Summer 2011 : Belong
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Summer 2011 : Belong
Oregon Humanities: Summer 2011
If you’ve been following our work for the past couple of years, you’ve no doubt heard about the Oregon Humanities Wheel of Cogitation: a café table with a wooden-wheel top that is hand painted with topics of conversation such as, “Childhood book that changed you,” “Riveting image you’ll never forget,” and “Change a moment in history.” We take the wheel with us to events and use it to engage people in conversation.
Almost every summer, seven of us load into my wife’s minivan and make the trip from Oregon to Seattle when the Boston Red Sox play the Seattle Mariners. I grew up in Massachusetts, and our regular crew includes my thirty-five-year-old son, Corey; my longtime New England–born friends Bruce and Kevin; Kevin’s son, Mark; native Oregonian Steve, who married a Massachusetts-born woman and lived in Vermont for a spell; and his son Denton. Sometimes, something comes up and somebody can’t make the trip, so we find someone to fill the spot: maybe a grandson being initiated into our realm or maybe a generic (that is, non–Red Sox) baseball fan. The former is always a delight; the latter, though we are all easygoing and open people in most aspects of our lives, doesn’t work so well.
A hermetic seal enclosed my childhood in an Irish and Italian-Catholic neighborhood near Philadelphia. But for a smattering of grandmothers who spoke their native Italian, English dominated. Cultural assimilation prevailed. Uniform-clad children streamed daily to St. Dorothy’s School to sit in straight-backed chairs and diagram sentences, then to our street to play kickball. My father applauded both realms: the neighborhood teeming with children, and the nuns’ focus on grammar. He was devoted to family, home, crossword puzzles, and all things language-related.
John Mohammad Ali’s struggle to keep his American citizenship, which he received on May 26, 1921, illuminates the precarious position Muslims found themselves in at this time. In 1921, when Ali was given his certificate of citizenship, his eligibility was determined based on the immigration officials’ belief that he was a “high-caste Hindu.” At that time, Indians who could demonstrate that they were “high-caste Hindus” were still considered eligible for citizenship as members of the Caucasian race, and since the “high-caste Hindu” label worked to Ali’s advantage, he did not deny it. However, after the Immigration Act of 1924 made “Asians” ineligible for citizenship, Ali sought to reclaim his Muslim identity. He told the court that “he is not a ‘Hindu’ of full Indian blood, but … an Arabian of full Arabian blood. While admitting that he is a native of India, as his ancestors for several centuries had also been, he contends that originally his ancestors were Arabians, who invaded the territory now known as India, and settled and remained there, but have been careful not to intermarry with ‘the native stock of India,’ and have ‘kept their Arabian blood line clear and pure by intermarriage within the family.’ ” The “Arabian” invasion of India to which Ali referred was in actuality a Muslim invasion of northern India by the Turkish Saljuqs. Ali seems to have conflated his Muslim identity with an Arab identity because Arabic-speaking Syrians, as Semites who have lighter skin, had not had their citizenship status challenged in courts since Dow v. United States declared them legally “white” in 1915. Tellingly, Ali seems to have not told the court that he was Muslim and that his alleged connection with Arabs was established through Islam. District Judge Tuttle was consequently confused:
In 1981, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his devotees paid $5.9 million to acquire a 64,229-acre parcel of land in Central Oregon known as the Big Muddy Ranch. Over the course of the next three years, they transformed the parcel into a thriving intentional community called Rajneeshpuram that was populated by up to twenty-five-hundred long-term residents and, for a time, was incorporated as a city.
Under a freeway overpass in the waterfront district of Southeast Portland seems like an unlikely place to find hip hop. But through a nondescript industrial door, into a battered warehouse building, then up a flight of dingy stairs and past dark entryways is a room overloaded with vibrant colors, motion, music, and laughter.
The walls are emblazoned with graffiti, a rotating gallery of street art. On a small elevated stage, an artist furiously applies paint to canvas. Breakdancers twist their bodies into shapes that defy both anatomy and gravity. Onstage, a DJ rocking oversize neon-orange headphones and an old-school navy blue Adidas warm-up jacket pushes her dark bangs out of her eyes as she switches records.
For many years, I’ve worked by day in the nonprofit arts and culture sector, interested in issues of equity and civic engagement, and by night as a jazz musician. Folks I’ve known have often remarked on the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-otherness of these professional poles.
