Juan Williams and the Realities of Post-9/11 America

The current dust-up over the firing of Juan Williams from NPR speaks to a major cultural matter in contemporary America. I would submit that when we consider such a major cultural matter, we ought to do so under the light of all its complexity — and not just “cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.”

Williams, who until recently was a news analyst for NPR, appeared before Bill O’Reilly and noted that it is wrong to paint all Muslims everywhere with one broad brush. Williams’ larger point was that one cannot simply say “Muslims” are the culprit for terrorist attacks, as O’Reilly had provocatively asserted on The View last week, during which co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walked off the set in protest. This larger point that Williams espoused (and with which most of us would agree) is unoffensive and accurate. But in the course of making this larger point, Williams honestly admitted to his own personal fear that when he is on a plane and he sees a passenger in “Muslim garb,” he does get “nervous” and “worried.”

As I interpreted the interview, Williams appeared not to be proud of this worry he feels during air travel, and he certainly did not present it as something that should be advocated. On the contrary, he brought it to the conversation in the context of realities that currently exist in the American psyche, whether rational or not, in the post-9/11 world. For this he was fired from NPR, without any opportunity to elucidate his comments further, while NPR’s CEO commented that his “offensive” statement was “between him and his psychiatrist.”

Immediately, while liberals flocked to their own corner and denounced Williams as a bigot who deserved to be fired, conservatives in turn flocked to their corner and hailed him as the voice of ordinary Americans, silenced by the tyrannical elitism of NPR, which should no longer receive any federal funding from Congress. Both corners are too extreme and fail to consider the complexities that are involved. [It should be noted that Whoopi Goldberg, who initiated the walk-out on O’Reilly, came to Williams’ defense and said that to fire him for his statement was outrageous.]. The NPR ombudsman, voicing the position of those calling for Williams’ blood, wrote: “What Williams said was deeply offensive to Muslims and inflamed, rather than contributing positively, to an important debate about the role of Muslims in America. Williams was doing the kind of stereotyping in a public platform that is dangerous to a democracy.  It puts people in categories, as types – not as individuals with much in common despite their differences.”

I object to a number of these contentions, not because I am an apologist for a conservative perspective — far more often than not, I am solidly in a liberal camp — but because I believe these contentions are unfair and inaccurate, and blind to the reality of the “debate about the role of Muslims in America.” As for unfair and inaccurate, it seemed that Williams was not really advocating any stereotype about Muslims, or lumping all Muslims into one category (as O’Reilly had in fact done on The View). The context of Williams’ statements bears out that he was speaking about a non-rational personal fear, of which he might even have been ashamed — he was not speaking about Muslims. He was speaking about himself. To leap to the conclusion that he was investing in stereotypes and bigoted statements is disingenuous, and ignores the context of his words.

I have already argued with fervor that Muslims should be viewed and treated with the same respect and liberties as anyone else in this country, and that we must not ignore our founding principles of religious tolerance (for this, see my post, “More than Lip-Service for a Legacy”). Muslims in this country are entitled to the same religious respect and tolerance as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or anyone else. They do not constitute some alien group, and Islam is certainly the most misunderstood religion in our entire nation.

But this does not change the reality that 9/11 and its perpetrators permanently scarred the American psyche. We who lived through it will never be the same. The legacy of 9/11 continues to this day, in the war that we are fighting in Afghanistan and recently in Iraq, in our counter-terrorism measures, in beefed-up security, in our laws, and in our memories. We cannot escape from it. Terrorists claiming some warped version of Islam attacked us and continue to attack around the world. They attacked us while using Islam as an excuse, a flimsy justification for their barbaric actions. They could have picked any religion and done the same. We know this.

But the fact remains: we were attacked by lunatics wielding planes as weapons. The fantasy that NPR’s ombudsman, and those with the same feelings, insist that we all believe is that the cultural affiliation (however warped) of the 9/11 terrorists does not matter on any level. Either we each manage to forget their affiliation with radical Islam, so that it never affects us in any of our fears ever again, or we are bigots engaging in stereotypes and should lose our jobs. The terrorists’ affiliation with Islam must be excised from our minds. This, in terms of the actual functioning of our psyches, is a fantasy. It is a wonderful fantasy that we should all be able to divorce any association of Islam from the terrorists who attack us. But it is not the reality in this country, where the most tolerant person who knows right-left-and-sideways that “Muslim” does not equal “terrorist,” might still feel that pull of worry in some dark part of his or her brain while sitting on an airplane. It might only be fleeting, then smacked down for the irrational thing that it is, but it is there. And, whether we like it or not, it needs to be acknowledged because it is reality. It cannot be dealt with if it cannot be acknowledged.

NPR’s ombudsman says that Williams did not “[contribute] positively, to an important debate about the role of Muslims in America.” What, exactly, would have qualified as “contributing positively”? How are we supposed to have a “debate” in the true sense of the word — i.e., not a monologue that assumes we should all think the same thing — if we cannot admit to a perfectly explicable, although not rational, fear that was implanted by 9/11? How is any debate worth anything if honesty cannot be allowed, if all the participants must adhere to a rulebook written by only one of the parties? Some people have compared Williams’ statements to stereotypes about, for example, African Americans or any other group, saying that if he said something similar toward another group, no one would be defending him.

That is true, no one would be defending him, and rightly so. But we cannot be blind to reality, or we can never really have “an important debate” that is worth more than just the term itself. The wave of terrorism aimed against almost the entire world in the modern day does not associate itself with, e.g., African Americans. It associates itself with radical Islam, even though this form of Islam has nothing to do with ordinary Muslims. We were attacked with planes. Thus it seems to me that we are allowed to be a little afraid on a plane, whether or not we think we really should be. We cannot realistically be expected simply to forget, deep in our psyches, the radical ideology that the terrorists espouse.

