Update from Small Town America

Here I am on the outskirts of a small town in the upper northwest corner of the United States, out in what is called “The County”.  The friends we’ve made over the last twelve years have also been on the outskirts of the culture of this place in time and space.  Our Polish friends, Art and Margaret Roszja are a good example. They come from a very long line of artists and scientists. Margaret’s father, still in Poland, is an astronomer and was a political prisoner in Poland. Last year he received the highest civilian medal for withstanding repression.  Her great-great-great paternal uncle was Frederick Chopin and her paternal aunt, Bronislawa Kawalla, is an internationally renowned pianist and judge on the panel of the international Chopin Competition. Art’s cousin was murdered by the Secret Services in Poland. He became a national martyr and hero. His brother is the pre-eminent classical guitarist of Europe. They fled Poland in 1988 with a small child after a series of events that convinced them of the need to escape a repressive regime where freedom of expression was almost non-existent and where one could easily loose one’s life in challenging authority.

After finding refuge in a refugee camp in Norway, Canada eventually opened its door to them when the US would not. They worked hard in Canada, raised children, created a thriving construction business with public sector contracts, renovated their home near Vancouver and finally decided to come to the US, where Art’s father, grandfather and great grandfather were citizens. For him, it was a return to his homeland.

Their imagination, energy and creativity lead them to aspire to do something unique for a community where they hoped to find stimulation and inspiration, something with whimsy, something unusual, something beautiful and in its own way astounding so those passing by and those in the surrounding area would be able to experience something out of the ordinary, something that demonstrated the possibilities of mind, the extravagance of the spirit.  They could have renovated the old house as others have done, making it a dull, pleasing Craftsman-style set of boxes, painted in drab colors, but they instead conceived of a multi-story Clock Tower, which would be set off by the stunning view of Mt. Baker as you come from the west on Main Street towards the center of town.  They had the energy, money and willingness to do something significant for the town. We all imagined the clocks facing in the four directions, maybe even a chime sounding the hours. Margaret hoped her aunt would come to play piano for the public at the completion.

The judge told them on Friday, among other things, that since they had chosen to do something unusual, creative and unique, causing the city to stretch its thinking about what is permissible, they need to be grownups and take the responsibility for all “the trouble” they’ve caused the City of Ferndale in the past nine years.  They have been categorized as “a nuisance”  for all these years of struggle to finish their project. Never during the nearly four hours of hearings I’ve attended in 2016 was there any mention of the errors the city has committed. No suggestion the city may have brought the whole weight of years of conflict down upon themselves. The local blogger, driven by an ostensible devotion to journalistic objectivity mentions only the government version of the story presented to the court. He has little effort to dig any deeper. Neither has any other local paper, including “alternative” news.

On Friday, Art and Margaret narrowly escaped the fine of over $100,000 the city sought to impose for failing to comply with the terms of a voluntary agreement issued by the court in February.  The city also requested the couple cover all the city’s legal fees (including “staff time” which probably encompasses the hours spent by several city officials who have attended all the hours of court hearings without cause).  It is unclear whether the judge will require this.  However, it is clear the judge issued an order stating that the Roszjas were in contempt of the court’s order from February, although no mention was made at court or in the resulting order of what elements of construction were not completed. In fact, all the elements agreed to were completed, within specifications and on time. The decision of contempt was based solely on the word of the City’s Planner who came to the site and declared the elements unfinished.  No independent inspector was allowed by the city, although requested by the Roszjas. In February, the Roszjas had consented to their attorney’s recommendation and agreed to a faulty order in order to simply move ahead to complete the planned construction, putting the fight behind them and accepting in good faith, as they purported, that the city shared the same goal.

They returned home to do just that, but the city almost immediately had further orders.  Each time the Roszjas moved forward to complete elements of the construction they had been permitted to complete, the city sent them repeated correspondence questioning the legality or safety of things they had already permitted.  In March, they mandated that the reflective glass the Rojszas had installed on the east side of the building be removed and replaced with siding. The city felt they had the right to approve the type of siding the Roszjas would use to replace the glass, although there is no legal basis for this claim. Any other home owner in the city is free to replace siding or replace a roof without permits. The permit for the siding went back and forth for weeks, as had previous permit requests. After much delay and indecision, they required the Roszjas to purchase a Structural Engineering Analysis of the siding proposal, something also not required in any other circumstance when home owners are renovating a home. The engineer the city specified was unable to take on the job for at least a week, further delaying the project.