But after thinking hard about how we construct community, I’ve realized that my conceptions of community and the public realm are deeply informed by the inclusiveness and idiosyncratic individuality that were passed on to me by the jazz community—musicians with names like Mr. Smooth, Cornbread, Cee-Po, Wild Bill, Mild Bill, Old Floyd, Cap’n Jack, and Jimmieapolis.
Sculptor Matt Sipes needs a hacksaw—STAT!—but none of the artists, writers, and musicians gathered in the Old Town Portland studio on this spring night can help. Some have X-Acto blades, box cutters, and scissors for their own projects, but nothing that can cleanly cut through the cable of thick copper wire that Sipes is using to build a set of speakers, so he settles for some wire cutters. They don’t give him the precision he’d hoped for, but this is Share—a bimonthly gathering of artists who create work in response to a prompt revealed at the beginning of the evening—and improvisation is key.
This evening the prompt is “up,” and Sipes’s vertical speakers nicely come together by the end of the two-hour work period, as do other projects. At the end of the evening, the artists share their work—a shadow puppet, chapters of a novel-in-progress, a love song, a painting of a man on stilts and a dancing dog below—and talk about their creative process.
Founders Kathleen Lane and Margaret Malone envisioned Share as a chance for artists across various media to draw on one another’s collective energy for inspiration and support. Lane and Malone met in a writing group and were used to the format of writers sharing pages of work and giving feedback. So when they started Share in 2009, they hoped to develop a format that emphasized creation rather than outcome.
Though many Share projects have spun off into successful, public projects—published poems, screenplays performed on radio, even a spring fashion line—the focus remains on creation and community. “Share is about letting yourself not be perfect,” says Malone, who admits she’s a control freak and “would draft for years before reading something in front of someone.”
Lane adds that demystifying the creative process of all artists, regardless of discipline, is another goal of Share. “Most of the art that we see in the world is so finished,” she says. “You don’t get to see that everyone struggles.”
This struggle to create something inspired by “up” using paper and wire, words and ink, has a sound: the peck-peck-peck of keyboards and typewriters, the scratch of bristles on board, the stop-and-start vibration of guitar strings. These sounds are reminders of colleagues at work and one of the reasons Malone loves the multidisciplinary component of Share: “I just wanted to see people working and hear people working who weren’t just writing.”
Multimedia artist Daniela Molnar wasn’t sure she’d be able to work alongside other artists because her process is typically solitary. But she says because Share is such a welcoming and friendly environment, not competitive like critique groups can be, she is instead energized by the sight and sound of work happening around her.
And for Lane, who says she has a loud internal “judge voice,” writing can be heavy and all-encompassing. She remembers finding the words “lighten up” written and underlined in her journal, which inspired her to start Share: “It’s a way of bringing joy back into this process.”
In the struggling town of Dallas, Oregon, the humanities might seem to be the esoteric realm of scholars and artists. But for the last ten years, local high school teacher Justin Chin has used humanities as the foundation of his language arts classes.
Chin grew up in Dallas and has witnessed the decline of the logging industry his entire life. He is now a teacher of his disenfranchised neighbors’ children. “This town has experienced a lot of change,” Chin says. “It’s the last vestiges of a mill town. It’s really been dying the last five years. Mom-and-pop hardware stores and restaurants have gone belly-up overnight. Things that used to seem untouchable aren’t anymore. I’ve never had classes with this many kids’ parents unemployed and barely making ends meet.”
Chin is grateful for the work of Oregon Humanities, especially in economically depressed towns like Dallas. “The outreach programs create an opportunity for rural areas to connect and talk about what makes Oregon Oregon.”
Chin recently used Rich Wandschneider’s Oregon Humanities essay about televised football (Spring 2010) as a segue into the impact of technology on modern life. “The moment we lose humanities,” he says, “we lose touch with what makes us human and humane.”
In 1971, the National Endowment for the Humanities gave seed money to six states, including Oregon, for local humanities projects. The Oregon Committee for the Humanities began with six volunteers and $100,000. This model tested by Oregon and Wyoming (other states funded the humanities through arts councils or extension schools) eventually became the national standard, with forty committees planned or in operation by 1973.
