I have traveled across this country more times than I can remember. Hopping ocean to ocean and so many places in the between. As a performer of my own work and even when I am performing for others. I am almost never doing it where I live. Flying and driving distances that have kept me in constant separation from the regularity and comfort that so many struggle to maintain. I have had to find what comfort and regularity I can in the inconsistent jump about that has made up most of the months of my life for the last two decades. Even so, I have found a surprising and unexpected comfort in the whole of my American adventure.
I have consistently been humbled by the beauty, complexity, simplicity and scope of this place. I have moved through cities so vast that I felt that I could be swallowed and forgotten as easily as a sip of air. I have experienced towns so small that they should hardly call themselves towns. They just don’t have a smaller word. If they do, they only share it among themselves. I have driven through farm fields so long that I could not see their end. Sometimes I had no idea what crop I was looking at. I have driven for hours through scrub brushland and gentle rolling hills that melted into the far-off horizon as a blazing sun overhead dared me to stick an arm out the window. Or rain obscured the scape or snows that tested the limits of my angst. I have passed miles of slender trees adorning the roadside gently speaking. The greens of spring and summer giving way to the fall explosions; then winters bones. In some places the woody vista seems unchanging. A kind of comfort was found there in consistency. In other places, I saw the entangled mesh of ivy and kudzu cover everything like a living blanket. I’d muse about the world that lived beneath. I’d place myself there in some other than human form. I have seen places where soil, water, and grass sat in constant argument with one another, neither dominant enough to overwhelm the others. I have driven toward distant mountains that never seem to get any closer, daring me to catch them. I have driven through mountains that were so majestic their awe was delivered to me as a kind of silent arrogance. I have gotten lost moving through landscape so beautiful that the composition of terra to vista seemed supernatural. At dusk. At sunrise. As weather broke. As clouds ambled on their way. The contrast of color and season and time of day all conspired to humble me.
I have moved through places at degrees of speed that were wholly disrespectful to the great bodies of water just over my shoulder or under my wheels. I have seen natural and manmade wonders that only validate the blessing that I believe my life is.
And through it all, everywhere the crisscross has taken me. there were always people.
Every kind of person that my mind could create and more. Every age. Every color. Every size. Women, men, and all that make up the in between. So distinct and similar all at once. Faces smooth as porcelain, unblemished and ready. The perky and puckered and pimpled, more bliss-filled than ignorant. Surfaces ripe with experience, ignorant of the bliss they have lost, or worse, still have. Eyes clear, cloudy, or bloodied that hold the spectrum of living. Squat and pointed and flat and tapered and sculpted noses over thin or puffy or wide or thick or pursed and cracked lips. They come together to create the fat, angular, rounded, chiseled, gaunt visages I cannot help but be drawn to. Smoke stained and beer soaked. Unmarked and painted. Clear as truth. Cloudy as a bad excuse. The validate me. The challenge me. They show me all that I cannot see on my own. They are mine. My country made flesh.
All of them.
All of them.
As I move through this land, I am in constant contemplation about the people who did and do inhabit it. Like a body, every part of it significant…. necessary. Each part alive even after the living are gone. Cell, constantly in transition. We, like skin, are becoming, transforming, dying off and building on the next iteration of the we. We circulate like blood. Small cells crashing into one another purposefully towards the better functioning of our collective. We must bring oxygen to our vital systems to make this body live. The awkward mortal functioning of this body’s philosophy depends on this blood trust. Its health depends on what we circulate through ourselves, and why. Muscle and land. Organ and artifice, indivisible. All in the service of some historic vision designed to look forward. A body of political sui generis. The grand idea that we can evolve beyond this lesser form.
The creation of a unique place and how we express it will be the air that sustains us. By design, we must feed the cell and thus, the body. Make it stronger. Cohere the blood to blood. Heal the deep old wounds inflicted by a lesser time. If done well, it will sharpen our minds and raise our emotional and spiritual intellect. This renewed blood will coarse through our hearts. It will fill us, marrow to muscle with vitality. We will become that which most every soul aspires to. It will give us the that thing I see not nearly enough of as I travel. Courage. The type of courage that is only found in the most silent and assured part of ourselves. A kind of courage that is willing to stand face to face with other grand ideas and let the strength of whole knowledge to win the day if it should. In that place, I see a full-throated compassion born of blessings and humility. I know it is there. How do I know this? I have seen others who long for it the same way I do. I have spoken with those who can only articulate small pieces of this. I have shared it with others. This is why I know we have it within us. What we too often forget is that it is not granted. Like any truly worthy thing, it must be earned. It must be nurtured. This is the thing I have seen too often in my travels. Good people, who have been given so many blessing that they have become softened by the comforts that surround them.
