a Black Man as commander in chief.

That so many Americans are simply that stupid, that they really believe that the entire world (and American liberalism) is out to take advantage of, or even destroy, America, and that we have to attack and beat them down before they succeed.

I seriously fear for my country. This whole movement behind Trump strikes me as the kind of lunacy I see in my paranoid clients, who manage to either distort every fact that would poke holes in their delusion, or simply ignore it. It appears that Trump's supporters are able either to explain away the endless proofs of his unfitness to hold high office, or to ignore them.

I can't understand and I can hardly believe what may be happening.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Watching Over Dad


I’m fighting with my father.  He refuses to drink water. Sometimes he won’t eat. He often refuses to acknowledge people, to answer questions, to cooperate when I or others are trying to get him up out of bed, to get clothed, to sit at the table, or in his wheelchair.

My father is 92 years old and suffering from dementia.  He has aged remarkably well, but three years ago he started showing signs of dementia, and then he fell and broke his hip a few weeks ago and has dropped off substantially. For weeks, in the hospital and in the rehab center, he refused to do anything. Since coming home, he’s improved somewhat, but hasn’t made the efforts that we all know he is capable of making.

Today, he’s refusing to drink any water. He lives in Dimona, Israel, in the middle of the vast Negev desert. It hits thirty degrees Celsius every day, even as Equinox approaches. And it’s dry. Dehydration is a constant threat. Drinking water is a must, if he is to sustain life, and he fights it constantly, biting and chewing the end of the straw until it’s useless, blowing instead of sucking through it, refusing to hold onto the glass, keeping his lips pressed together, becoming fearsome and belligerent, or pretending that he’s less in control of his faculties than he is, insisting that he’s already drank the water, or saying he’ll drink it later and later and on until the never-arriving later.

He’s a hard-headed old man, and right now, I’m so frustrated and annoyed with him that I’d almost pack up and go back home and be satisfied if I never saw him again. But I know this will pass, and that however difficult this three and a half weeks becomes, I will treasure it. I remind myself daily that if this is not the last time I see my father, it may well be the last time he sees me and knows who I am. It was wonderful walking into the room in the small ‘House of Life’ last week and having his face break into a broad grin at seeing me. He was so unmistakably happy. He’d been told that I was coming, but in his state, it was a surprise he got to experience more than once.

The water thing is difficult. He must drink, but won’t. I’ve fussed and threatened to the point where I’m wondering whether I’m sliding toward elder abuse. I’m Aries, but he’s Taurus, and a battle of wills can last a long time.

How did I come to be in this situation? Being childless, it was looking like I was going to be one of those rare individuals never to have to concern myself with care of either a child or an elder. That is still the likely case – my father’s is a spiritual community to which he’s belonged for 43 years, and it is caring for him now, and will continue to. But I’m getting a sobering taste of a life that so many friends have endured, with parents, in-laws and others, sometimes two or three at one time. I’ve never imagined I could do what they’ve had to do. I feel even more doubtful of that now.

But I’m grateful for this time with my Dad. Grateful even for the experience of changing the diaper of he who once changed mine. It’s humbling, stirs up all kinds of memories and emotions, and makes my own mortality palpable, and oddly, somehow less threatening.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Donald Tweet


I haven’t been political enough in my blog. I’m so disturbed by the blind partisanship I see running through American politics that I’ve wanted to present my arguments from as non-partisan a position as possible. I've argued in this space against political attacks, and for greater respect for other points of view and the candidates that represent them. I've argued for keeping political discourse on high ground. Well, forgive me. But enough of that.

Donald Trump’s candidacy has me more disturbed than any I can remember, at any level of government. On many levels, Rob Ford’s term as mayor to Toronto was a joke. But as much as I disagreed with most of his policies, his rhetoric, and his presentation of himself as a man of the people, I at least credit him with a degree of sincerity in his desire to be of service to others.

