Sebastian Junger starts his brief new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, with accounts of the kindness of strangers. Tribe is thought-provoking. Reading it reminded me of a lot of experiences and other books.
I recalled the TRIBES team-building curriculum schools adopted in the 1990s. In addition to reading and writing, we spent time in conversation, building interpersonal skills among the children through structured practice.
While teaching Language Arts at Martinez Junior High School, I worked in a team, a sort of tribe, with my math, science, and social studies colleagues. We met weekly to plan lessons that reinforced concepts across our subject areas and to troubleshoot with students who’d hit rocky patches academically or socially. The counselor assigned to us interfaced with parents. Students thrived. The environment was one of pulling together to understand what and how the world works and pooling resources.
Reading Junger’s passages on his own experience in war zones and the effects of war on service members, I recalled books I’ve studied and taught that provided opportunities to discuss the individual in society: the incomparable Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko; All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane; and, Black Boy by Richard Wright.
These books and others underscore how art makes sense of life.
One year, not long ago, I was hired to teach high school English late in September after the assigned teacher quit for an administrative position in the district office.
The room was in chaos–coffee dregs moldering in mugs, personal photos tacked to the bulletin board by the teacher’s desk, random thumb drives, barrettes, dried up markers, piles of ungraded papers scattered on shelves, in drawers, on windowsills.
The students were in the middle of Lorraine Hansberry’s wonderful “A Raisin in the Sun.” I’d taught the play before at another site and found it to be an effective catalyst for discussion about aspirations, race, class, family, neighborhoods, gender, education, honesty, forgiveness and just plain change.
Seeking to find out what the students had been discussing, I asked, “What’s the play about? What’s a theme?”
“Money,” they said and laughed. “It’s about how you can’t be happy unless you have money.”
Does a person’s jaw really fall then they’re surprised?
Mine must have because they laughed some more. “That’s what the teacher said.”
“Well,” I replied. “There might be another way of looking at this.”
That night I puzzled out a graphic organizer (we love those in teaching!) and had it ready on the whiteboard when the students filed in the next day. I wish I’d kept a copy. It was designed like one of those graphics that are the rage in glossy magazines these days to get you from point A to point B along a board game-like route, making decisions along the way.
The students talked their ways through the graphic. Where did they end up? Some identified a possible theme in the play as “parents and kids,” others as “dreams,” others as “loyalty,” and, ultimately, most saw a theme could be “love.”
Thinking about this gets me thinking about yoga. Everything does these days–gets me thinking about yoga.
Yoga is the practice of love.
This doesn’t mean you have to pop up in downward facing dog right now and smile. It means recognizing that harmony is wholeness and wholeness is union, which is roughly what “yoga” means. The state of the union. The state of union. Union requires, if not love, sympathy and compassion.
Literature depicts and captures the universal human condition. Oneness.
Junger points out that nomadic people only own what they can carry. For nomads, acquiring external markers of wealth proves impractical, whereas inequalities of wealth become quickly evident in settled societies.
He says American society is at war with itself, hurling contempt at fellow citizens.
Citing this vitriolic rhetoric that clutters American society today, Junger asks in Tribe,
So how do you unify a secure, wealthy country that has sunk into a zero-sum political game with itself? How do you make [war] veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place? I put that question to Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Yehuda has seen, up close, the effect of such antisocial divisions on traumatized vets. “If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different–you underscore your shared humanity,” she told me. “I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another and not on the things that unite us?”
Reading Junger’s book feels like engaging in a stimulating dinner conversation with smart friends, touching upon a range of topics in an attempt to understand people and how they organize into tribes and civilizations. I’m curious about this topic, too, so I’m glad I borrowed the book from the library.
I’ve written at length on this blog and in my stories, poems and essays about my lifelong investigation into the meaning of belonging. I’m working now on a little book, Home Practice, about how yoga study and teaching brought me figuratively home to myself and literally home to the place where I was reared.
Lastly, I think of an old poem I wrote around 1996 that was collected in the little chapbook artist friends made for me, We Have Trees. Like almost everyone’s early poems, it grew directly out of life experience and is as true as can be.
Kindness is as kindness does,
a woman in the laundromat
In my life I’ve had kindnesses.
Twice my windshield wipers broke,
once in a North Carolina blizzard
and once during a Kentucky thunderstorm.
Both times strangers fixed them for me
so I could see to carry on.
A lady said Better get in, reaching
for the passenger door. It was raining
that night, too, and I was walking shocked,
barefoot, soaked and lost. She took me
to a dry place with orange couches.
I remember that.
She likely saved my life.
Has kindness been done to you?
I can’t believe in angels quite
but I see butterflies.
Kindnesses alight like butterflies
midday on bare arms
delicately sampling the invisible salt of our skins.