Sunday Sermon [The Long Farewell]

Hola mi gente,
In Western culture we tend to live our lives as if death doesn’t exist…

Lost Horizon

12-08-16_-lost-horizon-grief

A teacher once taught me the following lesson…

In the days before airplane travel became common, people traveled long distances on huge, ocean-going passenger ships. When a ship was about to cast off, the passengers would line the ship’s deck facing the pier, on which their friends and family stood. As the ship’s horn sounded its departure, travelers and their assembled loved ones would wave to one another. They would wave, blow kisses, and shout out their farewells and good wishes.

After a while, the ship would be too far away to distinguish who was who in that great mass of passengers, but they still waved and gazed. A few minutes later, they would remain on the pier looking at the slowly disappearing ship.

Eventually, the ship would reach the horizon and disappear completely. Yet, even though those assembled on shore could not see their loved ones anymore, let alone speak with or touch them, they knew they had not disappeared totally. They had just passed over a defining line — the horizon — that separates us from what is beyond. They knew that they would see them again.

This can be a metaphor for what happens when those close to us pass on. If we are lucky, we can be by their side as they transition, embracing them and saying our last goodbyes. They go off into that ocean journey that is death. They fade away from us. Eventually they reach the horizon, the defining line that separates this life from what lies beyond. After they have passed that line, we cannot see them anymore, let alone speak with them or touch them, but we know they have not totally disappeared. They have only passed over a line that separates us from our reality.

That lesson had a profound effect on me. I have come to believe that our lives are like a grand symphony and when a symphony is done do we lament its ending, or do we applaud its grandness? I have learned that those we love only cease to exist once our memory of them fades. In this way, those close to us who have transitioned live on as the reverberations of their actions continue to affect our lives.

So, yes, acknowledge the pain of loss because that too is real and must be honored. Remember, however, that the well that is filled with your tears is also the same well from which your laughter and joy rises.

And how else can it be?

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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The Hiroshima Maidens

Hola everybody,
Today is the 73rd anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, Japan, the United States dropped the first of two nuclear bombs, becoming the only country to use a nuclear weapon on civilians. In early 2016, this incident garnered some interest as President Obama, the first US president to visit Hiroshima since the bombing, called for nuclear disarmament. Despite his call for an end to nuclear weapons, his administration had been quietly upgrading its nuclear arsenal to create smaller, more precise nuclear bombs as part of a massive effort that will cost up to $1 trillion over three decades. The Trump administration has taken this foundation as its approach to international relations and has completely dismissed nuclear treaties.

I first came to know the truth about Hiroshima and Nagasaki when I returned to school and discovered the Hiroshima Maidens…

The Hiroshima Maidens

05-30-16_ Hiroshima Maidens (MAD)

The Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil/ Hiroshima Maidens, 60″x80″, oil on canvass/ wood, 20031

 

The Hiroshima Maidens was a group of twenty-five Japanese women who were horribly disfigured as young women as a result of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. They dedicated their lives to telling the story of the Hiroshima bombings and the horror of nuclear war.

My curiosity piqued after listening to their talk while I was in college, I investigated further and what I discovered was not pretty. The accepted rationale for Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been that if the atomic bomb had not been used, the war would have continued and more lives would have been lost. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many nations have tested nuclear weapons, but only one has ever used them. That nation, of course, is the United States; the bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 incinerated more than 100,000 residents and left perhaps twice that number dying slowly from radiation poisoning. However, politicians at the time and conventional historians still maintain that those acts were justified. Short of a full-scale invasion of Japan, its leaders would not have been convinced to surrender, and that, the reasoning goes, would have resulted in an even higher death toll.

How many lives would have been lost in such an invasion is not clear. While President Truman threw around figures from 500,000 to one million, at least one historian wrote that the figures the military planners projected put the number at between 20,000 to 46,000. However, the disturbing issue here is not the discrepancy in numbers, but the fact that neither an invasion nor a nuclear attack was necessary to make Japan surrender.

By June of 1945, whole-scale bombing of Japan’s six largest cities had substantially wiped out Japan’s infrastructure and countless lives. In March of that year, as many as one million Tokyo residents were left homeless from the bombing raids. No oil shipments were getting into the country, which was utterly dependent on foreign oil, and by late that July, 90 percent of Japanese merchant shipping was destroyed.

While it is true that some Japanese factions were resisting the notion of surrender, the leaders in charge were on the verge of calling it quits. The only point deterring surrender was the Japanese concern that the emperor be allowed to maintain his title. The US forces, of course, eventually accepted this condition.

