The View From My Hill

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From my hilltop, I see a divided country. But as I look closer through my telescope, I see nuance to the divisions. As I zoom in further, I start to see threads connecting all the different points of view from the different hilltops.

As I ponder these connections, I hear the drums of division beating louder and louder off in the distance. Who’s beating those drums? As I look through my telescope I see that many of the drummers are being paid to beat. Some of them are afraid that if they stop beating, they will lose their job. Some of them just love to play in drum circles.

If you’re a snowflake floating down over the Great Divide in the Rockies, you will know which side you’re on the moment you touch down. If you’re on the west side, you will make your way to the Pacific Ocean after you melt. If you’re on the east side, you will make your way to the Gulf of Mexico.

So there are physical divisions that are real and there are divisions that aren’t physical but are real because society makes agreements that they are real, consciously are not.  And the results of these agreements are as real as death. 

I see the media, major and minor (the reference to the two dominant musical scales is not lost on me) talk about the issues as if there are two sides. “Balanced reporting” requires views from “both” sides.

As my virtual mentor Cornel West said, “…and by divided, I’m not saying the opposite is unity. I don’t believe in unity. That’s military band. I’m with Duke Ellington’s band. Duke Ellington don’t want no unity. He want lifting every voice bouncing off against each other with all the dissonance, all the antagonistic cooperation to escalate the quality of the collective performance. That’s something different. That’s democratic symbolic action. Everybody finds their voice, looks for the overlap, listens, learns, engages, but constructive. You’re creating something new. You’re not imitating nothing”

Is the country divided ideologically as neatly as it is geologically? Or are we confusing our diverse beliefs with the racial and economic divides that are forced upon us?

So back to geology. I’m on a hilltop and you’re on another hilltop. We’re looking at the same thing but we see it very differently. If you see one side and I see the other side but you think your side is the front and I think my side is the front we might get into a fight over what we’re actually looking at.

I was at a Black Lives Matter rally with my ukulele. Bobbi had her gun. Fighting over what we were looking at would be futile. My ukulele was no match for her gun in the short run. In the long run, it would be the other way around. She thought the guns prevented the BLM terrorists from burning down the town. I just thought the event needed some harmony. See my article Be the Middle Note.

We tried to talk about it on facebook. I’ve tried to talk to many gun believers on facebook. The conversations have all petered out. I knew this one would end up in the same heap.

Before the Black Lives Matter rally, she had expressed an interest in playing drums in my band. It was through that rally that I learned that she was a gun believer. She said that considering our extreme differences she probably wouldn’t be in my band after all.

I said, “Hey we’re just on different hilltops with different views. You see things I don’t see and I see things you don’t see. Let’s get together and play some music and see what we both see.”

From my hilltop, I see lines being drawn and people being expected to get on one side or the other. Since when did we have to put all our ideas on one side of a line or the other? Did that happen the same time we had to decide which bathroom to go into?

I don’t like the way evolution is taught in school or in church. If I go to the right and I think about the miracle of life I want to run to the left. If I’m on the left and I think about that same miracle I want to run I dunno… up?

Where do you run? There’s gotta be more than two places to put all your limitless creative thinking.

Have you ever played the game “More like a firetruck or a banana”? One person thinks of an object (say an umbrella) and another person asks if it is more like a cheeseburger or a swimming pool. The person might say it’s more like a cheeseburger. As I try to figure out how to describe this game I realize that I’m forgetting what my story is about. Just try this game. After a few hours, you might see some connection to what I’m writing about as long as you agree that a tomato is more like a football than a leg of lamb.

So she came over with her conga drums. I was afraid she might want to do her good deed for humanity and get rid of a Black Lives Matter terrorist. I knew she had some kind of permit to carry a concealed weapon. She brought homemade cookies.

We played some grooves. We sang. Then we talked.

I listened to her opinions. It was hard to hear. I told her that I’ve heard these opinions before. I don’t need to hear them again. What I haven’t heard is how you got to that hilltop where you have a 180 degree different view than I do.

