what, to the revolutionary, is the 4th of July?

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

~”What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass July 5, 1852.

My least favorite holiday is upon us once again. The 4th of July is easily the most paradoxical, PTSD-triggering, carcinogenic holiday that is forced upon us in this country. As I write this, the walls of my house shake and rattle from the thunderous boom of ceaseless explosions. By tomorrow, South Central LA (and San Francisco, and Oakland, and anywhere else I might try to escape to) will sound and smell like an ash-filled war zone–all in the name of freedom and American patriotism like most war zones usually are. Animals and sensitive people (like myself, returning soldiers, children and the elderly) will flinch and cringe at every blast, never quite ready for the next one.  Dizzying displays of stars and stripes abound, and the proud flutter of confederate flags reminds us that the collective consciousness of this country is still filled with gaping holes.  Americans (along the spectrum of privilege from the very wealthy to the miserably oppressed) will take to backyards, front stoops and neighborhood parks to burn the flesh of exploited animals, adding the charred smoke of blazing barbecues to the smoldering firecracker air. And never mind the ozone layer, because it’s unpatriotic to criticize dynamite-caliber explosives in the name of air quality, health and safety. Americans who are fortunate enough to have jobs in this moment will gather today to savor a rare day off work, to celebrate a lopsided historical narrative of freedom, and to pretend for the day that we all enjoy the fruits of imperialism, of colonialism, of capitalism. But in truth, we do not and we never have under the current system of government. The proposed freedoms and inalienable rights never came true for the majority of us and our ancestors in this nation. Even those among us whose economic and social capital has afforded them the kind of amenities and leisure time which characterize privilege are suffering too, in less visible ways: in long-term ecological ways that affect all living beings, and in karmic ways at the level of the soul. 

I had the privilege of attending Grace Lee Boggs’ 97th birthday party in Detroit earlier this week, and she eloquently reminded us that the very document we revere on this day, the Declaration of Independence itself stipulates, “…whenever any form of Government becomes destructive (of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness), …it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”. In other words, it is our right as Americans to question, critique, dismantle and recreate any system of governance that no longer serves us. It is our right to abolish the current system that is more invested in surveilling, incarcerating and killing us than educating, feeding or sustaining us. It is our right as Americans to dream new ways of being in the world, and resurrect ancient practices that allow and encourage our survival and happiness. We have borne witness to numerous “Frankenstein systems” that were supposed to serve us but grew out of control. It is time (long overdue) that we reclaim and dictate the terms of our own systems.

As we embark on yet another 4th of July and recognize (as we should) the amount of privilege that we have in this country, may this Independence Day also be about collectivity, freedom dreaming, building the world anew, and not believing all the hype. There is more to being an American than flag waving, charbroiling and blowing things up. Let’s explore what else we have to offer to the world.


Freedom is…

Freedom is accepting my own eccentricities and particularities… Smiling because no one else needs to understand them, and maybe no one else ever will.

Freedom is enjoying the process of self-discovery… simply noticing, without judgment.
Freedom is excitement about the privilege to do difficult, accountable work.

Freedom is honesty without fear of change.
Freedom is learning to let myself take risks and experience joy… practicing in my dreams first before trying in waking life.

Freedom is ashtanga yoga before the sun comes up, vanilla bean ice cream with cocoa fudge long after the sun goes down, and mizuna mustard greens with fuji apples and lemon, any time of any day.

Freedom lies dormant in the fabric of minutes and moments… somehow always only a pause and a deep belly breath away.

Sunset Therapy

I struggled my way into 2012 feeling deflated and weary, and I decided that if I was actually going to sustain the people and projects that I am accountable to in this life, I had to implement a self-care regime.  Like really implement it… not just talk about it like I love to do.  So, on my list of new year’s resolutions, in addition to things like “listen to new music” (which I’ve done, and loved), and “write something, anything, everyday” (which I’ve also done… if emails and texts count), was to make sure to “catch a sunset” –at least three times a week. Whether I watch it in its entirety from my favorite spot: the shore of the Pacific Ocean, or simply catch slivers of it in my rearview mirror while driving (with caution), I let the colors and once-in-a-lifetime patterns remind me to breathe deeply, to be present in that moment and to be thankful for it.  I practice Sunset Therapy to remind myself that moments are fleeting and we never get them back, so we’d better make the most of them.  Even if I don’t blink, the moment still passes before my eyes… just like each day, whether good or bad, will eventually end.  There is something about the way that the sun burns its last traces across a darkening sky that always brings my own life back into focus, revealing my all-at-once importance and insignificance in the world.  And I just can’t think of a better to seal in the day, accomplishments, blunders and everything else, than to watch the live art show that the universe offers nightly, free of charge.