I can grant Trump no such benefit of the doubt. I believe that his commitment to service, to the working class and to America go no deeper than his vanity and self-serving allows. He is the worst kind of opportunist, one who seeks to convince himself and others that his self-aggrandizement, his branding, and his bullying, blustery style are in the interest of the people. And the thing that pains me way more than his narcissistic immaturity is that so many Americans are falling for it.

Watching the Republican party implode over his candidacy has been infinitely fascinating and a little bit satisfying, and after being witness to how it has done everything in its power to smear and sabotage every effort of the Obama administration, I’ve felt like it represents karmic justice. But my satisfaction is tempered by fear that this cancerous candidacy, that has grown out of the eight years of lies and distortions directed at Obama – and now at Hillary Clinton – is not done eating away at what’s left of the mind and soul of America’s electorate.

Can there really be so many thinking Americans who believe Trump has any of the intelligence, the character, the interpersonal skill to occupy the office of President? Apparently there are, and that scares the hell out of me. But even more frightening is the vast number of people who must know how unqualified he is, but who will vote for him anyway, excusing their action with the claim that Clinton is no better.

I’ve never been a passionate Clinton supporter, neither of Bill nor Hillary. I see them both as politicians, a little too willing to compromise on policy and philosophy in order to secure position. But in looking at their history of service, at the issues they have chosen to fight for, over decades, I have no doubt that public service is the driving value behind Hillary’s run for the White House. Yes, personal profit and prestige figure into the equation, arguably more than one would hope for. But ego – elevation of self – appears to be the key motive force behind Trump.

I was really annoyed by Donald Trump’s recent visits to Detroit, his so-called outreach to Black Americans, and his talk in front of a Black church group. I trust that the vast numbers of Detroiters and Black church-goers, and citizens to Detroit and other struggling, inner-city communities will see through the paper-thin veneer of empathy and populism that Trump represents.

But what’s needed is for Americans nation-wide to wake up to the hoax that Trump is. I won’t even dwell on the bigotry, the divisiveness, the intolerance he spews and supports. I think that it all stems from a fundamental lack of depth in the man. He seems to have a character as superficial and as lacking in substance as one of his famous tweets. But however ignorant and offensive as his statements are, his die-hard supporters deflect by saying he doesn’t really mean it, or that he’s just positioning himself to bargain, or just keeping himself in the spotlight. Doesn’t that alone tell us everything we need to know about him?

On some levels, this election seems to be coming down to a sequel to 2000, when Bush’s no-substance, good-old-boy manner prevailed over Gore’s dull but substantive intelligence. Then, it was ultimately politics and the courts that decided things. What will decide it this time? Will enough voters see through Trumps straight talk bluster and strong man posing to see how he’s built a career out of bankruptcies, law suits and showmanship? Will enough of us acknowledge that as unhappy as we may be with the status quo, and as suspicious as we are of political dynasties and elites, there are minimal standards of maturity and awareness that are required in the Presidency?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fear & Ignorance: Passed On, and On, and On...