A US government report issued in 1946 concluded that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs did not cause a Japanese surrender. The report cited documentation that as early as May 1945, Japanese leaders had decided that the war be ended even if it meant complete acceptance of Allied terms. The document cites the conclusion that Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped and even if no invasion had been planned or completed.

Another 1946 document, a recently discovered secret intelligence study by the army’s top planning and operations group, came to the same conclusion: an invasion “would not have been necessary” and the A-bomb was not decisive in ending the war.

This view wasn’t some radical lefty bullshit; key military leaders echoed it. “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender… In being the first to use [the atomic bomb] we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages,” said William D. Leahy, who was the president’s Chief of Staff and the nation’s senior military officer. The same opinion was offered by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. As you can see, these were conservative people. Indeed, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, went public with this statement: “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace… The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.”

This isn’t hindsight as these assessments were known by US policy makers before they chose to drop the bombs. In fact, in July, American intelligence had intercepted a cable from Japanese foreign Minister Shigenori Togo to his ambassador in Moscow that referred to “His Majesty’s strong desire to secure a termination of the war… ”

There was no attempt on behalf of the Truman administration to demand surrender. No show of power by, say, dropping the bomb on an unpopulated island. There was no careful consideration. This wasn’t the act of last resort. So, if there was no true imperative to drop the bombs then why?

There are several theories, but the one I adhere to is that the US was about enter an unprecedented position of leadership in most of the post-war world and a demonstration of nuclear might was intended more for the Soviets than anything else. It was a show of power to the Soviets, a nation the US military feared. In fact, that the second bomb was made from plutonium, and not uranium as the first one, suggests that the Japanese people were the subject of a gruesome scientific experiment. The bombs were more of an opening shot in a Cold War predicated on the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD)2 that would last for decades.

I write all this because we should never forget. We all should know all those innocent men, women, and children didn’t need to die, as those in power would have us believe.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Notes:

  1. The central image of this painting is a representation of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The side panels were taken from displays in the Hiroshima Peace Museum showing the aftermath of the nuclear bombing of that city.
  2. Mutually assured destruction based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons.

Resources

Alperovitz, G. (1995) The decision to use the atomic bomb and the architecture of an American myth. (New York: Knopf) [link]

Zinn, H. (1991). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present. New York: Perennial Classics. [link]

Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong New York: Touchstone Books. [link]

 

Affirmative Action is White

Hola Everybody…
I wrote the bulk of the following a couple of years ago. I revisit it in light of the college entrance exam “scandal” that recently came up. Hint: it’s not a scandal, it’s how things have been for centuries.

The Curious History of Race Preferences

Affiramtive Action

Their leaders seem more intent on vying with blacks for permanent victim status than on seeking recognition for genuine progress by Hispanics over the last three decades.
— Linda Chavez on Latinx people

 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you no doubt have heard of the college admissions scandal that laid bare the elaborate lengths some wealthy parents will go to get their children into competitive American universities. In fact, federal prosecutors charged 50 financial elites on Tuesday in a brazen scheme to buy spots in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford, and other big-name schools. In one instance, a teenage girl who did not play soccer mysteriously became a stellar soccer recruit at Yale. Cost to her parents: $1.2 million. All this reminds me of the decades-long anti-affirmative action attacks against affirmative action. Conservatives would have us think that Blacks, Latinx, and other people of color, are looking for handouts and preferential treatment. Ironically, it is they who have benefited professionally and financially by trading on their own white privilege.

Remember Abigail Fisher (aka Becky with the bad grades)? Using this same line of attack, Fisher1 filed suit against a Texas university which was eventually heard by a SCOTUS that ruled against her. Conservatives claim that segregation was defeated and white racism almost completely eradicated after Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Her defenders go as far as saying that it has been liberals that have derailed civil rights progress. I call those who deny the quantifiable reality of racism racial conservatives.

You might know of Linda Chavez. She once testified against Supreme Court Judge Sotomayor (who is of Puerto Rican descent) during Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. Chavez has a particular dislike for Latinx in general and specifically for Puerto Ricans, but I will not explore that today. What you might not remember is that Chavez had to step down as a nominee for Labor of Secretary under the catastrophe known as the Bush II administration because, yes, she hired an undocumented Latina immigrant. She denied knowing said individual was here illegally though the person in question contradicted that denial. Later, Chavez herself would issue an admission of sorts and forced by her boss, Bush II, to step down.

