The Home of the Brave

Before the 1680s, a “bigot” referred specifically to a person intolerant of other religions.  After that time, it expanded to intolerance of all sorts of things– other races and cultures, for example.  The idea that there should not be a mosque near ground zero is covered before and after 1680.  There is no good reason to oppose building a Muslim religious center in downtown New York.  There is only bigotry.

I understand that September 11th caused people great suffering.  Pain is not an excuse for bigotry.  If you tell people a black man killed your mother, and that this makes you fear black people, you’ve suffered the loss of your mother, and then, in addition, you’re suffering from bigotry.  The human urge to avoid pain led you to generalize, set up a system that will prevent you from being hurt again.  A black person hurt me, so if I stay away from black people, I will be safe.  However, your fear doesn’t justify limiting where other people can live or work or worship.

Many people who are Muslim came to America for our famed religious tolerance, and I am ashamed at what they have found.  If we limited the freedom of Christians according to the danger some of them have posed in the past, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house.  That says nothing about the true ethics of our religious tradition.  It only speaks to the possibility of illness twisting the human mind.

It would be beautiful to have a mosque and a Muslim community center in downtown in New York.  It would speak to those children, the ones dressed up for prayer and thrashing through swimming lessons and swooping their eyes along elegant Arabic script.  It would say: we are a tolerant, enlightened country, a place where you are welcome, where we value your contribution and we are ready to partner with you in transforming our society.  What are your ideas?  What are your dreams?  We move on from crushed dreams and death here.  That is what we do.  We don’t blame or shut down.  We heal, and open up, and move on.

This week I taught at a little summer program.  The students in this program will all get their college education paid for, every penny of it, if they keep their grades up and attend meetings and classes in addition to their schoolwork.  They’re all poor, by some definition, and unlikely to go to college otherwise.  One group did a skit which included a girl singing the national anthem.  I always feel awkward about the national anthem, and the pledge of allegiance, because in my insanity, I’m always thinking, Didn’t nationalism cause World War I?  Isn’t nationalism kind of backward and dangerous?

But as we stood up and I put my hand over my heart to be a good example, to be respectful, I looked around the room at white and black and Latino Americans, at parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles and siblings and cousins and teachers and professors, and I felt a little choked up.  We were in the basement of a church in an old neighborhood, a place where society once isolated the black community like a virus, and the air conditioning was pititifully weak, and I wasn’t sure if everyond understood English, but we all stood up and we listened to this girl sing our torturedly operatic national anthem.  She shifted around keys, kind of at random.  No one complained.  Everyone showed her respect and tolerance, because that’s how we want her world to be.  There is tolerance and respect all over the world.  I’m just especially proud when I see it at home.

Still Waters

St. Paul was a New Yorker. People from New York are recognizeable by their svelte builds, the glow of 14 karat cultural immersion, and the easy eyes that own everything and are never impressed.  Two thousand years ago, you see, Rome was New York.  Now it is a tourist trap.  That might give New York a little humility, although with humility, New York would not be itself.

I don’t know how to describe Kansas City. I’ve lived here most of my life, so I can’t really see it clearly.  I try a few comparisons: it’s Detroit without Motown.  It’s Chicago with way less money, many fewer people, and better weather.  It’s Minneapolis without famous writers.  It’s Omaha, with more grit and slobber.  It’s home, which is always and never enough.

I have described Kansas City as a “backwater,” which isn’t necessarily an insult.  You won’t be swept away here.  Your talent might go unexpressed, unfired, or unappreciated, but you won’t be worn down by the current.  You won’t be tossed aside.  There isn’t that much force in the life here.  You can soak peacefully.

The things I do love in Kansas City are the western city things: the space and the broken and abandoned spaces in the city, the way people put things together and share.  What I love is that there is a rebellion to creating culture in a place where people don’t look for culture.  We make things for ourselves and for their own sake.  If your ambition was to set the world on fire, you wouldn’t be here.  But who needs the world?  What does that mean, anyway?  How dare other people define “the world” for us?

Other people are out front of us.  The coasts are trying things out, so that we don’t have to.  They make the bigger mistakes.  They make themselves fools.  We wait things out.  They think bigger and wilder.  We think deeper and sleep more.  Some days I think that the fateful events that kept me a Kansas Citian all these years strangled my ambition and muffled my voice.  That I am one of the lost, small people that no one cares about, where nothing starts and nothing flames up.

Today is the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. The day they share, although they both have their own individual holidays as well.  Today is the day they stand together, two people who had little in common, and almost definitely did not get along.  It’s encouragement to everyone now who goes to church with people they have nothing in common with, and don’t like.