Psychologically, 9/11 scarred us. It is not just a slogan to say that we will never be the same. It is reality, just as the effects of that scarring are reality. Those effects are what Juan Williams honestly admitted to feeling sometimes on a plane. Instead of blindfolding ourselves and stopping up our ears, claiming to call for “positive contributions” to “an important debate” while Juan Williams is drawn and quartered, we ought to take a step back and ask ourselves if the rulebook for this “debate” includes honesty or not.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Lions Roaring

The other day, my husband, daughter, and I went to a zoo — a good one, where the animals are well cared for and occupy spacious outdoor areas that approximate their natural habitat. We had a wonderful time with all the animals, as we always do, but the crowning moment this time came at the end. We overstayed our welcome a bit by taking our time leaving after the park closed at 5 pm; at least the zookeepers don’t seem to mind too much. But this time, we were later than usual, and thus we were in time for the lions to arouse from their slumber.

Every time we’ve been to the zoo, the two lions — one male, one female — have spent their time stone-cold unconscious on their lawn, as if passed out from a long night of too many cold beers. This, of course, is their prerogative, since they are nocturnal creatures. But this is the time of year when the sun begins to go down noticeably earlier, and thus its rays were getting decidedly longer when we heard the first series of roars.

We were not too far away from the lions, but clearly their bellows could be heard throughout the entire zoo (and probably the adjoining neighborhood), as fellow overstayers-of-welcome began to arrive in groups shortly after the lions let us all know they had returned to the land of the conscious. I stood there with my mouth open while the male lion sent forth several long bellows followed by a series of short barks. At this, the female emerged from their house-shelter and joined the chorus, both of them seeming to answer the other, yet not facing the other, but rather some invisible point in space unknown to the rest of us.

Each time their interchange would end, they would lie down in separate places for 5 minutes or so, then one of them would get up and start roaring again; unfailingly, the other would rise and roar in response. It is hard to convey how thrilling this was to hear and to watch. The sound that came from these animals literally echoed through the entire park; if you were standing next to them as we eventually were, the sound overpowered you so much that you felt you were hearing it within your very bones, not merely your ear drums. There was no other sound.

So this got me to thinking about how drawn we are to all the big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, etc. The zoo also has two tigers and one leopard, and the response of the human onlookers is always the same to all of them: awe, admiration, fascination, respect. We think they are beautiful, and we are mesmerized by their barely-restrained power. We might love the cuter, sometimes also majestic prey animals, both large and small — like the various primates, tropical birds, turtles, prairie dogs, porcupines, llamas, kangaroos, camels, elephants, capybaras, tortoises, zebras, and more. We are charmed by them, curious about them, attracted to them. But there is something about those big cats and their raw, frightening power, combined with their cool composure, that seems to elicit the same reaction from everybody: a magnetic fascination and a formidable respect.

As this was in the back of my mind, I also happened to watch The Godfather. Aside from the artistic achievement of the film itself, it got me thinking about why we are drawn to mafia characters, particularly the dons. We are utterly fascinated with them, though we know their lifestyle is unlawful and in many ways detestable. Yet knowing this, we sometimes feel a contrarian respect at the same time, as I did for Don Vito Corleone while  I watched. True, he was portrayed in a way that showed not only his criminality but many dimensions of his full humanity as well, so perhaps that helps to explain it. But in movies, books, and television, we have to admit we can’t get enough of these characters. The Godfather series is only one example; the huge success of the TV series The Sopranos is another. And while we might not respect the mafia in real life, when their criminality is too stark and uncomfortably close to us, the fact remains that we are still fascinated by them. We buy books about them (Black Mass, for example), and we flock to semi-nonfictional depictions of them in films (The Departed and Donnie Brasco, for example).

As far as the fictional stories go, it is their fictional nature that allows us to observe that underground world with undisguised engagement for some discrete period of time without needing to worry about any of it being real — without needing to respect any of the real mafia bosses whose actions in the real world we disgust. So why do we feel such magnetic draw, and even that strange, grudging respect for these characters? I believe it is the same reason that we are drawn to the big cats, with all their undulating muscles; their raw power simmering just beneath the surface of their skin; their shocking roars that we seem to hear in our very bones; the chills of fear, fascination, and respect all at the same time. It is the rogue aspect to the existence of both the big cats and the mafia personalities; their power; and perhaps above all, the perception of their self-determination that stirs in us these strange and contrarian reactions.

Fundamental to us as humans is an inherent resistance to being told what to do. We manifest this resistance early in life as toddlers (as every hapless parent such as myself knows), and it does not vanish with the coming of the years. It is tempered by our upbringing, by civilization, sometimes by religious convictions; but it remains beneath the surface, sometimes like a still lake, and sometimes like a pot of water so close to boiling point that one object thrown into it will make it explode. It is the reason “reverse psychology,” the practice of advocating the opposite of (or even indifference to) the desired result, works so well. It is the reason that when we are in school or college, we instinctively resist reading books that we are assigned to read — books that, left to our own devices, we know we would enjoy reading. It is the reason there is so much resentment toward the perception of “nanny government” or “Big Brother.” It is the reason that we feel a secret little thrill when we flout some small law, like overstaying our parking meter without getting caught, or like successfully pulling a U-turn against the sign that says not to, or like performing some small home improvement in our houses without appearing at town hall to ask permission and pay for permits. Someone of a certain age, whom I know, recently said, “These days you can’t lean two sticks together without needing 5,000 permits.”

Unfortunately, it is also part of the reason that some people are attracted to violating larger laws, laws meant to protect all of us dwelling in peaceful society. Mafia dons would, of course, fall into this category. Even though Mafia dons radiate self-determination of a criminal variety, there is something attractive about self-determination itself. In civilized society, it manifests itself by the will to vote, or by anti-regulation sentiment, or by quitting one’s job and deciding to employ oneself so as not to have to live by someone else’s desires and rules. When that JetBlue crew member summarily renounced his job by announcing over the loudspeaker, “I’m outta here!”, inflating the emergency slide, and grabbing a cold one on his way out, we laughed and we cheered for him. Despite the famous Beatitude, we tend to value the bold, and we tend to value the meek only when they can make themselves be bold. I certainly don’t think that’s the way things should be; we would have a kinder, less violent society and a kinder, less violent world if we consistently took that Beatitude as seriously as Jesus wanted us to.