Guilt is pretty useless, isn’t it? Forward motion requires more of a sense of confidence in who we are. Confidence enough to rise above the particulars of personal viewpoint and to at least try and understand the many viewpoints. What frightens me most of all is when I see violence following violence and hate following hate. Seems it’s one of the most vicious fruits of fear and oppression – the tendency to become like, to internalize one’s own rejection and subjugation, and to take on the aggression, the urge to destroy, the arrogance and self-centeredness of the oppressor.
Black Lives matter. Blue Lives matter. Are these really opposing statements? Or are they merely forced into opposition by our stubborn insistence that to take up one means you are senseless to, or even in opposition to the other? Or, worse yet, does our pain – whichever side we’re on – cause us to celebrate the pain of the other?
Of course Black lives matter, and of course Blue ones do too. And we do ourselves violence to hold to one and reject the other. If a life matters, and if a life should not be snuffed out merely because of what it represents to someone else, if it should be valued for the individual being that it is, with aspirations, needs, a personal history, connections, etc., then it must be valued regardless of what camp it superficially lies in.
It matters that, all around the world, people are killing others because of the pollution that exists in their own minds: because they believe something that has little or nothing to do with reality, beyond their interpretation of it: that a certain “other” people are a certain way; that certain acts are a requirement for a reward in some afterlife; that ‘my belief’ entitles me to end ‘your’ life. Insanity. Insanity passed from one to another.
This hatefulness seems to pop up everywhere. I cringe at the level of hate in evidence during the Republican National Convention: the determination to demonize every democrat and every democratic act as intentionally anti-American, anti-safety, anti-decency. And guess what? It’s no better on the Democratic side. My inbox is flooded daily by condemnations of any Republican and every Republican act as immoral, as intentionally oppressive, as though the Republican party is bent on removing all love and beauty from the face of the earth.
Really? Are we really so stuck in our own perspectives that we can’t even imagine the possibility of goodwill in our opponents? Is our fear of them so overwhelming that all we can wish for is for them to be silenced, removed, destroyed? Are the only worthy humans the ones who think and act exactly like us?
I’ve been reading Osho, a spiritual teacher. And a particular passage keeps coming to mind as I contemplate the various murders taking place around the globe, in the name of some insanity or another: judgements that certain others need to be controlled by lethal violence; acts of vengeance that target innocent surrogates; ideologies that promote bloodlust as service to God. All examples of “Murder in the name of ‘What I Believe to be True’”.
Here are words from Osho: 
There is a beautiful story. Whether it is factual or not does not matter; its beauty is in its meaning. One of the greatest emperors India has known was the Mogul emperor, Akbar. He can be compared only to one man in the West, and that is Marcus Aurelius. Emperors are very rarely wise people, but these two names are certainly exceptions.
One day he was in court talking with his courtiers. He had collected the best people in the country – the best painter, the best musician, the best philosopher, the best poet. He had a small, special committee of nine members who were known as the nine jewels of Akbar’s court.
The most important of them was a man called Birbal. Immensely intelligent and a man or great sense of humor, he did something which was improper to do in front of the emperor. Every emperor has his own rules – his word is the law – and Birbal behaved against something about which Akbar was very stubborn. Akbar immediately slapped Birbal. He respected Birbal, he love Birbal, he was his most intimate friend, but as far as the rules of the court were concerned, he could not forgive him.
But what Birbal did is the real story. He did not wait for a single moment; he immediately slapped the man who was standing at his other side. The other man was shocked, and even Akbar was shocked. He used to think that his man is very wise – “Is he mad, or what? I have slapped him, and he slaps the man next to him? This is strange, absolutely absurd and illogical.”
The other man was standing there, shocked, and Birbal said, “Don’t stand there like a fool, just pass it on!” So that man slapped somebody else who was standing by his side – and now the game became clearer: you have to pass it on.
In the night, when Akbar went to sleep with his wife, his wife slapped him. He said, “What is the matter?”
She said, “It has been going on around the city, and finally it has reached its original source. Somebody else has slapped me, and when I asked, ‘What is the matter?’ I was told that this is the game Akbar has started. I thought it is better to finish it, to complete the circle.”
The next day, first thing, Birbal asked, “Have you received my slap back or not?”
Akbar said, “I had never thought this would happen!”
Birbal said, “I was absolutely certain, because where will it go finally? It will go around the city. You cannot escape; it is bound to come to you,”
For centuries everything goes on being transferred, being passed on from one hand to another, from one generation to another generation – and the game continues. This is the game that you have to come out of.

