Walking the Leftern Wall to Listen: A Blogalogue

This is: a meeting of minds, of dear friends, of aspiring writers, realized wonderers, and marmots. Well, not marmots, but they are welcome should they happen to stumble down into the Lone Star Café from the looming Sierras above looking for some friendship and Powerade here in Lone Pine, California. We, Andrew Forsthoefel and Moriel Rothman, have pursued radically different paths since graduating together a year ago from Middlebury College; Andrew has spent the year walking across the United States to listen and learn, Moriel has relocated to Jerusalem to struggle for justice via direct action and activism. We’ve been blogging our years, reflections, journeys and ruminations at Walking to Listen and The Leftern Wall, respectively. Thanks to Moriel’s heroic sojourn [MR: Not that heroic: I flew into Fresno and rented a car through Enterprise…] we are here now, together, for the first time in over a year. We thought it’d be cool to reflect, in a blogalogue of sorts, on the lessons we’ve learned and questions we have.

[The following conversation was the product of nearly six hours of passing the computer back and forth with no plan, no prompt, and no verbal communication. Enjoy!]

Part I:

Moriel Rothman: Hey man.

Andrew Forsthoefel: Yo bro. Are you distracted by Dr. Oz playing on the TV hanging above us?

MR: Didn’t know it was Dr. Oz. Now that you mention it, the TV-voices are gnawing little holes into my sanity. It’s taken me like four minutes to write this sentence. Can we move tables?

AF: Please. [Move to a dark, Dr. Oz-less corner of the café]. I can’t believe it took us that long. Yeesh. So, I’ll say first that it’s a complete refresher to have you here. One thing I’ve missed most during these past ten months on the road has been the presence of old friends, people who know me in and out, through and through, and who, equipped with that knowing, push me into different thoughts, feelings, epiphanies, places where solitude simply cannot go. And that’s what this little conversation is all about, right? Going where no Andrew-Moriel has gone before? I’m feeling two paths right now. Number one: Solitude. Number two: Dr. Oz. Choose your own adventure.

MR: Number two. For sure. I choose the Doctor. Ha. Honestly, I don’t really know who Dr. Oz is, although I gleaned from our little listen-in that his show has a sticky, hyperpopular, hyperlonely quality to it, not unlike the show hosted by a man whose chanted name haunted many of my American Days (“Maury! Maury!” “Well, actually it’s ‘Mori,’ as in ‘Moriel,’ as in ‘God is my Teacher’ in Hebrew…” Blink. Blink. “Maury! Maury!”). On this note, I am feeling pretty alienated from American culture and America these days. Your journey, though, and your writing has kept me connected to the parts of America that I love, and has shown me breathtaking, distinctly non-Ozian parts of America I had never come close to encountering in all of my 12 years in the Midwest and four in New England.

I remember, specifically, one drippy evening. I was riding a bus in downtown Jerusalem with my brother, Jesse, facing backwards into the squirming accordion section. I had printed out a few vignettes you’d written about your encounters with folks at a small café somewhere down south who bought you a sandwich and with convicts picking up trash on the side of the road. These encounters had moved you to tears, you wrote. “Misty eyed,” I think, was your exact wording. I don’t remember the details, just the staggering-stunning feeling of unanticipated humanity. Oneness, maybe, even. We read the piece together, Jesse and I, silently, the bus thrumping along its regular path. We finished right before we got off the bus. We looked at each other: misty eyed, both of us. You’ve helped me steer away from the self-righteous polemics that bubble up inside of me when the Ozian [read: Mauryan] elements of my Home Culture are beamed (and emulated) across the Atlantic. You’ve also helped me remember – and then remember again when I forget – that every person on that bus, including the Glowering Soldier and the Muttering Religious Man and the Made Up Ad Naseum Teen, are staggeringly-stunningly human. That is what all of this is about, right? Remembering, and having friends to remind you when you forget, as you always do, how staggeringly-stunningly human humans, like, are? So, first off (and I know that I join many, many others when I say this): thanks, Andrew.