It is interesting to note in light of this more recent “scandal” that racial conservatives would have us believe the United States has made more progress in removing racial barriers than liberals will acknowledge. The shift began, they argue, during the 1950s. And when the Civil Rights movement succeeded in abolishing Jim Crow, white racism had all but withered away. As a result, at least according to Chavez and her masters, affirmative action programs are unnecessary and in fact are a form of “reverse racism.”

Ironically, the current debate over race-based solutions assumes that the only beneficiaries of these policies are blacks and other racial minorities. In fact, the biggest affirmative action winners are white women. However, if we define affirmative action as “race and gender preferences codified into law and enforced through public policy and social customs,” then it is indeed strange and peculiar to suggest that affirmative action began when in 1963 President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925. Taking the above definition, often cited by opponents of affirmative action such as those who supported Fisher, it would be more accurate to mark the beginning date for this legal policy as 1641. That is when laws specifying rights to property, ownership of goods and services, and the right to vote, restricted by race and gender, were first enacted. In 1790, Congress formally restricted citizenship by naturalization to “white persons,” a restriction that would stay in place until 1952.

Understood in this way, affirmative action has been in effect for 367 years, not 40+ years. For the first 330 years, the deck was legally stacked on behalf of whites and males (Fredrickson, 1988). Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in Dred Scot, didn’t mince his words when he said: “Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported to this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community, formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all rights, and privileges, and immunities guaranteed by that instrument?” Justice Taney’s answer to his own question leaves no doubt. We the people, he stated, was never intended to include blacks, slave or free. The authority cited by Taney in his ruling? The Constitution, the courts at every level, the federal government, and the states — all having routinely denied blacks equal access to rights of citizenship (Harding, 1983).

It follows, then, that from the inception of the United States, wealth and institutional support have been invested on the white side of the color line. This preference, in turn, has led to an accumulation of economic and social advantages for European Americans. On the black side, it has resulted in the systemic exclusion of equal access to economic and social benefits, leading to a disaccumulation for blacks. When Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 in 1963, he was simply attempting to pry open the doors that had been sealed shut for more than three centuries. Now, after only four decades of “racial and gender preferences,” racial conservatives have launched a largely successful attack against affirmative action programs that were instituted to reverse three hundred years of disinvestment in black communities. Yet when power and wealth were being invested on their side of the color line, white Americans registered hardly any opposition to the arrangement, nor do racial conservatives acknowledge this historical fact (Steinberg, 1995).

As some have noted, the real victims in this case are the hardworking students who don’t have the financial resources and normally attend sub-par schools who were displaced in the admissions process by far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in.

I will add that if you’re angry about the college cheating scandal, wait until you discover that public school budgets are determined by local property taxes and that the privileged cordon themselves off into “gated communities” in order to hoard resources from poor communities of who are inflicted with the savage inequality of subpar schools and predatory charters.

We don’t have to go back three hundred years to find the roots of current white privilege. We can look at more recent policies that have been instrumental to racial inequality. But that’s for another post…

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

References

Fredrickson, G. (1988). The arrogance of race. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Harding, V. (1983). There is a river: The black struggle for freedom in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Steinberg, S. (1995). Turning back: The retreat from racial justice in American thought and policy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Notes:

  1. Though Fisher claimed she didn’t get in the school because African-American students with lower grades and test scores were admitted, her mediocre grades would have disallowed her from being admitted either way. Of the 47 students that were admitted with grades lower than hers, 42 of them were white. On top of that, 168 black and Latino applicants who had better grades than Fisher were also turned down, according to ProPublica.

Noche Buena

Hola mi gente,

The following is fiction. It is based on actual events and is the foundation for one of the stories in my book of short stories I’ll never finish tentatively titled Ataques de Nervios (Nervous Attacks) or Stories from 704 E. 5th St. (or some shit like that). However, I have taken huge liberties with parts of the story, the characters, and time line.

12-26-16_-what-really-matters-noche-buena

Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.
— H.G. Wells, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman

 

It is a horribly cold, frigid night. It’s so cold she can’t feel her feet. She’s wearing slippers in the unyielding heart of a raging Nor’easter. She’s afraid and her threadbare coat barely protects her from the 40-50 mile per hour winds. It’s the night before Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) and she’s alone, keeping vigil in a niche across a home in the white section of lower Manhattan, but she’s here because her kids are in need… there’s no one around and she despairs. Her hands are numb from the cold and her feet ache.

It seemed as if it were hours ago when ‘Galo left with Gangster with instructions that if she saw anyone, she should whistle. In actuality, only minutes have passed. Now she wonders if she can whistle, her face is frozen, and they’ve been gone so long. What if the police come? she thinks to herself.

