Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Can't We Just Pretend The Past Didn't Happen?



"As I have said before, the long memory is the most radical idea in America." - Utah Phillips

"When a meeting over land claims between a First Nations community in northwestern British Columbia and government officials comes to an impasse, a Gitksan elder asks, 'If this is your land, where are your stories?'" - from the publisher's introduction to the book If This is Your Land, Then Where Are Your Stories by J. Edward Chamberlin

“The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.” ― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me 


In Celtic mythology, there lives a band of warriors known as the Fianna. They were the most noble, powerful and fierce defenders of Ireland. It was an extensive and harrowing process to become a member of this group. The leader of this band was Fionn Mac Cumhaill [pronounced: Finn MacCool].

Once Fionn, and his hunters were discussing the "finest music in the world." The question was put out to the group as a riddle, "what is the finest music in the world?" The hunters began to give their answers. One said it was the sound of a stag running across the lake. Another disagreed , saying it was the sound of raindrops falling onto leaves. Another suggested it was the laughter of a young girl. The sound of dogs yelping thing during the chase, wind in the grass or water falling over stone. Each hunter seemed to have a strong opinion.

Then one hunter turned to Fionn and asked him, "And what do you think is the finest music in the world?"

He replied, "The finest music in all the world is the music of what is happening."

This begs the question: What is happening?


Underneath so much of the rhetoric of white people around race and indigenous issues, men around feminism and, I'm sure, many other people around other issues, is the unstated, but constantly implied, question.

"Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

This question is a door. And, depending on how it is opened, it can take us into forgetfulness or memory.


I think about my past failures and regrets. I think about the ways I've hurt others. The ways others see me as a result of these actions. I think of the shame I feel and the fear that I might do the same in the future. I think of the depth of my craving for a chance to start fresh. I think of how much I want to bargain with the Universe and end that bargaining petition with, "So... can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

"But songs all resolve.
They come back to the one.
And people just live
with the damage they've done."
- Corin Raymond

"So I'll keep on moving.
Things are bound to be improving these days.
These days.
These days I sit on cornerstones
and count my time in quartertones to ten.
Please don't confront me with my failures.
I had not forgotten them."
- Jackson Brown

And so I can understand, very well, why white people would want to pretend that slavery and colonization never happened, why white women might want to pretend feminism hadn't let down women of colour in the past, why German's might want to pretend WWII never happened, why abusive parents and spouses might desperately want to pretend they weren't the monsters they kept becoming, why Dr. Jekyll might want to pretend there was no Mister Hyde, why most of us want to pretend we have no shadows at all, why addicts want to pretend they have had no problems and, most of all, why pretending these things never happened never works to create the lives and world our hearts know is possible.

Of course, it's rarely said in those words, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?" More often it sounds something like:

"Man! That was years ago!"

"Why are you so suspicious?"

"We need to move on!"

"You can't live in the past."

"You need to forgive."

"We need to start fresh."

"If she'd kept her mouth shut, she wouldn't be dead."

"Black people are over reacting."

"Natives have an addictive gene."

"They should just get a job."

"Women are totally equal today. What are they fussing about?"

"Those Arabs should learn to peacefully co-exist with Israel."

"Why are you so angry at me? I never owned slaves! I'm not racist."

"Why are we fighting? We're all one. Why are you trying to divide us by talking about race?"

"#alllivesmatter"

"But whiteness shouldn't mean supremacy."

"It's just a headdress! God. Relax. I'm just having fun and it looks hot on me."

"We need to look to the future."

One fellow wrote me to say this, "It is of my opinion that we cannot move forward effectively if we keep looking to the past. There is a very simple concept that drives this, we cannot change the past and as such dwelling on the past is utterly pointless.   I am not saying that we shouldn't take lessons from the past, as a matter of fact quite the contrary. We should learn from the mistakes of our forefathers and use those lessons to move forward as effectively as we can.  If we dwell on the colonization or other things it only leads to hate and war, there is no need for this. Going forward can we not just forgive each other, accept that what happened, happened and that going forward we will do our best not to make the same egregious mistakes that have happened previously?   I am not saying forget about slavery, or the holocaust or anything, but seriously what are we supposed to do about something our grandparents, great grandparents or even older generations did. The concept that the child pays for the sin of the father is a dated notion and has no place in a modern society where everyone just wants to get along. Easy solution, Just get the frig along. Be nice to people, don't hold unfounded biases, and most of all, Don't be a douchebag."



