Saturday, April 22, 2017

This Fragile Earth, Our Island Home

Today is Earth Day. Like never before, our biosphere is in a precarious place. As human greed to devour its resources increases exponentially, the cost of our privilege is measured out against the ever increasing number of those at the bottom. In the meantime "this fragile Earth, our island home" (Book of Common Prayer) suffers from the depletion of its flora and fauna due to overconsumption and the contaminants which are causing the climate to change in ways deleterious to ongoing existence of most current life forms.

That includes us.

Let us celebrate Earth Day with prayers and hymns. But let our gratitude for "this fragile Earth, our island home" not end with mere words and feel good images and songs. Let us resolve to rise to the challenge our own attitudes and behaviors have created for us and for all life as we currently know it. Let our response to these challenges, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, be: "I will with God's help."

I offer for your consideration some prayers and hymns for this commemoration of Earth Day 2017:

A Prayer for Earth Day 2017

Holy One, Creator of the Universe, you are worthy of glory and praise. From your very Being all things came to exist: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile Earth, our island home.

By your will they were created and have their being.

From its primal elements came the human race, blessed with memory, reason, and skill. Holy One, you have entrusted us with your creation. But we have proven unreliable stewards. In our self-focus and shortsightedness, too often we turn against you and one another, despoiling your creation, betraying your trust.

Holy One, we pray you will have mercy upon us. For in the selfishness that blinds us, we harm your good Creation and all within it including ourselves. This day we pray that we may find the courage to see that which we would not look upon, to become truly sorry for these our misdoings and to humbly repent.

And because we cannot do so alone, we ask for an acute awareness of your constant presence with us this day. Assist us with your grace to find the gratitude, loving kindness and compassion that is due your good creation. Help us to turn from our destructive ways and to learn to live as responsible members of this fragile Earth, our island home. 

All this we ask in the name of the One who is the source of all that exists, the ground of our very Being and the destination of all souls.

Amen. Amin. Amina. Thathaastu. Tʼáá ákótʼée doo. So be it.

(adapted from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer; endings from Judaic/Christian, Islamic, Swahili, Hindu, Navajo traditions)

11 Prayers for Earth Day

A Hymn for Earth Day

A beautiful rendition of the Swahili version of the Lord’s Prayer. “Your will be done on earth as in heaven…Give us today what we need….and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…for the kingdom…is yours, now and forever.”

A Hymn for the Earth from those at the Bottom

Sung by the little ones at the bottom of the developing world wondering what their fates will be in a world whose privileged first world members seem intent on destroying it.

A Hymn for the Earth from those at the Top

Watch Christopher Tin conduct “Baba Yetu” – his Grammy Award-winning theme song written for Civilization IV, a video game. Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Angel City Chorale, Prima Vocal Ensemble, and Lucis at Cadogan Hall in London, July 19, 2016.

All this we ask in the name of the One who is the source of all that exists, the ground of our very Being and the destination of all souls.

Amen. Amin. Amina. Thathaastu. Tʼáá ákótʼée doo. So be it.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Mother of All Soups on the Eve of the Resurrection

What do you do when the world has lost its mind, when the adolescent boys who have acceded to power well beyond their capacity to know how to exercise it wisely excitedly decide to engage in high stakes games, exploding industrial strength fireworks to impress each other over who’s got the biggest dick?

How does one peacefully and lovingly respond to the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) and to the random and apparently pointless attacks on airbases in countries whose refugees from the violence you supposedly are confronting have consistently been denied refuge in your own country - the very country whose behaviors in large part gave rise to their sufferings in the first place? How do you respond to states seeking to engage in deadly marathons, the serial killing of its most serious offenders, racing against time to beat the expiration dates of lethal chemicals, a deadly game in which scoring final points before the clock runs out - measured in corpses -  becomes the ultimate goal?

What do you do with this kind of insanity?

Perhaps you begin by rejecting playing by the rules of these agents of death, refusing to take them seriously. Perhaps you turn off your television with its excited corporate sponsored cheerleading of that violence to engage in acts of resistance seeking to transform the Mother of All Bombs and all these instrumentalities of death into means of life. 

Perhaps you go to your kitchen and mindfully and prayerfully prepare the Mother of All Soups (MOAS), offering to a violence weary world saturated with death the warm and gentle gift of life.

