Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rest in peace dear brothers...

This week two GIANTS of the American soul died: J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn. Sal linger was 91 and Zinn 87 and both contributed to the contemporary longing for greater authenticity in ways that are still being sorted out. One wrote of the inner journey while the other explored the outer journey in often unknown and revealing ways. Both will be missed...

I recall first reading Salinger in the eighth grade - and like many restless adolescents I found part of my voice in the angst of Holden Caufield. (The rest of that voice found expressions in Dylan, the Beatles, Hendrix and the Doors but that is another story.) And as I was want to do (and still do even to this day) I devoured everything else he had written so that I could get a deep sense of his spirit and soul.

My favorite as a young man - and still today - is Franny and Zooey. Here's a short clip that evokes the heart of the book:

There is evidently one rather terrible hallmark common to all persons who look for God, and apparently with enormous success, in the queerest imaginable places — e.g. in radio announcers, in newspapers, in taxicabs with crooked meters, literally everywhere. (My brother for the record had a distracting habit most of his adult life of investigating loaded ashtrays with his index finger, clearing all the cigarette ends to the sides — smiling from ear to ear as he did it — as if he expected to see Christ himself curled up cherubically in the middle, and he never looked disappointed.) …The hallmark then most commonly identifying this type of person is that he very frequently behaves like a fool, even an imbecile.

For a socially awkward kid who only found a connection with others at church and in my rock band, these words rang true. And 45 years later I think they are still true - albeit in an upside down way. The social foolishness matters less to me now for I want to be a fool for Christ - an absurdest who challenges the status quo in gentle and loving ways - more like the Clown in "Godspell" than the successful entrepreneur.

I have learned a lot from old, weird Salinger and give thanks to God that he had a long life. I don't fully grasp his obsession with seclusion - it doesn't strike me as romantic or Thoreau like - just weird and maybe sad. But like the James Earl Jones character in "Field of Dreams" suggests, it was his own weird journey and really had nothing for me to "get."

Howard Zinn was much more accessible - and stayed more obviously connected to the values he held dear - the quest for integrity in our public life. After fighting fascism in WWII he taught at Spelman College in Atlanta and eventually at Boston University where he remained for 25 years. His magnum opus, A People's History of the United States, was one of the first widely read critical histories of the US. He made the genocide of Columbus clear, he celebrated the brave role of farmers and working people and made certain to call into question the mixed motives of icons like Roosevelt and Lincoln. He wrote:

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.... To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.

If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Springsteen - with Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine - put a lot of Zinn's insights into music. Rest in peace old friends... rest in peace.

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