Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.
Those books, pasted together by my grandmother, year after year, replaced the cognitive exercise of memory for me. Sitting on a section of wall-to-wall carpeting, drinking the bubbling red birch beer from a tinted brown glass, I reestablished my relationships with the members of my family. This is where I put it all together and perpetuated the lies. Not malicious lies, but lies with so many years to develop that we forgot the truth because nobody rehearsed it. When Mark was sentenced to sixty days in a twelve-step rehab program in 1991, he wrote an inventory of his experiences with drugs and alcohol that filled a whole notebook, and then he gave it to us to read. It was in those pages that I learned he had once tapped the powder out of horse tranquilizer capsules, melted it down, and shot it into his veins for a high that lasted fourteen days. My God, I thought, Oh my God. This is Mark’s story? Okay, now put the cooked-down shot-up horse tranquilizer against the pictures in the album. What do you get? Collage. Dry made wet and introduced into the body. Cut cut cut. It’s not so radical.
There is much more to playing the clavier than playing written music. Do you realize with accompanying there is often nothing written out but the bass line–the left hand? There might be a few notations as to a suggested harmony, but it is up to me to fill in the music, at the proper volume, style, and harmony for the soloist–often instantly. I’ve heard it said that Bach questioned whether the soloist or the accompanist deserves the greatest glory.
I thought of that lost book and all the memories it held and how it was just one of millions of objects in the world loaded with secret history which pass hands until eventually they excite nothing more than mild curiosity or, often, complete apathy. It was like all the sadness and loneliness of life resided in these objects. I realised the moment anything loses its context it becomes a husk.
Everything about the house was rich, and dense, and rooted. It was everything I wasn’t. Even the air, with its distinct smell of oak wood and sage, spoke to its identity and its history. I couldn’t help but feel small here. Overwhelmed. Incompatible.
How much do the actions and thoughts of our ancestors shape our lives and limit our experience?
Louise Erdrich’s A Plague of Doves tells the story of residents in the tiny town of Pluto, North Dakota, on the edge of the Ojibwe reservation. The town and the reservation are fictional, but Erdrich, the daughter of a man of German descent and a Chippewa woman of Ojibwe and French blood, draws upon her own background to paint a rich picture of life in a small northern American town where descendants of immigrants and native people still feel uneasy with each other. The discomfort is even more confusing for those like Evelina Harp, whose veins are filled with the blood of both natives and colonizers.
All of this unease is exacerbated by a crime, or rather a double crime, that occurred in 1911, more than seventy years before the novel ends. The Lochren family was brutally murdered, shot to death at their farm. Only the baby, Cordelia, survived, found by a group of native men who happened to stumble on the gruesome scene. When the Lochren’s neighbors find out about the role the men played in saving the child, their prejudice finds suspicion in the great act of kindness. The native men are hunted down and killed, except for Mooshum, Evelina’s grandfather. Meanwhile, the murderer lives a long life, barely keeping his terrible secret. He would not have kept it all if the immigrant community had not allowed itself moral blindness rather than pursue the guilty within its own ranks.
What happens when you let an unsatisfactory present go on long enough? It becomes your entire history.
Three, and in one case four, generations of the major players are interwoven in the heartbreaking story of a dying community. By the end of the novel, the retired Dr. Cordelia Lochren is alone, unable to reconcile her feelings for native people, especially her lover, with the lies she was fed as a child. Mooshum is an ancient alcoholic, reliving the failures of his youth through painful memories that loom larger than his own life. The Peace family, descended from a man who could not leave a child to starve and was killed for his decency, show a lack of decency and control that lands them in peril deeper than their murdered ancestor. Evelina and the granddaughter of the murderer work side by side at the local diner, barely making enough to get by, never quite connecting the dots that link their patriarchs together. Cordelia alone knows the secret, which she reveals to us quite simply in the last few pages of the novel. It is actually fairly obvious, but obscured by the structure of the community itself, which is built on institutionalized racism. Even our own eyes do not want to see the truth.
Tragically tender and human, Erdrich’s prose is constantly running the gamut from crude humor to profound truth, which, she reminds us, are not mutually exclusive. I found myself identifying with the emotions the characters present and getting caught up in their feelings. Jumping from one narrative voice to another and traipsing back and forth over the decades, we come to know the residents of Pluto in their heroic moments and their feebleness, in their cruelty and their silliness, and we mourn the decline of a community haunted and held together by its ghosts.