You begin with the wonderful vegetables cooked by a cherished friend from high school who took the time to go to the Webster’s Farmer’s Market to select them for you. You mix them with your own Peruvian blue potatoes and garlic, onion and red pepper. You toss in the collard greens from the vegetarian restaurant where you had lunch with a dear old colleague today. For good measure, you throw in a can of Winn-Dixie Tomato Soup. And you bring it all to a low boil.

Now you say your prayers of gratitude. And then you and your beloved life partner of 42 years scoot Saidy, your beloved beagle, off the couch and sit down to eat.

In this small act of loving but resolute resistance, you hold up the power of Love, the power of Life, the power of Hope and you shake it in the very face of Fear and Death. 

Love is stronger than death.

Within minutes the insanity of the world begins to drift away. You and your life partner savor your soup. And you begin to thankfully envision all the hands that touched that produce, bringing it to your plate this night starting with the farmers who sewed the seed that produced these vegetables and continuing to the beautiful loving friend who chose the vegetables at market and cooked them for your lunch and then insisted you take home heaping plates of leftovers.  

In between those beginning and ending points, your thankful heart remembers the farm workers who weeded, watered and fertilized the vegetables, who braved the insects, the pesticides, the alligators, snakes and thunderstorms. You are grateful to those who harvested the vegetables, loaded them into trucking containers, who drove them to market and who laid them out for display at the market for shoppers.

And you prayerfully bear in mind your own privilege in knowing that many – perhaps most - of those people probably did not earn a living wage in that process, some because of the neo-slave system of labor with its artificially deflated wages that marks a market economy, others nearly literally slaves because of the arbitrary rules on who can cross the socially constructed lines called international borders. These are the same people who, even as they provide the labor which feeds our nation, live in fear of being ripped from their families and forcibly moved back across those same imaginary lines alone -  but never until you and I are finished digesting the fruits of their labors.

On this night Jesus lies lifeless in a tomb, awaiting the first rays of morning’s light to spring back to life, G_d’s justice over the powers of Death itself. On this night of death and suffering, I remember all those whose lives are stunted when the image of G_d they bear is not respected, these little ones that Jesus loved so dearly and gave his life for, these little ones whose labor my own life of unearned privilege far too often takes for granted. 

This night I give thanks for my friend’s generosity in inviting me to dine with her and her husband on Good Friday, going to market, carefully choosing and cooking my vegetable dinner. In its abundance, there was so much left over that it became the starting point for the Mother of All Soups, our evening repast this eve of the Resurrection, and these bittersweet 
reflections which have ensued.

Love is stronger than Death, even the death Empires seek to hurriedly mass produce on cruciform platforms in execution chambers with deadly chemicals reaching expiration dates, blood thirsty states in a region of the country with the temerity to call itself “the Bible Belt.” Love is stronger than the imperial fire of death which rains down from the skies, this time onto the former handiwork of one’s “security” agencies, the caves and tunnels occupied by those recruited as allies but now seen as enemies. And love is stronger than the death publicly and shamefully inflicted by Empires on would be messiahs upon wooden crosses bearing imperial propaganda adding insult to injury (This is Jesus, King of the Jews – and this is what happens to anyone who would claim to be king in Caesar’s empire) hoping in vain that this will be the last it hears of this utopian Kingdom of G_d that so readily draws the brutality of this Empire - and all Empires - into sharp contrast.

Love is what gives us hope in the face of insanity of imperial blood lust, of the saber rattling of the insecure and the bombing attacks which seek in vain to reassure them. Love is what compels us to transform the deadly Mother of All Bombs into the life-giving Mother of All Soups. Love is stronger than death. And in every case, death is never the final word.

Tomorrow we celebrate that good news.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


Saturday, April 08, 2017

An Homage to a Consummate Teacher

Preface: It has always been my belief that losses in life need to be honored if healing is to occur. Time must be devoted and attention given to the suffering that losses inflict. Taking loss seriously means engaging the grieving with compassion. Such engagement must always begin with oneself if it is to extend to others.

In my life, loss and grieving have always been marked with ritual - both formal and informal -and by actions designed to transform the darkness of loss into something of value - if not beauty. For me those actions have taken two main expressions: gardening and writing. 

