Yesterday I had a thought
That resounded like a gong.
It vibrated through my bones.
And there was a halo around it.
Overnight it became a story,
A story of how I can still save myself
From being steam-rolled by the status quo.
It was a movie that struck this gong.
The movie was “Till”.
I didn’t have the thought during the film.
While I was watching the film
You couldn’t have passed a sheet of graphene
Between what was playing on the screen
And my attention.
But after the film I just sat there
In my plush chair,
And as the lights came on in the theater
It seemed as if something
Was being asked of me.
It started as questions:
What have I done with my life?
What could I have done with my life.
What was I born to do with my life?
I thought about how subtle it can be
To fall short of our dreams.
You can’t expect somebody else to know
How you are doing
Relative to your original instructions.
My story: I was lucky because I remember
Liking who I was when I was a kid.
I liked my life in the country.
Not just my life but Life.
Things seemed to following a good plan
That made sense to me.
I liked playing outside, having adventures.
School wasn’t bad either;
I liked my teachers.
But the best part was,
Nature was an extension of my mother’s house.
When I went outdoors I was still at home.
So the idea of ecology,
Which introduced the idea of systems
Nesting within systems,
Made total sense to me.
I never saw the wasps who stung me as “bad”.
I didn’t see things in terms of good or bad,
And because of that early feeling
Of being at home in nature,
And nature being just fine the way it was,
As I matured,
I was also at home with my own nature.
At least for the first decade of my life
I felt like an extension of nature.
But I thought of nature as innocent.
It was humans that threw me off.
Humans could be “bad” or “good”.
They were not innocent.
I was not innocent.
As a teenager, even as an adolescent,
I made some really bad choices,
And the choices I made
Began to alienate me from nature,
As well as from myself.
An example is how, at the age of 8 or 9
I was playing in a gravel pit near our neighborhood
When I spotted a scarlet king snake*.
I knew enough about snakes to mistake
This banded king snake for a coral snake.
I, heroically, killed it
And brought its limp body home
To show my mother.
I felt like I was protecting the neighborhood.
I’m sure my soul
Wasn’t very happy about that.
Being an introvert,
Even as I became aware of my inner self,
I felt alone with my humanness.
When I was in nature,
For the most part
I didn’t feel like an introvert.
I was just myself,
But when I was with other people
I felt different.
I wasn’t comfortable with my own humanness.
As I navigated further and further
Into the human universe
I felt like I was losing parts of myself,
Leaving parts of myself behind
In order to side with humanity.
What am I saying?
That I wasn’t all human to begin with?
Well, isn’t that what “being one with nature” means?
That human nature can merge with nature
Without drawing a solid line
Between being human and being non-human . . .?
Let me go back to how
It happened, very early on,
That I discovered how some people are “bad”.
I think it was around 9 or 10,
A few years after I killed the king snake,
(around 1960) that I became aware of the scale
Of the bombing of Hiroshima.
(The horrors of the Holocaust
And the horror of the Nazi extermination camps
Was too awful for me to take in at that age,
And the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allied forces
Was something I learned about much later.)
But Hiroshima was one bomb, one act,
One monstrouscataclysmicbarbariccold-bloodedgenicidal act.
It violated something in me.
It messed with me.
It got into my dreams.
It stole my innocence.
It made me feel ashamed to be a human being.
And I was mostly alone with it.
No one took it upon themselves
To explain to me
How such a thing could happen.
It took me a few more years
To realize I was a pacifist,
And a while longer to realize
That there weren’t that many of us.
But once I realized that,
I started getting my priorities straight.
In 1969 I wrote my manifesto,
“Man behind the Waterfall”.
I became a warrior for peace.
I decided to “breathe my own air.”
How can we breathe our own air?
For me that meant getting myself back into the country
Where I didn’t feel different.
There, air was cleaner.
Owning my pacifism,
Something in me began to wake up.
Back to “Till”:
After watching Till I had the thought –
If I had been born Black in the fifties,
Evil would have had a different face.
It would have the face of a southern white man.
(My mother’s father and two of my uncles
On my mother’s side,
Were southern white men.)
But evil to me
Looked like a man in a military uniform
With the power to order missile strikes
And bomber strikes and napalm strikes.
Or it looked like a man in the civilian corporate uniform,
White shirt, dark suit and tie,
With the power to launch a nuclear strike.
Evil could be a man of any color,
But my imagination profiled him as white,
Because Truman was white,
Who famously remarked,
After witnessing the Trinity test in New Mexico,
(quoting the Bhagavad Gita),
“Now I am become Death,
The destroyer of worlds.”
As I aged it became apparent
That loving nature and loving life
Was a popular philosophy
But when it came to turning love into action
And into making change,
There weren’t too many examples
Of people who were doing that.
The status quo was like a steam roller.
It is said that Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux
Coined the phrase
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
This was over a thousand years ago.
That road is a lot closer to dropping us into hell
Then it was back in the year 1,100.
I don’t draw a line between
The world view that spawned and unleashed
The nuclear bomb
That wiped out two cities in Japan,
And the world view that sent millions of Jews
To extermination camps
Or the world view that concocted napalm,
A caustic gell that they dumped
On people, farms and forests in Vietnam.
Evil is Evil.
But let me get back to my story:
When I moved to Vermont
I experienced a protracted soul retrieval.
Little by little
My soul returned to me.
Vermont forest found its own way
Into my heart and into my blood
And I began to remember
My original instructions:
It doesn’t matter what we believe in
If it never manifests.
What I started out saying is,
“Till” reawakened something in me
Like the striking of a gong:
That if we don’t manifest our good intentions
We shrink a little every day.
Our souls withdraw,
And eventually we experience soul-loss.
When Emmett Till’s mother realized she
Had to let him travel to Mississippi,
That his mind was made up,
That she couldn’t stop him,
Her advice to him was,
“Make yourself small”.
In other words, Don’t stand out,
Don’t speak loudly,
I think a lot of us have lived like that
Without realizing it.
We have traded our original instructions
For living in a world that is steamrolling nature
To finish the road to hell.
It was hard to watch Till
But I’m glad I did.
What are your original instructions?
I will end by repeating mine:
* A scarlet king snake is not native to New England but that is what I saw and killed. Apparently the scarlet king snake has been evolving to look more and more like a coral snake over the years.
Plot of Till (Wikipedia):
Mamie Till became an educator and activist in the Civil Rights Movement after the lynching of her 14-year-old son, Emmett, who, in 1955, was beaten severely and shot dead, then thrown into the Talahachee river with a 75-lb cotton gin fan tied around his neck using barbwired fencing. This atrocity was perpetrated by white supremicists for his alleged whistling at a white woman while visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi. Mamie Till insisted that the casket containing her son’s batterede body be left open to let the world see what Southern racists they had done to him. Emmett Till’s murder is heard, but not shown in the film. The view of the mutilated body in the coffin is angled so as to be discrete but revealing at the same time.