AF: I’m the most thankful of all, to have been blessed and entrusted with the kindness, the humanness, of so many. Remembering the humanness, yes, that’s it. That’s everything. The natural, most basic state of the world and everyone in it, I think, is that of miraculousness. But that state is so easily forgotten. Obscured. Made, even, invisible. And this has a lot to do with the way we choose to live. Granted, many of us don’t have a choice but to bounce around like a pinball to take care of the kids, work the hours, do the chores, pay the bills. But what of those lull moments? Where you do have a sliver of free time, or where you’re busy doing what you’re supposed to be doing or have to do and the miraculous reveals itself? When a gaggle of little girls rushes into the café and, faces pressed against the glass, debate in adorable high-pitched cacophony which flavor they’ll try. Cotton candy and bubble gum, of course. Did you see it?

In noticing, in observing, in listening, there can be nothing else but wonder and delight. It’s somewhere there, beneath even the sad, hard things. It must be. I’ve found that whenever I resurface from the road into a secure, comfortable, and rooted place for a few days, it’s so much easier to lose this perspective. The limboland of television certainly plays a role in this forgetting. Sorry, Dr. Oz (well, not really). Within each of us is a crazy complex world, infinitely interesting, delightful, tragic, so deep as to be ever-mysterious and unsolvable. So what’s “boring,” then? And, challengingly, what’s simply black and white? I’m thinking of the canyonlands of Utah and how you could traverse that place for your entire life and never fully experience every crevice, creek, and crater. So, too, are we. No? What does this mean? Does this matter? Is this a bunch of hippie bullshit as a certain a cappella-loathing friend of ours would say it is?

MR: Mmm… Yep.

AF: Well, there goes ten months of soul-searching and world-wondering down the shitter.

MR: Hey – don’t despair. We always have Dr. Oz to fall back on for fulfillment, answers, guidance… Hmm. That comment just now was Cute-Cynical, but maybe not fair – I’ve never watched Dr. Oz, and it is sort of unpleasant and elitist of me to deride Searching for Meaning via Television (and just like that, I’m doing it again through Snide Capitalization. Eep).  Just because I find the idea of watching Dr. Oz or most Pop Television to be empty-tragic, doesn’t mean everyone does, right? Although, I’ll quote an author I’ve recently become obsessed with [and herein I risk further stuffing myself into an overeducated, elitist, trend-following-via-trend-disdaining hipster box], David Foster Wallace: “[TV] as a steady diet… can’t help but render my reality less attractive… render me less fit to make the most of it… and render me even more dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasant.’’ In other words, TV helps me escapes from reality, and escaping from reality makes reality more unbearable, so TV, in many ways, makes reality more unbearable. Is that on topic? I’m not sure. Cotton candy and bubble gum. Of course.

What I want to say, ultimately, is “yes” to your first question, “Does this matter?’’ Yes, this matters. Here I will wax proudly unpostmodern: it matters because these lessons can guide us to values and to living a life that is more concerned with others. Which is what we’re both trying to do, I think: I’m doing it by railing against systems and structures that I see as harming others, as anti-human-oneness (military occupation, racist politics, et cetera). You’re doing it through listening, through giving others an opportunity to tell their stories, to be heard, to be humanized. But there are also differences, which I want to tease out. I think you’re better than I am at self-reflection/humility/open-wonder– political activism is often awfully self-righteous. Now, I do think self-righteousness is generally bad, but at the same time, is being fully open to everyone… right in all contexts?

Here’s a question for you: As you are looking for proof of human-oneness, you meet X person, and X person holds beliefs that you find abhorrent and anti-human-oneness. How do you reconcile between your desire to see X person as fully, completely human with your desire to see a world in which everyone is seen as fully, completely human? Put more bluntly and Americanly, how do you love or sympathize with a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan? Might not spending your energy on loving or sympathizing with this person detract from your ability to oppose that in the world which dehumanizes? Mreep?

AF: I think I need a Pop Tart from our grocery bag before this one. You down?

