Documented/Undocumented

I’ve been thinking more, lately, about history. About cosmic and cultural, political and personal history. About the way that people do and don’t keep records of any kind of history, how each documentarian shapes the way things are remembered or forgotten, and how each person on the receiving end of the documentation shapes it all further, given the multitudinous filters of experience, intelligence, and personality each brings to the process. School learning, book learning, deep research, and autodidactic learning all depend upon the vicissitudes of human understanding and communication. And a whole lot, also, on luck and succeeding history, since all of the learning can be lost or found many times over the decades and centuries.
Machinist's School Certificate

My family recently unearthed the above little slip of paper that marked my maternal grandfather’s completion of his first machinist training. Gramps had immigrated to the States some years earlier in search of work, and had kept busy and alive in the piecemeal way that [willing, as opposed to indentured or enslaved] immigrants have done since time immemorial, bunking in cheap rented quarters with other young immigrant men, laboring long hours for little pay, and playing greenhorn pranks on each other in the few hours outside of work when they weren’t downing a hasty bite of food or sleeping exhaustedly. His machinist training eventually led to his working at General Motors for quite a long time, even serving on the team that built the first Duck prototypes for the army. And then his life took various turns, over the years, and I grew up knowing him as a skillful carpenter and homebuilder and the hobby-farmer tending beautiful produce gardens and a handful of Cheviot sheep.

But of course I knew very little of his life story. I did have the privilege of sitting and quizzing my grandpa over dinner more often than most, since I rented a bedroom from him and Granny for the three years I worked near their home in between my undergraduate and grad studies. So I heard some of the tales, like the one about his flatmates sending each newest member of the household to town to buy “ten cents worth of Piggly Wigglies,” a silly quest after a mythical grail that afforded the rest the cheap entertainment of watching from afar as their victim tried in his broken English to persuade shopkeepers to hand over something that didn’t exist even if his speech could be deciphered, and the store owners eventually sending the series of foreign-born youths off, each now smarting with the same outsider embarrassment they’d all experienced in their early days in the US. I heard, too, of that uncle of my grandpa’s who had tried to dissuade him from going to America, and if he did, to at least be as wary and canny as possible because “those Americans will sue you for anything.” This was, mind you, not in the modern day that we generally agree is such a ridiculously litigious one, but in 1929 or so. (Apparently some things haven’t changed very radically in this country.) Still, I know only scraps of Grandpa’s whole biography.

I can at least say with conviction that I come by my stubbornness honestly. Despite the family pleas and warnings, Elias Omli sailed willfully ahead, and lived most of the rest of his life in the US of A. In those early times, he must have struggled immensely, yet found fulfillment enough in the life he forged for himself and later, his family, that despite his longing for the old country and one brief but unsuccessful attempt to reintegrate with the family in Norway when my mother was very small, he lived and died an American. Between those atoms of information he shared with any of us his descendants about his childhood and youth in Norway and the rest of his existence in the US, there was a whole, complicated, adventure-filled, and ordinarily colorful life, very little of which anyone really knows, or could know.

That is how we all exist. Even the most documented, celebrated, and historically dissected characters and the events in which they take part in life or death cannot be fully known, let alone understood, by anyone but themselves. If I’m any example, I suspect even such self-knowledge is pretty shallow in the long run. Having written and shared over 1500 posts here in Bloglandia, where I immigrated from the semi-real-world over 4 years ago now, I may in some ways be better documented than a few other people, should anyone care to sift through all of my imagery and verbiage at any point, but even in this, I share what I choose to share, and only my point of view on it all is represented, so that skew is also bound to be imperfect, if not a little disingenuous.

(I’ll at least aver that the stuff I tag as Fiction is really fictional, and leave determining the rest of it up to readers, who will of course interpret it at will anyhow.)
Island Log Book

Gramps’s story was unique, but not dissimilar from many others’ in history, whether they decamped to new homes and lives from their birthplaces or not, whether they had vocations that called them at an early age and flourished throughout their days or they followed more unpredictable routes. The fate of an individual is inevitably affected not only by his own choices and acts but by the natural and national events and changes that fall in his life’s path. The person who penned the Swedish grocery and supply list above, many years ago, did so as the manager of a remote coastal household for not only the family but probably also a handful of townsfolk who shared the responsibility for overseeing the safe arrival of boats and their occupants on that forbiddingly rocky shore. What this little slip of paper denotes is a glimpse into the everyday life of not just the one person who wrote it but of a small group of people whose names are no longer known and whose life stories probably exist, if at all, only in the bloodstreams of distant great-grandchildren, yet the quaint harbor town they once labored to keep in existence all those decades ago is today a thriving and colorful, lively place. New stories are born there all of the time, and I can attest that the dry goods and groceries now available there are, respectively, more plentiful than and as delicious as ever.

