This week, Haymarket Books has been advertising a discussion about Eddie Glaude, Jr.’s new book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for our Own. The conversation was between Glaude and Cornel West and by every Twitter account, it was a terrific one. I’m sure I’ll listen and watch it very soon.
First, I’m going to muse about the title — Begin Again — and marvel at the universe’s synchronicities, especially between the outer world and the inner world, the solar system and my own life, the political and the personal. Everything on July 4, 2020 is screaming Begin Again!
REVERSING DIRECTION #1: Anno’s U.S.A.
Nowhere was this congruency more graphically displayed as when I pulled out some favorite children’s picture books for bedtime reading and opened up Anno’s U.S.A. Fans of Mitsumasa Anno know the gist of his wordless “journey” books. On the first page, we watch a solitary traveler entering the edge of a geography — Britain, U.S., Italy, Medieval World — and on the last page, we watch him leaving that place, having experienced towns, cities, farms, mills, parks, and parades — all the human cultures built on that particular geography.
Most books about travel in the U.S. start from the east. But Anno himself, being Japanese, first visited the U.S. from the west. And so his book, Anno’s U.S.A., starts with a rowboat in the Pacific Ocean nearing the untamed west coast. Off in the distance, at the top, are images of Alaska. Down at the bottom, the solitary boater will soon be passing Hawaii.
On the second 2-page spread, we see the traveler procuring a horse at a wild west fishing village and seeking directions. In the distance is a totem pole, a bear standing on hind legs, and faint images of the San Francisco skyscrapers and bridges of the future.
Through 21 double-page spreads, we travel towards the east — past pueblos, Utah canyonlands, the last stop on the first cross-country railroad, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, and Boston. In the first few pages, we meet small groups of Native Americans traveling west, having been forced from their lands in the east. Are we unraveling manifest destiny? Are we reversing the colonization and genocide of indigenous lands and peoples? All along the way are patriotic symbols of the U.S. — different versions of the flag, the Liberty Bell, fife & drum corps, the hustle & bustle of mercantile ports, tobacco, cotton, and tree-felling.
The second-to-last spread shows the horseman arriving at a narrow Atlantic inlet where an anchored sailing ship is flying the British flag (the Mayflower, according to Anno’s notes). The small Pilgrim village looks prosperous — numerous buildings, cords of stacked firewood, large bottles of hard cider or whiskey for sale, a patch of big orange pumpkins. Indigenous peoples are also present, playing out the story of helping the Pilgrims live on this new land.
We know that the traveler is about to end his journey, to dismount from his horse and get back into a rowboat. We turn the page. The man in the rowboat is already well into the Atlantic Ocean. Native Americans are waving goodbye from the seaside cliff.
And on the horizon is the Santa Maria, the flagship of Columbus’s small fleet. Can we begin again? Are we about to do a course correction?
The story seems to say that if we want to start again, we have to go back to the starting point.
REVERSING DIRECTION #2: This Land is your Land
A Tulsa, Oklahoma sports program announced recently that, instead of playing the Star Spangled Banner before each game, they will now play This Land is your Land. Is it partly to honor native son Woody Guthrie? Would they have chosen that song anyway — “this land was made for you and me” — as a good replacement for “bombs bursting in air”?
The map image in the song is also from west to east — “from California to the New York island”. Was that just a lyricist’s necessity or prerogative? Or is there some mystical resonance to the moment? Did Woody Guthrie know that we would have to begin again, looking back at what we had wrought?
REPEAT, RETROGRADE, WALKING BACKWARDS, AND OTHER MOMENTS OF RESET: Celestial Mechanics & Body Moves
SUN SIGN ARIES
I have an uncertain relationship with astrology. Without going into details, suffice it to say that I have gained enough insights over the years that I don’t discount astrology as a predictor of energy changes and, whenever the celestial mechanics part seems weird, I often find inspiration in a given astrologer’s language.
I seem to be a prototypical Aries. I like to start things. But my experience in life is that most people like to start things, to begin new projects, even those whose sun sign is not the Ram.
More relevant to the idea of beginning again and perhaps very relevant to the sign of the Ram, I have discovered that I am passionate about starting over when things aren’t going right the first time—or second time, or third. I am very good at letting go completely, when it’s clear that some course of action is not productive. But if it’s a course that I’ve committed to and still seems right, I have no problem saying “da capo” and starting from the beginning. I could compete with Elizabeth Warren on persistence any day.
And just in case my ram-like persistence might be lacking at a given moment, I have two movement metaphors that provide congruent energy if I need it. One is a dance movement that I have been carrying since 1972. The other is a tai chi movement that I learned about 20 years ago.