The whole line of thinking that that says, "Things should not mean what they have come to mean" is another way of saying, "Sure. That's true if you consider history. BUT! What if we pretended like the past never happened at all?"

In a recent Facebook conversation on this, I replied to a white woman who was lifting these issues up and questioning why black people felt the need to be victimized by their history.

I replied to her, "Right - so like, if we were immortal beings and someone shot me 200 years ago then to, 200 years later, be saying, after the wound was healed, "I can't succeed because I was shot 200 years ago." would be a victimized, self-pitying posture to hold (if I'm understanding)."

I think this is how white people see it. It happened a long time ago. It's over. The wound is healed. It's in the past, so let's move on already.

But the past is not a house that has crumbled down. No. The past is the forest you see that was planted from seeds a long time ago. This unwillingness to know the past as the seeds of the present that they were can look like a lot of things.

Sometimes it looks like taking down all of the old Gaelic signs in Ireland or Scotland and replacing them with English ones.

Sometimes it looks like a residential school in England where the children of the Gaels were taken and taught English and beaten if they spoke Gaelic. Or one in Canada where indigenous youth were beaten if they spoke Cree, Black Foot, Dine, Annishinabe or whatever other beautiful language they would soon come to forget.

Sometimes, over enough generations, "can't we just pretend the past didn't happen?" sounds like someone who has already forgotten history or never knew it in the first place. I think much of what we see in social relations and struggles for justice has to do with our unwillingness to sit with this question honestly enough, faithfully enough and long enough.

It almost always looks like forgetting on a cultural level.

I think you can draw a straight line from white people wanting to pretend colonization never happened to women at music festivals wearing head dresses or leading ceremonies for which they are not qualified, white people rapping with a black accent, using songs from other cultures without credit given and other forms of cultural appropriation.

I think you can draw a straight line from white people wanting to pretend that racism wasn't so bad and ended years ago, to their reactions over the death of Sandra Bland saying, "If she'd only kept her mouth shut, she'd still be alive."

I think you can draw a straight line from the United Kingdom and the United States wanting to pretend they didn't colonize the world to the vehemence with which they are condemning immigration today.

Underneath the inability to reconcile troubles in relationships and communities you will find the same question. The desire to move forward at odds with some unpaid debt to the past which those who owe are desperately hoping will be forgotten by the persistent memory of the world. The desire to fix a problem that has never yet to be properly understood, to make something beautiful in the world without facing the ugliness it is trying to cover, the desire to build magnificent new buildings dedicated to hope and a better tomorrow on the rotting and unresolved foundations of the past.

How can one engage in restorative justice and healing if nothing happened that requires attention?

*



*

"Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

Of course, pretending the foundations aren't rotten will do nothing to make the house last the tests of time.

But, there comes a point where was has been swept under the rug is larger than the rug, when the debt accrued can not be ignored. There are moments in history that are a sort of time of reckoning; a point where we need to deal with the past we've been so conveniently and diligently trying to ignore.

This, of course, prompts the predictable uproar of the aforementioned, "We need to move on! You can't live in the past. You need to forgive. We need to start fresh."

The feeling of this is understandable but that doesn't make the saying of it excusable.

As a white man living in the time and place I do, I don't think my job is to tell black people or the indigenous people of this land what time it is.

They've got enough of their own work to do and their own issues to figure out and I can't imagine that even my best conceptions of the perfect timing for them to be 'over it' would be welcome, useful or anything other than a vulgar break in anything resembling a protocol of courtesy and graciousness. In other words, I don't think that's any of my damned business.