The NEH enforced two requirements: projects funded by the humanities councils had to address public policy and be selected through a competitive process. These were still in place by 1977, when Dick Lewis became the second executive director, succeeding Charles Ackley. That year, the Oregon committee had twenty-one members and a newsletter with a circulation of 2,500. The public policy and regrant requirements were relaxed in the early 1980s. “At that point,” Lewis says, “it really broadened and became a much more fully humanistic public learning agency.”
Lewis, who served as director for two decades, recalls certain highlights of his tenure at what, by 1992, was called the Oregon Council for the Humanities. In 1980, two Eastern Oregon State College professors proposed a summer lecture series they planned to tour around the state. Lewis says, “That became the germ of Oregon Chautauqua,” a popular statewide speakers bureau that was converted in 2009 into the Conversation Project, which emphasizes community discussion as well as humanities scholarship.
Also in the early eighties, the Oregon council responded to Cold War tensions with a program, What About the Russians, on the people and culture of the Soviet Union. Opponents’ concerns about what they supposed would be the program’s radical agenda spurred an investigation of all state humanities councils by the General Accounting Office, which found no improprieties. In 1989, an exemplar of the Magna Carta, dating from 1215 and insured for sixteen million pounds, was brought from England for a series of programs on constitutional law. In 1990, the First Oregonians conference brought representatives from all nine federally recognized Oregon tribes and tribal confederations together for a two-and-a-half day exploration of Indian history and culture. The organization published a book of the same name in 1992 and reprinted it in 2007.
Under Lewis’s successor, Christopher Zinn, the council launched educational programs to augment its public program offerings, including summer institutes for secondary school teachers, grants for high school scholars, and Humanity in Perspective, a free humanities course for low-income adults that celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Zinn also reconceived Oregon Humanities magazine, launched in 1988, as a journal of ideas and perspectives.
When current executive director Cara Ungar-Gutierrez took the helm in 2007, says board chair Robert Melnick, “we saw an opportunity to attract a younger and more diverse audience.” One result was Think & Drink, the happy-hour conversation series launched in 2008. “It was originally a one-off idea,” says Melnick, “but it was so popular we did it again, and now people count on it. We continue to ask what seems like an incredibly foolish but necessary question: How can we be relevant today and tomorrow?”
Keeping relevance and the desire to expand and diversify its audience in mind, over the past few years, Oregon Humanities dropped “Council” from its name, expanded the HIP program to Salem, parlayed a one-off partnership with area school districts into an annual summer humanities symposium for high school students, and launched the Conversation Project.
“Our strongest asset,” Ungar-Gutierrez says, “is our capacity to use the humanities responsively, offering a lens through which Oregonians can understand their world.” Lewis agrees. “The notion that the programs are carried out to enrich the civic thinking of citizens,” he says, “that, to me, is the jewel in the crown.”
When Willamette University professor and Oregon Humanities board member David Gutterman took visiting Bosnian teens to an immigration rights rally outside Representative Kurt Schrader’s Salem office last spring, he thought they would just observe. Instead, they picked up American flags and joined in—and were shocked when police didn’t stop them. Even more surprising, Schrader agreed to meet with the protestors.
The teens were as part of Willamette’s Youth Leadership Program, which brings teens from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three uneasily coexistent ethnic groups—Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs—to Oregon each April for a month-long program on civic education, community service, and leadership.
“Ironically,” says director Hilary Jones, “the students have to come to us to come together.” The program, begun in 1999 by the US State Department and held at Willamette the last three years, includes politics courses, community service at organizations like Meals on Wheels, and visits with the Oregon Supreme Court. The finale is a debate tournament, which Jones says helps the students “leave their emotions behind and look critically at an issue”—an important skill for living in a democracy.
Before they headed home, where students organize their own civic engagement projects, this year’s group met in Washington, DC with Hilary Clinton, who offered personal reflections on the US role in getting beyond the conflict in Bosnia. “I thought of democracy earlier as a type of ‘governing’ the country,” wrote one student at the program’s end. “Now, I realize that democracy is in the people.”
Ecotone: the biologically diverse zone where two or more habitats adjoin. The Know Your Place summer series—a special collaboration between Oregon Humanities and Metro regional government, cosponsored by Oregon Lottery—explored human relationships to nature through language, movement, and observation and can be thought of as a kind of ecotone, said writer Barry Lopez. Lopez and Debra Gwartney, coeditors of the book Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, kicked off the series with a program at Graham Oaks Nature Park in Wilsonville in July.
