Posts Tagged ‘Books & Music’

I am a full-fledged agnostic, have been for most if not all of my life. I may even be called “atheist” in practice, but I do wish I could be more spiritual, and have the inner peace earned through a spiritual life. That is the theory of it, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, theory and reality often conflict. The current crop of religions and spiritual movements proves this out. At best, they’re social clubs no more “spiritual” than a college fraternity, a place to be with your neighbors and try to get laid. Some are no more than line items on a personal resume, like a gaggle of IT certifications. Some are inertial organizations where folks belong simply because they’ve always belonged, like their fathers before them. Some are escapist fantasies, allowing the cowardly to retreat into blissfully ignorant “happy places”, occasionally assisted by various mind-altering substances. At the very worst, religions and movements are controlling forces, wielded by the wicked for their own benefit or profit, to the detriment of the adherents. Somewhere along the line, I think Mankind has lost the true meaning of spirituality.

In my view, the true meaning of spirituality is the understanding we’re all self-aware cogs in a greater machine known as The Universe, and if we understand, obey and serve the laws of The Universe, then we’ll have a decent existence. Fight the laws of The Universe and you’ll be a miserable SOB. Like it or not, we’re part of something greater than ourselves. Everything is connected, and the failure of one equals the failure of all. Spirituality is only valid when it ties one to the practical universe, the real world of life, nature, human interrelationships, etc. It’s only valid when it helps all of us survive and thrive. That’s why I enjoyed “The Wind is My Mother: The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman” by Bear Heart.

Bear Heart is a member of the Muskogee Nation , a father, a husband, a psychologist, a writer, and, above all, a shaman. He was selected to be a medicine man by other shamans of his tribe, men who saw he had the responsibility, courage, and compassion to be a medicine man. The story of how that came to pass is one of the prime tales in his memoir, “The Wind is My Mother”. But “Wind” is not wholly a memoir. Yes, there are plenty of autobiographical stories in the book, written in that simple, but powerful, spoken-word narrative style indicative of Native American writings. More potently, “Wind” is a collection of anecdotes illustrating basic tribal beliefs. Bear Heart explains concepts such as the significance of each of the four compass points, each of the four seasons, and of the sun, and the moon, and the earth, and the sky. This is all very fascinating, and I’m sure many readers will become enthralled by this. But it’s not really what’s important about the book.

Bear Heart doesn’t just talk about the Wind Spirits. The book is also peppered with philosophies on life and living. Again through anecdotes, Bear Heart talks about happiness, and pain, and loss, and joy, and redemption, and death. He talks about the harm of an unbalanced life, the trouble caused by arrogance, the damage caused by materialism, and the pain brought about by drug and alcohol abuse. He tells all these tales, straight from his life and experiences as a Muskogee medicine man, in this tremendously humble, non-accusatory, parable manner. “The Wind is My Mother” is a good, uplifting read, and I recommend it as a respite from heavier fare (like the tomes on history I usually read).

I think Native American beliefs, as described by Bear Heart, were closer to the truth than any other religion out there. I’m not talking about the beliefs in the Wind Spirits or any of that (and I know all about the recent, scary “sweat lodge” incidents), but theirs was a belief structured around the concept that Nature is actually the Great Spirit, that we’re all interrelated, and that we all need to obey and serve natural laws in order to live well. Theirs was a belief rooted in the fact that you defy Nature at your own peril, and it’s far better (and easier) to let her guide your path down the road of life. Pay attention to the world around you, both the natural world and the voices of the people around you. Listen, act accordingly, respect others, and be the best cog in that universal machine you can be.

Of course, in a society dictated by the philosophy of “me me me me me me me!”, that’s not that easy.


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Several weeks ago, in my Badlands post, I briefly mentioned the Wounded Knee massacre site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I thought my recommendation this time around should go back to that.

