Thursday, January 26, 2017

…and then he was gone.

Daddy had been hoping to come home from the hospital last Friday. The discharge staff at Shands thought he needed a blood transfusion. His body didn’t react well. His vitals dropped to frightening levels, he became disoriented and distraught. He spent the next two days in intensive care.

In retrospect, that was the day he gave up. There would be no further resistance of Sister Death’s looming embrace.

Starry Skies Above an Empty Home

When he finally was released from the hospital Tuesday, he just wanted to go home.

And he got awfully close.

Periodically on the transport from Gainesville to Bushnell, he would awaken and ask my Sister where they were. “SR 326, just north of Ocala, Daddy.” “Good,” he would respond. Later he whispered, “Are we to Belleview yet?” “Almost, Daddy.” “Good, we’re almost there.”   

But when the transport arrived in Bushnell, it drove past his home to a facilty just a half mile down the road, wedged between a Winn Dixie plaza and a rental storage facility. Osprey Point had been willing to receive him in their rehabilitation sector and Shands had agree to discharge him there. We had hoped this would be the transition to get him home.

But it was not to be.

Daddy had made us promise we would not deposit him in an assisted living facility for his final days. He didn’t want all of the inheritance he had so carefully crafted to go to us to be eaten up by nursing home charges. More importantly, he did not want to die in “one of those places.” He wanted to die at home.

After finally getting Daddy into bed at the facility Tuesday night, I chose to spend the night at our family home just up the road so I could check on him in the morning before heading back to Orlando to teach my long day at Valencia.

As I got out of my car, I instinctively looked up. The number of stars one can see in the woods, particularly on a cool winter night, is amazing. The night sky always captivated me as a child. I’ve almost forgottten what it looks like. It is one of the things I miss most about living in a city.

I lived in our family home for seven years before leaving for college and have stayed there with my folks many times since. I readily slip back into my patterns of life there, going to sleep to the nearby freight train, awakening to the sun pouring through its eastern fronting windows. But this night the house I knew and loved seemed different.

It was so empty.

I kept thinking I’d hear my Dad come stumbling around the corner to ask if I wanted some cheese or an ice cream sandwich. “There are diet sodas in there if you want one, Son” he’d say over the ominpresent hum of Fox on the television. But all I heard that long night of broken sleep was the cracking and popping of 50 year old wooden floors and the periodic punctation of acorns falling on the tin roof.

The vibrant life energy that had surrounded my wonderful Daddy was just no longer there.

Time to Let Go

I brought him some azaleas I picked from his yard this morning. They are just starting to bloom. During my childhood we worked hard together at planting about 300 azaleas in our yard and each spring they are absolutely glorious. This year’s display promises to be no exception.

He squinted at the azaleas and a look of sadness crossed his face: “I want to go home,” he said. “Daddy, we’re working at getting you there as quickly as we can.” “No,” he said, “I want to go home. NOW!”

Ironically, I left the facility soon thereafter a bit more hopeful. His vehement insistence about going home immediately was a little spark of the Sam Coverston I had known, admired and loved for 63 years, hiding in a pallid shell of a body in that bed. Maybe he would perk up enough to come home after all.

Wednesday is my long day of classes at Valencia. I teach three classes starting at 1:30 and ending at 8:45. That requres me to leave home by about noon to get to Kissimmee and get into my classroom. Arriving home from Bushnell, I had just enough time for a shower and printing out of the dilemma for my ethics classes before heading south to Kissimmee.

The discussion of that dilemma, a question involving HMOs and voiceboxes for stroke patients, had my night class at fever pitch when I finally cut off the discussion at 8:45 to collect their papers. By 9:30 I had just arrived home from my classes and sat down to read my email. The gong on my cell phone alerted me to an incoming message.

“Come now!” my Sister’s IM said.

I had already made that 100 mile round-trip from Orlando in the last 24 hours and a 50 mile round-trip to Kissimmee this afternoon. But there was no question about the urgency of this message. I pulled on a sweater and jumped in the car. An hour later I was back in Bushnell.