She told me she had been in the Marines. She told me a little bit about boot camp. I remember her using the words “trained to kill.”  I told her I was raised a Quaker. We were trained to… what is the word? Well war is hell. What is that you do to hell? Racism was also hell. What do you do to it? I had no idea. 

Maybe it was this whisking around hell that I flashed back to my two days in jail. I used to play music in the New York subways. We were buskers. We played a game called cops and buskers. We had to constantly elude the cops. Sometimes I would play music for the break dancers. I even wanted to get a gold tooth. I felt a kinship because we all had to play this cat and mouse game. I didn’t really understand that the game never stopped for them. For me it was just the four hours a day I spent working in the subways.

My understanding  achieved more depth when I got arrested for inciting a riot. I thought I was just playing music with my permit in the Times Square hub of many subway lines. I had a large crowd. While I tried to talk sense with the cop the crowd got pissed. I knew it was time to quit. As the crowd was dispersing eleven cops responded to the riot alert. By the time my stuff was packed up, the cop had me in handcuffs.

They said I could make one call to my lawyer. I called my manager to tell him to call the club I was supposed to play that night. It was a strange dream. I said I was hungry. They put a cookie on my knee which I couldn’t reach with the handcuffs behind my back. I saw a man sleeping with his eyes wide open. They stuffed me in a van with a dozen men chained together for hours with the heat blasting, slipping and sliding. They put me in a cell with a proud rapist. They wouldn’t give me the newspaper on the floor. They fed me a Macburger. Time slowed to zero. Back in the paddywagon. Now I’m in a big cell with a dozen men including the only other white guy, in a suit and tie. He’s gone before I can take a double take of the toilet in the corner where the two barred walls meet without a seat or toilet paper in full view of the wardens. Off in the distance I hear what sounds like I would sound like if someone were breaking my wrist in slow motion. It’s clear that I’m the newbie here. A couple of them are giving me advice like what not to say to the court appointed lawyer and that I’ll probably get out on time served. The guy that was in for selling umbrellas had been there seventy two hours when I got there and he was there when I left.

When I saw the judge, he laughed at the charges and threw it out. It wasn’t until recently that I made the connection it was maybe my whiteness that made him laugh. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that inciting a riot is a felony and that many Black people have done serious time for lesser charges.

But I do remember getting out and realizing that I had just spent two days in hell. Two years, two months, two weeks. I couldn’t fathom it. Two decades? A Black woman did five decades for a joint. I cried on the subway ride home. Last week I cried hearing about a Black man wrongly accused doing hard labor for thirty years.

As I told Bobbi this story, it was like waking up from a dream. I could see that she was changing as I was changing. Who needs facts when you have stories?

We played some more music and I realized that the music was saying even more than the stories. Then I had this idea. We should film this and show the world that we can have conversations across these divides if we also play music together.

ComMUSIKey board member Shiri said she would film it. Bobbi came back with her conga drums. We started a groove.I found myself singing Blowing in the Wind in a minor key.  We talked some more and played more music and talked again.  Her husband joined us on trumpet as I sang Goin’ to the Dark Side.

We laughed and felt really connected. She later texted to tell me she learned more about Quakers. I learned more about the marines. I was excited to edit this little movie. As I listened back I wondered why I didn’t push back against some of the things she said. I was embarrassed and I also didn’t want to give some of her views a voice. I was afraid of what some of my activist friends would think. I’m supposed to be a white ally to my Black friends. What would they think?

All this thinking was taking me around in circles.  My sister said I should write about it instead of showing it. As I’m writing about it now,  I’m thinking that we’ve all heard all the arguments in every direction. We don’t need to hear them anymore.  We need to talk about what we see and find out why we see things in all these different ways.  You can listen to some of the music we played though. The Answer is Blowin in the Wind and Goin to the Dark Side.

Me and the comMUSIKey board got excited. We could make a series about using music to help us talk across perceived divides. We just have to figure out how to do it. Or we could keep quiet and let the music do the talking.

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