But I do wonder if all this is part of the same undercurrent in our minds that causes us to shiver with reverential delight at lions, tigers, and leopards when they are guaranteed not to hurt us. Whether it is or it isn’t, I do know that I’ll never forget that almost mystical thrill we all felt when we stood there in our favorite zoo. Because we had heard and seen the lions roaring.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

History Repeating

This week, I’ve been thinking about the Medici family, the elected rulers of Florence in Renaissance Italy. In a way, we have the Medicis to thank for the Renaissance, with their patronage of artists who turned out to be some of the greatest of the Western world – Brunelleschi (who discovered the technique for perspective in art and was also an unparalleled architectural genius), Botticelli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Later, the Medicis also were the patrons of scientist Galileo Galilei, who tutored more than one of the Medici princes. Without the Medici, there quite simply would have been no Italian Renaissance (at least not as we know it), and Florence would not have become the cultural and artistic center of Italy to give birth to that Renaissance.

Aside from all this, I was thinking about the Medicis in the context of why we value what we value, and how what we value shifts over time and place. We, of course, imbue things and ideas with value ourselves. Value is a product of our own minds. Not long ago, gold became valued at over a thousand dollars an ounce; but gold in itself carries no “intrinsic” value at all. If we as people did not desire gleaming jewelry, gold would be worth almost nothing. Similarly, if there were an overabundance of gold, such that some could be found in almost everyone’s backyard, it would not be worth more than quartz, monetarily. Ideas, no less than objects, are also subject to the same vagaries of value assigned by the human mind.

The Medicis valued power, make no mistake; but, particularly in the earlier stages of their dynasty, they also valued art and free thinking. The city’s mood was ripe for this, for it coincided with the changing spirit of the times. For a while, under their auspices, Florence flourished into a haven for cutting-edge painting, sculpture, and even architecture (Brunelleschi engineered Il Duomo based solely on extrapolation from classical Roman domes, which no one remembered anymore how to build). Artists under the auspices of the Medici had free rein, and even encouragement, to explore artistic subjects outside merely Christian religious art, which until this time had had a monopoly. Particularly under Lorenzo dei Medici, Florentine art schools burgeoned; and it was Lorenzo who spotted the extraordinary talent of a 10-year-old named Michelangelo Buonarotti, and took him into the Medici household.

But in time, there was a conservative religious backlash, driven by the extremist monk Savonarola, who preached damnation on what he thought was a hedonistic city that valued “pagan” art and ideas more than the Holy Church. He saved his most vicious commentary for the Medici family, whom he preached were damned for sponsoring un-Christian and immodest art. Savonarola was able to whip the populace into such a frenzy that the Medici were (temporarily) ousted into exile, the art and ideas that they had helped foster no longer valued by the people at all. Now feared as irreverent tools of the devil, extraordinary works of art were thrown onto bonfires, along with books, jewels, and cosmetics. This was a kind of temporary reign of terror, in which all that had been a source of pride and valued so highly by the city suddenly possessed no value at all. Even Botticelli, who had taken pride in his daring art, was struck by the fear of God and threw his own work onto the great fire.

That particular religious backlash would pass, but the Church as a whole still retained the highest power — and value — in European society. That would be slow to change. Martin Luther and the subsequent Protestant revolution set in motion a gradual chipping away of the Church’s power. But before much of that power was gone, it was the Church that determined what was to be valued by the people. The Inquisition created the Index of banned books, which included works by the classical writers as well as modern works of science. Galileo, who had been supported by the Medici, was not spared the Inquisition, and was forced under pain of death to recant his published theories that the planets and the moon were not perfect heavenly spheres, and that the Earth revolved around the sun. Not even the Medici could protect Galileo anymore. While the society was thirsty for new ideas and discoveries, and while these were gaining value in much popular view, even the Medici could not trump the pope.

Fast-forwarding to the modern day, we have a situation that is nearly the complete reverse. As a society, on the whole we value the discoveries and the methodology of science more than the input of religion in the public sphere. We value national freedom, while once we valued the “divine right of kings.” We value individual freedom and self-expression, while for a long time we valued conformity. We value all people as equal, while once we valued only some and enslaved others, then degraded them for a hundred years after their slavery ended. We value the contributions of women outside the home now, while once we thought there was no such value. We value natural, even organic food, while once we were enthralled with artificial ingredients and pre-processing. We value religious freedom, while once the Puritans executed people and cast others into exile, despite having been persecuted themselves in their ancestral countries. Some of us are valuing more and more the civil rights of gay people, while once we told them that such an identity was no valid identity at all. There are hundreds of other examples, some of which continue to take shape on a daily basis. This is not to say that all these changes in values are uniformly held by all members of our society, but there has certainly been a sea change from the past in many ways.

I was sitting in a cafe this morning eating my breakfast while reading, and the waitress ruminated as she gazed out the window that she used to live in California and loved it, but also liked it here, so she wished that she could go back and forth between the two, maybe have two homes. I’d guess she was in her 50’s. Then she looked at me with quick certainty and said, “I will someday. I will.” And I’ll tell you I didn’t doubt her. To her, that kind of joyful back-and-forth was something she valued so much that she would tell it to a new customer even before she asked my name. Yet I know someone else who feels that the best thing a person can do is stay in the area in which they grew up. Neither of these lifestyles has intrinsically more value than the other — only the value that is perceived by the advocates of each.

We are at a point in our society where we are assessing what we value. Elections are approaching, and the country is divided politically and ideologically. People are fighting about which of our national values are more important, and even which are valid at all. The only certainty is that the dispute over which ideas and philosophies have more value than others is  history repeating itself of the first order. Just as in the days of the Medici.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

More than Lip-Service for a Legacy

Anyone who follows the news knows that the topic of Islam in America has been a leading headline lately.  The word “Islamophobia” is popping up on various media outlets. A nationwide controversy exists over whether a New York Muslim community can have a mosque within an Islamic Center that would also include spaces  for members of other religions, including Christians. The Center would also include recreational spaces where people of various backgrounds could come together and get to know each other. But the controversy exists because the Center would be a few blocks from the Ground Zero of the horrific 9/11 attacks. It is worth noting that, as General Colin Powell stated on The View this morning, the plans for this Center had existed for quite some time without any uproar over it, until certain media outlets publicized the story. And one would have to be living in a cave not to have heard about the other major controversy: Terry Jones, the clearly attention-hungry pastor of a small church in Florida, plans to burn copies of the Qur’an on Saturday, the anniversary of 9/11.