A beautiful and funny story, isn’t it? It so illustrates the path we seem to be on. It’s been pretty well established, I believe, that the wars brought to the Middle East by the West, in our so-called self-interest, contributed substantially to creating the conditions in which ISIS could emerge. We in the West have been largely indifferent to the “terror” our weapons of mass destruction have brought to that region. But now that the terror has swung back our way, we want to up the ante. Now, we want to wipe them out.
Some elements in the Black community feel that we need to start shooting cops to somehow defend ourselves against the wave of ignorance and destruction that some cops are directing at unarmed and non-aggressive Black males. Really? I wonder how that’s going to turn out. I absolutely understand the rage and the frustration. But I don’t see how playing the “Pass it Along” game can possibly help.
Just because effective solutions are so incredibly difficult to come to, does not mean that reflex, impulsive, emotional reactions will save us. They won’t.
I wish I had the answers. But I don’t.
…to be continued.


Friday, July 15, 2016

My Generational Guilt


I feel such a need to act against the violence that threatens to overwhelm. And I do nothing. Have been unable even to write on it.
I’m steeped in guilt. About what I have not done. And generational guilt, about what we haven’t done.
Why are so many of ours locked away, with little hope of living a life they dream about?
Why are so many of us being murdered outright, in the name of law, and in the service of greed, gunned down by those sworn to protect us, and more grievously by ourselves, hate on top of self-hate? Let me not forget fear and shame and pride.
And why do we – in righteous pain from our dehumanization, seek to dehumanize in turn, as though becoming our oppressor is the key to liberation, rather than an act of self-enslavement to the very creed that has crippled us.
My generation has ascended on the bowed backs of generations before us. These backs were bowed in devotion and commitment as much as in suffering. It was defiance and pride and suffering and faith that brought us to where we are.
And whoever says we’ve come nowhere shrugs away as inconsequential the rights to speak what’s on our minds, to work for ourselves and to build and to own. All God given rights due anyone. But few in this world have them as we do.
The shame of it is we don’t use them. Don’t use what we have. Or else so many of our youth would not be killing one another, wasting in jails, hopeless.
That’s the generational and personal guilt I bear. I haven’t done enough. Not nearly enough. I’ve done some things that might appear to have been enough, but they aren’t. Too much of my energy and focus has gone toward enjoying all of what my father and his father’s generation’s suffering made possible for me. And I’ve done so little to pass this inheritance on, to the next ones coming. Maybe for the first time, we haven’t left those that follow with better opportunities than we ourselves had.
When I was in my teens, it seemed as though the world was truly beginning a transformation. Young Black men in particular were making first steps into every realm of activity possible. Gaining recognition and access.  No, it was never enough, always too slow. But I have only to remember the experience of my father and grandfather to know how valuable each small gain has been. I grew up knowing, believing that I could do what I wanted in life. Not that there were guarantees, or any expectation that life would be pain-free, but that there was opportunity – so much more than what my parents and grand-parents had. I/We haven’t done enough to pass it along.
To be continued...

