Note: None of this is political. No more than simply living is political. I try to think according to the words of a great spiritual master, ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas: “Walk the spiritual path with practical feet”.
Behind our house in California’s hot, hot Central Valley sits a long wooden fence, above which wave a number of American flags. Interspered with smaller flags that proclaim in red, white and blue, with stars, tirelessly around the clock and calendar, that the storage business below is “Open”.
When it’s cool enough in the mornings for Elf the Corgi and me to spend a little time in the back, where the patio is, we observe the badly tattered, faded flags blowing in stiff breezes that cross the region. Wind often starts from the east in the mornings or when weather is brewing in the fierce Sierra Nevadas, and from the west after wind off the Pacific rushes over the Coastal Range to stir up the wide valley.
Those flags of ours seriously need some love. They stood out there through the unusually rainy winter and spring that belatedly dragged to an end, and now near the summer solstice beneath the scorching sun. This revives the memory of a janitor at my old Massachusetts high school. He would faithfully bring in the school’s American flags at the end of every day, neatly folded, and carefully hang them each morning unless it was raining. The flags had time off during storms.
Things are different now. Cheap flags are readily available, lots of homes and businesses fly them. Still makes me sigh, though, to see them in tatters. And I am not a particularly patriotic sort, more of a world minded person who appreciates the uniqueness of each region of the earth, whatever country it is in.
It’s hard for a contemplative mind to resist drawing comparisons between the condition of the flags in front of Elf and me now and the country the flags stand for. Everything would be improved with a little loving. With judicious dashes of social justice.
Look at this grand old sequoia, with temporary me parked beneath it, which could be as old as a thousand years, imagine the kinds of changes it has stood through right there. Some grand times, some bad epochs, there this giant has stood to bear witness. Just like the kind of good principles that, when followed, keep human affairs flowing smoothly and productively.
From there the mind wanders back into Yosemite National Park, which I first visited in honor of Mother’s Day, then recalls other national parks, historic sites and wildlife refuges I’m familiar with. Especially Pearl Harbor and Nu’uanu Pali Lookout in Hawaii, the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and Bosque del Apache NWR, the White Sands and Bandolier National Monuments. There are others, but what I think of with these is how full of visitors from everywhere some of these sites were during my visits. Bandelier is home to spectacular cliff dwellings occupied by Native people a millenium ago. Many spots that I’ve mentioned have strong histories with people from other places, in two cases with nations that were once enemies, then later good friends. The story with America’s indigenous inhabitants is also adversarial and friendly by turns. When early Pueblo/Chacoan people chipped, dug and constructed the cliff dwellings, though, they and fellow indigenous were the sole occupants of all the land around, for thousands of miles.
The point of such thoughts is the realization of how easily we can become curious about one another when we meet out in such places as national parks and Notre Dame Cathedral and Mount Everest. The special qualities drawing visitors to these spots serve as a sort of filter, a backdrop for those from far flung homes where there is, right there, something to interact, or possibly to talk about. I’ve found myself having fun and learning from exchanges with someone from places I know little about, such as Togo. And finding how strongly one can communicate even when there is no common language.
Is it possible that we within a country are not readily offering tolerance to people who may be different from ourselves when we encounter them randomly, going about their daily lives, as we do towards those, including visitors from other lands, with whom we come in contact in grander surroundings? Do we too often take for granted that we already know — and don’t care for — them and their views when we spot them out and about regular activities? In other words, where we spend the most time are we more intolerant of different kinds of people?
If the answer is yes, do we want to change that? Could we consciously practice a courteous tolerance with a desire to discover commonalities, even if only a few, with those whose convictions differ from our own in this divided country we now inhabit, side by side?
Do we remember that little butterfly who flaps her wings in the middle of North America and starts a storm going in Africa? Upon small gestures so much depends.
