Intimations of the South

This blog’s been pretty quiet lately. I’ve been out in the sunlight shaking off the dust from four years in the bunker with Chief Joseph. It’s nice to stretch and dance.

One of those dances was last week in Nashville, where I spoke to a father-son dinner at a very exclusive boys school. The very notion of speaking or thinking about something other than Chief Joseph was at once terrifying and exhilarating. Things went very well, despite an arduous 13 hour journey through stormy skies and snowed-in
airports, in no small measure because a good audience makes for a good speaker. And a thousand respectful, intent listeners lifts a speaker to his or her best.

I could go on about that, but I want to say a bit about my first impressions of the South.

I have never been to the South other than to make a marathon two day drive from Florida to Minnesota. This time I had at least a day to savor the scents and shapes, and I was smitten. You might think, quite logically, that one day can teach you nothing. On the contrary, if you keep your mind and eyes open and trust your senses, you can learn a lot from a short, overwhelming exposure to a place. There are rhythms, there are pacings, there are conversational mannerisms and distances. There is the balance between formality and intimacy, the way people interact with each other across racial and class and age divides. There’s the way they treat animals, the way they drive, the speed or lack thereof in the way they do business at a counter.

The list is endless, and it is limited only by your capacity to make observational discriminations. As a watcher from way back, I try very hard to take in everything through every sense, then let myself sort it out in memory.

What I am left with from this visit is the overwhelming historical shadow under which the South lives. It’s not just the shadow of slavery, though that’s part of it. It’s more that there is a cultural pattern and manner here that was established at a time in the past, then was modified by a great disruption. It’s sort of a distant analogue to dealing with contemporary Indians: these people were once something, then were forced to become something else. Yet the residue of that pre-disruption “self” remains.

In the case of the white upper-class South,one aspect of this residue is a graciousness and a well-mannered formality that has more in common with the English than with my raw-boned American compatriots here in the Midwest. And it certainly has more in common with the English tnan with the “everybody’s a friend until you prove it otherwise” openness of the western interior where I have been spending the majority of my travel time for the last four years.

It was like there was a veneer of social propriety that allowed everyone to operate with a common social currency while decisions regarding the appropriate degree of intimacy were being made. I remember it well from England, and how much freedom of personal interior movement it allowed. One crossed distances at one’s own pace, and intimacies were earned and given higher valuations. At the same time, the possibility of disingenuousness is heightened exponentially.

Frankly, I found it exhilarating. I have worked most of my life to be able to achieve a casual intimacy with people I meet and to offer this casual intimacy to them as my gift. Sometimes it has served me well. But it has often gotten me in trouble with folks who presume a distance based on professional or cultural distinctions: they find it presumptuous and leveling and think it is somewhat disrespectful.

I understand this, though a leopard does not easily change its spots, and I’m getting to be a rather old leopard. However, Europe — specifically England — and this brief dalliance with the South remind me that distance, benignly established, offers a privacy that allows a person to shape their intimacies with more care.

I could knock around for hours in this idea, but the day is widening and I have work to do. Let me close by saying only that, as I drove around Nashville and its environs, visiting historical sites, talking to folks, savoring the time I had with the people at Montgomery Bell Academy where I spoke, and drinking in the Tennesee landscape and springtime climate, I could feel the presence of the Civil War beneath my feet, just as I feel the presence of the Ojibwe and the Scandinavian settlers under my feet here in northern Minnesota.

One of the great joys in life is to learn more about those forces that echo in a particular place, so the echoes can be better understood when they are heard or sensed. I cannot wait to go back to the South. And I cannot wait to gain more intimate acquaintance with the forces that shape and inhabit that land. Four years living with the western interior through the Nez Perce and the settlers and soldiers of the 1800s gave me a great gift of understanding. One day of living with the South of Nashville gave me intimations of a world of meaning and apprehension that I would like to understand.

There are lots of ways of being explorers. I hope that you, like me, try to take advantage of those that are presented to you. There is no joy greater than that of mapping the interior and exterior terrain of the world through which we walk. All we need is curiosity, watchfulness, and a love of life.

I hope that all of your days are going well and that spring is beginning to creep through the cracks of winter wherever you are. Thanks for staying with me. I appreciate it.

A Bit of a Rant, or Maybe a Sermon

I’ve received several responses to my post-election comments, and I want to follow up a bit.

I made those observations — which I truly believe — with full knowledge that there is a certain portion of my readership that either does not wish to find political engagement in my writings, or holds to the belief that self discovery and self realization are basis for any meaningful political change.

To the first, I must say that all our decisions and actions are political. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the word, “political.” I go back to my basic premises in life: We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and some part of our moral responsibility on earth is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” until such time as there are no more afflicted.