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cueing Up The Music


I should write more. I’ve been telling myself that for years. Instead of writing, I do other things.
Too often it’s as detached and passive as watching television. I think I’m one of the original bingers. At least, I was doing it years before I was aware it had a name.  24 was one of the first. Hey, the show took place over twenty-four hours. Why not try to watch it in twenty-four?
I’ve binged on the catchy, thrilling stuff like 24 and Lost, and on the Shakespearean Breaking Bad and The Wire. And I’ve sometimes supplemented those with regular, weekly doses of Biggest Loser and So You Think You Can Dance.
I don’t think of it all as brainless, but it’s not active either.
But I’m also spending a lot of time with Jazz Gumbo, my internet radio show and podcast. Once a week, I carry some vinyl into the basement studio of a Regent Park youth program and spin tracks for a couple of hours. I used to haul in a crate of thirty or forty albums each week, but now that I’m commuting, it’s fifteen to twenty. I’ve had to think more in advance of what I might play, of the soundscape of artists and styles, tempos and instrumentation, melodies and moods I want to create.
Putting the set together is like a stimulating and rewarding game. Most weeks, I start with the handful of albums I have from last week’s show that I didn’t get to. This week, that’s Terumasa Hino’s “Speak to Loneliness”, Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way”, Jay Hoggard’s “Overview” and Duke’s “Ellington at Newport”.
Most of them, I’ll carry in again, and I’ll eventually find a good place for them. If I haven’t played something in three or four weeks, back on the shelf it goes. There are almost always three or four numbers I’ve already decided to play (chances are, one of them won’t make it). Then, I’ll spend some time picking out other tunes to complement them or balance them. That’s a lot of fun. That’s the heart of the programming, for me.
Often, I’ll hear something on Jazz FM during the week, or something will come up on my iPod random play. Those will account for a quarter of what gets played. On the morning that I go in, I’ll often grab a couple of last inspirations as I’m walking out the door, and by that night I’ll have thought of another one or two I wish I’d grabbed. But, I do carry my iPod with me and anywhere from once to three times during a show, I’ll scroll through it, or go looking for something that just came to mind, to stick in on the spot. In the mix there are almost always at least a couple of tunes I’m not really familiar with. And increasingly, I have a recommendation from a friend or a listener, of a favorite tune or artist of theirs.
The actual two hours in the studio – which results in an hour and forty minute podcast, on average, is fun, busy, focused, scattered, stressful, spontaneous, frenzied, exhilarating, out of control and inspired by turns. I love the music and never tire of hearing it. And I experience the power and beauty of it in a concentrated way through the show. I’m trying to share in the brilliance of musicianship, the dazzling artistry that flows as sound through an infinite array of personalities, histories, attitudes, loving and experiencing.
I play enough music to know the potential of the connection between oneself and an instrument – a beautiful tool, built to open channels of expression through practiced skills of coordination and manipulation. Enough to know what magic emerges when skills reach the point when they can be given full reign, and you let yourself connect to rhythm and sound, and find the inexpressible flowing through you.
I love combining the musics of the different genres and cultures of the extended jazz family: the urban soul r&b from Detroit or Memphis, the classically structured jazz of the fifties and the eighties, the raucous, brash explorations of 70’s fusion, the visceral, blood coursing rhythms of Nigeria or Brazil, the folk inspired chord structures of South Africa or Poland, the rigorous, spirit flights of progressive or free jazz.
Yes, I should write more. But I’m pulled to so many other things.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Bernie's Revolution

How I’d love to see Bernie Sanders as the next President of the United States. But I don’t believe that’s going to happen. Could I be wrong? Absolutely. I’ve been wrong about so many other things this political season, not least of which is Bernie’s improbable success in elevating progressive principles and policies in a country which has a history of allergic and phobic reactions to all things that smack of socialism.

I admire and am hugely grateful to Bernie for his career, his values, his honesty and determination. I’ve wrestled with myself for the last several weeks over whether to voice the concern I’m about to express. I recognize from past campaigns how disheartening it is when supporters give up too soon. And I’ve seen in my personal life that many things I might have accomplished were within reach, had I only persevered for a while longer. So I recognize how wrong I might be.

But I also recognize that there are times when perseverance puts what has already been gained at risk, and sets up devastating loss that might have been averted. And it seems to me that this is such a time.

Donald Trump looms ahead. And his rise has foiled my beliefs and predictions about what might happen in America this election season even more than the Sanders phenomenon. Because, while Sanders has made socialism and progressive altruism palatable to the American electorate, Trump has worked a similar miracle for infantile impulsiveness, arrogance, blind vanity and disregard for others. He has turned bluster and careless ignorance into political weaponry, and then seduced far too large a segment of the voting public with the cartoonish ideal of a superman who will simply bully the world into his own egotistical likeness.

