What We Hold Onto

Yesterday, my Mail program on my Macbook crashed, and kept crashing. While I pursue attempts to fix it, I am pondering how I have used email, and what those possibly lost emails hold for me. One thing they hold is memory and relationships. I have some old friends that I keep in touch with through email, maybe once a year or every few months. The emails between us hold the long conversation, the details of events in their lives that I might otherwise forget, the cherished connections we make to each other. My emails also hold networking on issues I care about, future possibilities for workshops or activism, relationship building in the here and now. My emails also hold a record of these writings I post on the blog, to save on my own laptop.

But in the meantime, the Mail program is also clogged with thousands of emails that I never bother to read, never bother to erase. Not all junk, per se, but reports from organizations, updates on political issues, daily inspirations that I once thought would be uplifting, but I’ve stopped caring about. And it was much easier to ignore them, rather than try to go through and unsubscribe or move to the trash. Since I can’t open the Mail, I don’t have exact numbers, but I am pretty sure that there are at least 20,000 unopened emails in there. I wish I could magically extract the important ones and abandon the rest.

Yesterday evening, after giving up for a while on the computer fixing, Margy and I watched the movie Nomadland, with Frances McDormand. She plays Fern, an older woman who has lost her husband and her home, and who sets out in a van equipped with mattress and cupboards and cooking options, to travel to seasonal jobs in the American west. Along the way she meets other similarly displaced people, and in the film these are actual “nomads” playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It was powerfully beautiful in its closeness to the natural world of deserts and mountains and rivers, achingly solitary yet full of community in surprising places, and deeply sad in its indictment of our society’s abandonment of aging people.

It also got me thinking about what we hold in our homes, and what I might carry with me, if I ever lost this home and had to set out with only a van full of what I needed, what I cherished. We see Fern looking through a tin box of old photos, listening to music on her little radio, carefully repairing a broken plate, eventually giving up the stuff in the storage unit back in her old town. What would I hold onto, what would I leave behind?

I like to watch Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Finding Your Roots. There are times when the paper trail runs out for people on the show, there are no more records to be found to show the names of their ancestors, or the places they were born and died. Sometimes the paper trail ends because of slavery or genocide or oppression. Sometimes it ends because most people didn’t document their lives in ages past, like we do today. But I wonder if future generations looking for their ancestors of today would have different problems. They might have the problem of technologies changed or lost, such that they could no longer access the online records we so carefully accumulate. But they might also have the problem of getting lost in the avalanche of “paper” we now compile, the over-accumulation of words. Will they no longer be able to follow the trail of what is most important amid the towering clutter of what is not?

And so I come back to my own life, remembering the times I set out with a backpack, or a little car, starting a new life with only what I could carry. I got pretty good at winnowing things down, valuing the simplicity of it, feeling the freedom of it. But in the last twenty years, I’ve been able to settle down and really root myself in home. So things accumulate, some things cherished and beautiful, others practical, necessary, and then the stuff that serves no purpose any longer, but won’t magically disappear unless I do that work of taking it away, giving it away, sorting and erasing. What do I want to hold on to, what do I want to let go?

And yet, eventually, we all leave this life with nothing we can hold onto, all that is left is what we have given away.

Tree stump design-traces of all the years of life

The Power of Memory

Presumpscott River

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, a powerful novel set in the days of slavery and the underground railroad, told through the voice of one young man who is among “the tasked.” There is so much I could say about this story.  Starting with this word, “tasked.” Coates never has his characters who are in bondage call themselves “slaves,” but rather, “the tasked.” And this subtle shift of language helps to transport us beyond the familiar words (of the masters) that have been written as history, into the direct perspective of those who were counted as property.

Even though I learned about slavery from my early days in school, it was easy to discount (even by benign repetition) the pervasive way this institution shaped the whole of our nation from its beginnings, it was easy to mask its reach and extent and corruption.  I grew up in the north, and it was easy to think of it as something far away, other.  But in recounting exploits of folks in the underground railroad, Coates makes clear that people in the north weren’t safe from slavery, or immune to its power. Any person of African descent could be captured off the streets of Philadelphia and transported away into bondage. A person of European descent who devoted themselves to ending slavery risked being murdered.  It was everywhere in this country.

It is not that the novel opened my eyes to some new knowledge, but that it helped me remember what I have already known, and bring it alive in a vivid way.  The whole practice and institution of slavery makes a lie of any notion of “greatest country” or “good old days” or “American dream.”  From the earliest settler invasions in 1619, through the creation of the “United States,” through the Civil War, up to 1865–246 years–the country was bound up in these practices of forced labor, torture, separation of families, sexual abuse. We are part of a horrible legacy that still shapes everything about our country, even though there are strong incentives for us to “forget.”

In The Water Dancer, the central character, Hiram Walker, has a magical gift that is tied to the power of memory.  He was a precocious child with a photographic memory of everything, except for the memory of his mother, who was sold away from him when he was only a young boy.  That trauma erased all memories of her from his consciousness. But later, crossing a bridge over the river Goose, the bridge where so many people had been lost into the deeper south, he sees a vision of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head.

The story begins here.  On the first page he says,

“knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”

He doesn’t come into the power of his own magical gifts until he can awaken the full memory of all that he has lost, and the painfulness of that loss. And perhaps we too will never find healing for all that we face in our world today, until we open our minds to the painfulness of what we call the “past,” (because it is never “past”), until we are willing to face it as it lives within the “down there” of this land we call home.

The Water Dancer creates that kind of magic, conjures the power of memory to transform all that we are.