Individuals, communities and cultures all have their times of trial and those of triumph, some noticeably more of one than the other.
Digital illo from photos: Houses of Sorrow

A recent reminder of that came into my view when my spouse and I spent a few days in Halifax. It is as beautiful a part of the continent as I’d always imagined, and yet like the rugged coast of that Swedish island it certainly presents difficulties to the ships that approach it today, and all the more must have challenged the lives, safety, and ingenuity of all comers in days long gone. I loved exploring as a tourist and seeing, especially, the natural beauties of the area with all of its geographical wonders, sea-borne marvels, and magnificent greenery, and also the wide variety of architectural styles that hint at the multicultural roots of the region. Not surprising that the shores are dotted with lighthouses large and small, as well as the houses of those who tended them.

When at the waterfront of the city proper, I admired the old lighthouse and the humble buildings near it on the island most visible from the piers. For a lighthouse location, which is by nature placed in a potentially volatile coastal setting, it looks sweetly bucolic, ideal, and peaceful. Indeed, it is nowadays a quiet and pretty place, a heritage site in mid-restoration for its intended future as an historical park. But that heritage is far from peaceful, let alone ideal; like many other islands in such prominent coastal positions, it has a long and storied past as a fort, a military encampment and, even darker, as a prison and internment camp.

Some of those imprisoned on that place now known as Georges Island, Nova Scotia, were among the estimated 1660 prisoners out of 11,500 local Acadians expelled from their homes and lands en masse by British forces during the 18th century imperialist battles between English and French forces over New World territories. Three quarters of the entire Acadian population were deported in those times and thousands died in raids, counterattacks, and battles; others died under torture, of drowning on the deportment ships, of disease, or of starvation. And Acadians were far from alone in being imprisoned or worse on that pretty-looking little island.

Their own comrades, the Mi’kmaq (and other aboriginal Atlantic inhabitants), with whom Acadians on their arrival as French colonists are said to have lived quite equably, suffered on the island along with numerous captured French sailors and soldiers and any number of other “enemies” of the British rule. Something far less benign than a lovely coastal outpost of protective presence came to exist on this sorrowful promontory at the edge of the proto-Canadian world.

Can I look at this island in ignorant imagination anymore as a picture of vintage calm? Of course not. But I can also guess that there are very few acres of earth anywhere that are not stained with ancient cruelty and the blood of untimely deaths, whether of the innocent or not. It’s easy to sit in judgement from my place of comfort and call the expulsion of the Acadians an attempt at genocide or ethnic cleansing. Certainly, records and recollections of the historians present offer ample reasons that I should think there were all kinds of wicked intentions at play, from land greed to hatred of unknown races, from religious and political imperialism to maneuvering for resources. There were clearly personal elements involved, and as in all wars, military actions that turned into personal vendettas, fights over disputed borders into plundering and petty theft. Just as, undoubtedly, the aboriginal Atlantic peoples must have initially feared, and perhaps fought, the Acadians, and the French and British spent great resources and innumerable lives on their distrust and fear of each other and of the inhabitants of their intended expansion zones.

But earlier centuries’ worldview was also vastly different from today’s, all around the globe. Today, we have knowledge of a much larger and more developed world, of the richness of other cultures, even of the possibility of peaceful coexistence, and we have no excuses for not trying in every imaginable way to resolve differences without being exclusionary or  violent. But past times and people didn’t all have the advantage of our expanded view. Every cultural center or nation of significant size in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas has had its powers, each of them assuming a natural, if not divine, right of rule over all that they had not yet explored, by dint of their own isolated mastery. It’s not just that leaders, explorers, and conquerors themselves have seen it as their right, and often as benevolent duty, to claim ascendancy over whatever and (assuming they’ve managed to recognize indigenous residents as people) whomever they encounter, and to rule as they see fit. Those who write down history, or tell its tales, also continue to believe or disbelieve in ways that are unique to them, and the biases that sneak into our views are inextricably mixed into how we, and future generations, think about history.

What can I take away from these musings? Only the usual self-admonition that I look beyond what is visible. That I question and try to learn further, and not rush so quickly to the judgement that comes oh-so-naturally to me. That I ponder whether any slight thing that I do or say myself can perhaps help others, individually or globally, to remember the lessons of history, both bad and good, and to move forward away from our worst selves. We may remain undocumented in these attempts, as in so many other aspects of being small mortal beings, but I think that existence itself bears the marks of our passing as a document that will spell out the difference between annihilation and rehabilitation of our world.