Add to these the fact that a number of average Americans are becoming louder and louder about their broadbased anti-Muslim sentiments — no longer even feeling it necessary to couch anti-Muslim rhetoric in a veil of American religious tolerance — and it is no wonder some people fear that “Islamophobia” is getting to be a real problem in our country. The Washington Post came out with a poll saying 49% of Americans now have an unfavorable view toward Islam; mosques are becoming sporadic targets, with a mosque outside Fresno, CA having been vandalized more than once.

The broader issue in our society should not be about whether any given person “likes” or “dislikes” Islam as a religion, or whether a person is afraid of it or has any interest in it at all. All that should be secondary and is a private matter to each person. The issue at hand is about upholding the American Constitution and the legacy of freedom and tolerance of which Americans claim to be so proud. Upholding that legacy cannot merely be about lip service, or merely be about groups with which we identify or to which we belong. If we argue for the rights and human dignity of only those groups to which we ourselves belong, such clannishness hardly does honor to the American traditions we were all taught in school, and is hardly something for which we ought to pat ourselves on the back as inheritors of the American tradition.

Some people fear Islam as a “violent religion,” pointing to the horrifying events of 9/11 and the acts of terrorism that have occurred around the world since then. But the fear that Islam is in general a violent religion is typically born from a lack of real exposure to ordinary Muslims and what they believe, and how they live. I do not live in an area with a particularly high number of Muslims, but for whatever reason, there are still several people in my life who happen to be Muslim. They are ordinary families consisting of a husband, wife, and kids; regular people with regular family dynamics, not strange folk with opaque practices and sinister intents, but normal, kind people who are pleasant to be around and care about the same things my own family does. One of these families routinely gives us abundant produce from their own garden, and has shown us impeccable hospitality.

Do these families pray to God? Yes. Are they extremists? No, and whenever the subject has come up, they have unfailingly expressed frustration and dismay that the actions of terrorist extremists have tarnished and misrepresented ordinary Islam across the globe. One of them lamented to me that Islamic radicals espouse beliefs that are nowhere in the Qur’an and that are not properly Muslim, but rather part of local pre-existing cultures that would exist whether Islam were the local religion or not. Such radicals claim to act in the name of Islam, but in reality, act only according to their own criminal intent. In the words of one Muslim woman I know: “That is not Islam. They are not human. They are worse than animals.”

Indeed, if one takes a small effort to learn about Islam, one learns that Jesus and Mary are held in very high esteem in the Qur’an; this fact would surely surprise many Americans who hold blanket assumptions about the Qur’an. Jesus is not considered divine, but he is considered the greatest of the biblical prophets. If one takes a small effort, one learns that the Qur’an states: “Anyone who kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed the entire world; anyone who saves an innocent person, it is as if he has saved the entire world.” Such a doctrine is hardly in line with radical terrorist mentality.

But this should not surprise us. People have always and everywhere killed in the name of every religion, including Christianity. The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that blighted Europe for centuries bear bloody witness to this. Were the killers on either side truly acting in the name of Christianity? No, they were acting in their own name, and justifying their own intent by trying to wield a religious motivation. When Jesus said, “I come bringing not peace, but a sword,” it was not an admonishment for his followers to go out and slaughter people; it was a recognition that his movement would change things in a way that, at least in this world, had the potential to introduce havoc and conflict. And it did.

The Qur’an is not a terrorist tract, but if the pastor in Florida insists on burning it, he will galvanize terrorists who use it as a front for their own murderousness. He will feed terrorism, and give the terrorists another reason to attack both us and innocent people abroad, including our troops. But I suspect that perhaps he does not care about that; he does, after all, now have an international stage, and has tapped into a fear that is bubbling close to the surface in this country. This morning, an otherwise friendly and rational person suggested to me that maybe Muslims in America should just live in their own areas, separate from the rest of us, leave us alone, and never the twain should meet. This person did not seem to realize that without groups having real, everyday-life exposure to one another, there is nothing to dispel misunderstanding and fear of the other. And then mistrust and violence receive a blank check.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Postscript: Since this writing, the media has reported that Terry Jones, the pastor of the Florida church, has canceled his book-burning.

An Epiphany at Home Depot

I was in Home Depot the other day and got to thinking about how our culture has changed. Specifically, how it has changed in terms of the way people interact with one another. Yes, it’s in vogue now to write articles and even books on whether technologies such as email, texting, Facebook, and Twitter have brought us together or moved us further apart, or some combination of the two; but that’s not what I’m doing right here. Personally, I am always a little irked when I hear that “social networking” technologies do not bring people closer together, but rather the opposite, and that they take pride of place among the modern innovations contributing to the assured decay of society as we know it. Such grand conclusions irk me because it is only through Facebook that I have reconnected with friends who were once a daily part of my life, with whom I had lost touch over the natural course of things. Texting allows me to communicate quickly in the midst of a busy day with those who are close to me. There are also various parts of my life that sometimes make it difficult to carve out a significant block of time for phone calls — not to mention the fact that I’ve never really been an enthusiastic phone person. Trying to have an in-the-moment conversation with someone without seeing any of their facial expressions can make for some really weird conversational dynamics.

But I digress. I was in Home Depot the other day with my small daughter, looking for “odorless mineral spirits.” (Yes, that’s its actual name.). Such mineral spirits were going to aid me in the vexing task of prepping our bathroom walls — long the sorry victims of decades-old wallpaper from a bygone era — for painting. I was on my way to the aisle when I passed a kindly gentleman in his senior years whose job it was to stand near the entrance and answer questions and direct people. Figuring that I knew where the mineral spirits were, I intended on giving him a polite nod and passing by. He, however, was enthralled by my (admittedly adorable) daughter and promptly engaged her in conversation. Having recently blossomed into a social butterfly, the likes of which my rather solitary nature has never managed to approach, she complied. The next thing I knew, I too was welcomed into the gentleman’s conversation, and what I thought would be a passing nod became a real interchange among strangers.

The gentleman informed me that his wife helped their local church set up for an annual flea market that was only a few weeks away, and I should remember to go, since I might find some little thing for my daughter. When he told me the name of the church and the town (which is next to the town in which that Home Depot resides), I replied that I in fact live in that town with the church, and it is right up the street from me. Delighted, he said that he lived in my town and even told me his name, street, and described the exterior of his house and the house next to it. In a very easy way, he extended his hand and asked what my family name was, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I shook his hand and told him. He said if I ever went by his street, stop in because the missus would love my daughter. Then he bade me goodbye and went to help someone else.

