Sunday, July 10, 2016

America the Beautiful

Camino Day 30
Today began what is to be my last week walking. On Saturday, I will make my way into Compostela de Santiago. In some ways, it seems surreal, not the least because it will mean I will re-enter the “real world;” you know, the one fraught with violence and pain and uncertainty and chaos.
Yesterday I had no internet access, and the day before, the sign proclaiming free wi-if in rooms neglected to mention that it only worked if I stood on one foot in the bathtub. Facing south.
So my access to the news unfolding in the wake of both the two police shooting deaths of black men—Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—and then the shooting deaths of five white Dallas police at an otherwise peaceful protest has been limited.
Truthfully, I was rendered speechless after the video of Sterling’s death appeared, and then Castile’s dying moments, video-taped by his girlfriend who, along with her young daughter, witnessed the entire event. I felt as if I just needed to make a generic statement about how #blacklivesmatter and how we need to do something about the rampant use of force against black men by police officers—you know, something undated, with no names mentioned, that I could just trot out again and again in the wake of each new tragedy.
And then Dallas happened. A mass shooting by a black man who said he wanted to kill as many white police officers as possible. A mass shooting by someone who had access-- once again, as is true of virtually all the mass shootings we’ve experienced in this year alone—to weapons of war, designed to kill as many humans as possible, as quickly as possible.
Clearly, the actions of the shooter were not reflective of the #blacklivesmatter movement. Clearly, he acted from his own private personal sense of rage, outrage, and inability to focus that in healing, empowering ways. Yet, now this tragedy is added to the already overloaded docket of death and despair on our nation’s books.
A friend wrote, after Dallas, that it felt like 1968. I had thought that, too, although I was too young at the time to understand the impact of all the violence that year held. It seems as if today, like then, the pressure cooker of race, power, despair, and pornographic access to guns  has exploded in unspeakable violence that seems to come at us with the staccato burst of an AR15.
So these two trajectories—the killing of black men and the use of weapons of war against anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—have collided in our nation.
Seven more lives senselessly taken, seven more families left grieving an inconsolable loss. Our nation, once again, ripped apart needlessly.
As I was sitting in my hotel dining room on Friday night, in Villafranca de Bierzo, virtually shut off from Internet access, thinking of all this violence, all this blood spilled in our streets, I slowly became aware of the song that was playing in the small room where I sat alone. It was Frank Sinatra singing  “America the Beautiful.”
Ironically, that song had been on my mind while I was still crossing the great Mesete—the vast, unending acres of amber waves of grain.  I had thought then how much easier life could be if we each looked past the boundaries we draw—making some “other” and instead saw the places of connection, of commonality—how we each grow crops of wheat or barley or rice to feed our families, how we each long for peace, for happiness, for love, for safety.
The experience of sitting in a small village in Spain, listening to Sinatra sing this singular song, written by lesbian, Katharine Lee Bates (who was teaching at Colorado College that summer of 1893), after she had visited Pikes Peak, the mountain in my backyard, while grieving over what is happening in America now, was a truly transcendent experience.
I know: that was a convoluted sentence; just imagine what it felt like to me—like a kaleidoscope with all these images swirling around, trying in vain to make sense of it all.

How can America be beautiful when it's streets are filled with the blood of innocent black men and women? How can America be beautiful when we continue to allow weapons of war to be sold to our citizens who then use them to spill even more innocent blood?

Can America be beautiful? And how? And how can we help in the reclamation process?
I  posted this poem on Facebook in the wake of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last month. I was reminded of it again, in the wake of these latest tragedies, in listening to Sinatra sing:
Good Bones, by Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Today I am in Triacastela, Spain. I have six more days of walking before I reach the end of this pilgrimage. And I will soak in each of these moments with gratitude and awe. I will listen fully to the birdsong that is purer and more melodic than even a Gay Men’s Chorus. I will stop again and again to admire the wildflowers that still greet me and give spontaneous praise to the Universe for the rolling hills covered in green that meet me now at every turn. I will stand in silent, holy awe in cathedrals and churches built over 1000 years ago and I will remind myself of the good bones of our human existence—the ones that reach back before myth and religion, before the constructs of race and privilege, of inclusion and exclusion. I will see beyond the blood stained headlines to what could be.
And when I return, I will join, once more, with others who see those good bones, who believe in them with every beat of their heart. And together, we will find the ways to make this place beautiful once again. 

Frank Sinatra singing  “America the Beautiful.”“America the Beautiful.”

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