Finally, they come rushing out the building with stuffed pillowcases and as she starts to run with them she falls, she can’t feel her toes. Gangster and ‘Galo pick her up and they make their way hurriedly back to the Puerto Rican section of the Lower East Side, which takes too long and she’s crying, she’s in agony.

‘Galo stops to look at her feet and mutters, “Shit!” under his breath.

They hurry home.

They finally get home and by then, she’s crying in agony. ‘Galo takes off her slippers and thinks she has frostbite. She weeps, but tries to stifle her cries, fearful she’ll awaken the children. Unbeknownst to them, her oldest son, all of five-years-old, watches through a crack in the bedroom doorway. He’s afraid.

They call ‘Galo’s sister, who takes one look at the stuffed pillowcases and looks down at the young mother, as if noting her lack of moral standing. What kind of mother are you? Her looks seems to say. ‘Galo asks her to look at her feet and the she says it’s not frostbite, but that she should go to the emergency room anyway. The young mother refuses, afraid. Afraid of the consequences of the act she has been an accomplice to and afraid of what they may say about her toes that throb with a dull pain now.

They give ‘Galo’s sister a gold watch from the stolen loot, and she’s delighted. It’s an expensive watch, very pretty. She gives the young mother another look of condemnation and admonishes her for behaving in such an un-Christian manner. The young mother says nothing and thanks her for looking after the children.

That Christmas was a good Christmas, or at least the children thought so. There was food, there were gifts under the tree, and the young mother seemed so happy though her children asked when they noticed that she limped when she walked. She had a brand new pair of boots, the only concession she made for herself. Her oldest child will always remember the James Bond attaché case, complete with gadgets that even shot rubber bullets if you pressed a hidden button. He also got a chemistry set that he used for hours upon hours… She made sure her children got their gifts before ‘Galo and Gangster would leave with the bulk of the loot, returning only when the money was spent on drugs. She didn’t even get herself a decent coat. However, her children got warm coats, gloves, scarves, and thermal underwear.

Her son never knew why she was crying that wintry night all those years ago. He thought they were fighting. But he was not surprised at her sacrifice — the choices she made so that she could make sure her children were happy and had what they needed. Somehow she always made it right, even if it meant compromising her values or her reputation. She didn’t care, only her children mattered. Still, she was ashamed and part of the reason why her children had perfect posture is because she taught them to walk tall, with their heads held high. It was the last bastion against the shame — that she made certain her children would walk proudly.

Most importantly, she taught them what really matters.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Tags: Christmas, Holidays, Creative Nonfiction, Stories, Memoirs, Motherhood, Sacrifice, Moral Indignation

 

A Nuyorican Christmas Story

Hola Everybody…
This post is an annual tradition here at the [un]Common Sense blog…

During the 60s & 70s a Puerto Rican identity movement1 encompassing music, literature, and the arts in general was born. Salsa wasn’t merely a musical genre, it was, in the words of Panamanian Salsa musician/ activist, Ruben Blades, an “urban folklore” that ignited throughout barrios all over the world (and in far off places such as Australia, Japan, and Germany, for example). The term “Salsa!” was layered with meaning and was the Latinx equivalent of the African-American “Right on!”

Young Latinx, mostly New Yorkers of Puerto Rican of the Puerto Rican diaspora, instead of breaking away from their roots in rebellion, embraced them and built a movement on that foundation. Instead of feeling shame for who we were and where we came from (as we were taught in schools and by the dominant culture), we took the multi-layered cultural and physical manifestations of what it meant to be a Puerto Rican and used that nexus as a rallying point for cultural pride.

One of the most popular albums at the time, was Willie Colon’s reinterpretation of traditional Puerto Rican holiday music, Asalto Navidad, and the cover featured Willie Colon and the iconic singer, Hector Lavoe, stealing from a Christmas tree (yes PRs have a sense of humor). Any PR worth his salt had a copy of this album and it was played during the holidays for decades later. Every time I hear this music, I am filled (as I’m sure many from the Puerto Rican diaspora are) with the holiday spirit. It was a time of little in terms of material possessions but rich in the things that matter most: family, friendship, and community.

The following is a story from that time…

12-23-16_-nuyorican-christmas-story

The Rosarios, circa late 60s – early 70s

In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. — Albert Camus

It was a time of change and turmoil: the Vietnam War raged and it seemed as if all the institutions we took for granted — marriage and gender roles, civil rights, the meaning of freedom — were being challenged and re-envisioned. The strategies used by African-Americans and Latinx in the struggle for human rights were being co-opted by a wide range of groups: women and the burgeoning LGBTQ movement were marching for their rights, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was forming, and states of consciousness were being explored. In short, it was a time of change and the times, as a song of the era said, were a’changin’.

