All One

There shouldn’t be an argument about whether we should help them. There is no us and them. They are us and we are them. All humanity is one; to believe otherwise is the grand delusion. If you believe that there is a gap, a difference between your humanity and the humanity of others you have fallen for the first fallacy of morals and the first lie of all dictators.

 

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The Center of the Universe

And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

– Elie Wiesel
Acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize

The marginalized people of America are afraid, and for good reason.

I am reminded of a story my priest told me once, from Russia in the years before the revolution. In those days, it was common practice for people to travel to monasteries to celebrate feast days and ask advice from monks, especially from certain elders.

On one occasion, a group of people were taking turns speaking with an elder who was giving them advice on keeping the fast – Lent. One by one they went up and ask his blessing – Batyushka Blagoslave – Father, bless me – and he would bless them and help them and send them on their way. He might tell them certain vegetables to eat, or tea to drink, or maybe for health reasons absolve them to eat eggs or cheese on days when they wouldn’t otherwise.

Finally a man stepped up who was very rich and influential; a man who had spent his life amassing a fortune. He asked for a blessing and the old priest, being insightful and wise, took one look at him and said:

Oh you, I know you. Don’t bother keeping the fast; eat anything you want. Just for the love of God stop eating people.

The people on the margins of American society are afraid because they are the most vulnerable to the people-eating machine that our divided and hate-steeped culture has become. I speaking of the immigrants, minorities, LGBTQ, the disabled and sick and homeless, and the list goes on. They know they’re not alone, but it must still feel that way. They don’t know if anyone – the Congress, the Courts, the churches and their neighbors – will stand with them as the machine grinds on.

It is not morning in America anymore; it is dusk. But the lamps are lit and the streets still belong to us. It is for us, every woman and man of conscience, to stay awake and vigilant. And when we hear that grinding sound in the night, we have to go out, and bring our brothers and sisters into our homes. Let no one be left outside. I’m saying we must keep speaking out.

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.
– Robert M. Pirsig

Remembering Jonathan Winters

I don’t know what year it was, but my Sheltie Tasha was young, so I’d have to guess mid 1990s. We were walking on Coast Village Road in Montecito one day, and Jonathan Winters came up to us. I mean I saw him nearby, recognized him, but intended to leave him alone. That’s what I usually do when I see a celebrity: I leave them in peace. I could claim that it’s because they have a right to a personal life when they’re not working. But famous people make me nervous. Still, Jonathan Winters changed his course and walked up and started talking to me about my dog.  

Tasha was exceedingly cute. But that’s not why we talked for awhile, about dogs and what a nice day it was, etc. We did because Jonathan Winters was simply an uncommonly nice guy.

My parents have a good story about meeting Winters one evening years ago, in the Carrows restaurant in Carpinteria. They struck up a conversation, he sat down at their table, with his wife, and they talked for a long time. He was so friendly and likable; not a molecule of the self-importance or conceit that it’s so easy to associate with celebrities.

Tasha and I saw Jonathan again in Montecito on another day, and we chatted again. I think I said something like, “Thank you for making us laugh.” I hope I did. Because it’s not as easy as it looks, to get that reaction. I imagine it’s something you have to be good at, without the effort that would make it false. And it’s even harder – just by being yourself –  to be remembered for being openly, spontaneously gentle and friendly.

jonathan-winters-photo-from-mgn

Born to be Addled

Addled sounds a little like wild, doesn’t it? That’s what I was going for. It’s not easy to put a clear title on one’s ruminations on the topic of abject confusion, my least favorite state of mind.

I don’t drink, you know. Very rarely and never if I’m going to be driving. That’s my rule. But the underlying reason is not simply fear of disaster and felony charges. It’s not that I think alcohol is inherently evil, though it  certainly has been the instrument of nearly infinite human suffering. Responsible drinking by healthy adults is OK with me, just not generally OK for me. And not because it’s fattening and expensive, although that’s also true.

I don’t drink because it clouds the mind, obscures the consciousness. One of my main goals on any given day is to go forth seeking clarity. And my poor brain is just about as fuzzy now as I want it to be.

No no no no I don’t … no more. 
I’m tired of waking up on the floor.
Ringo Star (youtube)

Case in pitiful point: A few days ago, I was obliviously shopping in the nearest Trader Joe’s. As I reached up for some cans of tuna, someone behind me spoke my name. I turned and shook hands, exchanged greetings, with a man whose face was very familiar. But I couldn’t place it.

My little brain jumped through the usual lists: work, church, writers’ groups, civic, condo association, etc. Finally I had to give up and admit I needed his help.

It turned out to be a man who has lived with his family across the street and one house down from my parents, for roughly the last 3 decades. I’ve stopped and spoken with him before, and seen him from a distance maybe a thousand times.

I was embarrassed. I blathered some stupid remark about being used to seeing him from a distance, complimented recent improvements to his front yard, etc. He was cordial and did not kick my ass right there amongst the produce, as much as I had it coming. But everyone wants to be recognized. Otherwise, it is far too easy to feel too lightly valued by others.

The thing is, I do value other people. I care and I really want to see people and know them and be friendly and inclusive. And I’ve heard other people over the years say things like, “I’m terrible with names.” This makes no sense to me. You’d think that the ability to recognize faces and identify known individuals would be systemic, universal to the evolution of our species. Otherwise, how would our kind spot enemies and friends and survive in a potentially hostile world?

There is a world of difference between momentary failure to recognize someone – the sin I’m confessing – and forgetting them altogether, which I hope I never do. I mean regarding others with indifference.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
– Elie Wiesel

This past spring, I heard my name called by another person who recognized me. I turned and recognized an old friend, whom I had not heard from in 12 years. I had assumed that she moved away and her life changed and so it goes. But she’d been living here in this very small town, where my number is in the book. She’d never bothered to call, that’s all. But we were glad to see each other, talked for a while, and agreed to email and to meet for coffee. She said she was moving away in a few months.

I emailed her a week or two later, as promised. She replied saying a few weeks later would be better to meet, so let’s connect again. I emailed again in that time, but have heard nothing since. Three more months have come and gone and maybe she’s gone too, maybe not. In any case, that’s indifference.

It’s important that we know the ones we know. They matter. And nobody wants to disappear.

C‘est la vie.

I guess I could Google how to improve your memory for faces or something. I’m sure there are tips and tricks abounding. Not the point. It’s perplexing that I don’t already have a reliable app for that.

Chatting over the bananas in Trader Joe’s, these lines of T.S. Eliot came to mind, as they often have over the years:

Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. 

— Ash Wednesday