For the past two years as I have sought a balm for a broken heart in the good Earth of my beloved garden, I have also written entries for my blog sites detailing my experience of my Father’s decline and eventual death. I have sought to place those events in the context of a life strongly shaped by the loving presence of two wonderful parents and in the context of growing up in a Florida which today bears only passing resemblance to the state of my childhood, a grief I share with many fellow Floridians.

Loss always comes wearing a multitude of disguises.

This final entry in this series comes at the end of two years of reflection on human finitude, on death and making meaning of life. I am grateful for you who have indulged me in reading and considering these reflections. It is my prayer that my insights may provide food for thought and balm for the places in your own hearts where loss and grief reside.

Hometown Boy Laid to Rest

I went to visit my parents last week. They are now both buried in the National Cemetery outside of Bushnell. The headstone that formerly bore only my Mother’s information – marking the spot where she lay in her grave awaiting my Father - has been rotated 180 degrees and now bears my Father’s information as well.

His ashes now rest just above our Mother’s heart, just as he instructed.

Their final resting place is a fitting tribute to them both. The memorial is attractive, unassuming and comfortably at home among the rows of white granite stones marking the final resting places of American veterans and their spouses, the kinds of people both of them served in their lifetimes of public service. 

It is a tranquil island of repose among a sea of live oaks and palmettoes in this river basin region of Sumter County.

My Father is buried just a few miles down the road from the place where he was born. His family had migrated to Florida from Oklahoma during the 1920s land boom which went bust shortly after their arrival. Daddy was the only child born in Florida.

His house – which his engineer father built - no longer stands. But a living memory of that birth survives in the scrub that has taken over the property where it once was located. The day my Dad was born, his Father planted a bamboo tree in the yard. Amidst the water oaks, palmettoes and wild grape vines strangling everything they can wrap their tendrils around, the bamboo still thrives these 90 years later.  

This overgrown lot is a reminder of a bygone era, a small parcel of undeveloped countryside no doubt awaiting a developer’s bulldozer like much of the rest of Sumter County.  The 125,000 residents just estimated by the Census Bureau to live in the county represent a ten-fold increase of the population of this once rural county of just 50 years ago when my Dad moved our family from Tampa Bay back to his hometown. Like the wild grape vines strangling everything they touch, an obsession with “development,” driven by a behemoth retirement “community” in the county’s northern end, is busy swallowing up what is left of a place where cows once outnumbered people.

The Cemetery is less than a mile down the road from Sumter Correctional Institute where my Father once taught US Government for Lake-Sumter Community College to inmates who knew only too well how the judicial aspect of that government worked - or didn’t. Eight miles further east lies the town of Bushnell where his mother once taught school, where he grew to young adulthood before heading out to serve his country in the Pacific Theatre of WWII and thereafter obtaining a Masters of Science in Agriculture from the University of Florida on the GI Bill.

Just north of town in the heart of 11 wooded acres lies the home he had built for his family and in which he lived the remainder of his life. The majestic yard bearing hundreds of azaleas is dominated by a venerable 200 year old live oak and marks the site of an early 20th CE turpentine plantation town named Edenfield.

My Father was born and died at places within three miles of one another. He lived the majority of his life in this once little town now struggling with the reality of becoming an exurb of several competing metropolitan areas. While he tried other things ranging from insurance sales to real estate, his heart was always in education. And it was that heart-driven service of the community that was honored at the reception held fittingly at the high school he had served for so many years of his life.

Teaching is in Our Genes

I am the fourth generation of teachers in my family and the third generation of college instructors. My Father’s grandparents were named Reed and Wright. They were teachers. His Mother had been a teacher in the school he attended in Bushnell. My Father was my teacher for Florida history, Civics and Driver’s Education.

At the reception, wave after wave of people came by to pay their respects to my Dad. A few of them were his colleagues, teachers who held the local high school together through two rounds of tumultuous change. The first was the consolidation of two rural schools into one high school in 1959, the second the closing of the local black high school and the integration of their students and staff into the now desegregated white high school in 1966. Many who came had been my teachers. It was good to see them after so many years.