The face of the nurse’s aide told me the answer to my question before I asked it. He had been gone about a half hour when I arrived, his hand still warm when I took it in mine. His face bore no sign of struggle or discomfort. My sister said he had gone very peacefully. She had been holding one of his hands, her son, Scott, Daddy’s beloved grandson, holding the other.

Just 47 days shy of his 90th birthday, Daddy had simply let go.

Now it is our turn.

The Memories Are Dying

On the long drive home, I eschewed the busy turnpike and expressway for the old route to Orlando across SR 50. I was afraid I was not alert enough to be in heavy traffic. And at midnight, it’s actually humanly possible to get home on 50 without taking your life into your hands.

In years past it was the only way to get to Orlando from the west coast. SR 50 passes through once small citrus towns now bedroom communities named Mascotte, Groveland, Clermont, Oakland, Winter Garden and Ocoee. The fragrant citrus groves through which my Dad once navigated a two lane highway to get his two boys to orthodontist and dentist appointments in Orlando are long gone. A continuous swath of apartment complexes, gated communities and strip shopping malls have long since sprouted to take their place. Lakes Sherwood and Lotta, which once swallowed up SR 50 requiring a detour through the orange groves after Hurricane Donna dumped a couple of feet of water on Central Florida in 1960, are now nearly dry gulches on either side of the highway.  

The giant plaster statue of the mini-skirted woman holding a tire in the air a lá Statue of Liberty no longer graces the front of the Winter Garden auto repair shop. G-d only knows where that girl has gotten off to and She ain’t tellin’.

Closer to town, the Royal Castle in Pine Hills at whose counter my Dad used to brag to the wait staff about how many of those nasty little hamburgers with grilled onions his boys could eat is in its umpteenth incarnation, this time as an Asian noodle house. Nearing the downtown, the Western Way shopping center cowboy no longer twirls his sparkling neon lariat over his head. His figure on a dented metal sign with chipping paint still towering over the parking lot is all that’s left, a hollow specter of glory days.

The memories of those long drives to Orlando all through the 1960s with my Dad and my little brother, happy visits to the big city in a hot car with windows wide open in days before air conditioning, come pouring back to me this night. But I simultaneously realize that I have fewer and fewer physical reminders to trigger them. These treasures of my childhood are dying along with those who created them. As of tonight, I have become one of only two Keepers of The Remaining Sacred Memories I now carry in my heart.

Saying Goodbye

Before I departed from the room where my Father had left behind his body this night, I leaned down kissed his gray forehead, made the sign of the cross there with my thumb and whispered a line adapted from the commendatory prayer of the Book of Common Prayer: O God,  [+] into your arms we commend a child of your own creation, a sheep of your own fold, a sinner of your own redeeming. Amen.

Daddy wasn’t much for religion. And he has made us promise there will be no funeral. But he was always proud of his kid who had become an Episcopal priest. Tonight that priest said goodbye to his Father with a prayer through his tears.

Rest in peace, Daddy. We love you.

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


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Mourning in America – Part XI: How to Respond: Rebirth

Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

            - Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

Trumpland was born in the context of a house divided. America was more divided right before the 2016 election than it has been since the American Civil War whose destructiveness Lincoln had come to mourn at Gettysburg 153 years ago. And it remains deeply divided in this run up to the inauguration with no healing of divisions on the horizon.

Whatever else the new czar of Trumpland might be, he’s not a healer. 

Quoting the words of a Jesus of Nazareth in a highly polarized 1st CE Judea occupied by Romans, Lincoln presciently observed that the antagonistic divisions of any country cannot continue indefinitely. Houses divided against themselves inevitably fall even as they tell themselves their reigns will continue indefinitely. His own Judea would eventually be sent into exile by the Romans. And the divisions of the Lincoln’s time would be resolved in America’s bloodiest war. 

The same is true today. Trumpland is a brittle construct. Its tendencies toward authoritarianism are pronounced. The sense of its legitimacy among the general populace is limited at best. The mutual antagonism whipped up by a demagogue enroute to Trumpland’s rise to power contains the seeds of its own destruction. 