After all, I have never yet experienced a rush of gratitude when my upset at someone for past actions was met with the response that I should move on. I have yet to feel my heart melt open when my anger at someone's conduct was met with, "Stop living in the past." I can't seem to recall a single moment in my life when I slapped my head and said, "Of course! Thank you!" To someone who pointed out, despite having acted badly, that instead of focusing on how they might make amends, I should be focusing on how I should forgive them."

And I can't imagine those communities who have been ground down most relentlessly under the wheel of progress, power and privilege would find themselves feeling suddenly empowered by someone who looks like me telling them that what we need to do is to forget history and to get a fresh start together.

I am reminded of the William Shatner (yes, that one) title track from the album he did with Ben Folds called That's Me Trying describing the story of a pathetic father reaching out to his daughter after a lifetime apart and asking her, in essence, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"
I got your address from the phone book at the library
Wandered in, looked you up and you were there
Weird that you've been living, maybe
2 miles away for the best part of 20 years

You must be, what
In your early forties now, if I remember
You were born in June or was it May?
Eisenhower was the President although it may have been JFK

Years of silence, not enough
Who could blame us giving up?
Above the quiet there's a buzz
That's me trying

You still working in that store on Ventura?
You still going with, no, that's not fair
I know I haven't been the very best of dads
I'll hold my hand up there

The reason that I'm writing is I'd like for us to meet
Get a little daughter dad action going soon
We could put things behind us, eat some pizza, drink some beer
You still see your sister, Lemli? Bring her, too

But I don't wanna talk about any of that bad stuff
Why I missed out on your wedding and your high school graduation
I'd like to explain, but I can't
So let's keep things neutral, stick to topics that won't bug us

How 'bout this?
Let's choose a book and we'll read it before we meet
Then we can sit down at a restaurant
Have a look at the menu and talk about it while we eat

See, if we never had a problem then that's what life would be like
Easy, uncomplicated, cool
So let's just pretend that the past didn't happen
I don't really like thrillers as well

I don't want to know if I've got grandchildren
No need to tell me where I went wrong
I don't want to know what happened in your thirties
You wanna try 'Cold Mountain' or is that too long?
I think my job is to figure out what time it is for myself and, perhaps, with some latitude people who look like me and who grew up in the world I did too. I think my job is to come to know this world as it is and to find my place in it, my role. After all, if I don't come to know the world as it is, in some real way, how can any role I find be real?

The impulse to move on without confronting the past is a deep one. Most of us try to do this every day, several times per day. And yet, we can see the absurdity of it - a father trying to create meaningfully reconnect with his daughter while refusing to talk about and address the very things at the root of the disconnection.

There's a desire to go back to zero, to start fresh, to wipe the slate clean and begin anew is the yearning that drives many of us to move to new cities and begin again, only to find, with not a little humiliation, that what drove us there followed and move into our new home and new relationships - that what we were fleeing was carried with us in the passage there. We run from something and recreate it here and so never discover the new place we came to much as my ancestors' people fled Europe only to arrive in Canada and name every city, river, hill and street name saw after something from home. One could argue that we have yet to discover much of North America.

We try to restart our lives and so the old life goes unredeemed.

We declare bankruptcy and move on and so old debts go unpaid (but not away).

We want to go back to zero so we who are in debt can feel comfortable in the present moment as we map out some brilliant new, self made future on the blank page sitting on the desk in front of us.

We want to go back to zero because there's something we are terrified we will lose if we don't.

We want to go back to zero because there's something we are terrified we won't get if we don't.

The impulse to go back to zero is, all too often, revealed to be a selfish one designed to help the perpetrator (or those who benefit from the perpetrations of the past) to feel at ease and designed to do absolutely nothing for the ones who have been hurt, killed, stolen from and abused (or those who descended from them).

As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”


Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise, found himself on Cortes Island, BC with a group of young people who, after a day with him, sat, wrestling with the implications of what he'd had to say about initiations, being young, the role of ancestors and elders and the times we're in. One young man shared the heartbreaking realization that he was just realizing, on the heels on learning about initiation and it's importance, that he would likely never receive such an initiation. The realization grieved both Stephen and the young man sorely. But, then another young man, slightly older, shared his realization with pride. And the words that came out of his mouth shattered Stephen's heart even more.  "I've got it figured out. I'll just choose who my ancestors are."