Like so many once jagged rocks have been blunted by the waves of privilege.
The thing that I see that I wish I could share with all my journeys have put in my path, is a simple thing. We are so much more a connected than we ever give ourselves credit for. I am struck by the fact that we are, all of us, an overlap. We are layered and entangled. A tapestry of time and place. The conclusion of our history and experience that make up the now. I see the focus of those who are now, even in this moment struggling to make meaning of where they fit into it all. There is a truth that would answer the fundamental longing that stirs in the faces and posture of my countrymen and women. Too many people feel stared down by the lack of fellowship afforded their own. Engagement seems daunting. Caught in the difficulty of the moment, not the beauty of the struggle. This struggle, that was codified on paper, played out in the struggle of most everyday people. Born blessed but have little knowledge of how to live the blessing. Thus, they default to the easiest. The material. The rhetoric. The comfortable lessons of history. Success has made us soft, and sensitive to all manner of not familiar. It does not have to be this way.
I have seen us at our best. Full of open-hearted life that radiates. Lightening the weight of all those who witness it. Shared with friend, loved one and stranger alike. Purpose filled and task ready, striding into the world. Those who have used the blessing of this time and place to learn not just what sacrifice looks like, but what it feels like. I have seen those among us stand up in ways that are the “here and now” manifestation of
the words in 1st Corinthians 13.
This is what I see as best in the American body. Warmed by the tapestry of this grand idea. An arm always opens to fold another into its warmth. Challenging? Yes. Scary? Sometimes. But the best of us have always been girded and guided by that thing more perfect.
This is the good air.
The best air.
I also see far too many of my countrywomen and men who lack another of the great necessaries to make this experiment succeed. Knowledge. The deep understanding that we are an all too human process that has been built at great expense to so many who have gone unseen, unknown, and un-honored. If not individually, as cultures.
They are the casualties of ignorance and intolerance. They know not a single color or race. They are timeless. Not because they are still among us, but because far too many have been cast out of time itself. When we do not exercise the courage to look at our less perfect selves, we weaken our collective body’s ability to tolerate real adversity. We start to become fragile, brittle, and weak.
We express this weakness in how we treat the least of our own. The poor, the elderly, the sick, those of color, and women, just to name a few.
Our country’s history has given us far too many shameful examples of how we have given our own that we would never wished for ourselves. As forms of power rolled over so many; we clung to a grand idea that professed to raise up “all men”, yet far too many were left behind.
Downtrodden and bloodied.
Breathing in the stench of hate and ignorance.
This is what I believe we must take on as a national mandate. A simple and honest look at our totality for the sake of becoming to a place that raises the spiritual nature of our declaration. It is the reason that we became a beacon to so many for so long. Whether through faith or morality or simple conscience, we were blessed into this proposition. What we do with it is the question.
I have seen it used to no good end. I have seen people with platforms and influence use the pain that their own countrymen and women experience to stoke their ire, then focus it on the very people that have the least power to defend themselves against it.
This is nothing new. It is a pattern as old as our lowest human aspirations. Sadly, far too many have been seduced into focusing on the material fruits of our blessings rather than the philosophical soil that allowed them to be.
They wrestle with task and objective to make money. The acquisition of things and status rather than their current role in the perpetuation of the spiritual parts of our national declaration.
We will always have need of “things”, but I’m pretty sure that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” had a higher meaning when Jefferson wrote it. I see how this so called “Rat Race” has pushed us with ever increasing speed towards less and less introspection. Less of an ability to truly access what the inalienable is within us. When I think about that, one word always raises to the fore: DIGNITY.
Let us be very clear. Our Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war against the tyranny of a King. But it was also a declaration of war on the tyranny of the spirit in all forms. Our founding fathers were far from ideal, but they agonized over the idea of what dignity for an individual looks like. They did it with as much intelligence and fortitude they could bring to the task. Their years long process was filled with debate arguments and agreements and disagreements. Some ideas were codified. Others had to be tabled. At the end of the day. They created a framework that has served us for centuries. The constitution is a testament to forward thinking. They were smart enough to understand that no system is perfect, so changes (I.E. Amendments) are necessary. They structured a governmental system that was interconnected and overlapping. One working to keep the other elements in check. They knew that unchecked and unassessed power would be corrosive to this new effort. We have failed as a country to pass on the essential spoken and unspoken moral and spiritual lessons of their masterwork. Put simply, with more liberty comes more responsibility to those who are granted it. “Freedom” is just the first step.
“Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible” Abraham Joshua Heschel