BHARATA NATYAM — a dance reset
1972 was another big date in U.S. politics — Watergate and the presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm. But I had just left Washington, D.C. after four years of college and was traveling in India, where I stayed in Madras for four months.
A young woman was giving a major dance recital in her chosen art—bharata natyam, the classical dance of India. In a university auditorium in Madras, I watched enthralled at the skill, the music, the rhythm. One dance especially I will never forget, although I learned later that the structure of the dance is very common in Indian dance. Basically, the dance was a theme and variations. The part that I loved and still love is the “reset” between each variation. The reset involved the dancer dancing backwards, towards the back of the stage and getting ready for the next variation, usually more intense, complicated, and breathtaking than the one before. Probably there is a musical or dance term for that reset interlude. The build-up of new energy between each variation is, in itself, breathtaking for me. Let’s try again.
Let’s try again, especially now that we know the music, the steps, the facts.
TAI CHI “Repulse the Monkey”
I only took tai chi for one year, so I have no knowledge of the theory or understanding of the movements’ names. To me, Repulse the Monkey was great fun because it felt like doing the swimming backstroke while walking. And, unlike, most other tai chi movements — which were not repetitive — Repulse the Monkey could be done from one end of a gym to the other, over and over. There is something about walking backwards that is partly silly, partly a letting go of intention. Adding the backstroke arm motions just makes it even sillier, fun, and more freeing. A different kind of reset.
RETROGRADE PLANETS & LUNAR ECLIPSE
Astrologically speaking, it’s been no surprise to me that there have been six planets retrograde at once this year, in 2020, Nor is it any surprise that today, July 4, 2020, we’re in the middle of the Mercury retrograde cycle. June 30-July 1 was the “reset” moment of Mercury’s cycle. Energetically speaking, I feel as if I have been walking backwards for the last few weeks. I still have my eyes on the prize, but I’m having to review my original path and consider alternatives to my exact choices: Maybe that left turn wasn’t the right way, maybe I should have gone north, maybe I shouldn’t have gone so fast. The places and moments for alternatives are being exposed. To me and to the nation.
Nor am I surprised to note that today is the month’s full moon and that it is the final eclipse of the year. Whatever the problems with the founding of the U.S .— and there are many — July 4th seems to be an incredibly powerful date. Remember that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4th, in the very same year, within hours of each other? Whatever we may think about Thomas Jefferson (slave owner, land grabber) and John Adams (inveterate masculinist), they did something globally meaningful on July 4, 1776, that still resonates today.
BEGINNING AGAIN — How?
If it wasn’t already clear to most humans on earth by Jan. 20, 2017 that much of our “civilization” needed to be dismantled because of the central and foundational rot, many more people got their eyes opened up by the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. It’s also clear that, though some of us are trying to do the dismantling consciously and with care (to minimize collateral damage), there are still plenty of humans who are okay with the human project falling down around them, beneath them, and over them.
There are also some of us who have had some foresight on various fronts to anticipate this moment, to prepare themselves personally and to also begin drawing the new blueprints — even though we don’t yet know what we will actually rebuild, what kind of materials will be available, or who will be left to rebuild.
We do know one thing for sure: that the rebuild process will have to include every living being, including non-humans.
With that as my guiding light and non-negotiable, in 2015, I had a glimmer of how we might actually begin the rebuilding process. I instinctively knew that the U.S. had to go first, not because we’re the exceptional nation that we think we are, but because we’re the epitome of contradiction and the cause of global misery. Every value, tradition, and institution of U.S. culture was up for grabs — ripe for re-examination with some were way past ripe for the compost pile.
I also knew that it needed to be a national conversation. At least I would only be satisfied by a national conversation.
But it wasn’t until I read details about the Haudenosaunee League—the model for the federation of U.S. states—that I saw the real possibility of a national discussion. I thought I had found the hook—reclaiming our sanity by comparing the Great Law of Peace (the Haudenosaunee constitution) and the U.S. Constitution through a year-long national book club. The book club was to be action-oriented and end in proposals for Constitutional amendments and, hopefully, Constitutional conventions in every state.
The primary source for the Great Law of Peace would be the book that had restored my own sanity and belief in popular democracy — Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas, by Barbara Alice Mann (professor of humanities, University of Toledo). Prof. Mann is a Native scholar who writes from the perspective of a non-Christian, a mature woman, an east-of-the-Mississippi Indian who clearly has had access to oral traditions that most scholars of the Great Law have not had. So I started blogging about my book club idea and gathering notes for a hopeful eventuality.
