Friday, April 29, 2005

Looking Down the Other Side of the Mountain

I once heard a pastor say in a sermon, "You better learn how to praise God in the valley because you are going to spend the majority of your life there. Not in a valley? Don't worry, it is coming."

circa 4000BC: Moses comes from the mountaintop and gives the 10 commandments. Immediately everyone breaks them.
3BC: Jesus gives his sermon on the mount. Is crucified within three years.
1968: Martin Luther King sees the mountaintop, and is shot.

But it is in the valley you grow, so the songwriter says.

Not in a valley? Don't worry. It is coming.

I find myself recalling these words after coming out of a major bout with writer's block, and self doubt. Within the last week, on more than one occasion, I half jokingly respond to well wishers asking, "How are you?" with "I am trying to find out. I'll let you know when all the pieces of me are here so I can respond." It seems as if society has created us to become more and more fragmented.

I am daughter/sister/lover/friend/writer/worker/woman of God/believer/dreamer/doubter/doer/procrastinator/blacksistahomie/overexploited/ e=mc2 multiplicity of myselves times infinity.

Oh the Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls of it all! That woman was onto something.

I found an old tape of a conference I spoke at a long time ago on youth grantmakers nearly ten years ago. At the time, I was paired with another young woman from Oakland who was a part of the initial Kids First Initiative. That was in the heyday of youth grantmaking and youth development when philanthropy patted itself on the back for responding to the need for youth to be a critical piece of developing strategies to reduce youth violence.

As I listened to myself and others talk about the importance of giving, I am shocked. Not so much by what is said, but how passionately it is conveyed. I listen to myself saying, "Giving mean more than receiving, because when you give you get a five fold investment on what you get." And another young woman," If you give to me, and I have everything, it doesn't do any good to me. But if you give to someone who doesn't have, it means so much more." And
"Philanthropy can help youth by supporting sustainablity. Our foundations are are partners in this effort, but it the initiative ends in four years. Nobody's life is four years."

Then in occurred to me. We actually believed what we were saying, without reservation! I was painfully reminded of the many times, despite my strong opinions, I throw out some redundant regurgitated thought, because it is the catch phrase. It could even be a thought I feel no deep ownership or connection to, like working poor. What the heck is that? An oxymoron? A truth?

I've got a serious case of disconnect with myself, and I am not alone. How little connection we have to one another. We live in separate lives on separate islands, drive to work in separate cars to separate compartments of our lives, come home to our isolated little bubbles. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. This is who I am at work. This is who I am when I go out. This is who I am at church. Some part of you always manages to get shorted.

If we do connect, it is likely through non tactile means: television, internet, cell phones. No wonder we have so many people problems. Rugged individuality is isolating. What do we feel connected to except a swiftly tilting planet of hopelessness by the day? Children murdering other children, money spent on conquest, not community. The LA Times reads: Urban Schools are Drop Out Factories, and who really cares beyond the election year?Been wondering why nobody has connected the decline in public education and the decay of communal society, but that is a bust. Education can be somewhat controlled. It is an institution. Family is a construction. Much harder to patch up.

Not exactly good fodder for poets write about the human spirit when much of our time is spent struggling, wrestling with it like Jacob did with God. And who am I write about the struggle?

But even in the face of ten year old statistics, there was something fresh about our voices at that conference. The honesty made me realize that my writer's block is a fairly recent phenomenon. Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood it becomes harder for me to write because I no longer trust my own truth. I was told that my view of the world wasn't to be trusted. Now I am a well seasoned diplomat trained to look for the multiple "truths" called "perspectives."

"The world is after all more than your seat an your view," a friend's poem reminds me. Maybe my fragmentation is a sign of maturity-- or indoctrination? Do I really believe in philanthropy after I discovered my heroes turned out to be Johnny Appleseeds that are here today gone tomorrow, and sustainability is just another catch phrase? And government, well maybe that is just another overcodified word for the failure of humans to run the world?

When did dreaming, and believing, and yes, giving become not enough?

As much as I would like to believe differently, I find myself wondering if the only reason American outreach for the tsunami disaster was so large was because the UN scolded our only truly egalitarian American belief--our self centeredness.

Then my ego says, but it has to be bigger than that. After all, we are a world power. We are at the proverbial mountaintop. Since world War II more Americans enjoy a high level of attainment and wealth than ever before. Still it is clear that a significant portion of E Pluribus Unam is livin la vida broka-- and they call it plurality. A significant portion. Perhaps since WWII the perception of attainment has become our new identity?

eg: I am my SUV and my SUV is me?

Tsunami's aside, lack doesn't unilaterally bring out the best in the human spirit. But sometimes it can teach us humility, patience, empathy, trust and faith the kind of faith that caused my grandfather leave the rural south that denied him the opportunity to be a doctor to head to California, where he succeeded, but never became the thing he coveted. My grandmother's tuition was $5 a semester, and she took up babysitting and washing to pay her way through school. She only went for two years, although she was the head of her class, she couldn't afford the five dollar tuition required to complete her studies. "Can you believe it?" she'd say," Can you believe nobody could give me $5 to pay my semester? She exclaimed eyes shining,"Don't you think somebody oughta have given me the $5 it would've taken to finish school?" Her words fell to the ground, heavy. Sixty year old broken promises.

Their bitterness was channeled.

Each of their three children sat prompt every day in the front row of a one-step from-segregation school room. My grandparents were determined philanthropists in the truest sense of the word. They gave their children, and others what they never had. There was so little hope back then, but there seemed to be so much. Their whole world was a big sigh full lungs holding breath that could not wait to be released.

Now, we are deflated balloons left alone as a reminder that party has gone to somebody else's house.

I watched the other day as a television evangelist visited India and literally wept and ran away from the scores of children that were living in the worst poverty imaginable. She ran to a nearby car to escape the obscenely beautiful faces of smiling brown children who followed her every step. Then two boys came up to the car window and began tapping on it. She looked up, tear stained and forlorn. They had two cookies. Thrusting out a ruddy brown hand they handed the woman the cookie, a gift she tried to refuse, but ended up accepting. Then they smiled, walked away from the van and went to a nearby bench to share the one cookie.

Although this woman was probably a Republican, and will may never understand the significance of the role that rich nations such as ours play in the global poverty warfare game, she clearly was moved by something this country never confronts; it doesn't take things to be happy. I'm not suggesting the children happy to be poor, but their joy wasn't based on their lack. If it were they would always live in misery, on Prozac...or Zolift.

Sadly the American dream is based on the corruptible. But the dream is an ideal. Simply put:Maybe an idealized is a failed life. We base our happiness on an ideal, and we miss true joy, collecting thing after thing, never satisfied. It is something Black people have learned for years. Find joy in what you have. Find joy in who you are.

But even as I write that I wonder, what happened to that tradition in our community? Did it die with the last benefit sho'nuff 1975 afro? Have Black folks today lost hope? Are we fragmented people, now that we have reached the promised land? Is that why we get stuck in this cycle of spiritual poverty, which is worse in many ways than physical poverty? And the bourgeoisie Bill Cosby middle class of us--having arrived have we given up on the rest of ourselves? If this is the mountaintop, what is next except a valley?

I don't know the answer. But maybe I will finally be able to feel I've re-earned my right to write about it.

And maybe it is in the valley that you grow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You've really captured it with this valley analogy. I think you should forward to Rick W. he could use this as a metaphor for your life!