Since the history of human affairs has given ample indication that there will never be such a time, we must continue to challenge those around us who would draw the lines of their human concerns at the boundaries of the own lives, consciousness, or front yards, and demand that they see the power their actions have for good and ill. Simply put, we cannot opt out of political decision-making, even if we choose to ignore the political process.

If this seems too engaged and too far from the spiritual for some, I would counsel that the gospel of social justice and liberation theology are vehicles of spiritual development as well. If this seems too Christian to some, I would direct people to the boddhisatva path. It is one of the great failings of New Age thinking that self-transcendence has ratchetted down into self-realization, which has, in turn, ratchetted down to self-fulfillment. We do ourselves no honor when we disregard our fundamental responsibility of service to our fellow humans.

This is a long spiral, but it is worth following. There was a great cultural (and spiritual) struggle in the sixties between those who believed that social justice was the precondition for individual freedom and growth, and those who believed that individual freedom and growth were the precondition for social justice. The latter group won out when Ronald Reagan came up with the marvelously impactful idea of “trickle down” economics, which applies to spiritual economics as well: If I do good for myself it will trickle down to those around me, and they will benefit.

What a great way to avoid direct involvement in the difficulties of the world around us, and what a perfect fit with the belief that we must realize ourselves first before we can help others. Ignoring the very real possibility that we best realize ourselves BY helping others, this mindset took strong root in a culture long steeped in individualism and personal initiative.

By the late eighties it was the cultural law of the land, and the predicate of helping others after we had realized ourselves was dropped completely. Self realization became the goal; self-fulfillment became the desired end; and the promotion of means of self-fulfillment became the hollow reed of ostensible service to humankind. Ratchetted up again, it became the spiritual belief that we must accept what is with spiritual indifference and magnanimity and assist others in their own quest for self-fulfillment — a pyramid scheme of self-referential spirituality.

Meanwhile, the streets of the world run with blood and the hungry go unfed. And those mechanisms that use the political process watch gleefully as the best among us spend our spiritual energies studying ourselves while the politically savvy build a world where everything goes into their lunchbaskets while the situations for those in the streets only gets worse.

We must find a way to reverse this. And that is one of the reasons I am so committed to the Native way of seeing life. I hold strongly to the belief that we are all part of the drum, and when the drumhead is struck in one place, it reverberates through us all. I also hold firmly to the belief that service to others is our highest calling. Anything less constitutes a failure to pay our spiritual rent on earth. To be given the miraculous gift of life is to be given something so precious that it can never be repaid, even though we cannot give a name or a face to the mystery that bestowed this gift upon us. So we must express our gratitude with service here on earth.

Now I am sure that some of you are either glazed over or plugging your ears at this point. It is, indeed, a bit of a diatribe. But it is not unwarranted. In fact, it addresses the second group of disappointed readers who see my political leanings as a misdirection of spiritual energies away from self-realization and self-transcendence: We dare not turn our eyes inward when we live in a world where ideologies are at war, because individual human beings eventually get crushed in such a world. We must not let individuals get crushed while we happily sit in the lotus position or practice five rules for living the perfect life.

Ideologies too easily lose their human face. This is what happened with the Islamic fundamentalists, and it is happening with our own fundamentalists, who now control our government. Small fry like you or me may think this is about freedom, but it is about ideology. This is a holy war, and our government has decided to fight it on those terms. Consequently, it is a clash of ideologies — belief systems if you will — and such clashes take place in the skies far above the heads of ordinary folk. We simply accept what falls out of the skies upon us.

Understand this — our country has decided to engage in a holy war, and things will fall out of the sky on us, at least metaphorically if not physically. One of the reasons I have written so much about the need for people to find their relationship to God in their own hearts is because mass spiritual movements brook no compromise. They divide the world into those who join them and those who don’t. Disagreement becomes apostasy or heresy, and heretics do not tend to do well under any religious system. When your political system takes on the trappings of religious fervor, dissent becomes political heresy, and it will be discouraged, monitored, and ultimately squashed.

So, to get back to the initial issue: why I am writing in a more political vein in some of these entries. All our actions and inactions are political,and all the moreso these days. What I see is a need to for each of us to become aware of the political implications of our own choices in our lives, and not to blithely and naively assume that politics does not impact us or that our actions do not have political implications.

Those of us who care about the spiritual life must be very concerned about what is currently being done in the name of God and belief and religion. We cannot let the spiritual quest be co-opted by those who would carry on that quest with a sword.

These are, indeed, tough times. And we do need to report for duty. What that means will vary according to our gifts and circumstances. But, at minimum, it means standing up for compassion and caring, and fighting for those as fundamental, inviolable spiritual values.

I have no interest in a sharp-toothed God. And I will speak out against those who would try to make me serve one.

Scroll to Top