In 2018, I thought I had found the moment for the hook. We had been in a constitutional crisis since January 20, 2017—the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as president—and many people recognized it as such. Unfortunately, not enough people had recognized it as such — especially not enough media. I don’t remember what was happening around September 2018, but it prompted me to write a blog that I hoped would give traction to my idea, In Case of Constitutional Crisis…Start here: The Great Law of Peace. It didn’t, but it gave me a seed that I could plant and keep nurturing, through continuous Tweeting, continuous updating, and continuous learning on my part. I still share that post frequently, while also sharing and learning about various components of that post—structures in the Great Law itself, current Native American resources, etc.
In May 2019, I came across another possible hook that also seemed very timely: the independent candidacy of Mark Charles for U.S. president. His announcement video contained a suggestion and commitment to a national “truth and conciliation commission on race, gender, and class”. He has a very succinct way of speaking and is a strategic thinker, a preacher by training. I hoped that his campaign would gain traction, if only for the platform — that other candidates could then adopt because it would seem like a no-brainer.
As of July 4, 2020, it’s looking like a U.S. truth commission might be the no-brainer that everyone recognizes as such. But maybe not in Charles’s original formulation. On July 2, 2020, an article of mine was published by Dear Evanston, a local news outlet covering anti-racist news: Are truth, racial healing and transformation in this country’s future? The article is primarily about U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee’s new resolution in Congress to create a Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. I also briefly described Mark Charles’s proposal as well as Jamaal Bowman’s platform for a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Whether it helped him win his primary in NY16, he’s now likely to become the next Congressman from that district, which makes him accountable to his platform.
Meanwhile, within hours after my article was posted, I came across some real-live Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commissions being organized by three large U.S. cities — Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco — under the auspices of their District Attorney offices. While there are some red flags about these commissions, working as a single project with a particular non-profit, they might be the right pilot projects for moving towards a national commission.
LEAPFROG to ???
Or, as the universe has been prone to do lately, we might just leapfrog right over that necessity, to a rewrite of the U.S. Constitution, Mark Charles himself has come up with a great suggestion for starting that process: “Remove the racism, sexism, and white supremacy in the U.S. Constitution” by some quick and simple editing. See his First 100 Days Plan. The brilliance of that plan is that every U.S. voter alive would have the opportunity to ratify the entire Constitution — something that has never happened since the first ratification in 1789.
Or, maybe we’ll leapfrog to a new United Nations?
Maybe a Green New Deal in every country ?
In a recent NPR interview of author James McBride, host Sam Sanders asked McBride: “What’s the last miracle you’ve seen?” McBride warned, “There’s a second wave coming to this pandemic.” But, he said, “We are becoming more and more resilient and more and more clever about understanding what is happening to us mentally. We’re getting quicker on the draw. We understand now that the language of politics and religion have become entwined and made into a kind of a baseball bat that knocked us over the head and dropped us to our knees. We can’t be hit like that again.
“There’s a second wave. That second wave of understanding is descending on us as a population We’re starting to come into a new consciousness.”
We might just leapfrog to Dr. Seuss’s model of a truth and reconciliation commission, his magical solution for getting rid of the massive climate crisis in the Kingdom of Didd. The crisis in the classic children’s book, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, had been caused by the King himself wishing for something new & different to come down from the sky—something different from rain, fog, snow, and sunshine. When that something turned out to be a green, sticky substance called oobleck, which stuck to everything and crashed through windows, doors, and throne rooms, the King was moved to tears: “You’re right, [Bartholomew Cubbins]! It is all my fault. And I am sorry. Oh, Bartholomew, I’m awfully, awfully sorry.”
Maybe there is something magic in those simple words, “I’m sorry. It is my fault.” But as soon as the King spoke them, they say that “all the oobleck that was stuck on all the people and on all the animals of the Kingdom of Didd just simply, quietly melted away.”
Let the record show, however, that it was not until Bartholomew Cubbins threatened to strike — to walk out of the throne room, leaving the King dripping in oobleck with “the seat of his royal pants…stuck to his royal throne” — that the King started crying and called out, “Come back Bartholomew Cubbins! You’re right! It is all my fault. And I am sorry!…I’m awfully, awfully sorry.”
Let the record also show that it was a supermajority strike—a supermajority of one–and that all that was needed was a heartfelt, existential apology.
P.S. A side note to the politics of 1972: Since I knew I would be out of the country for the general election, I applied for an absentee ballot, to be sent to the U.S. Embassy in Madras. I never received it. Hence I never voted in 1972. I don’t know what to make of that spiritually. It may mean nothing. On the other hand, the universe might owe me something.