Hillary Clinton is a very interesting figure to put up against these other two. She might be viewed as the lukewarm between the hot and cold of Sanders and Trump, which brings to mind a judgement I remember from childhood bible study – something about spewing the lukewarm from one’s mouth, as inferior to either of the two extremes. She is the representative of “things as they are”, against which the supporters of both Sanders and Trump rage. If I had my way, there’s no question that Sanders would prevail. But I don’t believe that he has any possibility of success. Which leave Clinton and Trump. And my choice there is equally clear. While Clinton may, at worst, merely preserve what is deeply flawed, I believe that Trump may well destroy it, in a way similar to how Hitler destroyed Germany and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan – with hateful ideology and a morally bankrupt sense of superiority. And I don’t know that the United States or the world will survive that.

The fourth figure that informs my internal debate is Barack Obama. I believe that Obama has been a powerfully transformative president. I don’t agree with all that he has done, and I’m frustrated at what he has not done. But I believe that he is the first political force to seriously weaken the conservative tide that began with the advent of Reagan, a tide that sent progressives into hiding and that made ‘liberal’ a dirty label that too many politicians simply shrank from. Obama, in the face of a mindless and persistent opposition, has pushed an agenda and a set of policies that has begun to readjust the capitalist caste system of entitlement, and to rehabilitate concepts of equity, fairness and equality of opportunity. His presidency has made Sanders’ rise possible, just as the fear and loathing of reactionary conservatism has given rise to Trump. And Obama’s eight years as president confirm the reality that change is slow and difficult.

This is a reality that I hope that Bernie Sanders will absorb. Sanders has changed the political dialogue for the better. He has made income inequality – a topic too loaded for discussion in the centers of power eight years ago – a legitimate topic of debate. He has forced “single-payer” health care back onto the agenda. He has forced attention back to the corrupting influence of money on the political system. He has championed the way overdue platform of free education for all. Carrying these issues forward as their champion is still within his power to do. But to continue to fight for, even to insist on, consideration as the Democratic nominee for the presidency, especially when he has clearly been the loser through the primary season, winning millions fewer voters than has Clinton, can only dilute his transformative message. Continuing to fight for the nomination increasingly casts him as just another politician, making any argument he can for personal, political gain. It’s not about you, Bernie. You have a successor in the wings. Elizabeth Warren will carry on your fight, and perhaps become the second consecutive female president eight years from now.

But now I’m counting chickens. There is still November. There is still Trump. There is still the potential for a Clinton presidency with Sanders as a supportive, prodding, enlightened conscience of the Democratic party. If he sacrifices this potential for an “all is fair” campaign of desperation for a nomination he cannot win, he will make a devastating Trump presidency all the more possible.

Please, Bernie Sanders. Turn your attention to the bigger fight, to the winnable fight. Begin to help unify the left. Begin to draw your supporters out of their disappointed threat to step away from the monumental challenge our country faces. Lead the way, for all of us. And give up your quest for the Presidency.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Glimpsing Death...on a Near Horizon

I feel like I’ve showered in pure water. No residue. No need for drying. Or for clothes.
I will be embraced. Wrapped inside the day and the hour, eventually brought home again.
The day is long. The day revolves around the day, and around me and my thoughts that cannot be contained. And why should they be. The world isn’t a closed vessel. It spills endlessly. We are creatures meant to spill out and to spill in.
Maybe this non-death is a reminder to me of how messy life is, is meant to be, not to be contained in mind or the flesh. Won’t stay inside the lines. Won’t stay neat, polite, presentable.
On the other hand, always ready, prepared or not. 
What can my ear hear, what can my eye see if taken off their leashes? Where will my feet take me if taken off of leashes and out of shoes, away from the concept of leash, away from thinking about shoes, and socks and paved pathways, and unpaved ones, even the conceit of walking.
The animal inside us moves, it sees, it eats what its tastes guide it to, unapologetic to life for ingesting life, for loving the taste so much it licks the lips clean. That natural ecology of longing.
The universe just keeps opening up. Maybe that’s what I was learning , though I wasn’t thinking of learning, of getting anything right, except not to leave anyone out, thinking I’d forgotten how good those stolen moments were, how closely we touched on those uncalendared days that we didn’t know were passing from time and even from memory, but leaving a mark always, as messy humans do, as unblaming hearts and unanalysing minds will do.
That’s what life is, that holding onto life forgets, but that death knows and reminds and reminds and retells until we will learn it.
Don’t worry about the shoes, or even the walking. Just being the animal inside.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Freight Train