I'll just pretend that the past didn't happen. I get to choose what the present is and isn't. 


Tom Compton, an able and deeply skilled teacher and facilitator of The Work of Byron Katie, woke up one day to the sobering and deeply humbling realization that, despite all of his inner work, meditation and spiritual practice, he didn't really love him wife and children. Not really. A week later, his wife, not knowing of his insight said you him, "You don't really love us." The seeing of that unwelcome truth was the beginning of a real love developing in the tidal sway of the lack of it.

When Byron Katie herself first woke up to the way things were, her family didn't believe or trust it. Perhaps, they told themselves and each other, she was have a manic episode, or some sort of delusion of grandeur? But the inner solidness stayed. Finally, the held back boats of the past, finally having found safe harbour, came crashing in, "You always loved the other kids more than me!"

"Yes" she would nod. "I was so confused then."


This brings us squarely to face the reality of what this present moment is. We are told that, somehow, the present exists in some discrete package, separated from the past and the future. But, what if the present moment is something very different? What if the present moment is where the past comes to visit us? What if the present moment is the banquet hall of our days, constructed from the timbers of yesterday?

Utah Phillips speaks to this beautifully in his song Bridges from his collaboration with Ani DiFranco.

"I have a good friend in the East, who comes to my shows and says, you sing a lot about the past, you can't live in the past, you know. I say to him, I can go outside and pick up a rock that's older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn't go anywhere, did it? It's right here, right now.

I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn't live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it it would get them serious trouble. No, that 50s, 60s, 70s, 90s stuff, that whole idea of decade packaging, things don't happen that way. The Vietnam War heated up in 1965 and ended in 1975-- what's that got to do with decades? No, that packaging of time is a journalist convenience that they use to trivialize and to dismiss important events and important ideas. I defy that.

Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me – and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world. Bridges…from my time to your time, as my elders from their time to my time… We all put into the river, and it flows away from us…till it no longer has our name, our identity, it has its own utility, its own use, and people will take what they need and make it part of their lives…” 
When people say, of social injustices, "It's in the past." I have to agree. But where is the past? Right here. Right now. All around us.

And so, there comes a point where the only way forward to some better tomorrow is to see how the past is living on in our days currently. How rocks are not dead, but living time, slowed down enough so we can hold it. How history isn't gone. How it's right here. How the present is the wake of the past.

The past doesn't want to be forgotten. The past wants its place in our days. The past wants to be redeemed and the only place it can be redeemed is in the present moment. Perhaps, more than anything, the past wants to be known for what it is instead of vanished by someone asking, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"


My friend Ian Mackenzie recently shared the following story about how understandings of time are inherited. 

Recently I attended a music festival on one of the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea. Though modest in size, the gathering was a beautiful mix of young and old, live music and electronic, art and food.

One afternoon, nearing the end of her set, a friend and female artist left the stage and stormed into a few of us chatting to the side. "Did you hear that?" she proclaimed, visibly shaking with anger. "He cut me off!"  Before we could respond, the stage manager, a white male, approached her with bewilderment. He believed he had no choice:  she had gone over the allotted time slot.  "I told her to finish the set, but she kept going."

My friend is a petite and fiery Mexican; she followed his words with a hail of accusations. "You don't cut off an artist!" she admonished. Her set had been a rich fusion of Latin American beats, invocations for the ancestors, and prayers for the land.  "I wasn't finished. You people just don't understand."

The argument continued briefly before she ended it by walking briskly away to collect her gear. The stage manager, also a DJ, looked to us for support.  "What could I have done differently?" he asked, genuinely affected. I assured him there was nothing further to be done in the moment, and he left, puzzled.

While it's tempting to see this conflict as a passionate artist unwilling to relinquish the spotlight, I believe this was a conflict with much deeper roots.  At the heart is their differing conceptions of time.