The phenomenon of a descent into chaos and conflict prior to the rise of a new incarnation of the American republic is hardly without precedent. Social historians William Strauss and Neil Howe have observed the same pattern, a Fourth Turning as they called it, cyclically recurring in US history all the way back to its beginning. 

The last Fourth Turning prior to this one began with the fall of the NYSE in 1928, escalated through a Great Depression and concluded with a second world war. The Fourth Turning before that began with the Dred Scott Decision, escalated with the election of Lincoln and ended with the Civil War. In each case, a new America arose from the ashes of the old, yet another First Turning.  

Strauss and Howe believed that the current Fourth Turning began with the twin disasters of the Bush era -   the invasions of two Arab countries - which promptly imploded into ongoing civil wars - followed by a virtual depression at home. The Fourth Turning escalated with the election of its first non-white president bringing  a pernicious racism to the surface that had largely laid dormant for about four decades. This misanthropy has since played out in a number of directions with multiple candidates for scapegoats for America's woes . 

Where it will go from here is unknown but history suggests a grim period lies ahead for all of us. Indeed, as the authors warn us in The Fourth Turning, “the darkest hour is just before dawn.” 

Was Trumpland inevitable?

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. – John F. Kennedy, Address on the first Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress (1962)

From a long range perspective, the rise of Trumpland may ultimately come to be seen as inevitable. The rate of demographic change which marked the electoral success of Barack Obama has frightened many white Americans who had presumed that their white privilege was always going to be a given. 

The failures of American foreign policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan with protracted armed occupations have served to incite terrorist atrocities around the world. The inability of the American fighting machine to clearly and convincingly win wars it has repeatedly sold the public called upon to fight them on any number of scurrilous grounds has deeply disturbed the soul of its people. We are accustomed to making vague but passionate assertions that our nation state is Number One even as we selectively ignore the growing number of aspects which fall far from that standard. 

Pre-Trump America was being pressured to evolve in a number of ways. Its economic system had largely proven to be a failure, an extractive economy which has resulted in modern history’s highest levels of inequalities. An entire generation is entering our work force with crippling debt from student loans and salaries that are 10% lower as a whole than those their parents made at a similar point in their lives. All of this is thanks to the ability of the business quadrant to stack the deck of everyday business dealings through its control of the political quadrant and the internalization of this state by most Americans as expectable if not normal. Habermas’ grim vision of the colonization of the lifeworld is realized.

One the eve of the election, relations between police and working poor communities of color were turbulent and the sense of legitimacy of America’s justice system was at an all time low. No doubt trust will be at a premium in the daily lives of residents of Trumpland.

The federal government whose lofty goals are listed in the Preamble has proven almost catatonic for the last half decade. For the last two years, the least productive Congress in history has done nothing but obstruct its President whose hopeful agenda for change went largely onto the cutting room floor. A seat on the US Supreme Court went unfilled for a year as a Republican Senate refused to live into its Constitutional duties to advise and consent in that process. 

The FBI director, our nation's chief law enforcement officer, engaged in a blatantly political and legally questionable intervention into the election. This occurred even as the agency ignored the warnings of the CIA that Russian hackers had intervened into that election on behalf of a monster they felt more accommodating to Russian imperatives. In the days of my childhood with its ongoing Red Scare, this would have readily been seen as the stuff of treason. 

 At the state level, governors and legislatures continued the cannibalizing of state and local public education and health programs and the implementation of barriers to voting disproportionately impacting the working poor. The operation of prisons and schools began to be sold to the highest corporate bidders shutting out public input into that process entirely. And state after state sought to pass laws targeting LBGTQ people and immigrants creating a climate of fear driven persecution in those jurisdictions. 

Giving Birth to a New America

At a very basic level these are the death throes of an old America about to give up the ghost. But amidst the wailing of lamentation for the passing of the old, if we listen closely we will also hear the birth pains of a New America already beginning to comeinto existence. 