But most of the 100 people on site were his former students. Their stories recalled his quirky pedagogy: a judicious use of the passenger side brake followed by the question “What did you forget?;” a calm statement that the student driver’s failure to check the oncoming traffic while entering the local interstate on-ramp just resulted in them being run over “by a big rock truck.” In all cases, there was praise for his patience, his nerves of steel in shepherding teenage drivers fearful of this new responsibility into becoming safe, competent drivers.

The lessons my Father taught were not relegated to the classroom, the Ag fields or the Driver’s Ed car. My Dad’s life taught lessons in how to treat other human beings with respect and dignity. He readily saw the potential of every student he taught and sought to develop it to its maximum. He often was assigned students that no other teacher wanted to deal with. Not all of them were success stories. But in every case, he never lost sight of their humanity, with all its frailties and nobility.

So many of his friends and former students remembered those qualities at the reception. They spoke of his compassionate caring for them when their lives were in turmoil. They spoke of his generosity of his time, life wisdom and material goods when they were in need. They remembered his boisterous singing as a substitute school bus driver, the smile that lit up his face when he encountered them and his unwillingness to give up on many who were more than ready to give up on themselves.

At some level, I think he might have been a bit embarrassed by the outpouring of loving admiration and appreciation at the reception. Truth be told, my Father wanted none of this. He had made me promise there would be no funeral for him. He even put it in writing. But even as I promised him I would not hold a funeral for him, I told him that my sister, Carole, would probably insist on holding some kind of event. He said, “I know she probably will, Son, but don’t tell me about it.”

So I didn’t. 

Knowing that the VA would provide a brief opportunity for a graveside commemoration (at the end of your allotted 30 minutes the staff politely but firmly reminds you that you have to leave so the next service can begin) Daddy instructed me to conduct the same commitment rite from the Book of Common Prayer that we used for our Mother 10 years earlier. Ten days after he died, we held that service.

The Navy chaplain gave a generic Christian sermon, a serviceman played Taps and a flag was unfolded, displayed, refolded and presented to my Sister. When the sailors had concluded their ritual, they marched away.

The commitment rite from the service booklets I had prepared followed. I had dressed in clericals with my Dad’s sweater pulled over my bare arms on this chilly morning, a white stole around my neck. My nephew, Joe, held the bowl of consecrated water as we blessed the four directions at the site, the urn itself and then said the final prayers of the commitment rite.

Prior to attending seminary at midlife, I would never have predicted that I would end up conducting the final rites for both of my parents. Who could imagine such a thing? It was an unexpected but cherished gift. And despite the fact it was deeply painful, I will always be grateful for having had those opportunities.

A Rich Life, A Peaceful Passing

Consummate [adjective kuh n-suhm-it, kon-suh-mit] Adjective –
complete or perfect; supremely skilled; superb

My Father was the consummate teacher, something I took for granted for most of my 63 years with him. Indeed, both of my parents were wonderful teachers and we children who were the beneficiaries of their wisdom all of our lives had no idea how lucky we were.

As a rather naive child, I didn’t know that all parents didn’t expose their children to all types of music, sing with them and encourage them to learn to play musical instruments. I didn’t know that all parents didn’t travel, setting the example of learning about other peoples and cultures, and inviting people of a wide range of ethnicities and social classes into their home. I didn’t know that all parents didn’t take time to teach their children the native flora and fauna, how to garden and fish, and take them to the museums and monuments to learn the history of their state and nation.

But it was not until the very end of my Dad’s life that I realized how lucky I had been to be the beneficiary of some of the deepest wisdom he had to share.

In one of my last conversations with my Dad in his hospital room at UF Shands Teaching Hospital in Gainesville, we talked about the many things that we each had been able to experience in our lives. Neither of us have ever been particularly concerned about amassing money and concerns for power and status always seemed pretty superficial to both of us. In many ways, I am my Father’s– and my Mother’s - son.

But we each engaged the educational process repeatedly to develop sound bodies of knowledge that have served us well in our roles as educators. We each have traveled the world, eagerly encountering new and different cultures, always with a genuine desire to understand the Other we encounter. And that openness extended to the people of our daily lives, the wide range of people my Dad and I have always invited to become members of our families of choice.