At court, the judge gave the appearance of again wanting to reach a just compromise in a difficult situation, citing the old test of a true compromise–“Neither side will be happy with the decision.”  However, for a judicially ordered compromise to be just, it must be based on the judiciously weighed facts presented by both sides in a dispute. In this case, the Roszjas have never been allowed to present the evidence of the city’s bad behavior in this conflict. The court appears to believe that if a government claims that something is so, it is so.  Those accused of opposition to the rules of the government evidently have no standing to present a case that runs contrary to the government claims. The position of the Superior Court of Whatcom County runs counter to the whole concept of Due Process.

The Roszjas went home again on Friday, changed their clothes and went back to work to complete what they understand the city will allow them to complete. Tomorrow, the judge will review requests from both attorneys and decide whether there will be further threats of fines and/or a requirement for the Roszjas to pay the city’s legal fees and costs.  The city has repeatedly denied they are treating the Roszjas any differently from any other residents within the city’s boundaries. They feel there is no evidence of bad behavior on their part, no prejudicial or persecutory acts.

We just wonder what will happen.  The people damaged by all of this are the Roszjas. No damage has been done to the good denizens of the city. No one’s safety has been compromised.  The supposed insult to the eyes of the community has been caused by the city’s inaction and ineptitude, if not downright deliberate prejudicial treatment. Although it is the Roszjas who are being treated as criminal actors, guilty of opposition and neglect if not malicious mischief, it is actually the city who is behaving in a manner contrary to American Constitutional Law. The people of the City of Ferndale have, in fact, been damaged not by any compromise of their safety or pollution of the environment, but by the loss of an opportunity to experience something, day after day, which provides a window into a realm beyond the drudgery of the daily grind. They have been deprived of the generosity of art.

It is the Roszjas who will pay for daring to contribute something beyond the normal for which they have been willing to expend large amounts of their own energy and financial resource to accomplish.  This is just the sort of oppression and repression by bureacracy they sought to flee twenty-eight years ago.



A Bulletin From Small Town America

Amidst all that is going on around the world today—the Brexit vote, Donald (the guy teaching the world how to fire people from corporations) vs. Hillary (the guy being hired by corporations), cops being exonerated for the death of a black man in the back of their van, everyone ignoring the real motivations behind the Orlando shootings and believing only what they believe, no one paying much attention at all to the fact of a planet being murdered by all of us together, every day, dying in front of us in fits and starts, gasping—I attended the Whatcom County Superior Court hearing for two dear friends of mine, a couple who escaped a then-Communist Poland years and years ago only to eventually come to be persecuted by yet another authoritarian regime—the City of Ferndale.

They are being hounded for trying to transform an ordinary old two-story farm house they bought almost fourteen years ago on the Main Street (left over from more rural times) into a unique and marvelous Clock Tower of multiple stories, whimsical and attractive.    They run a construction company held in high repute that has renovated many public buildings in Canada and Washington State including several schools, a lighthouse, a city clock tower, a dome, a city park, a wing of a prison, and many others, doing much of the work themselves.  The house was purchased, in fact, right after they had completed seismic improvements on the City’s high school and rebuilt a wing of an old local elementary school. They hoped to incorporate much of the high quality construction materials left over from various jobs into the design of their own Clock Tower (including, originally, four huge clocks which would face in the four directions). They clearly know what they are doing.  Both work harder and more efficiently than people half their ages. In the eight years we’ve known them, the City has managed to obfuscate every permit application they have made, delayed, refused, countermanded their own instructions, written ordinances specifically targeted at this couple’s efforts and prosecuted them for the results of their obstructions.  I know these tactics from first-hand experience when, in trying to initiate a viable Farmers Market in Ferndale, we were ordered to follow  procedures and then told in the next breath there were no existing procedures.

Today was the second time I have attended a hearing in their case. The first was three months ago when the judge “compromised” with the City and gave them mostly 90-day deadlines to complete the construction. They were better than the totally unreasonable deadlines and fines the City asked the court to impose, but still unreasonable.  However, at the time, our friends thought they could meet the deadlines, working diligently and with the materials they had been given permits to use.

Soon after the court date, the City began complicating things further, asking for things already installed to be taken down (including some glass walls they subsequently wrote a city ordinance to prohibit) withholding fire permits, asking for an engineering inspection when none had been specified, etc. etc.  (I’m sure it’s becoming evident that this case as it has wound along for ten years, has been enormously complicated. I plan to tackle an expose-length article telling the whole fascinating story, but I’ll keep it brief here.)  Meanwhile, over the years that our friends have been blocked from using the materials they had accumulated, these had to be stored next to the building. They bought big white tents in order to cover some and decrease the eye sore, leading the City to develop new ordinances against large tents.   As a result of their inability to move forward, public opinion about the site plummeted, even as our friends continued to be hired to work on several of the local schools. It was not hard to find folks in the bars or the local grocery store complaining about those “lazy immigrants who just let things go and create a public eyesore. Why don’t they clean that place up and just finish the damn house!”  The mayor fed this, directly and indirectly, dragging them to court over one thing and another while he proceeded to build a new police station much too large and too expensive for the town in the existing library’s building, almost bankrupting the City in the process.