The Old Violin, William Harnett, 1886
Erdrich does not leave her community or us without hope. The hope comes, strangely and beautifully, from music, which presents itself as supernatural force, somehow not quite bound by time and place. There is an old violin that has a marvelous part to play, found floating in a canoe, the instigator and only survivor of a fatal rivalry between brothers. It is this instrument that will change the outcome of the novel, saving a young guilty man’s life and ending that of an old guilty one. Then, its debt repaid, it will be shattered.
The music was more than music- at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we’d lived through and didn’t want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprisingly pleasures. No, we can’t live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware.
It is surprising to me that one of the great crimes of history has gone unnoticed; the abduction of god by religions. This slight-of-hand has been the cause of countless blood-shed and has been found at the root of innumerable acts of evil. The argument continues today, as to which religion the true god belongs, when what would be most healing and empowering is to free god from the shackles of religious limitation and judgment. It is by emancipating god from the ignorance of our ancestors that we become empowered to explore and express our own relationship with what god may or may not be.
We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.
Years after a catastrophe, resilience continues to express itself. Memory lets us relive and reinterpret past events, unpacking things that overwhelmed us and growing our response over time. It is not an easy process. The approach of a date, a particular smell, image, or snippet of music can send us back to a deeply fearful place. Some try to forget, but the things we hide from the daylight have a way of resurfacing in our dreams. Unexpressed emotions can be powerful poisons. A world that suppresses history is a world in which violence simmers continually just beneath the collective consciousness. Resilience grows in the soil of our stories, informing the people we become, passing through us into our relationships and communities. We must share with one another if we want to survive.
This prose poem is the work of my friend, Sherry Cheng, a vibrant, warm and intelligent Chinese American woman who came to the United States in her teenage years. In it, she relates how the catastrophic events that happened in Tiananmen Square on a fateful day in 1989 impacted her, her family and her future husband. Her raw honesty speaks volumes, simple and clear. There cannot be many things more terrifying than a government that kills, imprisons and intimidates people with impunity.
Let me set the stage. On June 4, 1989, a peaceful, student-led protest is violently suppressed by the Chinese government, as the military, armed with rifles and tanks, kills at least several hundred unarmed people in Tiananmen Square. The images of tanks plowing down students shocks the world. Wei, Sherry’s future husband, is at the Central Conservatory, where he studies viola. Almost a decade before he will meet his wife, he steps out of the conservatory into a war zone. Sherry is sixteen and sits in front of a television set in an apartment in Starkville, MS, as horrific reports of the violence in her homeland flood the screen. Sherry’s aunt, a student at the University of Chicago who had taken donations from Americans to the student protesters at Tiananmen Square, boards a plane back to Chicago with her three year old son. She is also pregnant. Plain clothes police waiting on the plane meet her and take her and her son to prison. They will be missing for nearly two weeks, while her family uses every connection they have to find them. It will take a couple of months and a promise that she will never again be politically active for the family to secure their release.
Violence is not an anonymous phenomenon. The aggressors, the injured, the killed, the witnesses: they all have faces.
June 4, 1989
29 years ago today the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, bullets flew overhead while a young man lay prostrate on the ground right outside the Central Conservatory gates. He saw a little girl shot down,
an innocent bystander,
her Mother wailing.
A 16 year old girl across the ocean sat transfixed, as events transpired on her TV screen. She could not control her tears as images passed by of bloodied bodies piled on makeshift carts.
Hope turned to fear that day and for months after. Innocent deaths, interrogations, terror, arrests… The girl’s aunt, who had helped distribute funds to the peaceful protesters, disappeared from the airport on route to Chicago, her whereabouts unknown for weeks. She had her 3 year old son with her, as well as another one on the way.
Fast forward 29 years… I mark this day every year because forgetting is easy, even for those who experienced the terror first hand, like my husband. even for those who believed so strongly in an ideal that they would’ve given their lives for it, like my aunt. Because life does go on. We move forward.
So many have forgotten. For each new generation the memory grows dimmer. History is reevaluated and reinterpreted. Black and white, right and wrong, everything is blurred. Amnesia sets in. Ideals are lost.
But I’m still here, so is Wei. We carry that history with us. We will tell our stories every year, even when no one is listening.
Reading history is good for all of us. If you know history, you know that there is no such thing as a self-made man or self-made woman. We are shaped by people we have never met. Yes, reading history will make you a better citizen and more appreciative of the law, and of freedom, and of how the economy works or doesn’t work, but it is also an immense pleasure the way art is, or music is, or poetry is. And it’s never stale.