I was left with a very warm feeling and a bunch of thoughts about how our American society has changed. Or, if not all of America, at least certain areas and certainly Generation X and below. If that helper at Home Depot had been someone of my generation (I shall coyly state that I am somewhere just north of 30), there would surely have been no spontaneous engagement of my child in conversation — but there would not even have been an unsolicited engagement of me, a peer, in conversation. We would have politely let each other be and never discovered that we live in the same town. I would not have learned about the local flea market, and I certainly would not have been extended a hand, informed of a family name, street, house exterior, and asked for my family name; and never in this time-space continuum would I have received an invitation to stop in while passing by on that street.

Most importantly, that warm feeling, that feeling of someone wanting to talk to me, to be interested in me just because I happened to be in physical proximity, would never have been experienced. No casual friendly bond would have formed. An easy, pleasant experience between three human beings would not have come to pass.

This is not the fault of Facebook, email, or texting (probably). I honestly do not know what caused it. Do you? That’s not a rhetorical question: if anyone has ideas, feel free to post them. My best guess is the faster pace of daily life now, and who on Earth knows the ins and outs of how that process developed over the decades. Generations older than my own still experience this faster pace, but spent much of their lives and formative years in a culture that valued stopping to chat with someone you don’t know, going across the street to say hi to your neighbor without worrying that you would intrude, extending your hand and asking someone their family name and telling them your own and having it be the most natural thing in the world.

But in my broad geographical area, even members of older generations tend not to be as interested in conversation if they are working registers. Yet I experienced the opposite recently in New Hampshire. They still have “general stores” there, which have become an endangered species in Massachusetts except perhaps in the western part. At the general store (or even most stores), we experienced something unusual to us: the clerks actually wanted to talk to us beyond “Hi” and “Have a good day.” They would ask us genial, easygoing questions about how we were and how was our day, and if they didn’t have a big line, they’d unfailingly start with anecdotes about their own lives that seemed to dovetail with whatever we’d been talking about. And the conversations went from there. No hurry. No implications that you’re taking up their time and they’d rather not be talking to you.

Why is this still in New Hampshire, and undoubtedly in similar places? Is it the countryside? A slower pace? Fewer people? What is it, and why has it been lost in so many other places? We can’t blame email and Facebook for this; it is something else. I, for one, would be sorry indeed to see no more of that old-fashioned interaction.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Of Palm Trees, SIM Cards, and Signs

A week and a half ago, my husband and I returned from a week in Aruba. We’d been there five years ago when we were married for six months, and returned this time married for six years. It was, in essence, an anniversary trip, with a healthy component of “we really need to return to the Caribbean after listening to all these Getz-Gilberto albums and playing Wii Sports Resort.” Primarily I blame Stanley Getz’s sax and every version of “Corcovado” — more than one each from both Joao Gilberto and wife Astrud — seductively combined with a “Sun and Sand” Yankee candle and the happy-looking palm trees provided by Wii programmers. Upon arriving, however, we found Aruba’s 20mph trade winds and 90-degree dry heat a bit of a damper on our (now dashed) hope to re-create Sports Resort golfing bliss on the island. Not that all are deterred by such factors: the island has two golf courses, both of which entice plenty of folk of braver stock than we.

Having put the keybosh on the golf, we set our sights to re-exploring the treasures of the island, including its wild and desolate north coast, sufficient in a mystical harsh beauty all its own. Strolling and rediscovering the enchanting main thoroughfare of Oranjestad, the tiny capital. Walking the boardwalk along the ocean at night to the sound of the crashing waves and nearby music. Swimming in the crystal turquoise Caribbean off our sugar-sand beach while we watched the palm trees sway and the pelicans glide an inch above the water right in front of us. Watching every evening the painted light shows that are the sunsets in that place, and the sun’s orb sink beneath the horizon line and turn the water a golden rose pink. Sometimes watching with a pina colada in hand; always with a camera. It was obviously a hard week, but with fortitude we perdured through each day.

This second time there, we found Aruba every bit as enchanting — probably more so — than the first. The one chink was that this time, we had a small daughter enjoying a week with her grandparents at home, and the first time we didn’t. This meant that my husband easily earned his anniversary present just by sitting next to me on the flight both ways. To say nothing of the longsuffering woman on my other side who had to listen to me query with alarm, “What was that noise?” or “Why is the seatbelt light still on?” or “Is that a storm cloud?!” every ten minutes. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with flying, but knowing there was a child at home who could suddenly be without us led to an inordinate amount of contemplation on the wisdom of sitting in a tube 40,000 ft up in the air, while relying solely on the skill and attentiveness of fellow human beings to ensure the flawless functionality of two engines defying gravity for just over four hours. Comforting it was not.

I wouldn’t have had the slightest concern had we been traveling in a car or a train. Yes, flying really is the safest way to travel — until you need to pull up to the curb and find out what that strange noise is, or wait out that freak thunderstorm that just formed right in front of you with annoying lack of regard for the pleasant weather predictions. No, in an airplane one can’t just say, “OK, I’d like to get off now.” The slightest bump of turbulence and God was hearing more from me than he’d heard in the last two months.

Having landed safe and sound, we charged through the airport, passing with gleeful scorn the baggage claim area (we are solely carry-on now, after that time we went to Maui and our luggage didn’t), and headed straight for our rental car. Just before exiting the airport, we passed two sales stands advertising international SIM cards. Vaguely I heard my husband say, “Do you want to buy a SIM card here to call home? It might be faster just to do it at the airport.” “No, no,” I waved him off. “And pay airport prices? We’ll just buy one in Oranjestad; they must have them in grocery stores or something.” I shook my head at such fiscal inattentiveness — of course they would have them in the grocery stores! Or at the very least they would have dial-around local phone cards — that’s what we did in Halifax, after all! Why submit to a gouging at the airport?