MR: One: I love this. Two: Yes. My mouth waters Pavlovically at the thought of consuming said High Fructose Corporate Cinnamon Snacks. Oy. Jeez. I’m oversnarking, I think… and yet – I sort of relish the Snark, hence the non-usage of Trusty Old [ßBackspace]. Some light Snark can be OK, especially if it’s directed at Non Feeling Entities like the Corporate World and Dr. Oz (the concept, not the individual, who I am sure has his attributes off screen), right? Whoof, though, it’s tiring, and probably worse even to read. Snark Off, for now:  Yes. Yes, friend, I would like a Pop Tart.

AF: More on snarkiness later. And on loving those who hate or fear or do terrible things. For now, let us break bread together, or Pop Tart. Actually, I might go banana with peanut butter.

Part II:

AF: A rather underwhelming Pop Tart, I thought, but the banana hit the spot, if not overwhelmingly. I will say, though, I’ve never eaten hot banana before. Thanks to the black-rental-car-boiling-in-the-midday-desert-sun effect for that one. It was actually kind of nice, not so far from banana pie. Optimistically speaking.

We spoke of cynicism earlier today under the shade tree at the campground, of how difficult it is to be genuine, open, and vulnerable in a world swirling with polarities and judgments, where we’re constantly asked in our workplaces, classrooms, and kitchens to shed our imperfect selves and become the perfect You beckoning seductively in materials, titles, and general that-not-this, things-you-aren’t-and-haven’t-done. Genuine expression, openness, and vulnerability – not cynicism – are perhaps the most powerful counteragents to such influences (both the Feeling and Non Feeling Entities…maybe) because they disarm. If you love the boogie man, he’ll love you back, as a wise man in Louisiana once told me. If you speak your truth, your pain, your fear, the situation is personal, suddenly. And less dangerous. And perhaps there’s even a foundation, now, for transcending the barriers to communication that so stubbornly split us, or worse, oppress us. But maybe that’s optimistic, like that hot banana. It’s certainly not simple, especially in the face of socially entrenched hatred and institutionalized injustice.

The question you ask is perhaps the most difficult one I’ve walked with across this country. How do you love someone who hates? How do you tolerate intolerance? Can the world be perfect and of love in the face of such yuckiness? There have been times – many – when people have taken this perfect stranger in off the road, cooked for me, let me wash and clean, and then, most astonishing of all, shared their stories (which is to say their souls) with me. And then they’ll say it. The hateful thing. (It seems there’s always someone out there to hate. If you’re “white,” maybe it’s the “blacks.” If you’re “black,” maybe it’s the “Mexicans.” If you’re “Mexican,” maybe it’s the “gays.” Et cetera, et cetera, blah, blah, blah.)

But I’ve already discovered I love them, both for their kindness to me and for the stories they’ve lived. And this love doesn’t just go away, nor would I want it to, because I’ve seen the complexity of this person. I’ve seen that they are more than just their hateful utterance, their belief I find abhorrent and anti-human-oneness. For me, this is where, rather than cut them off or declare them somehow less human, I turn up the empathy.

It is to live with a contradiction and to remember that this thing Life is a long walk to ultimate understanding and realization and that, for reasons natural and nurtural, we are all walking at different speeds. Am I to become intolerant in the face of intolerance? Am I to become hateful of the haters? Am I to fight fire with fire? As counterintuitive and illogical as it seems, I think the only thing for me to do is to love (remembering the infinite complexity of every individual), and to trust that this love will alchemize its opposite into itself.

MR: First, to respond to your point on cynicism: I agree. I agree. I agree. I think that I use cynicism when I am afraid, most of the time. Maybe in this context, I will name my fears, using radical honesty as an antidote to unconsciousness: I am, now and often, afraid that if my writing isn’t edgy and cynical, then it won’t get read, or if it does, the readers will not like what they read, they will see my analyses and reflections as wishy-washy and over-sentimental and – God Forbid – unconfident , and then I will lose readers, and thereby I will lose esteem, and thereby I will lose part of the self-image I have developed as a writer with something worth saying, which will negatively affect my ability to have a meaningful impact on the issues I care about, which will in turn further harm my self-perception as someone who is able to have a meaningful impact on the issues I care about. In other words, I use cynicism from a place of Ego, and of attempting to please the Invisible Readership.