Whether participants came out to Metro’s protected natural areas for a love of the humanities or a passion for ecological stewardship, they found themselves in rich and diverse space—between nature and development, environmentalism and the humanities, art and the senses. In these in-between spaces, people were free to explore and understand their surroundings in ways that may have been completely new to them.
For example, filmmaker Matt McCormick, who will lead the September 24 program at Cooper Mountain Nature Park in Beaverton, will ask participants to observe cinematically as a way of better knowing a place. And artist Linda K. Johnson, who led the series event at Scouter Mountain in August, asked participants to explore places by passing through them: “Some people exercise their bodies by walking,” Johnson says, “but I exercise my being by walking.”
The Aleutian cackling geese are heading back north. At Floras Lake on a windy mid-April day they soar out toward sea in banners and ribbons and clumps and Vs. They flap and honk as they bunch up and re-form, one group taking the lead from another. Some fly low, mere feet overhead, casting quick shadows on the dunes. Others are only high black lines, suggestions against the thin spring clouds. In one morning we see over two thousand.
The Aleutian geese are answering a primal beckoning back to their island nests. Having bulked up on Langlois farmers’ newly greening pastures and fields, they are making a nonstop flight across the north Pacific toward an archipelago of tiny islands stringing out from Alaska toward Siberia. Somehow they know this is exactly where they belong. And they are going there.
Not only, it seems, do Aleutians know where they belong, they know who they belong with. Families banded with the same color in Alaskan refuges have been discovered feeding side by side in California fields.
At sixty, I’ve had thirty addresses. I’ve tried just about every corner of the country. Recently, I’ve landed in Port Orford after an extended stint in the Southwest. I think (hope!) I will stay. My family is small—not much room for expansive growth at this point. My memberships have lapsed; few affiliations remain. Right now “belong” is an elusive verb, personally and geographically.
And yet, as I watch these geese flow overhead through a startling blue sky, something tugs deep within: A gossamer strand seems to stitch me to their feathered breasts. I recognize, at some visceral level, my extended tribe up there, streaking north. DNA twists, untwists. Perhaps there is even a brief quickening across my shoulders. For a fleeting moment do I almost remember the muscles for flight? Is there still a kernel of truth lurking within Haeckel’s worn-out maxim, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny?
The Oregon state motto is Alis Volat Propiis: She Flies With Her Own Wings. In 1854, the Oregon Territory adopted this motto in recognition of the original settlers’ 1843 formation of a provisional government dependent on neither Britain nor the United States. Readopted in 1987, the desire was to celebrate this tradition of independence and innovation.
This day is brilliant. The geese stream north. Alis Volat Propiis. Perfect.
“Belong” has become an easier verb to conjugate.
For two years, when I was in high school, I wore a button that read, “Sensitive Artist and Cheap Labor Source.” This was going to be my life—struggling in dead-end jobs to survive, all the while counteracting and contradicting any bit of convention that came my way. Fifteen years later, the struggle has overcome just about every bohemian sensibility I had. My tattered résumé of entry-level jobs bears witness to this fact.
Case in point: The last customer had left, the doors were locked, and my shift at my latest job, with a retail giant, was over—or so I thought. We workers all stood together in the break room, among the tables and chairs, single microwave, and vending machines—specifically the psychotic one in the corner that would spit out any quarter celebrating the state of Idaho.
Our attention was drawn to a bulletin board, the usual corporate messages and measurements replaced with construction paper cutouts of little suns and drops of rain. One of our names was in the center of each one. We were told the suns were the employees who had successfully convinced a customer to apply for, and obtain, one of our credit cards. The raindrops were those who had yet to accomplish this feat. And doesn’t everyone want to be a sun? Then we were further encouraged to solicit a credit card, because every time we did, we would also get a “snack pass”—that is, a piece of paper that allowed the bearer into the back office to choose from a variety of junk food.
This was not a professional business furthering the integrity and dignity of its workers. This was a kindergarten class. This, I was informed, was being a part of the team. The family.
I looked at the raindrop on the top right of the board—the one with my name on it—and felt the odd stirrings of pride. And, in true bohemian fashion, in the pursuit of belonging to something by not belonging to anything, I wondered how hard it would be stay that raindrop, and still keep my job.