The old ways of being America with its shining, noble ideals and the glaring contradictions of its behaviors can no longer work. The late America had already begun to realize it no longer had the luxury of denial regarding those contradictions. We knew that the “evolving standards of decency” articulated by Justices Brennan and Marshall in striking down the practices of state killing in 1976 had a wide application to virtually every aspect of our collective lives together.

Ironically, while we Baby Boomers were the first to see and articulate this vision in the 1960s - drawing America’s social, economic and political ills into critical focus -  our generation has ultimately become one of the chief obstacles to that evolution. The lures of mammon proved too strong. With the remnants of our parent’s era and a substantial portion of the Gen X cohort we helped spawn, a slim majority of Boomers joined in leading the Trump charge this past election. 

In short, many of us sold out. 

No doubt the late Tom Hayden is weeping in heaven.

The Millennials now see that vision and can readily articulate the critique of the Boomers from a new perspective. But this new cohort must overcome its own handicaps - notions of instant gratification and entitlement and a naïve if not cynical tendency to disregard all that has come before them - in order to engage the challenges their generation will yet face in building a New America. 

The first step in that battle will be rejecting the constant distractions of social media and cell technologies to be fully present. It will be tough. The poisoned kool-aid of a mindless consumerism is often quite sweet. 

Those of us who voted for Bernie Sanders had hoped a peaceful revolution was possible. Bernie articulated a vision of America’s growing edges while appealing to our most noble values. But America was not ready for a peaceful revolution and when that did not happen, many of us sought to bite the bullet, vote for Hillary Clinton and avoid digging the wounds on our national soul any deeper, buying ourselves some more time for that evolution to occur peacefully. 

But that was not to be. 

Even so, those changes are coming. 

I am not a psychic but I sense that the evolutionary pressures on America on the eve of the 2016 election have only begun. But they will not come fully to the fore until the current period of Kali Yuga that is Trumpland has run its course. Like a healthy tree, the old leaves must die, fall and be raked away before the new can begin growing.  

What will emerge on the other side is unclear. If the collapse of Trumpland is as severe as I believe it could be, there could be a great deal of destruction and death in its path. Moreover, I have no great amount of confidence that the New America arising from the ashes of Trumpland will be the same as the America which predated it. 

For a long time I have had the sense that Americans no longer saw themselves as a single people. The polarization of red and blue America is so intense now that families would rather their children marry a member of a different race or religion - historical barriers to marriages in America - than a member of another political party. It seems entirely possible that the New America might well resemble post-partition India with its Muslim realms to either side and its Hindus sandwiched between the two. 

In all truthfulness, that vision breaks my heart. I do not wish to see my former country rent asunder even as I recognize it has been so on a de facto basis for awhile now. It also keeps me up at night to imagine a Texas which has inherited the nuclear arsenals of the former United States. Whatever coastal blue New America that might emerge in such a context would be born into a matrix of existential danger. 

Challenges for a New America

The New America will have a number of challenges in front of it. If democracy is to continue to be the root of its self-governance, the following must be dealt with: 

- The right to vote must be a given. Voting must be seen as a right, not a privilege, and access to the ballot must be universal and unquestionable for all of its citizens every time. Anything less will continue to be exploitative and cannot meet the demands of true democracy. 

- Multi-parties must be made possible. This will mean opening primary elections or perhaps going to non-partisan races or alternative (second choice) voting. It must mean national debates with all parties represented. It must mean universal ballots open to all candidates and parties. The days of two party domination have failed us. This must end. 

- Big Money must be eliminated. The results of Citizens United clearly show that the role of unlimited dark money on the electoral process has been profoundly pernicious. A tsunami of negative ads not only prevents an accurate picture of candidates and their positions from being apprehended by the electorate, it also dampens voter participation and ultimately draws the legitimacy of elections into question. Publicly funded elections may not be the only possible solution but they have a proven track record in many democratic societies who simply do not tolerate the sewer of negativity that the 2016 election proved to be. However it happens, the gathering of the candidates at the trough of corporate moneys must end.