Readers, when you are in a foreign country with a child back home and you pass two stands at the airport that say INTERNATIONAL SIM CARDS and your spouse wants to buy one, stop walking. Since we didn’t stop walking, the next day (Saturday, when we were scheduled to call our daughter) found us wandering around Oranjestad in search of the mythical SIM card. Our hotel, excellent in every other way, had offered this deflating remonstrance in its booklet: “There are no local dial-around phone cards on Aruba that you can use free from your room phone. Using your room phone even for local calls is $1/min.” Grocery store? SIM cards? “No, we don’t sell those here.” The mall? No, and most stores are closed Saturday anyway. Friendly outdoor salesman who didn’t mind that we wouldn’t buy a boat trip? “Oh, the post office has them but they’re closed on Saturdays. Mmm, I think there might be a Digicel store down there a couple of blocks; turn right at the Pizza Hut sign, then go down that street and it should be on your right.”

Down a couple of blocks; turned right at the Pizza Hut sign; all the way down the street; no Digicel. Took another right; starting to wither in the midday heat; asked a shopkeeper. “Digicel? You’re past it. Go down that way and make a left, on the corner, another left.” Down the street; wrong turn?; empty-handed. Parched, aggravated, into an internet cafe. “We don’t sell them here; I think you missed the first Digicel. So keep walking all the way down this street and there’s another one on your right.” Starting to feel as frantic as possible in 93 degrees; fantasizing about collapsing half-alive into our air-conditioned suite; walking, walking, ah yes! There it was: one of the rumored Digicels, that place flowing with milk and honey and desperately-needed SIM cards. There was only one problem: a locked door. A sign on the offending door read: “Saturdays and Sundays closed.”

My husband then earned his other anniversary present while I turned in what would have been an award-winning representation of that Icelandic volcano that nobody can pronounce. Then, a thought occurred to my fevered brain. The airport! We already knew they had SIM cards, and surely they would be open on the weekend. Back to the airport it was, buoyed by new hope. While my husband circled the car around the port repeatedly so as not to arouse the ire of security by parking, I ran in, willing to pay any price short of my daughter herself. As it turned out, $26 for 38 minutes to the US, including cost of the card itself. Not too bad. After an initial scare (it turned out my cell phone was not unlocked from AT&T, as I had thought; the unlock code was at home in my sock drawer), I ran back out, waited for my husband to return from one of his circular reconnaissances, grabbed his phone which we knew was unlocked, ran back in, and at last laid hands on our coveted SIM card. Which, it turned out, we didn’t even purchase from Digicel but rather from Setar. We left the airport triumphant, our good humors restored, with the words of the Setar lady standing as a fitting farewell: “Everybody says, oh, we’ll just get them later, then they find out they should have just gotten them at the airport….”

Lessons learned: when on vacation, do things the easy way; and when God gives you a sign, stop walking.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Of Metaphor, Imagination, and Shrines

Over the last week I have continued to think about the ways that Zen philosophy, particularly as expressed through the “dry landscape” or karesansui garden, can enrich my own spiritual practice. I am struck and delighted by the heavy involvement of metaphor and symbol, which serve a meditative purpose in Zen gardens. Not all Zen gardens are “dry” rock gardens — some include pools of water or tiny waterfalls — but especially in the dry garden, the use of symbolic representation reigns supreme. The structure of Japanese gardens is not intended to replicate nature with pure realism, but to create a self-contained, imaginary world where the components of the garden represent things beyond themselves. A rock or compilation of rocks can stand for a mountain, an island on the sea, or an outcropping on that sea; alternatively it could symbolize a stone in a river. A bushy or round plant can represent a mountain or a green hill, and even one tall, slender, or leafy plant can symbolize an entire forest. An assortment of plants close together can form the backdrop of a metaphorical landscape, creating the impression of distant hills and forests.Rock garden

In a karesansui, the water of the “sea,” “lake,” or “river” is represented by gravel, and can either seem like a still pool, or be stylistically raked or arranged to evoke thoughts of water’s movement. Gravel can easily represent a vast, active ocean; for this effect the garden’s size need not be large at all, since the world of the garden is not realistic reproduction but imagination. The scale of the garden’s interrelated contents is more instrumental in creating the desired impression than the size of the garden itself. In my own dry garden, the light gravel represents the sea, the flat stones are low islands on the sea, and the black hematite formations are taller “rocky outcroppings” standing above the water. The plants form a backdrop landscape. They could communicate mountains and forests; or perhaps their juxtaposition with the rocks could simply suggest a desert landscape, with no water imagined at all. These gardens have such a heavy use of imaginative representation in order to give the mind a dedicated, free space in which to think about the world-scape that the garden stands for. This is a meditative act that feeds the mind.

All of this leads me to think about a few ways that American Christian worship could, in my view, renew itself. In Japan the landscape is dotted with small shrines, to which individuals may go for a few minutes on their own time to light incense, say a prayer, meditate, or simply feel in communion with that which is beyond oneself. The Catholic and Orthodox areas of Europe are also rich with shrines, as is Latin America; many of these involve saints as avenues to the worship of God. Protestantism, however, which represents just under one-half of United States religious practice, is lacking this, since Protestant theology resists such small shrines either outdoors or in the private home. Therefore, what Christian shrines America does have tend to be Catholic (and Orthodox to a lesser extent, since there are far more American Catholics than American Orthodox). These are very attractive in a spiritual sense, and this is true whether such shrines are public or private. It is a personal, active, “anytime” experience to visit a shrine.

These are a few thoughts from one who takes delight from a rock garden, from lighting candles, and from being in a place and hearing nothing but the wind and the birds outside.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010


*For an excellent and readable resource on Zen gardens, see Zen Gardens by Erik Borja.

Two Streams of Water

A few days ago, I set up the Japanese rock garden (or Zen garden), also known as dry garden (karesansui) that I mentioned in my last post. Here you will see two small pictures; each represents a different iteration of the rock garden. I ultimately settled on what is represented in the second picture, after having for a while what is represented in the first picture. Both are valid examples of how a rock garden can be arranged. The light gravel, raked to represent the rippling effect of water, represents the ocean; the large rocks stand for large islands rising from the sea; the background represents the land. The red rocks in the first picture indicate land, while the cacti and aloe represent various flora.