Recently I have been informed that the government is now imprisoning children who are illegally in this country in an old internment camp that housed Japanese residents during World War II. Such horribly dreary places, those camps. One is preserved on Angel Island in northern San Francisco Bay, visited not long ago by Jericha and Francisco (my daughter and her husband). Originally Native American land, taken over as a processing center for Chinese immigrants, then for military purposes, finally as de facto prison for Japanese American citizens during a big war with their country. Ironies… At this point in my life I have more familiarity with Japanese Americans than in the past, so with compassion I say here what I am learning — that the scars their families bore from that long ago period have not gone away. Some cannot speak of it without tears, though they themselves were never there. Trauma spans a number of generations. Being locked away from loved ones in such a place is a big trauma.
Sitting in my power wheelchair above the sunken USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor I observed Japanese tourists, alongside Americans, quietly moving from ferries onto the memorial above the water. Was I staking a claim to the spot as my history, my story, while the others were only there to look? It did not feel so… At the Alamo, hopping along on my crutches and leg braces further back in time, there were plenty of Texans mingling with tourists from parts further south. All of us were way younger than the events associated with the historic sites we chose to visit, yet the somberness of some Japanese at Pearl Harbor lingers in my mind, right along with visions of the bold Mexican leader, Antonio López de Santa Anna, and his men, first fighting and killing Davy Crockett at the Alamo — briefly one of my childhood heroes — later hugely changing American history with what we on this side of the border call the Gadsden Purchase.
Of course there are also those visitors who are oblivious, swinging cameras, laughing and planning their next stops like tourists anywhere. Many in the country also to visit old friends and loved ones.
At Death Valley I wasn’t expecting a lookout over the Panamint Mountains to be bustling with Asians — many of whom were there in hopes of seeing the creatures I was looking for as well. That is, the wild burros who had eked out a decent living for many decades after prospectors had abandoned their forebears in that hottest spot on the continent. A case of what you might arguably term benign neglect more than outright animal abandonment. That is, until the National Park Service swoops in with one of its periodic fiats that all the wild burros must be removed or be shot as invasive species.
What happens to animals can sometimes happen to people. All of a sudden you’re not welcome any more.
Do these varied ruminations of mine make a crazy house mirror image of what we’re doing amongst ourselves, USA neighbors in cities, rural areas, isolated ranchers far from anyone, oil rig workers locked up together for long periods of time over the deep blue sea, Alaskan villages accessible solely by bush plane, homeless people being driven from one sidewalk camp to another? Aware of one another to some small extent, Living and letting live for long periods, followed by today’s sturm und drang between factions who can’t see parts of their common world in the same way. How much of today’s divisiveness can be blamed on the internet with its confusing and therefore very scary deep fakes and other hacks, bullying, or nasty tricks, how much on long simmering disagreements now exploited by others with secret agendas — and how much to people having fallen out of the habit of getting to know and visit with their neighbors on a face-to-face basis, as a matter of routine. There’s so much in favor of frequent face-to-face communication. It helps keep one another going along a realistic pathway, with checks and balances on our inclinations.
I believe it is dangerous for people to set aside some of the most fundamental realities of being human — the need to be with, talk with, touch, smile at, eat with, be a community with other human beings. In person. Screen friends can be absolutely wonderful (or terrible, terrifying), but we always need to fall back on in-person contact to stay the course.
I recommend dog walking as a reliable means of getting acquainted with neighbors and others. James Herriot of All Creatures Great and Small fame invariably listed dog walking as his hobby. Reading his books still conveys a powerful sense of what these animals mean to people both individually and collectively. Here in our new, nearly instant pop-up neighborhood in Madera, California, our regular trots around adjacent blocks with Elf and Opus, and now just Elf, have certainly expanded our budding friendships. We are learning that sitting of an evening in one’s open garage serves the same social function as sitting on the front porch once did.
Elf the Corgi pattered along on her leash during her visit to Yosemite, having little trouble recognizing and silently communicating with fellow canine visitors, whatever their views. She rarely watches her fellows via the internet, merely coming close to explore my state of mental fitness when I let out a particularly loud laugh at a funny animal video.
There’s a lot to be assimilated through exposure to dogs. And never underestimate the importance of a simple smile, the touch of a hand (paw), the sharing of a moment with a complete stranger (of either species).
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” ~ George Eliot
Elf walking with Francisco along a noisy river in Yosemite