I stopped by the nearby Target Sunday afternoon on the way to a panel discussion of African, Haitian and African-American art at the Crealde Gallery. Target recently replaced its snack bar in our local store with a Starbucks counter (they do still sell their famous popcorn, thank goodness!). I’ve found it’s the only place I can order anything brewed (I really don’t much like pour-overs) other than the Pikes Place regular coffee among the four outlets within the three block Colonial Drive commercial strip after about 11 AM.
I prefer Starbuck’s dark roasts and even though it costs a little more, I’m willing to pay it. I’ll even brave the consumer hordes at Target to get it.
Given that my mind was already leaping ahead to the exhibit I was eagerly anticipating, what happened next took me by complete surprise. Before it was over, I would be afforded a moment of gratitude for a snapshot of life in this blue urban island I love and a hopeful vision of a New America arising from the ruins of Trumpland.
It Means “Together”
When I got to the counter I was three customers back from the register, dutifully standing in queue next to the strategically located, attractively displayed temptations in the glass display case. This day they ranged from breakfast melts with goat cheese and sundried tomato to Bundt cakes and banana bread treats. At the head of the line the single clerk behind the counter (I often observe these kids are required to do two or three actual jobs for the price of one in this market fundamentalist culture) was trying to help a customer with limited English skills who was receiving an order over her cell phone.
That was when it began to get interesting.
The clerk whose name tag read “Sadiq” was a handsome, bearded young man. My guess is that he was Muslim and quite possibly the child of immigrants. His customer was a middle-aged black woman whose conversation over the telephone was being conducted in Spanish. My guess was the she was from somewhere in the Caribbean.
In the midst of trying to locate the deserts the woman wanted, the clerk suddenly began to query his customer in Spanish. Pointing to the pumpkin bread she had selected, he asked, “Caliente? (Do you want this heated?).” The customer nodded, “Si, si” and then pointed to the next lemon slice next to the first. “Caliente, tambien? (Do you want this one heated, too?).” “Si, si.”
The clerk rang the sale up and hustled off to get the treats into the oven. He then turned back to the counter to wait on the two overweight white women just ahead of me in line pushing their half-filled carts, their appearance suggesting working class backgrounds.
It was at the point he was standing at the oven that I noticed the tattoo. It had been imprinted on the back of his neck, a Chinese character, its black ink standing out very clearly against the mocha colored skin of the young man.
Within minutes it was my turn to step to the counter. I ordered my usual medium dark roast with a little room. At 2 PM I wouldn’t be able to drink the entire coffee (it keeps me up at night) but I always save the remnant of my afternoon Starbucks self-indulgences in the refrigerator to mix with my morning coffee the next day.
As I paid the clerk I told him I only had two questions for him. “Donde aprendiste su Español? (Where did you learn your Spanish?).” I’m not sure if it was my poor pronunciation (my Spanish reeks of Gringo) or his level of comprehension or both but he asked me to repeat it.
Switching back to English I repeated my question and he said Duolingo, the online free tutoring program. We talked a bit about the value of such programs and he said he was now learning the tenses (Ugh! Bane of my existence as a foreign language student). I told him that the best way I’d found to learn a foreign language was to do exactly what he was doing, to try to use it with people who spoke the language and being willing to take chances, to be corrected and try again.
|Note: Google provided this translation of the character.|
I am hoping it is correct.
Then I asked my second question: “What does the character on your neck mean?” The young man broke into a big, toothy grin. “It means ‘Together.’ It’s the way I see the world.” “That’s beautiful,” I said. He smiled and thanked me. We finished our transaction, I thanked him for the coffee and headed over to dilute the strong black coffee with the non-fat milk I always use to take a bit of the edge off.
The Gifts That Could Ultimately Save Us
As I walked away from that encounter, it suddenly occurred to me that I had just been given a gift. I had experienced something unexpected and quite valuable.
|Panel Discussion, Crealde Gallery, Winter Park|
I felt a wave of gratitude come over me realizing I am fortunate to be able to live in such a rich cultural milieu. Orange County, Florida is a majority/minority county now. There is no single language or cultural group that is the majority. If all of us minority groups are going to get along, we have to learn how to relate to, respect and ultimately value one another.
But we need to be clear that this is a major challenge and there are clearly break downs along the way. The heated discussion at the art exhibit over cultural appropriation that afternoon would readily prove that. But the potential arising out of such a rich culture is truly unlimited. This kind of diverse cultural richness is an incredibly valuable resource to a community that learns how to appreciate and appropriate it. And, in the end, it is worth the hard work and enduring the tensions it generates.