The eagles flew briefly on the glass walls and the crown lit the sky at night.

Today, the City’s attorney complained in a fretful near-whisper to the judge that our friends were basically unruly children who “didn’t like following rules” and clearly needed to be held in contempt of court and fined severely in order to get them to comply with the completion of the renovations.  The defending attorney made a decent attempt to counter and asked for the court to review what had been completed since the court order was issued in February. He then asked the court leave things as they are since his clients had actually substantially complied and were more than willing to move forward with the final stage as fast as humanly possible. He made the reasonable request that the court put the settlement agreement behind them and, if it felt it necessary, schedule status reviews in front of the court. The City asked instead that they be given a 30-day deadline (meaning they would have to postpone all the jobs to which heir company has committed in the coming weeks) and be fined substantially for their present non-compliance.  No testimony from our friends was allowed.  The group of local supporters who had dressed for court to attend the hearing were not allowed to speak.  The judge appeared to take the City attorney’s word that the agreed items had willfully not been completed.

Hard at work this early, early spring, taking down what had already been built.

To end today’s session, she stated she would take the decision under advisement until tomorrow. We shall see what transpires.  Margaret, the wife of the duo, wondered aloud over coffee and donuts after court if “the death penalty might be imposed for building a Clock Tower.”  (Frivolity and humor were things the City has pointed to as indication of an anti-authoritarian attitude that must be quashed to protect the city from disregard of rules by other citizens.)  Her husband countered that the City’s insistence they complete a metal roof on the tower before completing the spire for which they were just granted a permit would lead Margaret to slip to her death anyway, making it unnecessary for the court to impose that penalty.  One small-town travesty seems to speak volumes about life in our America, even when it speaks with a Polish accent.



Brother Muhammad Ali

It was a Saturday early afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin and I was twenty-two or so. I was a college student and spiritual seeker.  Finally, after a series of very painful years, taking me through Vermont, New York City and two other undergraduate programs, I had come to Madison at the age of twenty-one and settled in to a new life and a new school.

Shortly after my move, my Sufi teacher had given me the assignment of starting a Sufi Order Center in Madison. I am convinced he did it just to shake things up. In that, another life-time, I had, trembling, started leading the Sufi Dancing in the square.  I had learned to speak and sing in front of a group of people, to lead gradually and then all of a sudden when the slightly older couple, who had been less formally leading the dancing, came into conflict with this youngster who had the effrontery to think she could do better than they.

My Sufi friend, Labonna, another blond twenty-something, full of energy, love and life, had just walked into the Underground Café on State Street. I hadn’t seen her for a while.  I was finishing brunch with a few friends in this vegetarian haven and was in an expansive mood.

She was someone I didn’t know well. She was of the archetype of the cheer-leader-girls in high school whose circle I could never penetrate and who had never included me in their parties since elementary school. But she seemed to like me, bridging the gulf from that world into mine, the world of sensitive, impassioned war protesters, back-to-the-landers, yes—“Hippies”.  We hugged, talked a bit and decided to spend the afternoon together on what I remember as a beautiful spring day.

We went to the park beside Lake Monona, sat on the grass and talked, walked and danced around together, taking hands and spinning, just out of sheer exuberance.  We may have smoked a joint, or maybe not. Our conversation was rangy, meandering through the politics of the day, the people in the Sufi group, the lives of our spiritual teachers.  It happened that our teacher, Pir Vilayat, had recently had a secret meeting with Muhammad Ali. They had talked about the spiritual life, it was said, and what it meant to live by its tenants. It was reported through the grapevine that Ali had really enjoyed the meeting.  Labonna talked about how interested she had been to hear about this through Sufi friends in Chicago. I talked about my admiration for Muhammad Ali’s stance against the war and the way in which he had nobly accepted his exile from the sport he loved so much as a consequence of living by his principles.

Labonna was a Chicago kid. She had many contacts in the city.  Her conscious or unconscious presentation as a young Marilyn–maybe the “Some Like it Hot” version–was mixed from a brew of intelligence, enthusiasm, impulsivity, narcissism, and innocence, with a modicum of tough street kid.  She knew that Ali had been living for some years on the South Side, near the Muslim Temple of Elijah Muhammad. She even knew the garage at Stony Island Ave. and 69th Street where he hung out with his friends.  Now Ali was a brother. He had met with our teacher so had become, in some sense, connected.  Labonna had met him once, a year or so back, in Chicago, and they’d talked a bit. She had liked him very much as a person, she said.  He had a strong magnetism yet was firmly grounded and human.

