Akron’s Fourth of July fireworks were held on the 6th of July in 1991 because the actual 4th fell on a Thursday that year. People gathered on the All America Bridge (aka the Y-Bridge because it looks like a Y from overhead) to watch the display. Now there’s a stadium downtown and people go there instead of to the bridge. Anyway, I went to the bridge with my friends Dale and Becky. Becky and I had broken up a month or two before and were trying to be friends again.
As we walked back to Becky’s house, a couple of neighborhood kids who wanted to beat the crap out of somebody that night chose me and Dale as the people to take out their frustrations on. I escaped bruised and seeing stars, but otherwise relatively unharmed. Dale got a broken tooth. Had some people from the neighborhood not intervened, those kids might have killed us. That was surely their intention. It’s a good thing they were unarmed.
After that I decided I was getting out of America. At the time I could have recited the same litany of reasons why America sucked that I see from several of my Facebook friends whenever an event like the Fourth of July comes up. You know the list – imperialism, genocide, racism, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, etc., etc. And this was before the Second Iraq War and George W. Bush, kids. Added to that was a long-growing sense, now confirmed, that the country was tearing itself apart and the situation for America was completely hopeless.
I’d lived in Nairobi, Kenya as a child and, in fact, the first Fourth of July I have any clear memory of was a party held at the American embassy there. They had real American hot dogs, not the Vienna sausages we’d get at the Kenyan supermarkets as a substitute.
When I came back to Ohio at age 11, I found that I could not believe all the pro-American rhetoric my teachers tried to instill in me. When they said that America was a “free country” as opposed to the rest of the world, I knew it was a lie. I’d been to several African and European nations by then, including Communist Czechoslovakia, and I hadn’t seen anyone in chains. Instead, I saw people who were perfectly happy not to have a McDonald’s on every corner. I’d been one of them. I was always skeptical of claims that America was the best place on Earth.
It took till 1993 before I found a way out of the USA. That’s when I moved to Japan, a country I knew would be much better than the one I’d been born in, in every possible way. There I met a Japanese Zen teacher who believed in America.
He’d fought for the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II, but when it was over he came to see that Japan had been wrong. Sometimes he’d talk about how the USA had been right to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He said the Japanese of his generation would never have given up otherwise. Before I heard him say that I had always believed otherwise. But he wasn’t the only Japanese person of his age I heard say similar things. No one really knows, but I had to question my former certainty.
I didn’t really want to return to the USA in 2004, but circumstances came together in a way I couldn’t fight and so I came back. In the intervening years, America had changed, largely for the better. It wasn’t perfect. But by then I’d seen even more of the world, this time as an adult, and I was aware that no place is ever perfect. Not even my beloved Japan.
Human beings organize themselves into nations. We make laws. We issue passports. We believe in these constructions that exist almost entirely in our minds. We think something called the United States is a real thing. But it’s mostly a fiction. It’s a fiction with real consequences, but it’s still a fiction.
Nishijima Roshi liked America because, he said, America was a model for how the whole world was going to be in the future. Unlike Japan, it was a mixed culture of people from all parts of the globe attempting to harmonize with each other. As time went on, he said, every nation on Earth would become more and more like the USA in that sense. We’d all have to learn to live with each other, he said, and it wasn’t gonna be easy.
I think he was right. The United States has made a lot of mistakes in handling this new and unprecedented situation of being a nation composed of people from wildly different cultures with vastly different languages and world-views. There had been polyglot nations before, but never with a mix as diverse as the US. We’ve done some really bad things. But in making these mistakes first, we’ve shown to the rest of the world a lot of what does and does not work. I don’t think anyone else would have handled the situation better than we have.
We need to fix what’s still wrong and make it right. It’s just as useless to claim that the USA is the greatest nation on Earth with freedom and justice for all, or claim that it’s nothing more than a bastion of hetero-normative, white-privileged, imperialist racism. It was useful for me to get to see both sides.
Anyway, I like cookouts. I like fireworks. So I’m gonna go down to Grand Park in downtown LA and enjoy the fun today.
July 8-12, 2015 Vancouver, BC Canada 5-DAY RETREAT at HOLLYHOCK RETREAT CENTER
August 14-16, 2015 Munich, Germany 3 DAY ZEN RETREAT
August 19, 2015 Munich, Germany LECTURE
August 24-29, 2015 Felsentor, Switzerland 5-DAY RETREAT AT STIFTUNG FELSENTOR
August 30-September 4, 2015 Holzkirchen, Germany 5-DAY RETREAT AT BENEDIKTUSHOF MONASTERY
September 4, 2015 Hamburg, Germany LECTURE
September 6, 2015 Hamburg, Germany ZEN DAY
September 10-13, 2015 Finland 4-DAY RETREAT
September 16-19, 20015 Hebden Bridge, England 4-DAY RETREAT
September 20, 2015 London, England THE ART OF SITTING DOWN & SHUTTING UP
September 21-25, 2015 Belfast, Northern Ireland SPECIFIC DATES TO BE DETERMINED
September 26-27, 2015 Glastonbury, England 2-DAY RETREAT
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. All are welcome!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. All are welcome!
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