The dominant culture runs on the modern invention of universal time. This is the collective deference to a shared understanding that we all agree upon - hence, ask someone the time in the modern world, they will likely give you universal time. (For example, 3 o'clock).  The miracle, and calamity, of this development cannot be understated. From this perspective, time is linear, quantifiable, and infallible.  

From an indigenous perspective, time is relative, unique, and fluid. Anyone who has sat in ceremony knows that one enters a place "outside of time."  The ceremony or ritual is a living thing, and the ones that might show up to your courtship, both seen and unseen, are living as well. The proper space must be given for the conjuring to run its course, therefore, deferring to an abstract "schedule" is an absurd act of violence.

When white people washed up on the shores of what they would come to call The Americas, this is one of the illnesses they brought with them. The culture of colonization runs on the consciousness of universal time.  A people can only rapaciously consume if they see the world as inert, interchangeable, and inevitable. And a people can only be at home if they see the world as alive, unique, and preciously precarious. It will not continue unless we are willing to keep up our end.

Here's what I think: that day at the festival, the sincere stage manager was inhabiting a universal notion of time. The indigenous artist was inhabiting a relational notion. I'm not saying either of them should have done anything different.

But I do know we are children of forces that began long ago, heirs to its debt as well as its redemption.
Her understanding of time came from somewhere as did his. That moment of conflict was like the turbulent joining point of two mighty rivers who ran a long way to get so far down the mountain. There is a story behind this story that is many thousands of years old. And that entirely story is vanished when we try so hard to wish away the past. 

*


“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen [black] bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export.” 
*

The question, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?" is a question a child might ask. 

But that doesn't mean it's not a worthy question. Maybe it's the most worthy question we could ask ourselves at a time like this. 

Should a child ever come to you with eyes wide and ask a question that sounds, in any way like this, I hope you won't dismiss it because, as sure as anything, you are being visited by the ancestors come to check if you have forgotten them or not. Because they aren't asking you about that situation at hand. Not really. They are asking you about time and what it is and isn't. They are asking you about the shape of the world - what is possible and isn't. They're asking you about the past and where it goes when it's done of if, like we are told of our dead, that it is simply gone, unaccessible and forever beyond our reach. They're asking you if the past is something real or not. They're asking you to help them understand if there is, in fact, anything real to this world at all or if it might simply be a great act of pretend in which we're all engaged where the past can be whatever we wish it to be. They're asking you if the past is still alive anywhere or if it lives only in our memories and imaginations and, if so, does it belong to us and shouldn't we re-imagine and re-remember it in the most pleasant of ways? They're asking you if suffering has any use at all. They're asking you, plainly, what is the difference between this world and a piece of paper, their #2 lead pencil and their trusty eraser guaranteeing them seemingly endless fresh starts? They are asking you, "Is the present like a constantly refreshing blank canvass or is it some other sort of thing?" They're asking you something important about life. It's a question worthy of an answer that enobles the asking and returns it as a set of larger questions. It's a question whose answers means something to those who went before us and live on in new ways now. I hope you might take them down to the nearest river or body of water, point out the passing boats and jet skis to them and the waves they make as they roar past and say something like this,

"TIME Sit on the shore while everything else goes on by you, and get through the lo-level anxiety and the boredom and the feeling that you've already seen it all. That's a good time to learn. Here's what there is to see. Everything we do and don't do makes a wake, a legion of waves and troughs that pound the shores at the edges of what we mean, grinding away on the periphery of what we know. They go on, after the years in which we lived our individual lives are long passed. If we don't learn that simple, devastating, and redeeming detail of being alive - that what we do, all the jangle of our declarations and defeats, last longer than we ourselves do, that the past isn't over - then the parade of our days stands to indict much more than it bequeaths. This is something that we have to learn now. Many of us count on our best intent winning the day or getting us off the hook of personal or ecological consequence. It hasn't, and it won't." - Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise

When we say (and often in other words than these) "Can't we just pretend the past didn't happen?" we are saying saying "can't the present be something other than it is?" We are refusing to know the present for what it is, just as my ancestors refused to come to know this new home of Turtle Island for what it was, just as too many Americans refuse to see that the wealth of the rich was build on the labour and death of millions of enslaved Africans and the stolen land of the 20 million murdered Native Americans, just as many of us don't want to see that our own personal successes (and very existence) has been underwritten by the love, support and efforts of so many others. Woven inescapably into this present moment are all of the disturbances to the past living out their days as storied threads in the garments we wear. 