We can’t think about the idea of a group without turning our minds, sooner or later, toward that most primal of all groupings—the family. We use the language of parents and siblings to describe our involvement in collectives as disparate as armies, sports teams, religious denominations, and the fan clubs of pop stars. Corporations licit and illicit refer to their workers as “The Family.” Like our flesh and blood families, the various groups we seek membership in as we grow up and press outward into the world are each collectives of individuals bonded by a common story.
Prominent among the benefits of belonging to any group is safety. In seeking out those with whom we share some common bond we often seek respite from, even solidarity against, that which threatens us. Cue anti-immigration rallies, church small groups, all-women kayaking tours, and LGBT softball leagues. Groups offer the pleasures of camaraderie, affirmation, the opportunity to speak an intimate language—the reassurance that someone else shares our view of the world.
As with your family, groups have their drawbacks too. Just ask anyone who’s been kept outside of one. One of the greatest powers afforded any group is its ability to legislate membership, to police itself. The more heightened the sense of belonging within any group, the more glaringly obvious the presence of an outsider. We all want to be insiders, yet sometimes we seem to feel that there are only so many spots available before the potency of membership becomes diluted.
To whatever extent membership in any collective is predicated upon exclusion, there exists the potential for harm. What’s more, there’s a real danger of blindness for those on the inside. If diversity is an effective antidote for contempt, the opposite is also true—homogeneity breeds it.
What, you ask, of prisoners? Wounded veterans? Anyone in the history of middle school, shoehorned into a random quartet for a group project in algebra? Do those in a subset not of their choosing rejoice? Oftentimes not. But, see, the secret ingredient with groups is time. Time, that yeast by which the good and bad in any group dynamic is multiplied, becoming far better or worse. The longer we’re part of a group the more secure we are in it. And the more potential we have for being blinded, callused, or desensitized to the experience of being left outside.
As a choreographer of high school musicals, I’ve done Fiddler on the Roof three times. Fiddler has an unusual dramatic arc: the first act is comic until the soldiers break up the wedding. The second act gets darker and darker. It’s an ocean liner of a musical, and the cast has to turn the wheel, get the audience to stop laughing, and feel the heartache. The song where the ocean liner really has to make the turn is “Anatevka.” When we’re close to opening night, I give a little talk:
In the beginning, in “Tradition,” I tell the cast, Tevye talked about Anatevka, the little town where everybody knows who he is, and what God expects him to do. It’s like being in a play. You know who you are, and what the director and all the cast members expect you to do. You know how important you are. This play isn’t about something that happened in Russia one hundred years ago. It’s about you. You’ve been in rehearsal for a couple of months. You have built a community. Every one of you is important. If you miss a cue or an entrance, everyone suffers. And in just a few days, it will be closing night, and we will never, ever be together again. We’ll miss each other. Homework and chores won’t fill the holes in our hearts.
About that time, some of the girls usually start to cry. And by opening night, everyone on stage gets choked up singing “Anatevka,” and the audience comes along.
I thought of “Anatevka” when my company of thirty years folded and closed its doors. I had been laid off a year earlier, so I hadn’t had to be there through the final stages, for which I was grateful. But I’d been aware, that whole year, even though I was gone, that there was a place on earth where a fair number of people I cared about congregated. And I knew there would no longer be such a place. I’d keep in touch with individuals I cared about, but the community itself would no longer exist.
He was fourteen—a nice kid. It was his parents who were messed up, drinking their welfare checks, squatting in a tattered tent in the river bottom with autumn evenings running cool, mornings iced with frost. And six kids, shabbily clothed, meagerly fed, not enrolled in school. Donnie was the oldest.
We were young too—married at nineteen, three sons by twenty-five, bursting with the fuzzy altruism of inexperience and periphery-blind optimism of possibilities. The world would welcome our outstretched hands; we’d all walk forward together. It was the Sixties.
Even in the Sixties, money helped. Altruism is tougher on a beginning teacher’s salary. We started with foster home care. If not the world, maybe one child at a time. Maybe.
Foster children can be challenging—wounded but bristly, distrustful but needy, gratefully sweet but ragingly angry—sometimes in the course of tumultuous minutes. We had had only mixed success. Our case worker pleaded, “This is a great kid, deserves a break. Good student, at least when he’s in school. We’re hoping to get his parents sobered up—then place their kids back with them in a real home.”
