Friday, April 1, 2016

Past into Future?

I became part of a Quaker discernment group last year and have been trying, as far as possible, to be responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. This has been a struggle--I want to schedule the Spirit for when I "have time." But do any of "have time?" Is time ours to possess and slice and dice as we find convenient?

So I am stopping today to blog, though I have many other more important things to do. What if I had blogged here every time in the past year the Spirit prompted me? Would I have failed to get done what was so important to do? 

I have begun to notice the slippage lately between me and my college students, who are mostly teenagers. I become more acutely aware that their world is not my world. This came home to me forcefully a few years ago when I showed them an ad featuring Grace Kelly. None of them had heard of her. When we studied art forgery, they had no idea who Greta Garbo was. I felt it too this year, as my students, for a song analysis paper, shared groups I had never heard of before. They love Linkin Park. They don't know the classic Beatle songs. Some of them love Tupac, who at least I've heard of (and whose music I want to hear--but haven't yet.) Pink Floyd is not part of their context. 

It has occurred to me too that the world most of them, at this point, have grown up in--what they remember, these students born after 1996--is the post 9/11 world. Most of them don't even remember the day 9/11/01. What they've grown up with, what is "normal" to them is what I think of as a grim, gray world of wars, terrorism, shrunken job opportunities, impossibly high college tuitions. I find myself--heaven help me!--wanting to share how it "used to be."

As a member of an older Meeting, I encounter many older Quakers who tell stories about the past. I have been wondering why that impulse is so strong, in me and in them, and I think it is because, as we experience the slippage between how things are versus how they were, we want to preserve and pass on the memory we have of how things were, especially what has changed.  Yet the past is so fragile-- a piling up of ephemera, mood, feeling, texture--that I have more and more come to believe we have to listen carefully to that something behind--or more accurately, within-- all that content we pour out.

I don't worry about subjectivity at all--ie, whether we remember the past through rose-colored glasses--because that doesn't seem important: of course we are remembering subjectively. The subjectivity, in fact, seems to me the most important part of the content: why have we chosen these details? Why? What do they represent and how is that valuable?

I have been thinking about all this, because sometimes, perhaps when my students ask me, outraged, yearning for the answer, why, say, college costs so much, why they have to take out so many loans, my first response has been to describe how it didn't use to be that way--to explain "what it was like in my day--" and yet they don't respond to that. I have found that when I talk about what it was like in The Day--trying to convey a zeitgeist--younger people glaze over. So I have stopped. 

A realization I have had, as alluded to above, is that it isn't so much facts and information I hope to communicate, as the feeling of a certain time, what it felt like to be alive in a certain moment. For while in a true sense things never change, they also do change all the time. One of the shocks of getting older is realizing that what had seemed completely normal and permanent, literally unchangeable,  is completely transient and impermanent. It's a cliche that those clothes and hair-dos--so normal-- become as old, out-dated and faded in the photos as the clothes in our grandmother's album. Police officers don't wear the same uniforms anymore. Children can no longer run free and unsupervised around the neighborhood. The technology changes. 

I remember going for the first time into the atmospheric St. Clairsville Library, a store front building on St. Clairsville's Main Street, tall and narrow, through a lobby, up an open, airy,  narrow, winding staircase to a second floor, and having my heart twist in my chest as I came across a set of wooden card catalogues. Card catalogues! This library had card catalogues! Tears almost sprang into my eyes. When had I last seen a card catalogue?

The catalogues were for the rare books collection. I have no particular partiality for card catalogues per se, but seeing them there broke (I won't change that typo)  back a flood of memories and emotions. I felt a huge desire to tell someone who wouldn't know what they were all about them: how very long they were, what it felt like to pull them out and go through them, how the book listings were typed on hard paper stock the size of notecards and how you brought you own notecards to jot down information, then went to the stacks to find the books. How you hoped the books you found lived up to expectations!

Yet none of that is important. It's boring really. Who cares? How different is it to look something up on the computer? Who would want to do it that old way? Thank God we have the Internet! What are you talking about with card catalogues!?

Of course, it's not the card catalogues that are important, but what they represent--a way of thinking and being and even moving through  the world that we don't have (much) anymore. It's spatial--how we relate to the world--and sensory--weight and smell, sight and touch. How we experience knowledge and information is different now. Is this important? I don't know. But something in me has an impulse to preserve the memory. 

So when I listen to older Quakers talk--and I love history--I try to--or need to try harder to--listen through and behind and within the stories, because the stories often aren't the most important thing. But they are the vehicle.

What I am struggling with is how to tell the stories--and to capture the texture of a time you need to tell a story--but how to tell them so that they are not tedious and irrelevant. How do we capture the details they convey a zeitgeist, a texture, a surround of what it was like in a past moment in a way that still matters? This seems important, in Quakerism, in our world, in our personal lives, because the only way to pass on the feeling of a time is through this compilation of story upon story. Yet so often I fear we do it in a way that loses the forest for the trees instead of conveying how the trees made up this particular, ephemeral forest. How can we do it better, as a Society, as Selves?


Daniel Wilcox said...

Diane, Thanks so much for this powerful, reflective meditation. It took me deep.

When you described your not-so-aha moment with your students and Grace Kelly, it brought back a similar experience I had as a literature teacher back in the 90's with a 9th grade class. I used analogies and allusions a lot because it helped them learn such literary terms in context and livened the ol' literature lecture when students eyes would glass over.

I said, "you know like Simon and Garfunkel," (me at that moment in my inner mind below my words, back in 1963 hearing the poetic lyrics of "Sounds of Silence" boom loudly from my small speakers in my Corvair as I drove through heavy snow falling, giant flakes hitting my windshield in Lincoln, Nebraska.

But the whole class, attentive students and the edgers, everyone all looked at me blankly like I had just spoken in Mandarin or Martian.

Then it hit me. S&G, from 30 years before, were popular when their parents were little kids in Mexico.

I realized with sadness that I probably could never convey the feeling of my first hearing that song in a snow storm. My experiences were truly as if from a boring alien.

A few of the teens only living only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean hadn't even ever been to the beach! How could I possibly convey my experiences as a teenager in southern Nebraska in 1963. Most of them didn't even know where Nebraska was, what a Corvair was. Some of them hadn't ever seen snow falling except in a movie.

You wrote powerfully, "...we experience the slippage between how things are versus how they were, we want to preserve and pass on the memory we have of how things were, especially what has changed. Yet the past is so fragile...
the feeling of a time..."

Sadly, I'm not sure we can pass on the past in the sense of feeling, even in our stories.

I observe modern Quakers--on one extreme those American Quakers who are enamored with Calvinism:-(, and the other, with nontheism, and feel very down.
Even when I tell them heartfelt stories
of my own deep experiences with God from back in the past,
it seems they don't really 'hear' my story, let alone feel the wonder of those spiritual feelings and transformational times.

But we need to keep trying:-)

Diane said...


I wish I could have written as beautifully about the past as you did in this comment. I felt I understood what you were saying ... but we are closer in age ... yes, we need to keep trying.


Micah Bales said...

Great post, Diane. Thanks!

Diane said...

Thanks Micah.