In one of our last conversations, I remarked to my Dad that while neither of us had much money to show for our life work, we had, indeed, been privileged to live very rich lives. I spoke of how grateful I am for that gift. He readily agreed. But more importantly, he consistently modeled it.

My Father’s final lesson to us was perhaps his greatest. He was never particularly religious. He did attend church with us when we were small children and would come for special occasions when his children were in Christmas plays and Vacation Bible School productions. But he didn’t have much use for doctrine or ritual and had no patience at all for self-righteous zealots even as his own life exhibited a spiritual depth that many may have missed.

In his last days of life, my Father repeatedly came back to two topics. One was his concern that everything was in place for me as the executor of his estate. Daddy didn’t have a big estate to leave. But he wanted to make sure that all of his children and grandchildren got something from what he did have. And as a lawyer who has written and probated a number of estates, I can report that he did well, indeed.

“Son, I think I’ve taken care of everything I need to do before I go,” he said. And he had.

The other focus of his attention in his last days was his burning desire to be reunited with our Mother, his beloved life partner of 53 years who predeceased him by 10 years and, he said, awaited his return to her loving embrace at the National Cemetery. In our last couple of conversations, that was all he talked about.

In the days before her death my Mother had told me that she was dreaming of her Father virtually every night. “He’s waiting for me,” she said. And no doubt he was. As Daddy’s time to reunite with her drew near, he said he had begun to dream of her. And I have no doubt that she was waiting for him as well.

What was so striking about his departure was how much peace marked his dying moments. There was absolutely no fear of death. When the time came, he simply slipped away in peace.

My Dad evidenced no concern about getting the right religious formula to assure him he would walk down mansion lined streets of gold with Jesus rather than burn in the flames of hell. Such concerns are for those of us who spend years of our lives in theological study and debates.

But they are also the concerns of opportunistic preachers who pimp the fears of vulnerable, grieving survivors at funerals seeking converts. It was such behavior of one of the clergy at my Mother’s funeral that became one of the primary reasons my Dad had insisted on there being no funeral for him. He wanted none of that kind of manipulative behavior engaged in his name.

With his affairs in order, my Father died peacefully, confidently, trusting whatever happened next - if anything - would be OK. One of his hands rested in the hand of his beloved daughter, the other in the hand of his beloved grandson, his sons enroute from Orlando to be by his side.

Not surprisingly, even in dying, my Father was the consummate teacher. I have no idea what my Dad’s concept of the Divine might have been though I suspect it would have been at best generalized and abstract. What I do know is that he trusted whatever he understood with his very existence and let go of his life in peace to pass into whatever might follow.

Such existential trust is truly a gift and a model worth emulating.

In all honesty, I cannot imagine a better death. I hope my own will be similar. And I believe all of us who knew my Dad are in the debt of this consummate teacher for this masterful final lesson.

Well done, good and faithful servant. May you rest in peace. And may the gifts you offered our world be remembered with gratitude and honored by passing them on to others.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Making Sense of a Calamity: Ken Wilber, Trump, and a Post-Truth World, Part 4

My guest blog entry has been published at the Ordinary Mystic blogsite.

"If the New America that I believe to be possible from this evolutionary moment in our common history does come into being, it will only be because we are able to find ways to reassert common understandings of what is Good, True and Beautiful without castigating those who do not hold these understandings. We must find ways to separate the challenging of the stupidity and mean-spiritedness in so many of the understandings vehemently asserted in the chaos that marks American politics today, from the tendency to see the holders of those understandings as themselves stupid and to do so in ways they do not feel attacked.

But that will also depend upon the willingness and ability of those functioning at red, amber and orange levels to hear and consider those challenges. And while Wilbur provides an insightful critique of green level developmental challenges, I feel he misses the enormous challenge our current reality in America poses those at the lower levels."

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?
 (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Klan and the Shadow at a Christmas Parade

I was in Wildwood last week to attend a school board meeting at which a resolution honoring my late father was being presented. It was a wonderful gesture on the part of the board whose superintendent and chair were both former students of my Dad’s.

After the meeting I drove down US 301, the main drag of this town 60 miles northeast of Orlando where I-75 and the Florida Turnpike converge. It was clear that this was a mere shell of this once vibrant little railroad town. For years the largest town in the county, Wildwood was always bigger than my hometown of Bushnell and its high school sports teams were perennially a force to be reckoned with.