We caved. And Donnie was a sweetheart. Slight, blonde, polite—a charming boy who patiently tolerated our much younger sons. I didn’t think then how he must have missed his own siblings. He didn’t speak of them; I failed to inquire.
He had a plan. On a golden fall day, the boys and I left early for work and school; Donnie waved goodbye as he waited on the step for his junior high bus. He never took it. His plan was to reassemble his siblings, return to their mom and dad and the river bottom tent. He partially succeeded. He walked, over back roads and fields, to a town miles from our home and collected two of his siblings. Authorities located the three of them hiding in the fields on their journey to the foster placements of their remaining siblings. Separated again, none of the children returned to the canyon and their parents.
Our family liked Donnie. He liked us. But our family was not his family. It was to his family he owed allegiance. He loved best his mother, his father, his siblings.
His courage awed me; the nobility of his heart inspired me. Where we belong is where we belong. It’s not always perfect. Donnie taught me that.
I have never been a team player, though I have tried. Girl Scouts, basketball, church committees, the list is short; it quickly became apparent that I have problems belonging to a group.
Groups, by definition, involve boundaries—who belongs and who doesn’t, are you on or off the bus? Groups involve rules of behavior and strata of leaders and followers. Just the hint of inclusion and exclusion makes me nervous. But in my early twenties, I learned that belonging is a state of mind.
Somehow I had gotten a job at a New Age retreat and was participating in a psychodrama activity about tribes (work with me—it was the seventies). Fifty-plus people, high on life, playing games that held deeper meanings. We formed circles within circles and danced. The drums pulsed, the circles moved faster, and then, we were directed to break out and “find our tribe.” The large group disintegrated and morphed. Smaller circles formed with dancing and hugging, chatting and clapping. Tribes. Tribes that had some secret handshake I did not know.
Wandering from group to group, I felt the familiar, uncomfortable conflict between being a participant and an observer. I danced for a while, I hugged, and then I moved on. As groups coalesced and I still wandered, I began to get nervous. What was wrong with me? Was I just a cynical observer? Antisocial? Where was my tribe? Then I found them, or we found each other—four or five of us, without a rhythm or song. Wanderers. Awkwardly, we acknowledged each other, checked each other out, keeping a certain distance.
“The satellite people!” cried one woman, laughing.
We shared stories and saw ourselves in each other. We hugged, a bit, then the space between us grew and we drifted on. Yes, we were all wanderers, and just knowing that there were others made it all right. Isn’t belonging about not being alone?
I spent the rest of the evening visiting groups and moving on, feeling supported in the knowledge that I was part of a cohort of travelers, though we chose to travel alone. Still, just that connection sustained me and supports me still when I feel awkward in a group.
I am not alone—I am a member of the Satellite Tribe.
In my youth, I didn’t belong to many groups. I belonged to a neighborhood dirt lot baseball team. When our family moved from Illinois to Oregon City in June 1955, I belonged to a Cub Scout troop for a year or two, but that was it. Our parents, through the Catholic Relief Society, helped a number of Cuban families who had fled Castro’s Cuba and moved to Oregon. For their ongoing help, our parents were made honorary lifetime members of the Cuban Club.
On December 18, 1965, just six months after graduating from Cleveland High School in Portland, I received my draft notice to join the US Army. The Vietnam War was gaining momentum, and I did not look forward to belonging to the army. My cousin, a career army medic, told me to take my notice down to the navy recruiting office the following Monday, and I did.
Within an hour, I belonged to the US Navy.
Upon completing navy boot camp in San Diego, I received my first set of official navy orders to the USS Annapolis, a communications ship that patrolled off the coast of South Vietnam relaying messages to the Pentagon. The following year, I received new orders to attend the navy admin school in San Diego, and then the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) School at Coronado Island, nearby. I was then stationed with the US Navy Seabees (construction battalion) near Da Nang, where I survived three close calls. I did not want to belong to the group of KIA (Killed in Action).
After completing my active duty and two years of reserve duty, I received an honorable discharge from the navy in 1972. I have followed in the footsteps of three cousins (Korean War), an uncle (World War II), and my great grandfather (Civil War, Union side). I am proud to say that I now belong to a special group—veterans.
