Friend and fellow SGI Buddhist Nathan Gauer has put out his first book, a memoir entitled, Songs to Make the Desert Bear Fruit. To my knowledge, this is the first American foray of Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism into literary non-fiction. There are plenty of books available on the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement and its president, Daisaku Ikeda, titles such as The Buddha in Your Mirror, The Reluctant Buddhist, Encountering the Dharma, and most recently Waking the Buddha. Songs, however, is not such an informational commentary, but the coming of age memoir of a youth who happens to be a practitioner.
In 1999 18 year- old Nathan Gauer leaves behind a troubled adolescence of inadequate schooling, drugs and friends lost to violence to go on a cross-country road trip with his mother. Their ultimate destination is a place well below the radar of most Americans, the impoverished Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota. Gauer poignantly captures people’s lives there, as they are, without a Euro-American guilt complex, nor a noble savage perspective. In fact, were the Lakota not reminding him that he is a white outsider, a reader might forget that the story is being told by an Anglo. On the reservation we see America in all its ugliness, beauty, sincerity and despair, from Gabrielle’s stolen wristwatch to the Rosebud residents crying around the t.v. at the news of JFK Jr.’s death: “Camelot was our story too, you know.”
Trenchant passages in the book detail his inner journey away from anger and aimlessness: “My unwillingness to take responsibility for my past was limiting my ability to envision the future.” Yet Gauer presents his personal transformation as part of a larger reflection on alienation, violence, poverty and mis-education in America. Readers may find themselves compelled to question a society that so easily provides the mire through which he must slog. There is, however, no preaching here, nor does it smack of a recovery story. Gauer simply takes a snapshot and hands over the picture. In describing some young men who are brutalizing a pit bull to ensure its viciousness in the betting ring, he writes:
Watching these sad, violent young men beat that dog every night, you found yourself looking into a mirror that, depending on your angle, reflected either everything or nothing.
As a reader I was left to decide what this meant to me, and it is this hands-off approach that lends his writing its power. Yet this isn’t to suggest that he is afraid to share an opinion. He comments in the epilogue:
Although America still prides itself on carrying the torch of its own ideals into the world, millions of American youth remain marginalized and disempowered, little more than consumers who figure abstractly in competing bottom lines.
Through such statements, Songs takes on the aspect of a generational work, in this case for Generation Y. As such, it stands in contrast to Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, the book that named the preceding generation. Like Brecht’s assertion that art is a hammer rather than a mirror, Gauer does not reflect the zeitgeist, he challenges it head on:
To put it mildly, it is clear that there will be no simple answers regarding the world we, the last generation of youth to graduate from our nation’s public schools in the twentieth century, will soon inherit. However, I have hope. I have deep, abiding, unfashionable hope, for there is another inheritance that can guide us as we grow into our responsibility to create a new age. This inheritance beats at the heart of the dialogue I began with my mentor [Daisaku Ikeda] nearly 15 years ago; a dialogue that has strengthened my sense of responsibility for the links between our past, our present, and our future; a dialogue that I approach every day as a mirror; and above all, a dialogue that calls upon me to act.
Such grounded, open-eyed vision is definitely not fashionable today. In America’s present state of ever-deepening entropy, if there is one thing we still hold in common as a people, it is resignation to a future we imagine will be far worse than the present. Ours may yet become a land of self-fulfilling prophecy, but Gauer shows the courage to counter it. His is not a story of rootless youth, nor of impossible hope. It is a call to arms anchored in the “conviction that our individual and collective voices can create a new era; the belief in our innate potential to sing songs to make the desert bear fruit.”