Memorial Day, Gil Johnson

They Uphold and Protect Our Freedom.
They are Heroes.
Happy Memorial Day.
In which we memorialize the living and the dead alike.
There’s little distinction between our collective national commendation and extolling on one hand of Armed People abroad and our excoriation and indifference towards them at home on our other hand. Both treatments live in our use of that little word Hero. Our Armed People are Heroes more than we, because, in our stories, they have gone out into the world, and encountered death, and returned changed. That change real or imagined is tragic in a personal sense, because in this story where they are Heroes, they are no longer of us. We can extoll them but we can’t understand them.
As tragic, more tragic, differently tragic, is the source in our souls of this ongoing personal need to sacrifice our children to Heroism: we feel enslaved, perceive ourselves as inescapably burdened. The common cycle of economic debt is embraced by a people who have come to view themselves as indebted to the larger society for their very existence: if we are to be so much as fed, clothed, loved, we must EARN it, and this might be a positive value if the earning were possible. But nothing is asked of us, other than to competitively succeed over our brothers, and nothing is given to us but with the demand that we do what is asked of us.
We have no freedom to search, abroad or in ourselves, for the witches, the talking animals, for the Ogres of Death which would grind our bones to a heroic rebirth. We must Work.
Enter the Armed People, who accept a higher call. Who march as god’s own soldiers, armored with our Ideology, who march right out of our lives onto the pages of Grimm’s Be All You Can Be commercials. Once gone from our sight, they embody the freedom and action and triumph of will, the Puritan Strength of our ancestors courses through them, and through them we revolt in our spirits against the Oppressors and Evils of the world, and through them we are made Free.
And if they return? How should we meet their eyes?
If they have done all our hearts have demanded, their eyes will shame us with knowledge and strength we were too timid to embrace. They were never really like us at all, or they would not have left, or we would have gone too.
If they meet our eyes as equals, more horrible. Did they fail? Were they undeserving? Was there never really a chance, no higher thing for them to find or become? Did we risk them for nothing? Did we cower at home from nothing?
Better they should not return.
No wonder we most revere the dead.
The Ultimate Sacrifice.
Our Ultimate Sacrifice.
May the smoke of our offerings please them in Heaven.

Talking to Trees


from November, 2010

I walked in Morris Park along the creek where last year I found the bones of a deer. I talked to the trees. I tied the poem I wrote to a tree by the creek.

Yesterday I was meditating, sitting on the blue wall, not too close and not too far from the Poem Tree. Meditating for me doesn’t mean spacing out, entering an altered state or filtering out the passing world. I attend to what is happening: passers by, cars, bickers, pigeons hunting for scraps near my feet–but without following after. Not unlike how one deals with the unceasing river of thoughts. Cannot be stopped, but you learn not to hitch rides. Let them pass.

I became aware of something missing—something I was perhaps blocking out. This came to me when I spontaneously greeted a pigeon, and then a dog as it passed. I didn’t say anything, but acknowledged them in silent greeting. I wasn’t on a heavily trafficked walk in Center City where one is forced to withdraw, to block engagement, and yet I realized I was treating the people who walked past like phantoms. How would it interrupt or disturb my meditation to let myself be open to greeting those who were in turn, open to my presence? I began to bring that into my meditation. People would go by, folded up in their own thoughts, their cell phone conversations–noticing little more than what was necessary to keep walking in a straight line, to not trip over obstacles. But a few would see me on the wall. See the Spirit Stick. Something would pass between us. Mutual acknowledgment.

I exist. You exist.

It felt so natural. Why had I needed to remind myself? To choose to do this? And it occurred to me, not as a thought exactly, but an impulse, that if I could greet birds, dogs, people—why not passing cars? Planes overhead? Trees? Trash receptacles? Sign posts? The street itself? It all began to feel like a great river of love was sweeping us up in its embrace—everything.

As I walked home, I told myself… I need to learn how to speak to things.
Today in the park I talked to the trees. And to stones. And to the creek. I told the creek I knew that people had given it a name—but I couldn’t say it. It felt like a brand of ownership. I told the creek I didn’t want to own it. How happy it made me, watching it flow past, free of me, of my need to bind it to a name! I told the trees the story of the Poem Tree—how it had found a second life. They must be pleased, I thought—to hear a story of a tree come back to life. And I felt such happiness! That it was right, telling them this story. That what I had done was perfectly natural and right and good.

Later, on the upper path, there was no need to tell the story. It was enough to greet them. They knew. They understood. Their roots in the same earth. Their branches moved by the same wind.

It isn’t because there are spirits in the trees, or consciousness… like human consciousness. It was because, in speaking to them, it was so deeply pressed upon me how different they were, and yet, under the light and warmth of that great thermonuclear furnace beginning to bath the tops of the trees in orange and gold, it was equally pressed upon me that we were also alike. Specks on the surface of the earth, the earth itself little more than a speck in the Milky Way, and the Milky Way a speck in the universe.

On the way home I spoke to many things. I spoke to the signs on the walls of the subway… they were so heavy, so weighted down in the slavery of being owned, and in the service of owners and ownership. But by speaking to them, I sensed that they were more and other than their slavery. Things. Things that held powers, other powers, that might become visible once relieved of the slavery of ownership, and of service to ownership.

This is what poems do, I thought. What art does. Makes visible in the poem, in the work of art, a trace of what is beyond using and being used, resisting ownership. A trace of Being… for itself, and nothing else.

Let me add this as a follow up:
Deborah Morkun, in responding to a FaceBook post on how good it was to talk to trees, added… “It is important to talk to trees. Wise trees.” I think the “wisdom of trees” consists precisely in their inhuman silence, in their making no demands, requesting nothing, having no secret wisdom to reveal. They stand beside us in their own Being. If we resist projecting our desires onto the tree–it becomes an almost effortless experience of ‘traversing the fantasy,’ so much more difficult to do with other persons where we stand trapped in anxious need to respond to what we can only guess they might want of us, ready to betray our own desires in trying to resist or fulfill the demands of what Blake called Nobaddy, and Lacan, the Big Other.

… first you do stuff,
and then you write about it
and if what you do is a poem…