Before Election Day, I had myself convinced that humanity was making slow (if sometimes halting) progress in the direction of liberal democracy, and that the light of reason would ultimately prevail. Yes, laughably, I even confess to imagining that the dark horrors of the 20th century were receding on the far horizon, and that despite the ravages of testosteronic governance around the world, our shared environmental crisis would shortly take center stage and push aside our power-driven dramas.
As the growling Debaser-in-Chief would say: Wrong!
Okay, I’m waking up now, and finding that every spiritual tool is requisite. On the one hand I have faith that larger forces of Life and Good are at play here. But attention to the news these past three months has forced a rapid recalibration. Anyone who has Holocaust or other cataclysmic oppression in their lineage knows of what I speak.
The slow slippage of democratic norms that I have taken for granted all my life—like basic civility, respect for human dignity, factual evidence, rule of law—is actually a quite rapid mudslide into a “new normal” that too many in Washington are eating like cake. The changes are quite overwhelming. But being overwhelmed works against us.
This week the old Jewish cemetery in my hometown was vandalized. Almost 200 gravestones were crushed or knocked flat off their bases, many in the historic section dating back to the 1800’s. My eldest brother Danny is buried there outside of St. Louis, as is my little cousin Menachem who died at seven. I have long imagined both their souls to be my spirit guides. It hurt my heart to think that their physical resting places had been trashed by blind hatred.
Since the First of 2017, 54 Jewish communities in the United States and Canada have received threats. This one was real. And it was also an unprecedented act in our country, which (let us remember) was founded upon religious freedom and tolerance. The photos of overturned graves sent shivers through me, reminders of Russian pogroms and Nazi horrors.
Let me tell you how my world shifted on its axis last month when I traveled to Standing Rock. The first time I set eyes on the encampment was early dawn, just as the dark was lifting. The silhouette of teepees against the pink horizon and the smell of wood fire smoke in the frigid air touched something so deep inside of me that tears started welling up before I knew what I was feeling.
As we drove into the camp, we heard the drum of the prayer circle, followed by piercing chant in an unfamiliar language. That was the moment I knew we had stepped beyond time, beyond the veil of our consensual Western, white worldview, into an alternate reality.
But what exactly was it about Standing Rock that created this alternate reality? Three things.
Back in our camper, by the light of the Shabbat candles, I ‘m musing on this astounding week. We arrived at Standing Rock still flummoxed by election returns, and fixated on daily newscasts out of Washington and New York. To our delight we found no mention of the T-word, no fretful forecasts. That’s because the story here is far more compelling, and the historical context of the Dakota Access Pipeline battle much broader–four hundred years in the making.
This week I witnessed a new culture alive in our country, one that’s vast and growing.
I had pictured Standing Rock as a few tents and a tepee or two. In actuality there are hundreds of tepees, yurts, and easily a thousand tents spreading out as far as the eye can see. Building is going on in every direction; vehicles continue to pour in.
These are folks of all colors, ages, and states, who refuse to buy into the capitalist values that cater to a white majority. Unlike mainstream America, this emerging culture holds to wise leadership at its center, indigenous elders steeped in a long tradition of prayer and ceremony, rather than the cult of self, wealth, and materialism.
I am not an activist. I avoid crowds and cold weather if I can. So why was I was drawn to this relentlessly frigid, straw-colored landscape filled with people this Thanksgiving? Truth is I’ve been traveling too much and would have relished some time off to stay put and catch my breath.
But today at dawn I understood more. As David and I huddled in a prayer circle of 400 (500?) people from all over the continent and beyond I felt shutters of awe dissolve my cynical affect, my wariness of New Age unreality. Looking around I was astonished to see thousands (yes, thousands) who have camped here and two camps nearby. At the center of the camp we were surrounded by a sea of tepees and yurts, tents and RVs. Wood smoke rose into the cold new day.