The long memory

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I wasn’t planning on posting anything this Memorial Day – or Decoration Day, as some people still call it – but then I saw that the discussion in the comment string to Friday’s post continues, and thought it might be appropriate to call attention to it here. My mention of burning some old journals when I was 12 or 13, and my determination never to make a similar mistake since, prompted other people to recall similar incidents. We seem to divide up into burners versus shredders.

What does it say about us, that we feel these impulses to do away with painful or embarrassing records? I would certainly not go so far as to claim that this is a peculiarly American trait – far from it. But I am reminded of our failure as a nation to admit to so many shameful chapters in our collective past. How many people are willing to acknowledge that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a terrible mistake, and that the official explanations make little sense? How many textbooks dwell on the massacre at Sand Creek, or the Bonus Army march on Washington? About the latter event, Howard Zinn writes in a People’s History of the United States:

Four troops of cavalry, four companies of infantry, a machine gun squadron, and six tanks assembled near the White House. General Douglas MacArthur was in charge of the operation, Major Dwight Eisenhower his aide. George S. Patton was one of the officers. MacArthur led his troops down Pennsylvania Avenue, used tear gas to clear veterans out of the old buildings, and set the buildings on fire. Then the army moved across the bridge to Anacostia. Thousands of veterans, wives, children, began to run as the tear gas spread. The soldiers set fire to some of the huts, and soon the whole encampment was ablaze. When it was all over, two veterans had been shot to death, an eleven-week-old baby had died, an eight-year-old boy was partially blinded by gas, two police had fractured skulls, and a thousand veterans were injured by gas.

In 1996, folksinger Utah Phillips recorded an album with Rosalie Sorrels called The Long Memory. In the liner notes, he wrote:

The long memory is the most radical idea in the country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going but where we want to go.

The same year, he collaborated with Ani DiFranco (another one of my heroes) to produce The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere. In interviews with Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, both singers had plenty to say about the role of artists and public performers. I think a great deal of it probably applies to bloggers, as well.

“I don’t think with either one of us it’s either/or,” says Phillips of the contrast between outward-looking and inward-looking music. “It flows back and forth as a pulse, as a sensibility. Woody Guthrie wrote, ‘When I was walking that endless highway’–there’s a lot of I in Woody. Even when he was writing about someone else, he would still transpose it into the first person, as he took these journeys into himself. I can’t fault that and say that’s primarily ego-driven. What I think you’re talking about is music which is ego-driven, what you would call journal-entry songwriting. That’s not what Ani does, the way that I hear it. I know that’s not what I do, [which is to] let people know that I’m alive and present, and this is how I’m authentically perceiving and thinking, but to expand it to the point where it can take in a lot of what other people are experiencing.”

“That whole introspective singer-songwriter thing has been kind of foisted on me,” DiFranco adds. “Some people perceive what I do in that way because I write songs through my own experience. But whenever people say, ‘Well, your work is very confessional,’ I say, ‘It’s not confessional. I’m not confessing anything. I haven’t sinned. These are not my secrets. This is just my life; this is the stuff I’ve seen, the stuff I did, and what I thought about.’ There are different ways of speaking your political perceptions, and it may be [talking about] an event that occurred in your life or an event that occurred in your town . . . but each is a valid path to a certain realization. I think that what we both do is very much about our small, little epiphanies along the way, moments of connection between things.”

This is really a more interesting question than the one I started out asking, I think: In our writing, where do we draw the line between sharing and self-indulgence? After all, what could be more self-indulgent than editing out the darkest, most uncomfortable chapters? But on the other hand, what could be more empowering that letting go of possibly unhealthy attachments to the dead hand of the past? This whole analogy between public and private histories might not be as sound as it first appears. I’ve always hated the leftist cliché that the personal is political, because I resent the implication that any one point-of-view can best describe all circumstances. And besides, life is not all about power. But we ignore at our peril the power element in all relationships – even (or especially) in our relationship with that largely unknown person we call the self.

Since the root meaning of the word “radical” is, uh, “root,” I suppose we could say that Memorial Day, with its emphasis on our rootedness in family and history, is our most radical of holidays. But roots do many more things than simply reach into the soil and hold the plant upright. The roots of most species of plants enter into symbiotic relationships with root-like fungal structures called mycelia, which encase every root hair. Not only water and nutrients, but even chemical messages pass between them, and from one plant to another through the fungal network. This network is thought to be responsible for the well-documented ability of trees to produce unpalatable tannins, for example, when neighboring trees are attacked by insects. And in an old-growth forest, tree roots become physically engrafted to each other, forming multi-species, nutrient-sharing communities whose properties and purposes remain largely unknown. In time, they may well reach a stage where cooperation becomes as significant as competition. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure.

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