It was a year I would never forget. I was about sixteen, in the process of reading every “great book” ever written, helping put out a high school underground newspaper. we were young and full of life. We had many friends and our home was the center of activities for our vast network of friends and family.

This particular year, however, was a difficult one for my family: our stepfather was arrested on a trumped up charge after a scuffle with an abusive police officer and sentenced to a year in jail (police brutality ain’t new, folks). He was our breadwinner and that meant that our main source of income was gone. Compounding our financial difficulties was our mother’s pregnancy, she would eventually give birth to our youngest brother, Vincent, the following June.

As the oldest child, I had always felt a profound and conflicted sense of protection toward my mother and siblings. I had to grow up fast because it was expected of me to be more than a big brother; I had to be a power of example for my younger siblings. To be honest, I resented that responsibility. But a part of me felt I should be doing something to contribute and it was frustrating. What disturbed me the most, however, was when I caught my mother crying. Though I sometimes resented having to be the adult in my interactions with her, my mother was nevertheless a strong woman who managed to make her place in a world that was both hostile and violent towards her. If she was despairing, I surmised, that meant things were really screwed up.

My sisters helped by working at a local supermarket after school. For a time, I worked delivering groceries and my sisters staffed the cash registers. Of course, me being the radical of the clan, I was promptly fired for calling the Puerto Rican proprietor an Uncle Tom and an oppressor of his own people. I mean, c’mon, he was selling cheap outdated meats (changing the dates) and overcharging mostly working poor Puerto Ricans and Blacks.

While we never starved, we grew up knowing too well the meaning of food insecurity and wish sandwiches. My mother shopped daily because we couldn’t afford groceries for the week. Sometimes we would get our groceries because my sisters would not charge up the register on the down low when my mother shopped. Things became worse at the onset of the holidays. We called a family meeting and we all agreed that, with the exception of our youngest brother, Edgar, we would forego gifts for Christmas. My mother didn’t take this too well and it pushed her to her dark side, pushing her toward bouts of sadness interspersed with rage — a condition that Nuyoricans often called ataques de nervios (nervous attacks).

We made do just as many other poor families in distress coped at that time: Many worked at low-paying factory jobs or for slave wages in the garment industry. Others went on “welfare” and augmented that small and humiliating pittance by small-scale attempts at entrepreneurship. Sometimes my mother would buy a bottle of rum, or some other item, and raffle it off at the Bingo parlor: if everyone paid in a dollar, she would be able to earn a profit and offer a prize. We also had an extended family and they would help as best they could, though they too were often financially extended and living from paycheck to paycheck.

In short it was getting to be a sad holiday season. The house became less full, as our situation served as a basis for shame and, as we gradually dropped off our activities with our friends, the ensuing quiet was disturbing. Then one day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, we took out the old artificial tree. We all share a warped sense of humor and my sisters and I started joking about how “lonely” the tree would look without any gifts. Soon we were cracking each other up, trying to outdo each other by coming up with the most twisted reason why we should, or shouldn’t, put up the Christmas tree.

In the end, we decided to put it up and, and while playing traditional Puerto Rican Christmas songs, we slowly got into the spirit of things. Soon enough, our apartment rang out with laughter and song and friends were called up to come and help. I don’t know if my perception is clouded by bias or the passage of time, but I swear that old tree never looked so beautiful. We really put our creative energies into fixing up the house too: we gift-wrapped doors, put up mistletoe, strung lights on the windows — we created the best display on that block in Brooklyn’s Bushwick section.

Still, the tree did look lonely — or rather, bare — without gifts. So someone, one of my sisters I think, came up with the idea of collecting empty boxes and wrapping them up as gifts. Of course, as was usual in our household, we took the sentiment to an extreme. Our rather large artificial tree was soon dwarfed by a mountain of elegantly wrapped “gifts.” My sisters went as far as researching Christmas gift-wrapping and the wrapped boxes became little works of art. People would visit and comment on how “beautiful” the tree looked and we would laugh because we knew they were only saying that in part because of the many “gifts.” It was our own little private joke.

