The Rear View and the Forward Gaze

“Society is built, instead, upon the countless habits and rituals of its members, both living and dead. Since collective identity emerges imperceptibly from these everyday experiences, our understanding of ourselves is always rather nebulous and imprecise — like one of those optical illusions that, when one focuses too hard, dissolves back into the page. As each generation passes, we forget something essential — if intangible—about ourselves. With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.”

Kit Wilson, “Sentimental Nihilism and Popular Culture”

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Perhaps it’s because I’m reading A Canticle for Leibowitz or because my grandfather is slowly dying from Alzheimer’s or because the world is changing so quickly that I feel powerless and totally other in my own skin, but whatever the reason, this article by Kit Wilson struck somewhere deep within me and sent everything to rattling and swaying. But that was a good thing because—in some strange roundabout way—it helped me to replait a few loose thoughts.

The Value of History
I highly recommend reading the piece in its entirety, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll give you the précis. Focusing on the arts, Wilson argues that a shared history is essential to culture, that tradition has a greater purpose than we know. When we hurl those things out the window in favor of the new, when we embrace only what is deemed relevant and “burn the great oaks of Western culture to the ground,” it is we who end of sitting on and sifting through the ashes. And without a robust understanding of tradition and shared history, “Every last inherited standard — every last comfort — must be torn from us once and for all.”

Image courtesy of http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries
Image courtesy of http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries

The nihilism that plagues us will be our undoing, according to Wilson. To combat it, we must embrace history and “engage with one another as members of a common group.” And the best way to do so is through pop culture, which has “stayed the course of the 20th century much more successfully than [its] ‘higher’ cousins.”

“Popular culture crystallised archetypically Western tropes that, if nurtured, may still blossom again,” Wilson says. “So ingrained in the public’s mind are the perfect cadence and the love story that not even the Enlightenment’s cynical ticks can burrow deep enough to suck them out. Today, like the lounge suit, their ubiquity conceals a quintessentially Western inheritance. But it cannot look after us alone. It is but one part of an urgently needed review of who we are and where we’re going. And to face the future with any confidence, we must begin with the memory of where we once came from.” (Emphasis mine)

The artistic past we tried so hard to erase is still there, hidden in plain sight. The familiar strain in the mundane. And I heartily agree with his call to redeem the past. There is absolutely no shame in remembering where you came from, in asserting that your culture’s past (tangled and flawed as it might be) is valuable and worth preserving.

I think about literature, my own beloved discipline, and I am grateful for the professors who taught me Shakespeare as well as those who exposed me to Lorraine Hansberry. Incorporating Mariama Ba into my life doesn’t mean George Orwell needs to go the way of the Dodo. Making room for Ishmael Reed doesn’t make it impossible for me to keep on loving T.S. Eliot. (And if you want another interesting read from an unexpected place, check out what Monica Lewinksky—yes that Monica Lewinsky—has to say about him.)

Image courtesy of http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/classical-street-art/beethoven-wall/
Image courtesy of http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/classical-street-art/beethoven-wall/

In Life As Well As Art
The brutal murder of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina last week has had us all doing a lot of soul searching, and a great dialogue has opened up regarding race and the many meanings of the Confederate flag. It is most definitely not all things to all people.

Days after the shooting, many called for the flag to be taken down, calling it an unseemly relic from a painful era in our nation’s history that has no place before a government building. I have lived in three states during my 37 years on this planet, and all three of them seceded from the union. So yes, I am a Southerner. However, I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with the flag. I always thought there were better symbols for the beautiful place I call home—sweet tea, bar-b-que, graceful front porches, fried okra, fireflies, green fields full of grazing horses, and magnolia trees for starters. It is those things and dozens more like them that come to my mind when I think of the South, and I know I’m not the only one.