Stars Everywhere

Photo montage: Stars in the DarknessThis world is a dark place. War and strife, fear, hunger, hatred, greed, self-righteousness, and poverty gnaw the bones of suffering people on every continent at every hour. And all of these menaces are, in accordance with early expressions of the idea of Tragedy, nearly entirely the making of our own species.

Little hope, at least in my mind, of that sorrowful truth changing as long as our species continues to dominate the planet. We are deeply flawed. Even the finest among us tend to forget themselves and their mortal limits at time; regardless of how educated, high-minded and genuinely well-meant their attitudes and actions may be, it’s sadly true that underlying those attitudes and actions is a firm belief in their rightness. Only natural that it’s hard, from that perspective, to allow that others might have an equal possibility of being right, or at least as wise and well-meaning, as they themselves are, and to show them the full respect of that acceptance.

What, then, of accepting life among my fellow flawed beings in this imperfect world? No comfort is found in denial or in persistently, aggressively resisting what may not have the possibility of ever changing. But to accept this grimness as an eternal truth and let it lie like lead on my soul is no help, either.

I look to the stars.

Physical stars exist in a surprising number of places, many lower and commoner than the depths of the sky, and I look to them and rally as I realize that they stand, every one, as beacons reminding me of what is good not only in the nature in which we imperfect beings live, but what is good within us as well. Small as our fineness may seem, individually and corporately, at times, it does exist, and if there is to be any hope of overcoming the dark, it must come from the nurturing of every little glint seen starring that darkness.

I look to the stars in the indigo distance of the sky, sparkling like promises of better things as they look back at me. I look to the lesser stars of reflected light that dazzle on earth, the  diamond dashes on every body of water and glimmering in every eye, never mind among real gems and the many things made expressly to be beautiful and good and positive. I look, more than anywhere else, at the multitude of stars that shine from the hearts of good and true people, people who are thoughtful and generous, merciful and hardworking, and kind and loving, sometimes despite and against the dark things of this world, and often, wonderfully, for the sole reason that they were made to be such earthly stars.

Presenting . . .

My life sometimes seems like a synopsis. Or maybe it’s one of those TV shows shot with a rapidly moving handheld camera, interrupted at frequent intervals by commercials so snipped into quick-cut bits as to become nearly stop-motion animation. Just when I think I know what’s happening, the scenery shifts and the action swerves in an entirely new and different direction. I can seldom sense what’s ten minutes ahead, let alone ten weeks or ten years.

This is no complaint, mind. I realize that such unpredictable chaos is likely closer to the norm than otherwise in this weird and wonderful world. And no one can have great adventures, joyful or otherwise, without a touch of that good old element of surprise–maybe even the slightest frisson of danger. The degree of risk often determines the possible breadth and depth of reward. Still, there are moments when I hunger for a sense of safety and stability, if not quite stasis. We all long for the familiar and comfortable from time to time.

But this is the tragicomedy we live, loaded with unnamed characters making entrances and exits that were never foreshadowed, doing unscripted deeds and introducing plot twists never imagined on this our stage. All we can do, each of us, is to find our own character, commit to it, and keep working on its subtleties and vagaries no matter what scene changes get sprung on us. I, for one, will always wonder what new or mysterious acts remain ahead for me, and hope I can make the required costume changes and keep up with the action as long as the story unfolds toward the final curtain.digital artwork

Depends on Whom You Ask

What’s happening in any given scene? Everyone who answers the question is sure to have his own answer. Point of view is colored and skewed every which way by one’s position at the moment, by the context of experience, by taste and beliefs. Is this a drama? A comedy? Every actor in the event might well give you a different answer.

The other day when I was hearing a delightfully humorous arrangement of the old western song ‘Blood on the Saddle’ (arranged by Trent Worthington) I couldn’t resist adding a silly illustration of my own to the music. In my sketch, the horse whose saddle has presumably been bloodied stands still enough now to act as a comfortable perch for a vulture that stopped by to survey the fallen cowboy as a potential buffet–though as the vulture has just landed he’s more interested in a short rest first. The horse, now riderless and not forced to buck, has no particular remaining interest in the fellow who until recently expected him to lug around the cowpoke‘s weight and kick his heels in the rodeo arena for a living. The cowboy, now just a flat stain in the dust of the ring, is of no more interest to the horse and little yet to the buzzard (not ripe enough yet, presumably). In fact, when I cropped the cowboy out of the picture altogether, it struck me that the horse and bird looked pretty peacefully contented just lounging around together.graphite drawingSo, whose point of view matters here? The cowboy’s, not so much. Having croaked, he’s now short on both opinions and feelings, so we’ll leave him out of the equation. The bronc, of course, has got to be somewhat relieved at the current situation; while he did participate in the squashing of the aforementioned rider, it’s a pretty safe bet that having the guy pile on his back and goad him to buck was hardly the horse’s idea in the first place, so he can hardly be blamed for, well, bucking the buckaroo off into the dirt. Falling over the fallen fellow, I feel it’s safe to say, wasn’t the horse’s idea either, but just a natural consequence of being thrashed around unwillingly in a dirt arena for someone else’s amusement. Fictional or not, this poor horse deserves a break after all he’s been through.