The Lorax: Environmentalism, Consumption and Manifest Destiny

“It’s me, the guy who still cares about the trees.” 

Even in it’s 2012 Hollywood 3-Dimensional rendition, Dr. Seuss’ classic cautionary tale The Lorax still functions to deliver many important reminders.

The first is that environmental degradation comes in many forms: from the obvious clear-cutting of trees and the poisoning of air and water, to our junk food addiction (marshmallows in this case), and the normalized proliferation of “things”: we are drowning in stuff that nobody needs, all in the name of a profit.  The absurdity of the “thnead” itself (the ridiculous multi-purpose invention whose mass production led to all the deforestation) and people’s unending demand for it demonstrates that the logic of capitalism works in direct opposition to the logic of nature.  Put best by the evil businessman O ‘Hare, who privatized the air and turned it into a bottled commodity, “people will buy anything if it comes in a plastic bottle”.  Not surprisingly, O’Hare is the main opponent to the existence of real trees, as they produce oxygen for free, and his wealth was built upon cornering that market.

One of the worst things adults do for money is break the promises we make to nature as small children: promises to honor and protect the natural world, and to always remain fascinated by the beauty and wonder of it all.  Even the Once-ler (the “entrepreneur” responsible for the decimation of every last tree) once had a conscience.  Just a regular guy trying to make his greedy family proud, he broke his promise never to cut down another tree once the profits started rolling in.  Displacing the actual labor (and the accountability) onto machines and other people, the Once-ler hid in his industrial mansion while the forests were obliterated.  When confronted by the Lorax (the small, furry, mustached creature who “speaks for the trees”), the Once-ler’s defense was that he hadn’t broken any laws and was in fact within his rights.  He was simply fulfilling his “destiny” and didn’t want to feel bad about it.  Hmmm, sound familiar? Like the historical justification for territorial expansion and colonization, perhaps? Or the big conglomerated corporation that enjoys unlimited profits, growth and the rights of personhood without a soul or a conscience? There was no appealing to the Once-ler on the basis of love, health or survival because all he could see was the money.  Only decades after the last tree had fallen and he himself began to feel the impact of the destruction he had caused did the Once-ler begin to make amends, and this is where the “plant-a-tree-so-you-can-rid-yourself-of-guilt” message came into play.  Now to be clear, I appreciate this message, and I stand with Wangari Maathai and her idea that replenishing the planet by planting seeds of life is one of the most important things we can do as individuals. I just think the message is much deeper than this.  For one thing, control and ownership of seeds by corporations who make it illegal for small farmers to save seeds for their next harvest is a very real and terrifying thing that threatens the survival of humanity and is already happening.  Secondly, there will always be people who “still care” about the Earth and who will do everything in their power to conserve it, but the real environmental question is not whether we as individuals care enough to recycle or buy “green” products (a concept that still works in service of capital by playing on people’s guilt); it is whether we can collectively reclaim our planet and its resources from the control of corporations- the real entities responsible for everything from species extinction, oil spills, genetically modified foods, cancers of all kinds, birth defects, premature death, and the list goes on and on.