St. Peter was from a backwater, and probably remained a person who would be dismissed by New Yorkers. He did not know how to navigate Rome.  I love St. Paul because he is the Chrysler Building.  While I’ve always loved Paul more, mouthy, scholarly Paul, I am probably more like Peter: his serviceable boat, his insistence on circumcision, and my about-town Honda, my dismissal of skinny jeans.  That doesn’t mean some of us won’t make a splash.  Some of Peter’s friends became quite famous, considering how boring and lame as Galilee was.  You just never know.

Snakes

Like a lot of people, I thought the world might be ending on September 11th.  I had just started a new job in Kansas City, and I watched the second tower fall on our conference room TV.   They sent everyone home.

I drove down to the coffeehouse that was my home away from home, and as I sat under the oak on the sidewalk there, a guy next to me made a joke about whether those people in the planes would get their frequent flier miles.  I was worried that he might yell at me, because he seemed a little unhinged, but I felt scared and naked enough without him stomping around, so I asked him politely to be quiet.

Although I obsessively refreshed the New York Times website that September, starving for news, I never watched the footage of people jumping off the buildings.  It was too horrible, and felt exploitive.  Years later, in the context of this lengthy documentary on New York I’ve been working my way through, I watched that footage.  The story was told in the context of the city’s history, with lots of background about how and why the towers were built.  It was part of the story of New York, and I trusted the director after all our hours together.  So I went ahead and cried my way through it.

It took about nine months to dismantle and excavate the ruins of the twin towers.  The people who cut that steel and drove those trucks are still walking around with the burden of memories.  What they saw, smelled, and touched.  It is the cleanup, the aftermath, the long, day by day, out of the spotlight, dangerous drudgery of facing death that haunts me.  When the cameras had floated on to other stories, they were still cutting, digging.

They found no one alive.  It became the third week, the fifth month, and they knew the death they would find, the look of it, and the smell of it, was changing in unholy ways, under the wreckage.  How do they walk around with that in their heads?  They still have it.  They always will.

One of my favorite stories about  St. John is that someone who hates him and has him in prison (a priest playing for another team) gives him a cup of poison to drink.  Saint and badass that he is, John drinks up and doesn’t even break a sweat.  Some people said he waved his hand over the cup, and the poison formed into a serpent, which John could lift out of the cup like a swizzle stick.  I don’t like that version so much.  I like when they say that there were other guys there, too, who were handed cups, and that after John drank his, he drank theirs, too.

I’m awed by those people who dug out and cleaned up, who ran in with their heavy equipment and grated their lungs with the dust.  I don’t know how they drank that poison, but I hope they are well.

Aside: In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had gotten to the end of Ric Burns’ documentary on New York City.  I thought I had.  The last episode, dealing pretty exclusively with the September 11th incident and background on the World Trade Center, showed up at my door via Netflix and I realized I had misspoken.  I believe they filmed the last segment, as a follow-up to the main project, in 2003.

Righteousness

Every time I hear a Fiona Apple song, I remember and miss my righteous indignation.  My love of righteous indignation may have been my most passionate and long-term relationship, in fact.  And for returning home, after a quarrel, a bitter, wistful song is just right. You never loved me.  Use me.  It will always be this way.

Last time I was in New York, I sat on the sidewalk, looking across Central Park East, listening to Ms Apple wail and bemoan the shallowness and elusiveness of her lovers, and eating an ice  cream sandwich from a street vendor to restore my strength after lumbering up and back down the Guggenheim spiral and I thought, oh, my wretched shipwreck of a romantic life and I’ll always be alone, although I am full of desire and passion.  It was vain and lovely and the weather was quite nice also, easy late summer with pigeons clucking and construction workers busting up and pasting back together the great landmark, and I licked my black cookie smudged fingers at the end and folded the wrapper and tucked it in the trash.  All delicious.

Without the righteous indignation, there is me and how I make excuses for myself, and can so completely lose myself in a moment, where I am, that I believe in an escape plan for setting aside the needs of whomever or whatever is waiting.  I ran into So-and-So.  I was right in the middle of something. It’s not evil with a capital “E,” it’s just my boring, commonplace asshole core.  There is just me, lapping up conversation or peacefully brewing in the juices of someplace, with no notion of people who are waiting for me or wondering about me.  Or me, snapping like a rubber band at you instead of easing up on myself and saying I’m sorry.

I could bemoan my faults further, but actually the whole point is that hurting people you love is pathetically banal.  Easy to do, easy to explain away, easy to shrug off.  It’s not like the SS coming to your door to demand you give up your Jewish neighbors.  Most of the really painful, grating friction in life doesn’t come in moments of inspiring drama.

The righteous indignation is the last thing I’ll give up from my adolescence, the very last thing.  I’m losing it after I got my first frown lines and my first age spot.  Way after my virginity, but thankfully, before having children.  I do miss it a little, though.  It goes down so easy.