This morning I sat down on the couch with my coffee in front of it, watching the gold of the morning sun’s rays flood the window, listening to the scores of birds that arrive around our house every spring morning. These birds, in these quantities, are here for spring and summer only, so their presence is temporary. And the side of the house that harbors this window gets that strong sunlight only in the early morning, so the presence of those exuberant rays is even more temporary — at least until the next morning, provided it is a sunny one. The temporary nature of both the flocking birds and the full sunlight means that if they are not enjoyed now, in the very moment, you miss them. There is no taking them for granted.

Knowing this, I decided I would do nothing but sit in my spot, drink my coffee, and look at my karesansui and the trees outside my window. It was surprisingly difficult just to sit there and do that and nothing else — even with my knowledge that that full sunlight was very fleeting, and the flocking birds at their morning feeding almost equally so.

It occurred to me as I looked at my garden that that is one of the core lessons of Zen philosophy, core lessons of which I had hoped to remind myself by building the garden in the first place. Mindfulness, awareness, appreciation. Mindfulness is the act of being “mindful” of whatever it is you are doing, of truly living in the moment by paying attention to that moment rather than rushing past it. Driving somewhere, for example; enjoy the drive itself rather than merely trying to rush to your destination as expediently as possible. That drive is part of your life that you will never get back: enjoy it as much as you can. Or even if it is something we don’t think of ourselves as relishing — such as doing dishes, which is a famous example for this philosophy — we can savor our lives that much more if we simply focus our minds on the very thing we are doing. This in itself is a meditative act that creates both peace and enhanced enjoyment of life with hardly any effort at all. How often do we whittle our lives away by not living in each moment, by rushing ahead, by constantly thinking of something else? By constantly feeling — even in the times when it is not necessary — that we need to be doing something, to be distracted, to be “busy.”

Though I am a Christian, I keep a marble-dust representation of the Buddha near my rock garden  — not because I revere the Buddha in any extraordinary way, but to remind me of some of the more salient and helpful aspects of that philosophy, which are really not incompatible with Christianity. Mindfulness. Acceptance. Compassion. Living in the very present. Appreciating small, everyday things as the fundamental things of life. Creating and maintaining a peaceful, uncluttered space for the mind. Training one’s mind to be calm at its core even in the face of adversity. Living honorably and with integrity, creating no intentional harm against others, keeping Love and Compassion as one’s highest aims. All of these things Christianity and Buddhism can share in common, but only some of these do Christians actively emphasize on a regular basis. I contend that Christians could benefit in their own practice by more actively stressing some of those tenets of Buddhist philosophy discussed above. Zen practice, in particular, is especially adaptable for Christians.

Two representative aphorisms from the Dhammapada, the foundational Buddhist text, illustrate such confluence very well:

“In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the Law, ancient and inexhaustible.”

“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them? Are you a shepherd who counts another man’s sheep, never sharing the way? Read as few words as you like and speak fewer. But act upon the Law. Give up the old ways — passion, enmity, folly. Know the truth and find peace. Share the way.”

And what reader of the Bible would not recognize the similarity of this aphorism to the style and content of Proverbs?

“Speak or act with an impure mind, and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.”

The lifting of a few quotes from an entire work cannot possibly encapsulate the whole, and that’s not my intention. This is as true of the Bible as it is of the Dhammapada. But it can illustrate that two distinct streams of water, remaining distinct, can still flow down the mountain in tandem with one another.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

The Tangibility of the Intangible

This week I plan on crafting a miniature, indoor Japanese rock garden (karesansui) in a low wooden or bamboo box, to be placed on our bow window. A Japanese rock garden is sometimes also called a Zen dry garden due to its deep connection with Zen Buddhism. A rock garden, or karesansui, is a “dry landscape” garden; it employs no actual water, but the rocks, moss, and small shrubs that can constitute the garden are often arranged in a way that evokes thoughts of streams, mountains, hills, and even forests. Despite the fact that the arrangement of stones and small plants can create the illusion of water, a primary characteristic of these gardens is their sense of stillness.

My husband is an aficionado of Japanese culture; I am glad for this, because if he were not, I would never have been introduced to the robust appreciation of clean-lined tranquility that is Japanese aesthetics. Walk into any classically Japanese structure, such as a traditionally-appointed Japanese restaurant, and your mind will feel almost instantly at ease. The aesthetic usually involves light neutral color tones, tastefully limited and unobtrusive decor, and stunningly clean lines for everything. The absence of clutter, of haphazardness, of “too much” is felt immediately in the calming effect such an aesthetic has on the mind. With one’s space so calm, smooth and free-flowing, so uncluttered, how can one feel tense? It is as if when the body enters such an open space physically, the mind also enters an open space — one that does not impose upon it but rather invites it to relax in freedom.

This clean and simple aesthetic is also very conducive to thinking and to meditating, for obvious reasons. The same holds true for the rock garden. Its smoothness and stillness, punctuated by just the right amount of components, put our minds at ease and elevate them somehow. Something in the nature of these tangible things, of that tangible space, allows us to make contact with something intangible in which our minds delight. This is true not just of structures and spaces, of course. Jewelry has been around for thousands of years, as we know quite well not only from things like ancient Egyptian murals, but also from ancient jewelry itself, lifted from the ground by archaeologists or treasure hunters.

Many of us feel emotional connections to some of our jewelry; many of us wear certain articles because the design or the material makes us think of something, or is a symbol of something important to us. This is especially true of religious or spiritually-oriented jewelry. How many of us wear Stars of David, mezuzah pendants, crosses, crucifixes, Buddha pendants, yin/yang circles, Qur’an pendants, or even mineral rocks from the earth, because their tangibility links us to the intangible things they represent?

The same is true for other physical art — the David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, St. Peter’s basilica (all right, I’m betraying a Michelangelo bias here), Buddhist temples, Monet’s paintings, the intricate aniconic designs of Muslim art, the bimah of Jewish synagogues. The rich statuary of most Catholic churches reflects the Catholic theology that it is not to the statue that a worshiper prays, and it is not the statue that has any power: the statue is a tangible symbol of the spiritual figure it represents.

The ancient world too, as I mentioned in another post, was rich with statues and figurines of the gods and various other religious artifacts. In ancient Mesopotamia, the statues of the gods were their physical vectors on Earth; when a statue was created and commissioned, its inauguration consisted of the ceremonies mish pi and pit pi — “washing of the mouth” and “opening of the mouth.” When these ceremonies were complete, the deity’s physical representation became formal and suitable for that deity.