I have to admit that while our circumstances were extremely difficult that year, I can’t remember a more joyful holiday season. Soon our home sang once again with the sound of young people and friends and family. And the tree seemed to take on a life of its own, to radiate joy. I swear that the tree attracted people, and it was true that many people would come and visit. I guess maybe everyone else was having a hard time and the joy in our house was sort of like a warm fire to ward off the chill of winter in the Land of the Snow. The tree became almost like another family member that we tended to and nurtured. People would visit and you could tell immediately that the joy was infectious. The “joke” was a constant source for new comedic material and we would create even more elaborate “gifts” to put at the base of that tree.

Nuyoricans celebrate Christmas Eve — Noche Buena. Christmas day is for the children and for the adults to nurse hangovers. That year, a huge Christmas Eve party, attended by everybody-and-their-mother, capped that holiday season. Unbeknownst to him, the owner of the supermarket where my sisters worked contributed the ingredients so that my mother could make her famous pasteles1 (a Puerto Rican mashed plantain/ meat dish) and pernil (pork shoulder). All our friends and family attended and the party lasted well into Christmas morning. I don’t think it snowed that Christmas, but I remember that the party became the basis for several legends — a story time delight to be recounted for years to come.

The party itself was rambunctious — more rambunctious than normal. I believe that the reason why poor people are adept at partying is because they know all too intimately the vicissitudes of life and whenever the opportunity arises, they party with an almost religious fervor. Of course, there was plenty of drama that Christmas Eve. Old jealousies and rivalries were re-ignited, people were caught in compromising situations, and quite a few made fools of themselves. There was my stepfather’s aunt, who insisted on flashing her undergarments at everyone and poor old Fito who would never live down the fact that he got so drunk he pissed on himself. I mean, he just slid down the wall and pissed on himself, and laughed his ass off while doing it. Really. I thought my mother was going to stomp him, but luckily a timely intervention of family and friends saved his life.

The party was a microcosm of the full catastrophe of the human condition in all its shining glory. In other words — a good time was had by all.

Finally, Christmas day came, and it was time to clean up the house and dispose of all the “gifts.” I started collecting the empty boxes to throw them out, but our mother stopped me. “You can’t throw out the boxes!” she yelled out, an alarming note of hysteria in her voice. We looked at one another, fearing our mother was about to have another ataque de nervios, but then we saw her smile.

We had to tear through all the empty boxes in order to find the gifts my mother had hidden into that huge pile. I will never forget my gift that year though I have had many materially richer Christmases since: it was a digital watch with an LED readout that was fairly new and trendy at the time. I know it didn’t cost much, maybe $5, but I treasured it and wore that watch for a long time.

Why this story?

For one, the experience taught me a lesson that was the greatest Christmas gift of all: that you always have a choice with how to respond to adversity. Yes, the fact remained that we sometimes were hungry and our clothes weren’t the best. There were times we couldn’t afford basic needs or even school supplies. But we learned to face these hardships with humor and strength of character. That year could easily have been much worse, but facing our hardships in a realistic but joyful way — that lesson would stay with me for the rest of my life. For me, this is the taste of life itself. The One Taste.

So, if you ever catch me smiling, try to remember where that smile comes from. It comes from the knowledge that material gifts are essentially empty. I smile because I know the pretty boxes are empty but my heart is full…

Happy Holidays! Y que vive Puerto Rico libre!

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Notes

Some excellent books on Puerto Rican identity and the arts:

Aparicio, F. R. (1998). Listening to salsa: Gender, Latin popular music, and Puerto Rican cultures. Fredericksburg, PA: Wesleyan University Press.

Berrios-Miranda, M. (2013). Is salsa a musical genre? In L. Waxer (Ed.), Situating salsa: Global markets and local meanings in Latin popular music (pp. 23-38). New York: Taylor & Francis.

Rondón, C. M. (2008). The book of salsa: A chronicle of urban music from the Caribbean to New York City (F. R. Aparicio & J. White, Trans.). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Algarin, M. (Ed.) (1994). Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

  1. For excellent and alternative, healthier (including vegan and vegetarian options) Puerto Rican recipes, check out Erisbelia (Eris) Garriga’s books. She offers some really great and delicious recipes [LINK]

The Christmas Truce

Happy Holidays mi gente,
Leave it to the Christian right and people in general to fuck up a good thing… There are two parts to today’s post. One illustrates how conservatives use religion to foster fear with the intent to force compliance, the other illustrates how spirituality can be a powerful force, even in the midst of unbelievable violence and insanity.

The Fake War on Christmas

07-10-16_ Sunday Sermon [Resistance]

A solitary unarmed Black woman demanding the Black Lives Matter confronts a militarized aggression.

What we preserve in the larger human story determines what we believe is possible in the world.