Image courtesy of https://www.etsy.com/listing/109743290/nature-photography-savannahs-wormsloe
Image courtesy of https://www.etsy.com/listing/109743290/nature-photography-savannahs-wormsloe

That’s why, as a white southerner born and raised, I am all for retiring the stars and bars. For too long, it’s been an obstruction to race relations, an unnecessary distraction that somehow keeps us from the business of getting to know and love one another as human beings. It’s proper place is not flying before any state capital, but resting in a museum where it can be displayed in a way that allows it retain whatever respect it is due.

But there are some who aren’t satisfied with the quiet and peaceful removal of the flag and objects like it. Instead, they want it abolished, destroyed, and otherwise scrubbed from the pages of history. Some are also calling for the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers, and one writer has even gone so far to say that Gone With the Wind and shows like The Dukes of Hazzard should be removed from store shelves and cast aside. Even Apple joined the fracas when it stopped selling all gaming apps that had anything to do with the Civil War.

As one who believes kindness is paramount, I agree that there is value in sensitivity and in caring for the needs of others. However, doing so shouldn’t mean we rip the past up by the roots and toss it on the compost heap. That is a Pyrrhic victory in every sense of the word.

The Holistic View
To dispose of every reminder of an unpleasant era is to remove a piece of a culture’s bedrock, to mar its matrix so to speak. It also casts aside those things in the past that were good and worthy of praise. And most dangerous of all, eradicating the past robs us of the ability to learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future.

Image courtesy of NBC.com
Image courtesy of NBC.com

As Wilson said, “With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.” The generation who marched for Civil Rights won’t be with us forever, and when they are gone, how will children grasp the greatness of that movement as well as why it was necessary? Without preserving the past, what came of it, and what caused it, our understanding of ourselves is incomplete. Our history will become a book with chapters ripped out.

Preserving things like the Confederate flag and safekeeping them for future generations is the only way our culture can live beyond us, and that’s why we must not do away with unpleasantness in the name of political correctness. To do so is only to deny ourselves permanence.

Tow Mater, an unrecognized sage of the modern era, got it half right when he said, “Ain’t no need to watch where I’m going. Just need to know where I’ve been.” I mention him partially in jest, but the statement—like many of the things that Pixar creates—points to a greater truth. We need to know where we came from, but we must also be sure to keep our eyes on the road ahead if our culture is to get to its final destination in one piece.

No nation is perfect, but the United State of America is ours. It is up to us to both preserve and better it by maintaining a holistic view of history. That’s why we must doggedly maintain both a rear view and a forward gaze, and may God help us if we relinquish either.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

 

Ablution

Here’s the piece I’m planning on turning in this week for my creative non-fiction writing class. Please give me feedback and help me make it better!!

And huzzah! This is my 100th post! 🙂

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When the dog started burying ice cubes, we knew there was a problem. He’d made daily deposits at the Back Yard Bank & Trust since we’d adopted him, but it had been mostly unremarkable stuff. Rib bones, hamburger patties, rawhides, and even the occasional Rice Krispie Treat—all of them strategically placed underground in a cache system only he understood. As far as we knew, dirt and time helped ripen the food and made it more pleasing to our pooch’s palate, so we likened it to decanting a good bottle of merlot in reverse.

Shadow, the canine in question, was a black spaniel mix with wavy ears and feathery feet that bore a striking resemblance to Falcor, the Luck Dragon from The Neverending Story. In fact, that was the moniker I wanted to give him until I was overruled three to one in favor of “Shadow,” one of the most common dog names in the world. (Even then, I knew my creative genius was doomed to be largely unappreciated.) He loved sleeping in sunshine that pooled on the floor, chasing squirrels, and having his chin and belly thoroughly scratched. He didn’t like to bark and would only do it when we teased it out of him with treats, which we didn’t do often. It wasn’t because we were trying to avoid being mean-spirited, oh no. His pitiful excuse for a bark was as embarrassing as a wimpy car horn.