Wildwood was a hub on the Seaboard Coastline railroad where the rail lines split. The depot had a dingy waiting room where people waited to catch trains going southeast to Miami or southwest to Tampa and to Jacksonville going north. The Tampa bound leg of that track ran parallel to the highway just in front of our home 15 miles to the south in Bushnell and I can still hear the sound of train cars crossing over the tracks nearby, their rhythmic clicking noise lulling me to sleep.

When the railroad scaled back its operations, deleting most of its passenger service in an era of interstate highways and cheap flights, Wildwood simply withered on the vine. Its once proud football team has not defeated my high school alma mater in the south end of the county in years and actually had to drop out of high school competition last year because its student population was too small to support a team. Wildwood students now attend a combined middle-high school dwarfed by its larger county rivals in Bushnell to the south and the high school for the children of employees at The Villages, the sprawling retirement community that has swallowed up much of a once rural Sumter County, to Wildwood’s east.

As I drove down the shuttered main street, my mind flashed back to a time of being in Wildwood long ago which resulted in a quite unexpected learning opportunity.

Threatening Demeanor and the Smell of Jim Beam

It was Christmas of 1970 and our high school band had been invited to participate in a Christmas parade in Wildwood. It was a Saturday and a cold front had just come through making the march down the main street breezy and cool, a welcome relief for those of us in polyester red and black uniforms we often broiled in. A few cirrus clouds were being blown around an otherwise brilliant sunny sky. It was a good day for a parade though chilly by Central Florida standards.

There weren’t a lot of people who turned out that day. The decline of the railroad industry which had already begun meant that a number of the residents didn’t have a lot of money to spend on Christmas presents that year or a lot of time to waste on parades.

Truth be told, I never liked being in Wildwood to begin with. The little farm town of Bushnell where I was growing up was pretty redneck – a description its predominately beef rancher and truck farming residents celebrated - and it was clear to me from my very first day there that I would never really fit in. But Wildwood took redneck to a whole new level.

Most people describing the Wildwood of my childhood called it “a rough town.” That was undoubtedly an understatement. Legend had it that when a male child was born in Wildwood, they brought him to the stadium and put a football in his hand. If the baby dropped the ball, they killed it. In any case, I knew I wanted to spend as little time in Wildwood as was absolutely necessary. 

About halfway down the mile-long parade route along a newly four-lane US 301, a group of white men stood on a corner passing out literature of some kind. As our band passed their corner, we were simply marching to a drum cadence, having already played our last round of “Merry Old St. Nicholas” set to a march tempo.

Suddenly, one of the men ran up to us and began handing out handbills to band members. One of them offered a flyer to me. His threatening body language and the overpowering scent of BO cut with a healthy dose of Jim Beam (this at noon) suggested that I probably should take the flyer if I knew what was good for me. This was Wildwood, after all.

So I took it and the man ran laughing back to the corner with his inebriated buddies. I folded up the flyer, put it in the voluminous front right pocket of my band uniform and promptly forgot about it, filing the whole incident under the “Gee, that was just a little creepy” category.

When I got home, as I was putting my band uniform on a hanger to hang in my closet I felt the flyer in the pocket. Oh yeah, I said to myself, what was that all about?

I almost stopped breathing when I unfolded the flyer and looked at it. There on the front cover was a headline which read “N****rs are Monkeys.” (editing mine) Below the headline a caricature of an African-American man appeared.

Inside the flyer was a chart comparing yet another caricature of an African-American man with the image of a gorilla and numerous arrows connecting supposed points of comparison. It was immediately clear to me that this was toxic propaganda like none I had ever seen before. What I didn’t know at that time was where it had originated.

I took the flyer into the kitchen where my Mom was cooking our Saturday evening supper. The room was full of the smell of pot roast and my Mother’s ever sunny presence. That all changed in one split second when I handed her the flyer.

“Look what somebody gave me, Mom.”

My Mother was not one to get angry and I rarely saw her lose her composure. But one look at her face and I knew this moment would be very different.

“Where did you get that?” she said, the color draining from her face.

“From some guy at the parade in Wildwood.”

“Don’t you know what this is?”  The words were almost spat from her mouth.