For forty-six years, from age fourteen to age sixty, a sense of belonging was naturally a part of my life. As an evangelical Christian, a theology graduate, and a missionary, wherever I went in the world, I could find a gathering of like-minded religious people. We pretty much accepted each other, imperfections and all. Like a family, my local church in Oregon gathered around and helped my family make mortgage payments when I lost my job of fifteen years and when I had open-heart surgery and had to take time off work without pay.
As a dorky, skinny, and awkward high school student, I could always turn to my church family when I felt rejected by a sports, and popularity-obsessed culture. Studying theology at Multnomah University, we fellow students felt a common aspiration to follow God. As a young father, I could compare parenting notes with other “born again” fathers. It seemed that whatever stage of life I was experiencing, I could always turn to my church family, even when my own biological family was on the other side of the globe.
Then, about three years ago, my religious faith and my steadfast belief in a loving, heavenly Father dissipated into thin air as I begin to seriously reexamine everything I once held dear. How could a loving Father God invent and maintain a place called Hell, which would be the eternal tormenting abode for most of humanity after they died? My studies showed that the Bible was not inerrant or infallible. Its stories about creation and worldwide floods and talking donkeys suddenly seemed, well, made up. I reluctantly became an agnostic, and with it, lost the religious family where I once belonged.
While the sense of freedom and release was very liberating in one sense, the loss of that spiritual family is taking longer to heal than I thought it would. Rebuilding that sense of belonging is slow and tenuous, as I gradually find other nontheists and humanists that I can relate to. It may never quite match what I had in the church, but I will persist.
Alex Tizon, longtime reporter for the Seattle Times and the_ Los Angeles Times_, heard the death knell of journalism throughout his twenty-year career. Now a tenure-track professor at the University of Oregon, Tizon is working on a book about the changing perceptions of Asian males during a time when global economic power is shifting to the east; earlier this year, he received the prestigious J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for the book. He talks with Oregon Humanities about the having one foot in “the field” and one in “the tower,” the changing landscape of journalism, and the continuing need for good storytelling.
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Oregon Humanities magazine examines topics of broad public interest from a variety of perspectives and approaches. Recent issues of this publication have focused on stuff, nostalgia, and civility. Through good and thoughtful writing, Oregon Humanities magazine enriches our understanding of important subjects and stimulates conversation and reflection among readers, their friends, families, colleagues, and neighbors.
Eric Gold is a freelance writer in Portland and former communications assistant at Oregon Humanities.
Oregon Humanities editorial advisory board member Guy Maynard is the editor of Oregon Quarterly, the magazine of the University of Oregon, and the author of The Risk of Being Ridiculous, a historical novel of love and revolution set in Boston in the the late 1960s, into which he managed to slip several Red Sox references. He lives in Eugene.
Joanne Mulcahy teaches creative nonfiction and humanities classes at the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, where she is codirector of the Documentary Studies Certificate Program. Her writing combines memoir and personal essay with ethnographic exploration. Her book Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz was published by Trinity University Press in 2010.
Kambiz GhaneaBassiri is an associate professor of religion and humanities at Reed College in Portland. He is the author of A History of Islam in America (from which this selection is excerpted) and Competing Visions of Islam in the United States. He was also a faculty member at the Oregon Humanities Teacher Institute in July 2011.
Marion Goldman has passed through the social worlds of Rajneeshees, Jesus People, and Nevada prostitutes. In her latest book, The American Soul Rush (forthcoming in December 2011), she describes how a small group of 1960s seekers at California’s Esalen Institute cultivated and spread spiritual alternatives ranging from transpersonal psychology to yoga to Zen golf. She is professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oregon.
Tim DuRoche is a writer, jazz musician, artist, and cultural advocate. He works as the director of programs for the World Affairs Council of Oregon. Tim hosts the The New Thing, a weekly jazz program on KMHD-89.1 FM in Portland, is currently developing a program on jazz and community values for Oregon Humanities’ Conversation Project, and is the author of the recently published collection of essays, Occasional Jazz Conjectures.
Walidah Imarisha is a founding editor of AWOL, a national political hip hop magazine and has toured nationally and internationally as part of the poetry duo Good Sista/Bad Sista. She has taught in Portland State University’s Black studies department and leads three Conversation Project programs for Oregon Humanities on hip hop, the history of race in Oregon, and reenvisioning the prison system.