I applaud anyone who wants to read more on Native American history. Over the decades since I was a kid, we’ve collectively become more sensitive to their plight. They are no longer depicted as the “savage enemy” in popular culture, but IMO we still don’t understand the full depth & breadth of the trauma these people went through.

For those wishing to embark on an independent study of the Native American, I can recommend no better starting point than Dee Brown’s classic “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, the first widely read work of its kind: a history of Indians by an Indian.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

I have to be totally honest here: Brown isn’t the best writer in the world. His prose isn’t graceful or eloquent, but it is written from the heart, and in a storytelling style that suits the voice of the Native American people. Unlike Europeans, tribal ancestors spoke (or even sang) their histories, passing tales & lessons down in a great, verbal tradition. Brown relates these sad tales of Indian oppression in a similar, conversational style that honors this tradition. Reading “Bury My Heart” is like listening to tales of old, spoken by wise, yet dispirited, elders to wide-eyed youth.

Pick it up & give it a read.

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As I mentioned in my last post, I talked a lot about the Civil War lately. Five out of the last 6 posts referenced the Civil War! Well, of course the War Between the States would factor prominently in a blog about the National Park System: so much of our history depends on that war in some form or another. You can’t really put America in context without an understanding of that conflict, it’s vital in any study of American history (it’s not just for Civil War geeks, that’s for sure 😉 ). That’s why so many sites in the NPS revolve around the Civil War, and that’s all for the best.

In the 7th post of this cycle, I thought I’d post about another of my favorite books: Jay Winik’s April 1865.

The Month that Saved America

Winik was brilliant in his choice of topic. All of those key events at the end of the Civil War occurred in April of 1865: the end of the siege of Petersburg, the evacuation of Richmond, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his succession by the incapable Andrew Johnson, the chase and capture of John Wilkes Booth, the defeat of Confederate cavalry Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the surrender of Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston to stern-hearted William Tecumseh Sherman in South Carolina, and the subsequent surrender of other Confederate commands throughout the South. Shortly thereafter, in the first weeks of May, the Civil War would be over entirely, Confederate Pres. Jefferson Davis would be captured, and a reformed nation would begin to rise from the ashes.

 Winik not only describes these events in an exciting, narrative style; he also gives plenty of backstory and context to make the entire work incredibly interesting. I found this book nearly impossible to put down (causing many problems trying to get to work on time). I think April 1865 is a great book, even for those who simply want a good read and aren’t particularly enthusiastic about American history.

[It was also made into a History Channel documentary for those of you not quite enthusiastic about reading 🙂 ]

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I figured I’d break things up a little bit by posting something different, yet still relevant, every 7th post. This time, in honor of John Adams, I thought I’d post a book recommendation:

Patriots by A. J. Langguth

Way back when, I attended night school towards my Bachelor’s degree. Although it wasn’t my major, I had one very enjoyable American History class. The professor was so excited about his topic, and that translated directly to student interest, my interest. Afterwards, I decided to study up on it on my own.

At the time, it was really hard to find an enjoyable read in the genre. Most history books were either over-laden with so much sheer trivia, or were written like bad textbooks, just facts thrown on a page with little context and no interest.

Patriots is so different. It not only reads like a narrative, a story you can really sink into, it also infuses these real-life characters, these patriots, with soul. You feel the cantankerousness of James Otis, the steadfastness of John Adams, the wise logic of Ben Franklin, the practicality of George Washington. You can mentally participate in the debates these men had with each other, and even with themselves. You can actually experience the rebellion in its entirety, from the Boston Massacre to the surrender at Yorktown, and come out not only the wiser, but satisfied as a good book can only satisfy.

The good thing about a well-written book like Patriots is you can learn a lot about this country without feeling like you’ve been through the meat grinder of all-night cram sessions or final exams. This is how history should be. Nowadays, there are a lot of good books on American history that are also enjoyable to read, I’ll post more of my favorites in the weeks and months ahead. But Patriots was the first one that I read that fit that description, hence it’s the first one I post.

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