19 December 2002

Searching for the Soul...

Searching for the soul of America….

There is an interview with Jacob Needleman in the December 2002 issue of The Sun, called Searching for the Soul of America, about his new book, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders. I haven’t read the book and in fact I haven’t even finished reading the interview. I went to San Francisco State University in the 1980’s, and I took a general ed philosophy course from Needleman, intro to philosophy and religion or something of that ilk. He was an inspiring teacher – one of those rare academicians who wasn’t merely a subject matter expert but also has a natural talent for adult education. I still remember texts we read and bits of lectures, one particular on intrinsic will, even a decade hence.

I sit down at my computer and begin to write this in hopes of forcing my mental grammar and perhaps unsticking my stuckness. Now here is an example of what is happening – when I wrote the first paragraph, about not having finished reading the Needlemen interview, my friend Will’s voice echoes in my head saying, it’s the problem with the left, we don’t read anymore. We read what other people think about what other people think about what other people have written, but we don’t actually read and formulate our own opinion. And upon making the proclamation he asks me what I’ve read or what I’m reading lately and I tell him, Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, by Martin Prechtel, his own story of becoming a Mayan Shaman among other things. And it reminds me how long it’s been since I’ve been reading this book and how little time I’ve spent to finish it and how it’s moved from something that I’ve really enjoyed to another task on my to-do list. And it reminds me that I need to take what Will said and consider it more deeply, about how this lack of reading the actual texts cripples our ability to reflect, contemplate and integrate new ideas. And it reminds me that I need to call Will, who called nearly two weeks ago now and I’ve yet to touch base back with him and how awful this is given he’s been in poor health of late. And it reminds me that I’ve always wanted to read the Upanishads. And when I wrote how I’m trying to force my mental grammar and unstuck my stuckness a loop began running through my head, “Slaughterhouse Five, Slaughterhouse Five, Slaughterhouse Five… so it goes, so it goes, so it goes….” This is what it’s been like lately. This is how my mind has been working, or perhaps more aptly, not working.

I started reading the Needleman interview while I was on the Larkspur Ferry to San Francisco. The ferry first passes San Quentin State Penitentiary and later Alcatraz. San Quentin used to be a high security prison, notorious for its hardened criminals and stories of the horrors and atrocities that took place in this prison lead to reforms in the prison system in California. While San Quentin still has a high security wing and houses death row inmates, mostly the prison is what guards call a boy’s camp - low security, non-violent offenders, picking up trash on the hillsides. Alcatraz has a great deal of notoriety, maybe least of which is what it represented in terms of a change in the penal system in America. It was the first prison built for punishment as opposed to reform of criminals. Now one can debate whether or not the prison system, as it stands, reforms anyone, but when you look back at some of the founding principals of America, of what those Europeans were escaping, part of what they were escaping was the European justice system. The Founders, in their declarations of independence and in the Constitution were doing many things - among them was the creation of a penal system based on reform as opposed to punishment. Alcatraz was the first admission of failure to truly embrace and achieve that principle.

The Needleman interview, at least what I’ve read thus far, doesn’t talk about or address the American penal system. But reading the interview and pondering the soul of America and contemplating this rediscovery of the wisdom of the Founders – well, it strikes me that the landscape isn’t exactly an accident. I’ve often thought, on my way to work, traversing the Bay in the ferry, that I’m not suppose to allow these institutions to simply blend into the scenery and I’m not suppose to observe them passively…. Water, sea lion, island, bridge, San Quentin, Alcatraz… or maybe I am. Maybe both things are true, look at the parts distinctly, and also the mosaic they create and learn from both stories. I’m not sure. I just don’t want to grow too accustomed to them, like they’re facts. But they are facts. But they’re not. Both things are true, all at the same time.

At any rate… I was listening to one of my favorite radio programs the other evening, This American Life. I don’t actually listen to the radio. I go to the website (http://www.thislife.org) and listen to episodes - sometimes two or three each evening. I was listening to an April 2002 episode (#210) called Perfect Evidence. Act one, Hawks and Rabbits, was the story of three boys, Calvin, Larry and Omar, convicted of a crime they didn’t commit, tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison. After 15 years and the advent of DNA technology, they were able to get a lawyer to take up their case and were released. The biological evidence did not tie them to the crime. The main interviewee of the boys who became men in prison, was amazingly articulate, thoughtful and intelligent. I’m not saying that people in prison are generally not well-spoken or that they’re not intelligent. As one listens to the program, however, it’s hard not to consider that this man’s references and abilities were tendered and cultivated in the context of incarceration. The interviewer never draws attention to this, never pauses after a particularly brilliant observation or thought by the interviewee and just says, “wow.”