From the ongoing studies of the causes of the rise of Trumpland, I also realize that it is precisely this kind of diversity and the loss of presumed cultural dominance it means to groups who formerly enjoyed it without question that many find so frightening. And one doesn’t have to go far to encounter that fear and loathing.
The red sea of rural and suburban Trumpland begins just a half hour drive at most from the heart of downtown Orlando where I live. In all honesty, I try not to spend much time out there these days. Between growing up there and the years of teaching I offered the children and families of those who lived there, I have done my time in the red sea. And at this point in my life I am clear I am not capable of ever living there again. Indeed, I am probably as uncomfortable there as many of the denizens of the red sea feel when they visit the blue urban islands.
|Mural, Pulse Memorial, Orlando|
But I also see a much larger pattern developing that I think is lost on the current culture wars between the red sea and the blue islands. For it is in rich diverse urban cultures like Orlando’s that a synergy arises from the disparate cultural groups that has the potential to address the enormous challenges that face our country and our world in the very near future. I know. I was fortunate to have a four-year stint in the Bay Area of northern California 30 years ago when Silicon Valley was just beginning to boom.
I know potential when I see it.
Just as slaves built the original America and immigrants revived it at the turn of the 20th CE, it is immigrants like Sadiq and his family who, just as in years past, have gifts to offer our floundering nation struggling to find its soul. And I believe it is those gifts that could ultimately save us.
But, as the young man’s tattoo reminds us, it will take all of us working together to build a New America. It will mean those of us in blue islands must learn to value the experience and the gifts of the folks in the fearful red sea. They, in turn, must come to grips with their fears of a changing world. It will mean that the blue urban islands must recognize that we cannot survive without the gifts the red sea routinely offers us including awareness of our condescension. And the folks in the red sea must realize that the markets for their products are largely in the cities and the progenitors of the technologies they have come to rely upon are almost always the products of the blue islands.
If we are to survive as a people, indeed as a species, we are going to have to relearn how to respect one another and work together.
On the Far Side of Our Dark Night of the Soul
This Sunday I believe I caught a brief glimpse of that new possible reality. I sense that I was looking at the face of a New America already beginning to be born. It is a New America that will be stronger in its diversity than the America which as often as not failed to live into the noble ideals of the “Equal Justice Under the Law” inscribed over the portico of a once venerable Supreme Court and the “liberty and justice for all” our schoolchildren have been taught to recite as if self-evidently true - even when it was not.
A New America is going to demand that our actions match our talk.
"It Cost to Hate," Ruby Williams, paint on wood (2016)
I believe that this New America could be more vibrant and much stronger in its intentionally valued diversity than the tense black and white monochrome of the segregated America in which I grew up. I realize that a return to that old America – a segregated, white Christian dominated America which felt free to routinely ignore its own ideals - serves as the fervent hope of many Trumplanders. But it is a dream that simply cannot be realized.
We simply can never unsee evolution once it has begun to manifest itself.
Cultural evolutions always face enormous resistance the closer they come to the point when the wheel of life begins to turn. Backlashes are expectable when a status quo in flux begins to change. Beneficiaries of any status quo rarely relinquish power without a fight.
Such is the reality in which we find ourselves today. And we are hardly alone.
Two recent speakers at the Gladdening Light celebration of arts and spirituality at Rollins College pointed to that reality. Rabbi Rami Shapiro spoke of a “global crucifixion of civilizations worldwide.” Writer Mirabai Starr described this time as a global “dark night of the soul” of which Trumpland is but one of many manifestations. From Brexit to the destruction of the Amazon to the persecution of Muslims and Sikhs in India, that pattern is playing out across our globe. Despite our tendencies to see ourselves as somehow exceptional, our country is part of something much larger than ourselves.
But both speakers hastened to add that the important thing to remember is that on the other side of that dark night lies a new life at a higher level of consciousness. And on the other side of crucifixion lies resurrection. What that will look like, I have no idea. But Sunday, I think I caught a peek preview. And I have committed myself to a Lenten discipline to reflect on what that looks like and what my calling will be in helping that new reality come into being.
This day I am grateful for a glimpse, however brief, of what I pray will be that new reality. And I pray that I may live long enough to see this dark night of the soul lifting long enough to reveal it. I pray for the strength and courage for all of us to weather this global crucifixion knowing that we have the capacity to become a new people, build a new country, create a new world.
As I finish this post where I dare to be hopeful, I return to the young man’s tattoo: “It means ‘Together.’ It’s the way I see the world.”
Indeed. As I see it, that’s the only way our world will survive.
Harry Scott Coverston
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)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2020