Saturday night, about 15 years ago, there was a concert at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine to raise money for the homeless of New York. It was a most tender and wonderful evening. Many of the performers, dated back to the social minded sixties There they were, still alive and giving of themselves. It gladdened the heart to see again those endless links of minds and hearts that once were so evident; to know that nothing was lost but had been going on underground.
There was Ginsburg, the Beat poet, Ram Das the psychologist turned acid head turned guru turned humanitarian, also Paul Simon, Crosby and Nash and others. Graham Nash was fat. They sang new songs as well as old favorites with the audience joining in, 7,000 strong. Paul Simon’s new song was about the broken dreams and illusions, not only his but almost everyone he knew. He sang sadly but that’s o.k., meaning he would hang in there and mend what he could.
They say that artists are the antennae of the race. These antennae are pretty scorched these days. There is too much pain around to simply get on with with business. Artists are probably not the healthiest of people since they are less able to summon up the rose-colored glasses that allow you to flourish in the midst of a debacle. Rose-colored glasses permit the illusion of invulnerability, permit you to think I and my family will survive because bad things only happen to “them,” to those other people so different from myself. Rose-colored glasses allow an exaggeratedly high self-opinion without external substantiation. They create a positive bias towards reality, which can whitewash the seriousness of the issues with which we are confronted.
To be sure a modicum of whitewashing, or rose-coloring is necessary. It keeps the person functioning. Too accurate a seeing can lead to pessimism and debilitating depression. But reading your own and other people’s suffering as meaningless and random does not help you to cope and move on. One needs to find meaning i life’s events, including its suffering, in order to summon up one’s best energies.
At the concert, Alan Ginsberg read a manic and deeply touching poem about a man seeking a home. He walks out of the pristine glass and steel of midtown Manhattan into Harlem where he is surprisingly confronted by relatives he thought long dead, but sill alive, existing in culturally steeped poverty. He finds his grandmother speaking Yiddish, eating borscht and blintzes in her bed; he encounters a tough and bitter elderly bag lady living in the alley between two buildings. She has set up a platform to sleep on surrounded by her bundles and packages. She even has a stove. She is out there in all kinds of weather.
She complains about her lot, showing him teeth worn out, ground down like the tusks of an ancient horse. He wonders how she can continue to eat and survive. He admires her hardiness although she bothers him as well. Little by little he recognizes her. It is his mother, Naomi, also thought to be dead. He thinks that he will live with her again in that alley. He can use the steps down to the basement as an office. His grandmother won’t be far away and perhaps those two ancient enemies mother-in-law and daughter-in-law shall be reunited. He’ll fix his mother’s teeth! Then he awakens in his comfortable Colorado home, and weeps.
The poem was so good and true. The bag lady along with all the disenfranchised and homeless people of the world is our mother. The elders are our immigrant grandmothers. They are ourselves. It is fate alone that puts a roof over our heads and not theirs.
The child within the “advantaged” person, inflates his worth and says he is a fairy prince or princess unlike the other who must suffer for their birth rite. The child within says “Everything without a doubt, will turn out alright,” without having to make the last adjustment.
Childish optimism and denial says that things outside our narrow world are o.k. when they so obviously are not. It allows us to override the messages fro the planet ultimately threatened by our greed and waste and to avoid the eyes of the homeless in the streets. The streets are full of the homeless not due to their own poor efforts but put there by administrative fiat, by destructive housing policies that make coops out of S.R.Os (single room occupancy), and warehouse empty buildings until they can be renovated for sizable profit. Rather than being lazy and worthless, many homeless people , at least 25 percent, work full or part time but can’t afford the inflationary rent.
The lesson of those people on stage and of the cathedral filled with humanity, is that we want and need to help. It is possible to be both realistic and emotionally intact at the same time, but only if we join seeing to acting. Instead of psychic numbing, we can acknowledge the suffering of others, can speak out against destructive environmental programs for people, plants and animals since all are one. We must continue to feel our sadness, anger and fear, our helplessness. We must act.
The only possible illusion we can afford is that our individual actions can make a difference in a global situation which is very serious. Of course they do, at the very least to ourselves. By acting in accord with our conscience and our ideals, we are fulfilling out potential as human beings.
Written as the Mind’s Eye column for the Warwick Advertiser in 1991.