This is the first Memorial Day I’ve felt motivated to memorialize.
I was born in 1940, Roosevelt was President, and when I had my tonsils out in a hospital in 1945 I vividly recall a nurse bringing me a newspaper with a picture of Roosevelt on the steps of the Capitol in Washingtom, D.C, with the headline ROOSEVELT DEAD. The war was going on, Hiroshima was turned to white dust, and although I had a father in his forties and brother ten years older than myself, both of whom were exempt from fighting, by age or schooling, I hardly knew the war was going on. In Oakland, California you could hear booms in the distance from time to time, and we were told it was an army base and they were in training. There were Hollywood movies about the war, an actor with hooks for hands won an Academy Award for his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives, but for the most part, as a kid growing up in the United States throughout the war, I was blissfully unaware of it. Were there shortages, were we afraid of a Japanese invasion from the Pacific Ocean, of a retaliatory atom bomb, of an invasion by Hitler all the way from Germany? My parents must have been adept at shielding me from the turmoil.
Then I lived through the sixties, and in Berkeley and San Francisco, the epicenter of wild rebellion and serious resistance to the Vietnam war, the draft, and the government in general. Kennedy shot. Martin Luther King shot. Another Kennedy shot. Trauma and epiphanies from every side… trauma from world events, epiphanies from LSD, pot, poetry, the life of the Cosmically Conscious Beats and Hippies, and in my case, due to my age, among the somewhere in-between.
Then Lyndon Johnson, whom we all hated. Then Nixon, whom we hated even more. The war machine, the bomb-makers (I dropped out of the University of California at Berkeley in 1962 after a semester in which I was required to take an Introductory Physics course, which was taught in a huge auditorium by Edward Teller, father of the Hydrogen Bomb. It was being televised, and he strutted with the egomania of a superstar, his rolling r’s and bushy eyebrows, and was so venally disgusting that I stopped attending after a couple of sessions.) But I was drifting away from academia generally, and in the climate of the times, there was no need, it seemed to me, to be in any way connected to the status quo, which led, again it seemed to me, in every case, to a warmongering society bent on all known forms of destruction, of ourselves and of “inferior” races overseas, thought of as so many gnats in a drab sunray.
After “great” statesmen like McNamara, Dulles, and that Arch-Toad, Kissinger, I never thought we’d have to look at the likes of them again, and that somehow we’d have learned our lesson collectively to refuse their admittance ever again to the halls of power. Perhaps the long Clinton era, with its seeming peacefulness and sad (but really minor) sex scandal, inured us to the gathering storm of total craziness to come. Long ago we’d had to somehow come to terms with a society that represses the spirit in favor of the machine, I mean the spiritual experiences of cosmic connection we felt we had with our psychedelic experiences and our concomitant interest in all spiritual paths, from Zen to Yoga to Sufism to every possible religious Path you can think of. Outwardly tolerant and idealistic, we had to realize that it wasn’t idealism so much as ideologue-ism that ultimately and in reality controls our national psyche. For us throughout the experimental 60s it was the repression of cool, basically peaceful and exploratory drugs like Mescalin and marijuana, and the support of basically violent and really harmful drugs like alcohol, supported and emblazoned and celebrated and sold like candy to the masses by the powers-that-be and the powers with their vested interests. (It would be interesting to investigate the number of Right-Wing Christian supposedly “moral and moralist” senators and congressmen that support the liquor and cigarette lobbies in Washington, knowing full well the health and murder risks of both.) We’re of course grateful for a country that allows freedom of thought and freedom of religion or no religion, compared with other countries that might actually be based on our spiritual paths of choice though intolerant in other areas, though our hard-won freedoms seem now to be in the process of being intentionally eroded, at the same time we must recognize these freedoms are not without their perils, in the cases of both thought and religion. Being ignored totally if not attacked outright is the antidote to freedom of thought, and in recent years being beaten up or mocked outwardly or covertly watched and investigated is the antidote to freedom of religion.
But what inspires me this Memorial Day, 2005, is the shock and horror I feel when I contemplate our present government, the war it is waging on a country even less able to benefit from it than Vietnam, and the total befuddlement as to how we have let these things take place right under our noses, as if we ourselves are in a “persistent vegetative state,” with little chance of waking up to a full and “normal” life. And if we don’t wake up soon, we might end up like Rip Van Winkle, finding ourselves in a world very uncomfortably fanatic and unable to reason and perceive any kind of compassionate truths about the earth and its environment and the very human and vulnerable, precious and really poignant folk who live on it.
I never thought I’d live to see a President of the United States like Bush, and the support group and advisory pirates and various control henchmen around him, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perl, Cristol, et al. Never! I thought we solved all that! I lived through Reagan, and had no respect for him as President, having been in Berkeley while he was Governor of California, when he sent the National Guard to rout out students by force if necessary who had simply taken over a campus building to redress their grievances, and said, apparently, and on the record, “Well, if it’s going to be a bloodbath, let it begin.” And then it was. He was a ghoul from start to finish, from turning in his fellow actors to a blacklisting all in the name of patriotic morality (the worst kind, I think) to the Contra war in Nicaragua, whose brutality against people yearning for justice and some freedom from a fascist regime, not lily white, but still… was another shock to the system. And he hemmed and hawed his way out of any responsibility or later even a recollection of this one. And when he died he was practically canonized. I couldn’t and still can’t see it. Have I simply gone totally raving mad?