There are only a few surviving stories in my family about my mother’s preacher father, in his early, drifter days, before he got religion. It’s said that some things about him didn’t change after the conversion; he was always a stern and serious man, full of self-respect and private thoughts. So that, though he died when I was five or six – the first death of my life – in some ways, the Grandad I knew from Sundays in church and play fighting on the living room rug was the same wandering, silent John Hardwrick of family lore.

I can’t remember now just when he was born, or what America it was he grew up in. Some of that information is scribbled somewhere, in notes from my long conversations with my Aunt Audrey. I’ll never know many of the details of his life, but I’ve always known it was a very different life, inside of a very different world.

What I think of most often when I remember Grandad is the train-hopping. It was his preferred way to travel. What must that have been like, in the 1900’s or the 1910’s?

Aunt Audrey said that Grandad liked to ride on the top side of freight cars, that he would ride standing, and looking backward over the country he was travelling through. He was a casual laborer in those days, though intelligent and with some elementary education. He had a travelling companion, a life-long friend who would eventually settle down with him in Detroit. Wade – let’s call him that, as I don’t remember his name - would find himself periodically abandoned. Ever so often, he’d wake on some morning to find that my grandfather was gone. A week or two later, he’d get a telegram from him, saying he’d found work in such and such a place, and he’d set right out to rejoin him. And a few weeks or a couple of months later, the pattern would repeat itself.

It’s said that my Grandad had his spiritual awakening while train hopping. One day, as he rode along in his customary stance, looking backward from a freighter top, he received a clear message to “Sit Down!” I don’t know if it came as a voice or an un-beckoned inspiration, nor what he thought was happening, but he promptly sat, and the next moment he heard and felt the whoosh of a tunnel as the train passed through. Had he taken time to consider that voice, that message, it would have been his last act in life. As it was, he gave it much consideration later, and it transformed his life.

I’ve always thought it would be a thrill to hop a train, but never seriously expected I would do so. The closest I’ve come to sharing my Grandad’s experience is through the hitch-hiking I did in earlier years. That came about as a convenient expedience rather than a choice for adventure. A trucker picked me up near a bus stop on a country road and carried me into Holly Springs, Mississippi. And for several years thereafter it was my own preferred way to travel. When I peer past the romanticism of Grandad’s image, I image that his train-hopping may have come about in a similar way. I like to think that he and I shared the same feeling of freedom as we travelled, that his miles of rails brought him the same sense of overcoming life’s ordinary limitations that I felt on the open highways. Maybe peering off the top of a freight car was something like staring out at the desert night and hearing a single approaching car when it was yet miles away.

When I was approaching fifty, and concerned that I was entering my last days of any kind of adventuring, a colleague and I fantasized about finally hopping a train. He’d grown up with a Grandad and family lore too. He and I were working with street people and quite a few of our clients had hopped a train or two. It had become a thing among drifting youth of a certain disposition, and we were even schooled on some important do’s and do not’s. We’d been nudging our clients into taking on ambitious, outside the box type goals, to broaden their sense of what was out in the world for them, of what was possible. Why not us?