And: When I truly think about it, I recognize that cynicism has very, very little chance of being anything more than chuckle-inducing and separation-reinforcing and that it cannot in any meaningful way do what I see as the less Egoful reasons I write my blog, articles, et cetera, ie., to open conversations, to share my reflections in hope they will influence and change others in positive ways, and maybe to learn (I recently heard a beautiful idea, I don’t remember where, that “we write to learn what we already know”).

I am inspired by your lack of cynicism, Andrew, and am going to try to use less myself, and to write in ways that are less-Egoful and more vulnerable (enter Cyclical Overanalysis that asks: is it Egoful to write in ways that are less Egoful and more vulnerable, ie., am I proud of my ability to recognize and not give in to my pride? and so on and so forth ad nauseum). But so I am not a cynic, ultimately. I am overwhelmingly in love with the world, and obsessed with humanity and believe in its ability to be good and kind and noncynical. There are parts of me (as shown above) that want to write certain Others outside of my Frame-of-Love, although, because I am conscious of and obsessed with societal phenomena of Otherization, my personal Otherization doesn’t usually manifest in the classic categories you mentioned like race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation (although it does happen occasionally in all of these as well). Instead, I Otherize based on categories of “choice,” ie., I disdain those who “choose” to be part of the KKK, or to live in settlements, or to glorify violence, et cetera.

But there are also parts of me – better parts, I think, although not always stronger – that recognize that this concept of “choice” is relative and fuzzy, as you mentioned earlier, and that I have no way to know how someone became who they are or came to believe what they do. That is not to say that I don’t think that it is appropriate to oppose and hate membership in horrid groups or belief in ethnic/racial superiority, et cetera. I think it is more than appropriate. I think it is necessary.  I don’t fully buy into postmodern relativism, or into the idea of complete nonjudgment because “we can never fully know the deepest complexities that led someone to do something.” I think there are certain…things that are deeper than cultural context (call it: God? Spirit? Almost Entirely but Not Entirely Unknowable Moral Law?). So/But/And the better parts of me see the cliché of “hate the deed and love the doer” as actually not trite at all but rather devastatingly deep and maybe even True. I can’t fathom any other way that cycles of violence will end or be mitigated, that oppressive systems will break down, that I will conquer my own Ego and tap into something bigger, that the world and all of humanity will be humanized. So, not to get over sappy… No. Scratch that. Yes, to get over sappy: you inspire me, friend, your journey has inspired me, our friendship inspires me, and I think that I learn so much from you, from afar and from aclose. Humanity and humility and love. And complexity and constant struggle and constant reexamination. But also humanity and humility and love. I humbly love you very much, Andrew, as a human and as a dear friend.

AF: Wow, man. What a gift, these words. What a gift, you’re presence here in Lone Pine and in my life. You inspire me, too, my friend, in all the ways you speak of above, especially in the humility you exhibit in the eternal reexamination and the search for truth and love. And maybe that’s it, maybe it’s all about fostering within us the humility to reconsider, to be wrong and to own it. And on top of that, to speak when you know the God-Spirit-Almost Entirely but Not Entirely Unknowable Moral Law is being violated, as you noted, importantly. Hate the deed indeed, compassionately. Haha, the greatest oxymoron of them all.

I love you, my friend. Thank you forever for walking with me in the pastures of Vermont, the Sierras of California, the strange and beautiful flows of this life. You bless me with your presence.

MR: Now,how does this conversation, between which we’ve been passing back and forth David Foster Wallace’s book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, nibbling stale muffins and verbally conversing (“guhoy”), just slightly, end? A hug, of course. And abruptly.

[Fin…and congratulations to the seven of you who made it!]

(Moriel and Andrew on Mt. Whitney,   basically the highest peak in the US of A (not counting Alaska- who needs ’em).