The fake war on Christmas is not really about Christmas, but rather it is in reality code for religious intolerance, anti-Semitism, and bigotry. It’s the dog whistle to rile up the rabble.

From what I can tell, at the message at the core of the historical Jesus is a powerful and sublime philosophy: that we love one another, and that we should treat one another with respect and as we would like to be treated. Of course, Christmas really isn’t about that at all. Shit, if there is a war on Christmas, it was won long ago by a consumer culture grounded in the mindset of mindlessly acquiring material possessions rather than self-actualization or compassion for one’s neighbor.

And that’s the tragedy here because this vital message of love is lost. And if you doubt the power of the true message of this spiritual teaching, then check out the following story…

Silent Night

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WWI soldiers in the trenches

The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914

On Christmas Eve in 1914, two lines of homesick soldiers, one British, one German, were dug into the trenches on the Western Front in the middle of World War I. Now, you have to understand that WWI was considered the “war to end all wars.” It was one of the most vicious wars because in those days, you had to look your enemy in the eye as you stabbed or shot him. You were more likely to die from starvation, exposure, and disease as you were at the hands of the enemy. So, there are these two front lines and between them was a fire zone called no-man’s land. On a moonlit, snowy night in this God-forsaken landscape, the Germans lifted army issued Christmas trees sparkling with tiny candles over the edge of their trenches and set them in plain sight.

The British shouted and cheered with delight. The Germans began to sing “Stille Nacht… ”and the British began to sing along with “Silent Night.” This encouraged the Germans and they set down their guns in the moonlight and heaved themselves from their trenches carrying candles, cake, and cigars toward their enemies. The British responded in kind, carrying steamed pudding and cigarettes.

These men met in the middle of the forbidden zone, exchanged gifts, sang carols, and played soccer. This seemingly spontaneous truce eventually extended for hundreds of miles among thousands of soldiers. The really funny thing was, having seen each other’s humanity, they could no longer shoot each other…

The war essentially stopped.

Horrified, commanders on both sides had to transfer thousands of men to new positions until the enemy became faceless again, something killable, not a human being — not a brother.

Almost a hundred years later, scholars are still studying this event, reading soldier’s journals and letters that refer to it, seeking to understand “the breakdown of the military mindset,” or attempting to understand how a fuckin spontaneous peace movement could spread even in the cold dark heart of war.

Today you will hear countless other stories. Stories of death and unspeakable cruelty. You will no doubt hear stories justifying, in the name of global economics or religion, the starvation and killing of innocent men, women, and children. You will see or read approximately 80,000 messages today bombarding you with the agenda to get you to buy something — most of it will fly under the radar of your awareness. But if you remember anything, remember this story because it is true and it speaks to who we really are and the essence of what it means to be a human being.

Most of all, remember the contrasts between the two parts of this post today. The first part emphasizes difference and domination, the second part reinforces what is good in all of us, regardless of what or who we believe in or where we find ourselves.

Happy Holidays.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Redemption Song

Hola mi Gente,
I usually post this around this time of year… because it never fails, someone will tell me that reading the following helped them, or they shared it with someone they thought it could help. So… here goes.

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My life is my message

 

The cliché that life is stranger than fiction is true enough. And believe me: my life has been pretty much strange. Thanksgiving Day has its own personal meaning for me, as I am certain it does for everyone. Actually, Thanksgiving Day has layers of meaning.

On one level, my development as a person of the Puerto Rican diaspora was marked by holidays that were always an opportunity to celebrate our music, our unique forms of dancing, and kinship ties. Therefore, we Puerto Ricans — or at least my family and the community I was raised in — subverted the mythical (actually genocidal) Thanksgiving and give it our own meaning. And as humans, that’s what we do best, we create meaning.

Thanksgiving Day is also now primarily identified as a secular all-inclusive day of expressing appreciation for life and having gratitude for the things we need to live a happy and healthy life. As a Latino, the cultural values of extended family ties and Thanksgiving evoke childhood memories of large (and often hilariously insane) family get-togethers.

However, for me Thanksgiving holds its most significant meaning on a very personal level. You see, it was on this day twenty-eight years ago that I experienced the first of a series of awakenings that would drastically change my life. The exact date is November 26, 1990 and it often happens that it falls on or near Thanksgiving Day. A couple of weeks before that fateful day, on a cold, drizzly November day, I was so overcome with despair that I considered and attempted suicide. It is actually a little funny: As I climbed over the rail on the Brooklyn Bridge’s pedestrian walk (it’s not easy to jump off that damned bridge), I was so skinny from malnutrition and years of substance abuse that a strong Nor’easter wind knocked me back on my ass on to the pedestrian walkway. I saw this inability to take myself off the count as the ultimate failure which gives you an idea of my state of mind at the time.