The buzzard, on the other hand, is just a passing freeloader. Of course, that’s what vultures are designed by nature to be and do: the cleanup crew following food-related disasters. Some days, the sacrificial mammals are less human than in this instance, but regardless of the source, nice dead things are made to be Vulture Chow. And the upshot of the dining experience is that the buzzards will leave the scene a much spiffier one than when they arrived on it. Seems to me that this vulture, too, deserves his moment of happy contemplation and repose before hopping down to dine. I’m guessing, then, that his view of the whole scene is rather–if you’ll pardon the expression–sanguine. Unlikely he’d care how the meal arrived at his ‘table’ so long as it arrived. He sits on his equine throne and surveys what, to a carnivorous bird, is a royal feast indeed.

And what of me, the observer and, partly, inventor of this scenario? How am I to respond to it? I bring my own baggage to the occasion. I’m not a lifelong fan of vintage Western songs, having come to appreciate them as a piece of Americana and folk music culture later in life but still from the remove of something like an anthropological observer. This song itself has had a number of covers from the period-traditional to playful takes like Mr. Worthington’s above-mentioned arrangement, and each iteration adds new aspects to the folklore of the story, tingeing it further with tragedy or humor, history or fiction. The story of a cowboy riding a bucking bronco until thrown and crushed by the horse is swiftly told but can grow and change with each retelling. Do I feel sorry for the cowboy? Insofar as I get involved in the lives, loves and losses of fictional characters (and I do), I will admit his story has its sorrows. It’s arguably a tragedy in the classical sense, since it was through his own choices and actions and the consequences thereof–one could even conceivably see his fall as a direct result of hubris–but death of anything other than comfortable old age still strikes most of us humanoids as just plain sad.

I guess you can tell from my earlier remarks that my sympathies lie more with the horse in this equation. He was put into an untenable situation and responded in true horse fashion to the best of his ability. Too bad for the cowboy that horse logic says the correct response to being strapped into bucking gear is to buck, and that, as hard as you possibly can. The horse in this tale got lucky and knocked that unwelcome irritant off his back. Tough luck for the irritant. It really is all about perspective when it comes to assessing the situation. What it boils down to for me is a recognition that being the cowboy may appear more exciting and impressive, but sometimes it’s better to be the horse.digital image from a graphite drawingWho knows? I might even root for being the buzzard: none of the hassle, all of the free booty. Say, I might be a vulture already! And I’m okay with that. Stop by and find an already made idea for a drawing? Why, sure. I am a shameless scavenger. But I prefer the term ‘artist’, if you please. And all you others are free to agree or disagree, just as you wish.

All I Can Do

photoMy Dearest,

I know that your day is dark. Your illness is proving incurable and your pain is chronic. Financial ruin is staring you and your family in the face. The season has turned harsh, your lover has betrayed your faithfulness, your longtime animal companion has died, and your heart grows heavy and your eyes dim with weary tears. War rages just outside your door and grips you by the soul as well.

I know all of this and yet I am thousands of miles from where you are. I can’t step over the threshold and take you in my arms and silently cry with you until the bitterness ebbs. It’s so far that I can’t just bring a basket of hot food and a bottle of wine to sustain you and slake your thirst. My words, even when I try to shape the letter that will ease your suffering one moment’s worth, are too small and sere and frail to make an inroad–and the letter will undoubtedly arrive too late. There is a faint echo in that digital delay when we speak on the phone, and all I can hear in it is our own choked breathing, no sounds of the deep solace really required.photo

All I can do is leave the gash in my own heart open and ask you to take up your residence in it. Know that my thoughts are reaching across the miles to you at every moment, awake and asleep. Let me shift some of the terrible burden from your shoulders to mine; I know it isn’t real, and doesn’t solve your troubles one small bit. But I hope that you can find some comfort and hope in my desire to carry you while you are too weak to carry yourself one small step further. All I can do is love you.

And so I do.photo