We decided to go find him. It was afternoon. She had an old Chevy. We could do it. It was only about two and a half hours down I-90. We didn’t know what we’d find, but destiny was calling. He was a young man who had suffered and was seeking. We were young and full of an ideal about the unity of all seekers.

She drove and smoked.  When we stopped for gas, we shared her lipstick, she complimenting me on how it was a perfect color for me. The high school girl in me was enchanted. We were calm in our excitement, confidant in the force of the moment.

We arrived in Chicago as it was getting dark. I had only been to there once when I was a kid of twelve, travelling through on the train going west, stopping with my parents to see the Museum of Science and Industry and walk through downtown. I remembered nothing.
Labonna navigated fairly well, showing me for the first time a certain vulnerability.  She was confidant finding her way from the freeway to the outskirts of downtown but it was clear the South Side was not her usual stomping ground. By the time we hit the boundaries of that neighborhood it was dark, and all the faces were dark. Two young blond women in a car, driving a bit aimlessly, asking directions. It never occurred to us to have any trepidation. These were all people, young and old, as dangerous as anywhere at night, but yet familiar.

When we stopped to ask, it was “Do you know where Muhammad Ali is tonight?” Those we addressed looked only slightly quizzical at first, then, meeting the direct glance and smile, softened and seemed to feel it was a part of the natural life of the neighborhood. They directed us to the Temple, which turned out to be closed. We found someone hanging out on the corner and asked him if Ali were in town and if so, where he might be. He directed us to the garage on 69th which also was dark and empty. We stopped at a convenience store nearby and went in to ask again. By now it was around nine-thirty and the streets were pretty quiet. The guy at the counter told us to wait a minute.

He went to the back and returned with another young man who, in a friendly manner, asked why we were looking for Ali. We explained about our teacher and our desire to talk with Ali about his experience in meeting with him. He seemed to accept this. He said, “Well, that would have been nice, but he’s out of town for a few days. His apartment is close by here, you’re right, but I’m afraid you’re a day too late. He left yesterday.” We thanked them both very much for their help. They smiled. It seemed they smiled with genuine warmth. Who knows?

As we got back in the car and she turned to me and said, “Well, we followed through. There was something that pulled us here. We didn’t shirk. We decided to do it. Too bad. I was really looking forward to hanging out with him.”  “Me too. But we found his atmosphere.”

It took a while to find a gas station still open. We had to drive almost to the North Side to find one. We fueled up and drove back to Madison, talking now and then, she smoking, me occasionally dozing, looking out into the night through the late hours of a long day.





What It Is To Burn


Under the big white tent in the forest we met that night, as agreed. There was a man with a double hand-held drum, a woman with a violin, a man with a oboe, a man with a tenor sax and me with my flute. We were all in our early twenties.
There was a knot in the middle of my chest and my heart was racing. I was not at all sure I could play with these musical people, whether I could play without a sheet of music in front of me to dictate the notes. I had played classical flute for years, well enough, but not with the beauty I really craved to hear. A few times I’d played freely for myself, in the woods, playing nymph to a stream and to the occasional accompaniment of the German Shephard named Blue who lived with us in our cabin in Vermont. I was clearly a romantic, loving the solitude of it and the mystery. But that night as I stood, poised under the tent, listening to the sound of crickets and an occasional night bird, I felt wiped clean, my mind emptied, listening for some sound within.
The violin started with a simple melody, joined soon by the drum who picked the rhythm from the flow of notes, structured it and lead it forward. The sax and oboe started to speak up, inserting their voices into the conversation, changing the topic, pulling the rhythm. It needed the voice of the flute, the pure soaring. So there it was.

At first the voice of the flute was mine, hesitant, uncertain, poking here and there in the discussion, trying to find a way in. Then the oboe turned to it, eager to hear what it had to say, imitating, reflecting, and then questioning.

It was when the sax came in to the conversation, though, that we all realized we had been invited to a dance. We swung around each other, gracefully at first and then with more abandon. I, standing there, blowing my breath into a long piece of metal, stood back in myself and began to hear a music that I was not playing, that the oboe was not playing, the violin was not playing, certainly not the sax or the drum. It was a swirling of melodies coming from somewhere in the middle of the tent, in the middle of the forest, played by no one but playing us all. Water jumped in the air, splashing, spraying. Somehow the air caught fire. We became the fire itself, hot, leaping, Latin, sexy, burning, crackling, purifying with joy.

The fire burned for some long time, or it might have been intense and brief, as it consumed its fuel and burned it away, sometimes roaring, sometimes quietly crackling, to ashes. As we all listened, it died into the cool light air of the night, a breeze wafting here and there and resting finally in the quiet of the darkness.

We packed up our instruments, speech being far away, hugged our good-nights and went to our sleeping bags, burned away, yet filled with vastness.