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Connecting the past to the present
Posted at: Oct/20/2010 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: My philosophy,
I know, some of this will mean nothing to you if you are under the age of 25. I am going to share a few events both big and small and then try to pull them all together for you.
It was the year 1861, the American Civil War had only just started and the Union Army held control of Fort Monroe in Hampton Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. In May of that year, Union Major General Benjamin Butler decreed that all escaping slaves who could reach Union lines would be considered “contraband of war” and would not therefore be returned to the south or bondage. This resulted in waves of escaping slaves rushing to the fort in search of freedom. In order to provide this mass of refugees some kind of education, Mary Peake, a free Negro, was asked to teach. It is important to note that there was already a Virginia law passed in 1831 that specifically forbid the education of slaves, free blacks and mulattos. Mary held her first class, which consisted of about twenty students, on September 17, 1861 under a simple oak tree. This tree would later be known as the Emancipation Oak and would become the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
The Emancipation Oak still stands on what is now the campus of Hampton University. In the spring of 2010 President Obama was the commencement speaker at the Hampton University graduation. At the conclusion of the ceremony, William R. Harvey, the university’s president presented President Obama with a seedling from this oak which has since been planted at the White House.
In June of 2010 a largely Mendelssohn program of classical music was preformed. Present in the orchestra for this performance was a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius cello used by the gifted cellist Yo-Yo Ma. This same cello was used more than 160 years ago by Count Mateusz Wielhorski as a member of the St. Petersburg orchestra. In this earlier performance Mendelssohn was in the audience. (a friend attended this and spoke of it to me)
What connects these vignettes is the beauty of a tricky little thing called associative memory. These little snippets of associative memory give us a feeling of direct connection with the past. This direct connection to the past is for me significantly different from the performance of rituals. The sound and ceremony of breaking glass at a wedding is one common example of a ritual designed to connect the past to the present. I have nothing against repeating rituals, religious or otherwise, but out of shear routine and repetition they tend to become stale and lose their significance. As one writer once said “words that were powerful the first time and the second come to lose their punch by the hundredth time you hear them.”
While words often fade with time, things have a way of hanging on to their significance. Many months ago I had the privilege of visiting the American museum tour of the dead scrolls. To view close up the ancient artifacts had me thinking about the people who wrote them and the lives and hardships they lived. Years ago an associate of mine took me for a private tour of the back rooms and research areas at the San Diego Museum of Man. Seeing and holding some of the skeletal remains and seeing in some cases the obvious violent means in which they must have suffered and died made their past lives very real for me.
I don’t wish to take away from the value of words. Many of our rituals are very word intensive and focus on inspiring “Kavanah”. Kavanah is Yiddish terms for the acts of having spoken words generate a special awareness or symbolic meaning for the listener. For many of us the most common rendition of this is a religious service, but again, some of these words are recited so often that except for the best of circumstances they lose the emphasis. As a student of history and a patriot, many of our significant national documents have this effect on me. I remember years ago listening to an actor re-enact Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the national monument in Pennsylvania. The oration of Lincoln’s words and the specific setting instantly moved me to think of the sacrifices made upon those fields over a century earlier.
Despite the occasional gift of a great speaker and the emotion associated with truly inspirational words, most of us are still more easily touched by places and tangible things.
A few years ago I took my own family to visit the area I grew up in west of Portland Oregon. One of our stops was a public park with a lake that went in while I was a child. In the early days of this park it was very controversial with the homes on one side of the park because the “lake” was more of a mud hole than anything else and the mosquitoes were a significant issue in the summer. Despite all the controversy kids like me planted trees and did other things to improve our park. On returning to the park after 30 years I saw my trees now well over 40 feet tall and the lake a “protected wetlands”. Despite their change in size, touching “my trees” brought back memories of catching frogs, sinking rafts with my friends, and coming home covered in mud to the dismay of my parents. Maybe not important to others, but the trees were especially meaningful to me.
These Kavanah or inspirational moments are sometimes call “eureka moments." You cannot merely prowl about in search of eureka moments. Part of their unique sparkle is how they occur without warning, taking you totally unaware. A “eureka moment” could be initiated by something like encountering an old friend entirely out of predictable context of the expected routine. Often, as in the vignettes, the association goes unnoticed unless it is explained. Still, associations can be searched out, as we often do when we play “how many degrees of separation” on making a new acquaintance.
Once, years ago, while waiting for a connecting flight in St. Louis I struck up a conversation with the traveler sitting next to me. This was done more out of boredom than any other purpose or divine insight. After some conversation it turned out that both of us had served in the same U.S. Army engineer unit and spent time on a special project at Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands during the late 1970’s. While we never knew each other during this time, it turns out we had many common friends and memories from the same place and era. The gentlemen sitting in the airport seating behind me and with his back to me must have overheard some of the conversation as well; as it turns out we had both served with his older brother. Encounters and eureka moments like this help us to feel connected and sometimes make time and distance less daunting.
I now live 1300 miles from where I grew up, yet by sheer accident I discovered a number of years ago that one of my local friends went to the same high school as I, only a few years ahead of me. I am sure if we took the time to talk about it, we would find that we have common friends from that time in our lives and not just common history of where we have been.
For events like this to happen, you have to know where you come from. It’s said that if you don’t know where you are going, you can’t get lost. Perhaps it’s also true that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t connect the past and the present. That doesn’t mean you’re lost, but it does mean you may lose out.
You can, of course; still have the vicarious pleasure that comes of learning that tree some youngster is climbing in was planted by you, or a friend of your decades earlier. That means that the same tree that is very special to you is also very special to someone else.
Speaking of trees, there is another special seedling that got planted at the White House this year. It’s from the horse chestnut tree that stood outside the building where Anne Frank and her family hid for more than two years. After describing the tree, Anne wrote, “When I looked outside right into the depth of nature and God, then I was happy, really happy.” Seedlings from that tree, which so helped raise Anne’s morale, are scheduled to be planted in ten additional American places: the Boston Common, thanks to a request to Boston’s mayor from an 11-year-old researching what project she might undertake for her bat mitzvah; the William Jefferson Clinton Library in Little Rock; the Holocaust centers in Seattle, in Farmington Hills, Mich., another at Sonoma State University in California, and in Boise, Idaho, whose statue of Anne was vandalized by a white supremacist group; the World Trade Center in New York; the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis; Central High School, in Little Rock; the Southern Cayuga Central School District in upstate New York, considered by many to be the birthplace of the women’s rights movement. Maybe these seedlings will inspire other to never give up.
And for all of us, another Eureka Moment!