- Campaigns must be shortened. Most democratic societies limit their elections to between six weeks and a couple of months. There is a good reason for this. On the one hand, demanding the undiverted attention of the electorate over an extended period of time is an unattainable goal in a constantly distracted culture. Hearing ideas being discussed in an intentional manner over a brief period allows for thoughtful comparison of ideas and informed voting. Extended, media-driven campaigns complete with the flood of dark money advertising creates a carnival of grotesque caricatures of candidates and a confused electorate. Elections must never be seen as means of entertainment. Their results are far too important for such a superficial approach. 

- Electoral College must be changed.  Perhaps ended. The elitist concerns of Framers protecting their own interests three centuries ago reveals one of the shortcomings in the creation of their otherwise post-conventional moral reasoning Constitution. But the Electoral College demonstrably fails to serve the common good. It has not protected the rural majority from the tyranny of the urban elite. In an age where most Americans live in cities or suburbs, it facilitates the tyranny of a rural plurality over the larger urban minority. Indeed, it has allowed the loser of the actual democratic process to accede to power twice within two decades. If democratic self-governance is to be assured, the people must be able to decide who their leaders will be. All of them. 

- National office of elections.  The past half century has seen the rise and fall of legislation and court oversight to insure equal access to the voting process. It has now run athwart of a new set of state restrictions designed to suppress minority voting. A national office of elections is needed to insure universal voting, to prevent gerrymandered Congressional districts from producing leadership which does not reflect the electorate, and to insure that the process of voting and its results are certifiably valid. The current handling of all of those duties by the states has simply proven to be a failure. 

That’s just the self-governance piece of the challenge. The government of a New America will face a number of challenges that begin with adequate responses to climate change that threatens to make us extinct and the resulting waves of refugees it will produce. The coming flood of immigrants will no doubt make dealing with the current trickle of human beings we mistakenly call “illegals” seem like a picnic. 

The New America must find a way to give birth to a new form of public education that is capable of insuring a united citizenry critically aware of its history and committed to the common good. Schools must be dedicated to the developmental needs of every student, not the instrumental imperatives of the business world. And they must develop the means of fostering care for our earth, an awareness of the natural realm, from which we get our food, and the cost to the earth and its living beings our lifestyles impose upon it.

The New America must find ways to accommodate a multi-religious population and religious bodies competing for souls as well as control of the society in which they live. It must find ways to use technology in life-giving ways and reject its atomizing distractions. And it must find ways to insure that those who prepare themselves and work hard will receive a living wage and that medical and legal care will be available to all when they need it. 

These are no small challenges. But the success of a New America in meeting them will likely determine whether or not this experiment in “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The New America is already being born

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…” The Apocalypse of St. John 21

The New America that is coming will have to rise in the face of overwhelming challenges and crises. It is my hope and my prayer that its creators will find the courage to meet those challenges, withstand the crises and the wisdom to respond productively just as its predecessor Americas did in Fourth Turnings past.  And I have no small amount of hope that will happen. 

Here is why.

For the past three years I have taught as an adjunct at the Osceola Campus of Valencia College. Formerly a two year community college, Osceola-Valencia serves a predominately working class community which serves the attractions to our west. 

I believe the New America is already being born there. It is a minority-majority campus much like the county in which it is located in a state demographically headed for the same. When I toss out ethical dilemmas to my students, much as I have done in this series of blog posts, I am amazed at how seriously they take them and how creatively they respond to them. When there is no common sense to defer to, the creativity and wisdom that can be evoked from a group of thoughtful people seeking the common good is endless.

My students give me hope for a New America - a new heaven and a new earth – in my own lifetime. I pray that I will be permitted the privilege of playing some role in the midwifery process of this New America. And I hope that my words here have provided my readers with some considerations of what their own role and responses will be when the time comes for them to act. 

Let us mourn the America we have lost, survive the monster to whom we have given power and resist the regime he will lead that bodes ill for the whole world. And then let us build a New America together in which “liberty and justice for all” will mean more than a mere perfunctory ritual. I wish you well in that struggle and I pray we will meet on the other side of it as we work together to reclaim a dream squandered and rebuild a nation lost.

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, 2016