So who will speak for the trees and the animals if we do not?  Who will speak for the children who will inherit this toxic planet?  Not the entities destroying the ecosystem, that’s for sure.  We may not be the big polluters, but every day we consent to the world the way it is by purchasing that new product without paying attention to how it is made, or by whom, or by showing up to work for companies whose wealth depends on paying us as little as possible for our labor and our most valuable asset –our time. At one moment in the film, the good-natured service worker (who delivers cases of O’Hare’s bottled air to people’s homes and offices) breaks into song, basically admitting that although this is how he makes his livelihood, free air sounds like a good idea.  In other words, to actualize the world we want we will have to rethink the way we make a living (and even what that might mean in non-economic terms).  We will have to come to understand ourselves not simply as manipulable consumers, or individual human beings just trying to “come up” or “get ours”, but instead as communities who are responsible for each other, and advocates for the survival of the planet.  Because make no mistake: we are dependent on the Earth, not the other way around. Our little planet has survived everything from ice ages to droughts, and every calamity in between. The natural world is resilient… we are the fragile ones.  The “end of the world” just means the end of our time here.  The good news is that every day is another chance to plant a tree, to inform ourselves, to align ourselves with those seeking justice, and to decide not to just accept things the way they are, because, {in my best Dr. Seuss voice} “they haven’t always been this way”.

Whitney Houston, Public Scrutiny and Prescription Medications

The tears came for the first time today, as I watched what must be at least a decade-old video of Whitney Houston performing “my love is your love” with a tiny Bobbi Kristina swaying by her side.  Looking at them, mother (now deceased) and child (now almost fully grown and in the throes of an emotional breakdown), it hit me: that baby lost her mother and her best friend.  And the world just watched. We watched (and laughed at) Whitney’s erratic behavior for the past 10+ years.  We judged her when her voice deteriorated, blaming her for her own self-destruction, as though we ourselves had no demons… as though Whitney somehow created the conditions for her tormented life and devastating death in a vacuum.  All at once I realized what a mess we are in, collectively.  There are no official autopsy results yet (which in and of itself is puzzling to me), but early reports suggest a lethal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs like Xanax: a psychoactive drug used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, whose side effects include depression and suicidal ideations.  Granted, the correlation between Whitney Houston and drug abuse is not new to the global public imaginary.  However, this is different… these substances are “legal”, and this should be a serious and jarring wake-up call for all of us.  How many of us and our loved-ones are taking prescription drugs for everything from preventable stress and food-related illnesses to mood disorders?  A better question perhaps is how many people ARE NOT taking prescription medications for one reason or another?  There is no “Just Say No” campaign against prescription meds, although some would argue that there should be.  Instead there seems to be a “Just Take More” approach, as increasing numbers of new illnesses are constructed to justify our extensive and expensive medication regimes.  Everyone is talking about Whitney’s history of cocaine and crack use, but where is the critique of the prescription meds that arguably took her life?

As we remember Whitney Houston, we resurrect young, pretty Whitney circa 1985-1992: America’s sweetheart, Clive Davis’ star with the golden voice.  Maybe it’s too painful to remember her in her most recent form: as a haunted global icon, agitated, stressed out and understandably medicating just to find some peace. And make no mistake: there was no peace for Whitney. Not anywhere. Not even in her own home, where paparazzi (of the same caliber that drove Princess Diana off the road, then made money off the story of her death) would hide in the trees surrounding her house, stealing photos of private moments and circulating them (often with false headlines) to an unforgiving public who thrived on Whitney’s pain.  Who among us could handle that level of surveillance? That level of scrutiny and pressure? That level of hateful print and speech spewed round the clock, coming even from the people we thought were our friends, relentlessly attacking us, our integrity, our artistry, our spouse, our child??  And as we mourn her, we thank whatever divine power we believe in that her life was not our own, but we are all still implicated because we are all connected in this life, regardless of how far removed we may feel.  Moreover, every time we eat up a story about a struggling star exhibiting self-destructive behavior, we are helping to create a market for more stories like this.  Whitney herself has wondered on more than one occasion in her songs and interviews why people don’t seem to want to see her thrive; why they are only interested in seeing her stumble and fall.

So we dredge up old memories of the Whitney we once loved, but what of the one we gave up on?  To my mind, Whitney’s tale is similar to that of Michael Jackson, also a victim of prescription drug overdose, whose difficult life had been a public spectacle and a running joke since the 90s, and only his disturbing death could get the world to once again celebrate the magnitude of his talent.  Too bad neither Whitney nor Michael (or Don Cornelius, for that matter) got to witness their own tributes after all of their life’s work.

The hotel room where Whitney’s body was found is allegedly already occupied and booked up solidly for the unforeseeable future.  I am reminded that fame is a curse I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.

Video: Whitney sings with Bobbi Kristina