At some point it must be recognized that we are a people who took over land by force from its natural inhabitants, and that the earth under our feet, so nicely paved and full of automobiles, is truly soaked in the blood of its natives. Our push west was brutal, our rounding up and Gulag-ing of our native peoples is an endless shameful blot we seem never able to expiate, nor have any will to do so. And now our imperialist designs against peoples far away (and if you believe some commentators, our need to continue the war by fomenting actual civil strife by being actively behind the bombings of police stations and mosques so we can build our fourteen permanent military bases), only extends this basic element in our collective psyche. We are big and brawny and need to take charge. The worst of us, that is. And our collective psyche seems more and more unreasonable. Republican apologists, for example, like Majority leader Frist, have ventured outside the realm of rational thought as evidenced by their many statements and defenses of actions that more and more resemble the two-dimensional program of fascism. And the Democratic “leaders” seem no better. The Left is Gone, the Right has serious personality disorder, and the masses are drinking their beers and watching football.
Why is this happening again? Even perhaps in a worse form than before? Why are the thinking members of our population not more loudly complaining, demanding removal of the human personifications of such metastasizing cancer, demanding pullouts, justice, truth… leading marches? Why are our people letting things roll over them as if totally comatose? Where’s Allen Ginsberg now that we need him? A fearless and outspoken leader who thinks with the chi of his belly as well as his heart and head? Why don’t I also lead marches and storm senates and get arrested, and demand a stop to the war? Especially as a Muslim! A white American Muslim! I fume and fulminate and my wife agrees, though when I get really graphic about what I’d do to these people in my frustration she asks me to cease, for pity sake. And I never curse them, for the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, cautioned us against curses, which can be deflected back on us. No one wants anyone to go to Hell.
Instead, I pray, I speak, read poems to crowds, counsel peace and spirituality, and a sane belief in a Compassionate and Merciful God, the intelligent Designer, who in no way discounts the material truths of science, even of natural evolution (and though we seem more and more to resemble apes, we don’t believe we “descended” from nor “ascended” from them. I pray for the safety of the innocent victims of our armaments, and our evil scheming. I pray for the wholeness of souls of our people, the rightly-guided and the misguided both. I write my poems and make my collages, and think of eternity. I worry about the younger generation with the reinstatement of the Draft (I marched with Allen Ginsberg and others against the draft board in Oakland in the later 60s and it was closed down). I worry about the intentions of our Republicans and Democrats both, whose greed and villainous ambitions seem to have taken them both over and left them brain-dead. Is it all from fear engendered in that evil but world-transforming figure of doom, Osama ben Laden, who should really have been the Man of the Year, having transformed more institutions of public life in one blow than many men both good or evil over longer periods of time. The sick and evil mage, deliberate misinterpreter of his religion, even as his original demands were actually reasonable, and his intentions made more plain and honest than those of our own government in going to war in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Where do we go from here? Why are our memories so shot? Where is the memorial to the human soul, its transcendent aspirations, its real spiritual goals, its humanity to mankind, its taking action when action is required to bring about real justice in the world? It’s kinder, more compassionate, really heart-centered interpretations of everything from religious dictums to social laws?
And the Dead. What of the Dead? The war victims, our soldiers, men and women, our maimed and wounded living in a shroud of secrecy imposed by our government. What of them? Each one a person. Each child, grandmother, inadvertently and collaterally killed in a bomb-strike that goes awry, each earnest Iraqi policeman who sees it’s the police not soldiers who should bring safety to his country… and each of us, in shock at the world events that are unfolding. Though we should never ever forget that in His Wisdom, and I mean this, in His often inscrutable Wisdom, God has a reason for everything, however seemingly extreme, from wars to tsunamis to our own bodily decay. And knowledge of this is what we should yearn for, wisdom of this should be our heart’s intentions. This is the Eye, the Basira, we should be longing to open. Then that is the landscape of our safety, that visionary place, that Paradise, not this world. That reverberation, that pulse of His Pure Name, that is our true home.
Let me end with a poem written at the beginning of the war. With a prayer for all of us to wake up, look with our hearts, and be saved from God’s displeasure with every breath we take.
ALL THE DEAD CHILDREN
Angels are learning new tricks to entertain all the
just bringing them to a quiet place used to be enough
blue panels sonorous as cool winds rising to
infinite heights and
luminous rivers tasting of fresh milk and
But now they are more restless and want something
lively such as fabulous displays and real
stellar extravaganzas to shut out the memories
All the wingéd horses have been brought in
and every banner from every battle ever waged
transformed into aurora borealis brightness is
planted on either side of the great arena which is
actually nowhere you can put your finger on and may be as
big as a sparkle or light years across
The angels begin conventionally enough and since they’re
anti-gravitational they are capable of some
pretty amazing feats their specialty being a
spinning array of a few billion shimmering their wings and
turning slowly at first in a
cone that goes up through so many dimensions the
children have to stop counting with
each dimension demarcated by another
color no one on earth’s spectrum has
ever seen before
Then the cone begins
turning faster and faster and shoots higher and higher
finally sweeping their astonished souls wide-eyed into a
vortex so swift they barely notice that they’re
arcing across fields of unearthly green and seas of
Each shroud has been made into a tent filled with
fabulous fruits and unidentifiable edibles of
Each soul has been given the Ultimate Glimpse
and the Accurate Portrayal
the Perfect Sustenance and the Infinite Intensity
Each time they clap their hands a new
more fabulous than the last
And when they tire of such delights
William Blake reads to them from his new work
and Mozart comes in and plays them a tune
on a million pianos