All of these things, I think, are examples of the inextricable link between the tangible and the intangible. The tangibility of the Zen rock garden or the Japanese room, or some element within nature, directs our minds to something intangible and produces a feeling or a state of being. The tangibility of personal jewelry — which we often touch or hold in a moment of worry or gratitude or even just contemplation — connects us to the intangibility of what it represents. The tangibility of physical art — whether painted, drawn, sculpted, constructed, or written — touches us on a deep level, and can even transport us to some other world or some larger awareness. The tangibility of a religious statue serves as a vector for the reality beyond. For those of us who believe in an intangible soul that survives the body, the body is the tangible home of that soul in this world.

The tangible and the intangible of this cosmos, while so often thought of as separate and fundamentally different, in fact seem linked in deep and inextricable ways. I will think of this as I look at my Zen rock garden this week, and allow its tangible nature to point my mind to the intangible peace it represents.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Gods in High Places

New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington is 6,288 feet high — small compared to many other mountains, but the highest mountain in the Northeastern United States. Quite apart from its height, however, is the fact that its summit hosts some of the most extreme and erratic weather on Earth due to its particular position at the crossroads of several storm tracks. Until it was surpassed recently in Australia, the mountain held the world record for the strongest wind: 231 mph. Other than the primary summit building designed specifically to withstand its winds, all structures are chained to the mountain itself.

Significantly, Mt Washington was once known as Agiocochook: “Home of the Great Spirit.” This is no accident, since humans have been associating mountains with deities since the dawn of religious awareness. Mt Sinai (alternatively Mt Horeb, the name preferred by Deuteronomistic writings) is of course the most famous of these in biblically-based religions. We see major events taking place on other mountains in the Bible too, however, such as Elijah’s famous confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mt Carmel. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is also known in the Bible as Mt Zion. While it is not terribly high, it is the highest point in Jerusalem and affords a commanding view, and was thus the obvious choice for Yahweh’s Temple.

Mt Sinai hosted the most famous theophany in the Bible, during which Moses received the Ten Commandments and (in the words of the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch) the instructions to build the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary that would serve as the Israelites’ worship center until the construction of the Temple. In addition, the Bible is not bashful about mentioning the many “high places” (Hebrew bamot) scattered throughout the land. Although Deuteronomy in particular condemns these bamot as the worship sites of other Canaanite gods to be avoided by followers of Yahweh, their very names indicate that while they may not all have occupied mountaintops, they certainly occupied elevated land. People of all persuasions have it in common to gravitate to high ground to seek the divine.

In the Canaanite culture that included the northern coastal city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), ancient and largely intact myths — such as the text scholars call “The Baal Cycle” — record the role of Mt Zaphon, the mountain of the gods. Zaphon means North both in Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew. Here dwelt not only Baal but many others, including his sister the fiery Anat, who braved confrontation with the frightful sea god Yamm, their half-brother, after he had initially defeated Baal in battle; Astarte who like Venus was the Evening Star; Asherah who was initially the consort of El, the High God, the Father God. El (which is simply a word meaning “God” both in Ugaritic and in biblical Hebrew) was the elder God and the head of the divine council, depicted in Ugaritic texts as an old man with long white hair and beard — and a sometimes formidable appetite for banquets, goddesses, and strong drink. In the Bible, Yahweh shared many characteristics of El — though not the propensity for carousing. Notably in Daniel 7, Yahweh appears as the Ancient of Days (Aramaic ‘atiq yomin) with the same flowing white hair and beard.

In ancient Greece, which for various reasons is more familiar to modern Western minds, the mountain of the gods was Mt Olympus, where gods such as Zeus, Hella, Aphrodite, Eros, Aries, Athena, Hermes, and numerous others regularly feasted, fought, and observed the affairs of humans.

My husband’s mother hails from Maui, and several years ago in homage to that family connection — and this had nothing to do with the paradise that is Maui itself, of course — we decided to visit that island on vacation. The central landmark of Maui is the 10,000 ft dormant volcano Haleakala, which in Hawai’ian means “House of the Sun” and which dominates the island. The ancient spiritual connection with this mountain is obvious. One is immediately drawn to it after landing on the island, and the volcanic craters at the summit host innumerable visitors each year — all of whom leave changed for the experience. The goddess of the Hawai’ian volcanoes is Pele (PAY-lay). Is it any surprise that these volcanic mountains are the dwelling-place of a deity?

We also went to Aruba years ago, and at one point stood atop a high cliff overlooking the rough side of the ocean at the north of the island. We were buffeted by constant wind, but returned twice. It was a mystical, beautiful, haunting yet welcoming kind of place. Austere landscape strewn with cacti, rocks, and sand, empty of the many visitors enjoying the calmer southeastern side of the island, it was a place where you felt you could almost hear the divine in the wind. Indeed nearly all you could hear was the wind, and the pounding Atlantic surf nearby, which no swimmer could dare brave. We saw a wild donkey there — not too far away, just a glimpse, wandering amongst the cacti. It might sound surprising — but in that place, it was not at all hard to imagine that wild donkey as some local spirit, connected to that land, mystical or magical in nature, ephemeral. No experience has duplicated that place. And lest I neglect to mention… A Catholic chapel inhabited that place. Our Lady of Alto Vista (High View in Spanish), originally built in the 1800s. Clearly we were not the only ones to have felt an uncanny sense of the divine there.

I could go on. Mt Cadillac the highest point in Acadia National Park, Maine — at the gusty top of which we stood at 10pm one clear August night, staring up at Mars hovering just next to one of the star-studded arms of the Milky Way. That, too, was an experience that has not been duplicated. The low mountains in Scotland, to which mossy Nordic grass and mists cling. But I don’t need to go on. Humans are drawn to high places as places to encounter — or at least to feel, to sense — the divine. What is this awareness we have? A gravitation toward places physically larger than ourselves as a natural way to reach something cosmically larger than ourselves?

In this space age, where we see awe-inspiring photos from Hubble on an almost daily basis, we are keenly aware that Earth’s mountains are not the largest places to which we can go to seek the divine. But for most of us, they are still the closest we can get. And so we go to them, and we keep going.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010