During the interview, the wrongly accused and incarcerated man, Omar, is telling the story of how he needed one of his fellow alleged accomplices, Calvin, to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact that he is not an “O secretor” re: his blood type. Calvin wouldn’t sign. The last time he signed something it was a confession, construed and written by police officers, and this landed him in prison for life. In order to move their appeal forward, his signature was required, and Calvin had developed a new policy not to sign anything. He noted, additionally, that he had found God, found religion, accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and personal savior – that he put his faith in God. “That ain’t the way the God I believe in works,” Omar said. “Your faith in God in good. But act on it. You can’t say you believe in no God and not believe in your own ability to think, reason and understand because he gave you a brain to do just that with.” I thought, “Wow. That’s beautiful.”

Later Omar talks about the Declaration of Independence, which he had read in prison. He says something like this: “When I read that document I was like, wow. How it actually incorporates talking about rebelling against an oppressive government. If the government becomes too oppressive, the power is actually in our hands… That’s why, when you talk to anyone that claims, especially those who speak about the American character and what we should do, you should aks them let me hears youse recite the Declaration of Independence.” And Omar recites, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And you will come to find out that the average American don’t even know it.

In the Needleman interview he says, “In my book I suggest that the deepest purpose of the United States government is to provide conditions under which our society can flourish spiritually as well as materially.”

This is where I want to and all at once do not want to stop. Here’s the mosaic without the mud. But where’s the mud?

The mud is filling the trough that I dug out around the foundation, upon my contractor’s advice, to protect the house. Instead of providing drainage and protecting the foundation, it creates a moat for the water to gather and threatens the stability of things. The mud is filling the ditch Ed dug yesterday in the front yard, to reveal the pipes that have burst coincidental with these downpours that have rendered us without water for nearly a week now. So in the midst of storm front after storm front, winds felling trees and ripping shingles off the roof, hail battering our shelter and water filling the river to its bank, in the house we are dry and parched. For days now I have been contemplating the foundation and I just can’t lightly dismiss the metaphorical implications of all of this.

I don’t put these things together and think that I am a victim or that we’re all victims. To the contrary, I put these things together and I think, “Listen to this story. There are stories being told in our lives and in the landscape and we must listen to the stories.” And perhaps the most resonating words are those reflections from Omar, “Your faith in God is good. But act on it.” How these words arise out of injustices and the pursuit of justice, the landscape of this country, this land, this house – this is not a mistake. This is not merely a coincidence. That the very government of this place, America, might be built on a foundation aimed to inspire spiritual flourishing, that someone would write that and that I would read that while tooling past San Quentin after having just listened to Omar’s words. That is not a mistake. That my own foundation is threatened and how ill equipped I feel to address it, how little I know how to right it. That is not a coincidence.

I’m reading this book that I can’t seem to finish that talks about the Mayan way of life - about how houses aren’t built to endure but to be in a constant state of repair and how this reparation is an event that bonds and strengthens community – ties it together. And I think how the plumber who is suppose to help us fix this leak is my neighbor and how he failed to show up today or even to call despite the week wearing on and his commitment. And I think of how the contractor hasn’t returned my pages or calls for a simple reference for a roofer and how he mislead me around the problems with my foundation. And I think again that these things aren’t merely a coincidence, how these things are not a cosmic mistake – how instead they are telling a story. And this story is both beautiful and shameful – titillating yet difficult to look at.

I am not searching for the soul of America, I’m only searching for my own soul. I work for a non-profit – it’s about the big We. And my inability to work today is perhaps a mirror for how I’m stuck in the big I, how I can’t really find the mud or the glue that holds us all together even when it’s threatening to seep under my own doorway and over my own thresh hold. I see all the pieces, but I don’t see what’s holding them together and I don’t even see the connections between them with striking clarity. I don’t feel my faith in much of anything these days, making it incredibly difficult to act on it.

This really isn’t suppose elicit pity or a sense that this poor girl is stuck. And so here I pause and stretch and look around my cluttered study contemplating that this is not what was intended, this is not how things were supposed to be, and instead of finding my soul I find a stack of paper on the floor, a clutter of this and that, unopened and unpaid bills in little piles amid junk mail and flyers and I think that perhaps I can’t act on my faith, but I might act on clearing the clutter and maybe, in some small way, this will help – but I’m not sure how and I can’t help but think it’s just another distraction. The dog is nestled in pillows on the bed, curled into a cozy ball of warm fur and downy pillows. She’s snoring lightly and it makes me smile.