I walked away from that only to opt for a more torturous suicide: the daily act of chasing heroin. Ensnared by my warped thinking, I had this fear that I would botch up my own suicide and merely succeed in paralyzing myself, condemning myself to pursue drugs from the disadvantage of a wheelchair. In fact, I remember another addict who was in a wheelchair. I decided I would make someone else put myself out of my misery.

And though I speak lightly today of that time, I was so miserable. I do not believe in a God in the traditional Christian/ Judeo sense — an anthropomorphic omnipotent super being. Yet back then I would pray each night that some Higher Power would find it in its mercy to take my life me my sleep. Still, every day I awoke to my pain and despair. I would always wake up sick and broke, but somehow manage to spend $300 by the end of the day, feeding a merciless heroin habit.

If you are wondering, eventually I would feed my drug habit by ripping off drug-dealers, never a safe proposition. One day a victim of one of my swindles threatened me with a gun. I grabbed the gun by the barrel, put it to my forehead, and begged him to shoot. All I asked was that he made sure to kill me because, “You would be doing me a favor, motherfucker.” This occurred in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded New York City street. I remember a crowd forming and people screaming; but what I remember most was thinking that this was my way out. “Do it,” I yelled. He pulled the trigger and…

Nothing happened.

I don’t know if the gun jammed or if it wasn’t loaded, whatever the reason, the gun failed to discharge. My would-be “assistant suicider” freaked out, yanked the gun from my hands, and walked away. I called after him, letting him know he could get another chance. That’s how much I wanted to die. And again, I thought, I could do nothing right.

That wasn’t the worst of it, my life continued to bottom out until November 26th, 1990 when I experienced an incident so traumatic it would change me and my world in an inexplicable way. Actually, most people would consider the events that transpired on that cold, dreary November day as a defeat. Very simply, after being released from New York City’s infamous jail, Rikers Island, for exactly fourteen days, I was re-arrested. It was also that last day of my active addiction — the last day I took a drug.

I didn’t know it then but it was the beginning of a new life: a life that today is far from perfect, that has suffering, illness, death – the full catastrophe of life — but also encompasses an invincible of joy at its core. This is part of the reason I do the work that I do. I know from personal experience that even the worst of us have the potential to liberate ourselves from socially constructed or self-made prisons. And let me be clear: we’re all “doing time” in some way, we all wear shackles. To a degree, we all enact patterns of behavior or carry the proverbial baggage.

No, I am not a religious person. My personal view is that religion is for people who are afraid of hell and spirituality is for those who have already been there. I simply try to be the best person I can be on a daily basis and oftentimes I fall short of the mark. However, my intentions are usually good and my direction somewhat orderly. I try to live a life centered on compassion for others, personal growth, self-actualization, and passion for social change.

On that day, twenty-eight ago, I had no way of knowing of the possibility of life as it has manifested itself for me today. These past few years have been challenging. Some of that that had to do with being unemployed. At one point, I almost lost all my property in storage, my cellphone had been cut off, I was living with my sister… well, you get the idea. Even now, my living situation is still tenuous though I have been working at well-paying job for some time. Yet, I still managed to maintain some measure of sanity and actually maintain some serenity. In the midst of all my problems, I never picked up a drug and was even able to find some measure of happiness. It’s a happiness independent of any person, place, or thing. On the surface I can be sad, happy, angry, disappointed, depressed, disgusted — I can be experiencing any number of attachments — but at the center, at the very core of me, there is an invincible joy greater than any drug-induced high I have ever experienced. And believe me, coming from me, that’s saying a lot.

On that day twenty-eight years ago, sitting there in the midst of total failure and utter humiliation, I came undone. And that was a good thing, because in experiencing complete obliteration I became open to something more than my small self. In emptying myself, I came to see that what I perceived as a void was in reality my innate and boundless potential as a human being.

I am genuinely grateful. As I said before, I have experienced sadness, frustration, happiness, love, rejection—all of it. I could easily surmise, if I were so disposed, that my life, that life itself, sucks. But that’s a coward’s lie. Life is a gift — probably the most precious of gifts. My life today is like a redemption song — a song of freedom. And at the very least there is nothing worse (or better) than that fateful day twenty-eight years ago. Today I woke up and I am… here… and for that I am most grateful.

May you all have as much to be thankful for.

My name is Eddie and I am in recovery from civilization…