In all honesty, I didn’t. Truth be told, I was a naïve kid generally. I had no idea why someone would take the time, effort and resources to create such a juvenile expression of ignorance and mean-spiritedness. I also had no idea what a Grand Wizard was.

But my Mother did.

Torches Lighting Up the Tropical Night

Back in the 1920s, when my mother was a very young girl, Florida was changing. Small towns like her own Homestead and the nearby city of Miami were undergoing  major growth spurts. Stucco houses like the one in which she lived were springing up in subdivisions newly carved out of former swamps and sand lots. People from all over the country poured into Florida to speculate on a land boom that would go bust after a killer hurricane a few years later foreshadowing the major Depression that would soon engulf all of America.

Soldiers were coming home from the Great War, as World War I was known, returning to their hometowns with hopes of getting on with life. Among them were African-American soldiers who had become accustomed to being treated if not completely equal to their white counterparts at least a lot more equal than the subservient places their racist hometowns intended for them to resume.

As African-Americans began to demand to be registered to vote in states across the country, a wave of lynchings swept the nation. Lurid photos like the infamous one from Marion, Indiana, (pictured below) revealed these events to be times of ghoulish entertainment for local populations seemingly oblivious to the atrocities they had just committed. Florida, struggling to come to grips with a tidal wave of change, led the nation in lynchings per capita, most of them carried out by a newly reborn secretive organization called the Ku Klux Klan.

As her hands holding the flyer trembled, my Mother recounted how the Klan had come to her family’s home in the late 1920s, within a few weeks of deadly massacres of black neighborhoods in places with names like Ocoee and Rosewood. Men like those on the corner in Wildwood had come in the dead of night hidden behind white robes and pointed hoods with torches ablaze to stand in the front yard of her family home. They had come to inform my grandfather that it was his time and duty to join the Klan.

My grandfather was always a man of conscience and ethics. I admired him greatly. He was always well informed and could tell you what he thought about any given current event but more importantly he could tell you why he thought that. Though he was no liberal, I clearly remember his mourning the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy with the assertion over our breakfast table that “You stop people with ballots, not bullets.” He had little tolerance for ignorance and even less for mean-spiritedness.

“So, what did he do, Mama?” I asked.

“He told them no. No, no, no and furthermore, hell no!  Now get off my property!”

At that moment she ripped the flyer into pieces and informed me “You will NEVER bring anything like this into this house again. EVER.” And I knew she was deadly serious.

Shock Over a Dial-a-Hate-Message

It would not be until a few years later when I studied the Jim Crow era in America as a history major at the University of Florida that I would realize just how daring my grandfather’s response had been.  I would also come to understand what caused my Mother’s unexpected reaction to that reminder of her own life history.

The Klan often did not take no for answer. They were known to come back repeatedly to intimidate those who turned down their recruitment efforts. Indeed, those who said no to the Klan were often viewed as sympathetic to the people the Klan had targeted and could become targets themselves. Even in my childhood in Central Florida of the 1960s, one of the worst slurs one could level at one’s fellow white person was “n****r lover.”

Fortunately, I’ve had only one direct encounter with the Klan since then. In the late 1980s, one of my students at Valencia revealed in a writing assignment that he was affiliated with the Klan and included a brochure complete with a telephone number at which you could hear a recorded hate speech message. With his permission (indeed, perhaps his glee) I created an assignment to have my US Government students call the number and then report what they heard, critically analyze the message content and point to the parts of the Constitution that were implicated by that content.

Not surprisingly it made for an intense class discussion. What I heard in so many of their responses was the fear and anger in my Mother’s voice of so many years ago, echoed in the voices of young students shocked by what they had just experienced.

The shock over suddenly encountering such blatant racism is fairly common among white Americans. One of the aspects of privilege in a racist society is the luxury of naivete among its beneficiaries. 

But that is hardly to say that our unawareness of racism means it has gone away. Contrary to the many self-congratulatory assessments by my fellow white countrymen and women, America has hardly “dealt with its race problem.” Indeed, while the original flyer referenced above was ripped to pieces by my Mother and thrown away, the images shown here came from a simple Google search. 