He had likely been abused by the owner he’d fled, so he never liked having his feet or snout held. Still, he was a happy critter in spite of it. In fact, we found that his “wiggle bone” was located not in his tail, but the middle of his back, so his entire hind end wagged from side to side when he was excited. In short, he was a furry, twenty-pound ball of quirks we loved despite a penchant for digging out and his unearthly ability to be between someone’s feet in the most inopportune times.

But the ice. The ice was just damned odd.

Like any puppy, our mutt loved to chew, so we provided him with an array of chomping options ranging from a bear he mercilessly removed every ounce of stuffing from to chew hooves that took him weeks to whittle down. All these things were sacrificed to keep him away from furniture, remotes, and my brother’s size thirteen Air Jordans. The only unsanctioned “om nom” he ever went for was a hundred-dollar atlas my grandparents purchased for a road trip, and he promptly converted it from a slim, glossy paperback into a sea of shredded paper that covered our living room from corner to corner.

Also like your average dog, Shadow loved people food with the same untamed passion tween girls have for boy bands. Any time someone opened the refrigerator—be they visiting suckers or relatives wise to his begging routine—he magically appeared on the other side of the door, waiting for a slice of bologna or a nibble of cheese.

We discovered his affinity for ice quite serendipitously when I dropped a piece on the floor. He gobbled it down before I had time to debate whether to pick it up or kick it under the counter, and as he chewed, it jutted comically from the corner of his mouth like a stubby cigar and made him drool from the cold. Even the sound he made was amusing—a combination of slurping and a racket similar to that made rummaging through a pile of plastic costume jewelry. Naturally, I had Shadow repeat the performance, which got funnier each time, for each member of my family. He took a dozen pieces from our hands, munching until he’d had his fill, then gummed the thirteenth and headed for the back door.

He’d done the same thing with food. If we gave him a hot dog broken into pieces, he’d wolf it down like Joey Chesnutt. But if that same wiener was handed to him whole, he’d stare at it, totally confused. It wasn’t that he didn’t want it; it was more like he didn’t know what do to with such an embarrassment of riches. We guessed the owners who’d been liberal when distributing pain were tightfisted when it came to food or that it had been hard to come by when he was a stray. That’s why anything he viewed as spare vittles was stashed for hard times. The poor thing hadn’t had enough good ones to make the urge unnecessary.

We stood on the screened-in back porch and watched as he trotted out to the base of a lanky pine tree in our yard, dug a shallow hole, and dropped the ice inside. He didn’t ever quite grasp where his toy went when I  hid it behind my back (much less the basic laws of thermodynamics), so like any and everything else he’d hoarded, the shaggy little urchin covered it up assuming it would still be there when he came back.

A few days later, he returned to his hidey-hole only to find it empty, his efforts to retrieve his new favorite snack rewarded with nothing but a dirt-stained nose. Late one summer afternoon when the sun hung heavy in the sky, Shadow dug one hole after another, each pile of earth excavated more frantically than the last, in search of what I imagined he called “crunchycold” in whatever language dogs speak to one another.

To this day, that confused search remains one of my most poignant memories. Many times, I’ve been like that little dog—furtively concealing my treasures in a vain attempt to protect myself from loss and want. And I’ve squandered so much more than money and time, things much more precious for their intangibility. I buried love that I thought might go unrequited in my soul’s earth only to find it had vanished, never lavished on anyone. Those opportunities I was too timid to seize dissolved back into the ether and were given to someone with the balls to snatch them up and wring them dry.

Too often, I’ve mislabeled cowardice as caution and told myself that joy isn’t guaranteed or plentiful enough in life to risk. But the truth is that everything we try to hoard is siphoned away like sand stolen by a relentless sea. It is impossible to genuinely live and leave something in the reservoir, and for those who try, there is no entering into the joy of our Master.

But I had much left to learn about this fact that day. I could only stand there with tears in my eyes and an ice cube melting in my numb fingers waiting to replace what had been lost.