So we planned a week when we’d head west, and go as far as we could for a week before we’d turn back home by more traditional means. It felt like a perfectly stupid thing to do. And like something that would send us not so gently into the certainty of our waning years. I was newly free out of a marriage and reveling at the vast freedom of being single. My buddy was married and, for better or for worse, two weeks before our scheduled departure, his wife put her foot down. No way in Hell was he going away to hop a train. So instead, we went on a canoe trip on Lake Temagami. It was great.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Heartbeats per Page

I once came upon a theory that the human heart has a certain, more-or-less set number of heartbeats it can deliver. This number acts as an upper limit. Once you use up your allotted beats, that’s it! A belief in this theory can be developed into an argument against exercise, or any other form of exertion or excitement that gets the heart palpitating. Running for the bus, scary movies and roller-coaster rides, even orgasms, would take minutes (and cumulatively, days, months, years) off of your life span. On the other hand, regular exercise that improves conditioning has the effect of lowering one’s resting or low-activity pulse rate.

I don’t know if there’s anything to this, but it’s got me speculating about writing from a different angle. I’ve been writing my entire life. Is there a set limit on the words I have allotted to me. Will I reach a point where the words just stop coming?

My experience of how my writing has shifted over the years lends credibility to the notion of a limit on words over a period of time, if not an entire lifetime. As a student, I wrote a lot for school. But then I stopped being a student. And what happened? I began journaling. In fact, I began my first journal the very month that I dropped out of university. And – though with a fluctuating regularity – I kept journaling for decades. And then, I stopped. And the end of journaling coincides pretty closely with the time I started blogging. Actually, all this suggests not only an upper limit, but also a lower limit on words. It’s never really rung true to me, but maybe there’s something to the notion that writers write because they have to.

As one who aspired (and still do) to make a career of writing, I’ve always lamented that I write so little. But this self-assessment is based largely on valuing some writing and devaluing other writing. I’ve only had six pieces of writing make it into print, in a publication available to the public, bearing my name, for which I received compensation. That’s 2 short stories, one short-short, and three reflective essays on social issues. It hasn’t been much of a career.

But there’s been so much other writing. There are the boxes of writing bits and pieces accumulated over the years of trying to develop my skills, voice, themes. There are the many more boxfuls of material I discarded because I saw no value or promise in them. There are the hundreds, maybe thousands of computer files, some on the machine I’m using at this moment, but many abandoned with discarded, older desktops and laptops and, yes, word processors, and likely never to be opened again.

There has been lots of work-related writing, too: case notes, proposals, minutes, agendas, lesson plans, evaluations and the like. Some of this has been very important on a personal level, both to me and to my clientele, and I’m as proud of some of it as of anything else I’ve produced. This includes advocacy letters, case summaries attempting to place the arc of a client’s journey into perspective, documents weighing in on program and community issues, or responding to a court or police action and its effects.

Then, there’s the truly personal writing. The emails and letters – occasionally, a poem – to loved ones. Sometimes, I’ve written a letter that has all of me in it, and those instances are very much like the times I’ve thrown myself into a piece of fiction or a creative essay. Once, when I was trying very hard to push my writing to a higher/deeper level, and was experiencing serious self-doubt, I dreamed an entire story. I lived it as I slept, and I awoke with it fresh and vivid in my mind, and ready to pour out onto the page. Another time, while composing a letter/poem to a woman I was deeply in love with, I spent a night of drifting in and out of sleep, rising to consciousness ever so often with words and sentences and small edits. These were instances when I felt almost consumed by the act of writing, like I was disappearing into it. And yet, feeling complete, and nourished and expanded by the experience, which is perhaps what death – that final consummation – is all about.

Certainly, this side of Life is finite. There comes an end to heartbeats and to words, whether measurable or not, whether foreseeable or not. But I’m finding something beautiful here as I contemplate it. In the context of an expanding universe, can death and other endings be seen as anything other than transitions? I don’t know that it really matters. I’m not angling for a kind of pseudo-immortality here. Maybe what I am angling for is a deep resonance, connective tissue, something other than a tidy, summing up. After all, we don’t measure a lifetime by the number of heartbeats. And we don’t weigh words in isolation.