As I see it, the Klan is but one tangible aspect of America’s enormous Shadow that emerges periodically to remind us of its existence. It reflects one of the many repressed, unacknowledged and disowned aspects of America’s 500 year history which haunt us to this day and prevent us from evolving into the nation our noble ideals would suggest we are capable of becoming.

This aspect of our Shadow began with the importation of the first African slaves into Jamestown, VA in 1619, a trajectory that would eventually lead to a Civil War that nearly doomed the country. The loss of that war directed by the slave holding Southern aristocracy but fought by its working class whites would only drive that racism out of America’s immediate consciousness into its collective unconscious.

It would periodically emerge in thinly veiled forms in Jim Crow laws and states’ rights arguments. By the 1960s, “law and order” campaigns with racist dog whistles would provide an effective means of pimping the fragile sense of masculinity of working class whites and stoking the fears of white flight suburbanites.

Yet the powerful Shadow behind all these efforts would remain largely unconscious for most Americans. Until now.

A Celebration of Shadow Provides an Opportunity

As I drove down the main street of Wildwood last week, its dime stores, cafes and second hand stores now mostly boarded up, memories of my youthful, naïve encounter with the Klan dancing in my head, I listened to the NPR newscast. The announcer was relating stories of desecrated Jewish cemeteries, Muslim mosques and violent conflicts in urban centers where Trump rallies are being held.

In the past election cycle, America’s white population voted overwhelmingly for a candidate writer James Baldwin would have readily identified as a “moral monster.” Reflecting a backlash against eight years of an eloquent Ivy League educated mixed race president, it has not been unusual to see Confederate flags and “Sieg Heil” Nazi salutes regularly displayed at Trump rallies. Occasionally Klansmen come out of their racist closets in full Klan drag complete with pointed hoods bearing almost invariably misspelled signs with racist messages. The once firmly repressed Shadow of America’s racist past has been called out to play with an abandon not seen in a very long time.

For many of us, it is painful to watch and frightening to endure. I can still see my Mother’s trembling hands and ashen face as she told me her story of close encounters with the Klan. Yet, like that unpredicted encounter spawned by a Klan flyer nearly a half century ago, this turn of events in America’s history provides us with an unexpected opportunity for learning sorely needed lessons in order to evolve as a society.

America will never be able to come to grips with the racism that informs everything from the world’s largest prison-industrial complex to the increasingly explosive dealings between its police and its youth of color to the enormous gaps in all measures of social well-being between whites and black in our culture until we own that aspect of our collective Shadow that began in 1619 in Jamestown. Slavery and the racist culture it spawned is hardly the only elephant in the inner room of America’s psyche but it is a major one. Indeed, as Sojourner’s editor Jim Wallis says, it may well be America’s original sin.

This moment in American history provides us an unexpected opportunity to acknowledge this aspect of our collective Shadow and to come to grips with it. How we respond is critical. Deepok Chopra recently observed, “Denial is when you ignore the shadow; disaster is when you totally surrender to it.”

Neither the denial of that history which has marked our response historically nor the current celebration of its Shadow - in all its misanthropic expressions - marking the rise of Trumpland can provide America the opportunity for healing it so desperately needs. We must be willing to let go of our collective persona of American exceptionalism, the City on the Hill,  which admits to no darkness at all long enough to see all of who we are and to own all of who we have been. As Carl Jung reminds us, the brighter the persona, the darker – and thus the more potentially destructive - that Shadow will be.

We must be willing to look at our history in places with names like Ocoee and Rosewood in all of their blood-sodden darkness. We must be willing to look at the inequality and injustice that has flowed and continues to flow from that history and own it. And we must be willing to see the privilege that legacy has provided those of us who happen to be winners of a genetic lottery in a deeply racist culture that comes at the expense of those who were not.

Only then can the healing America’s soul so desperately needs begin.

It is essential to note that in any attempt to gain reconciliation within divided, conflictual societies around the world from South Africa to Canada, that reconciliation has always come only after a period of candid, painful truth-telling. With the eruption of America’s Shadow to the surface so that it can be seen for what it truly is and always has been, the time for our truth-telling has finally arrived.

Whether America is able to meet the challenge this opportunity provides may well determine whether we are able to hold together as a nation-state and remain a single people.  What is clear at this moment is that it is our very soul which is at stake.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?
 (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017