"The resistance to the disturbance is the disturbance." 
- Vernon Howard

The past is a story that isn't over. The whole story is alive, right here, in this moment in my writing of these words and in your reading of them. Every ancestor you had and everything that sustained them it's alive right now and right here. Everyone who oppressed them and everyone they oppressed. It's all here. Nothing is left out. The past is a story and the present is the only place we can read it.

And I am coming to think that the way we redeem the ugliness, injustice and old hurt of the past is to come to know it by seeing how it is showing up in the present.

Or, stated another way, if you don't know the past, you won't be able to truly see the present. The present is made up of the past - that's where it comes from. You can't really see someone until you know their story. 

If you can't see the past of slavery and colonization in the wealth of billionaires and the incarcerations and death of too many black and native North Americans - then how clearly are you seeing the present.

If you can't see the past of your actions in the ways people treat and look at you today - how clearly are you seeing the present?

If you can't see the history of civilization in the changing weather patterns and destabilizing climate of our times - how firmly in the present moment are you?

If you can't see the history of colonization and religion in your shame around sexuality and your ability to embrace the pleasure your body can feel - how well do you see the present moment of this body?

"Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

The next time someone asks you this, perhaps you might return the question in a new form.

"What makes you think we aren't, right now?"

or

"What makes you so sure that anyone is sure that the past happened at all? Where is your proof in the manner of how people are proceeding through their days that they understand the story of this place? If the present is our land, then where are our stories?"

or 

"Where do you think the past goes, when we pretend it is gone? Who will carry it when you decide to try and put it down? And what does it do to someone to be the only one left carrying a history that the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge as real? What good will our pretending do to the ones we are trying to forget? What harm will it do them? What harm does it do to you?"

or

"What you're really saying is that you want to believe, for your own comfort and so as not to interrupt your carefully laid life plans, that it's always been like this and it's this way everywhere now, that what's normal is, in fact, also totally natural isn't it?"

or as my friend Marilyn Daniels lifted up,

"What you're saying is that anything you find unpleasant from the past should be relegated to the scrap heap of our collective forgetfulness, and, in doing so, we should be doomed to a personal and cultural amnesia in which we are unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, learn from and gain wisdom from either the mistakes of the past or its treasures."

"Who will get paid to rebuild?
And who will they build for?
Who will endure the drought and the rain 
Who will be safe and sound indoors?
Who built the missiles, the smart bombs, the rockets
Who gets raided and who gets paid from whose pockets?
Who gets sent off to war
Who dies for whose profits?
Who gets remembered?
Whose been forgotten?
Who paved concrete over the pores of the Earth only to make our lives harder?
And built buildings to scrape skies to get us closer to God 
But moved farther
Our histories been lost to forgetfulness."
- Climbing Poetree


But, as we come to see the most heartbreaking and devastating moments of the past are alive, right now, in the present, we can engage in some observant courtship guided by questions that might sound like, "What do you most want to become? What are you asking of me? What does love look like here, with you, right now?" And then we can do our best to be faithful to the answers we get and, in our faithfulness, I think that we are redeemed too. By bearing the consequences of our actions, by meeting the broken places with love instead of disregard of forgetfulness we actively put the pieces back together we literally remember the world into some sort of more beautiful wholeness, we make her jump up and live again with our loving ministrations. We become the kind of person who would never do what was done again. We become a human being. We plant the seeds of some better tomorrow and becoming an ancestor worthy of descending from.

As Drew Dellinger puts it, so beautifully, in this excerpt from his poem Hieroglyphic Stairway,


"it's 3:23 in the morning

and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do
once
you
knew?"

"Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

Yes. But I think it would rob us of the very medicines we need to heal the afflictions of our time. If the past is a gone thing, then there's nothing we can do about it and we must simply move on and let go. But, if the past is what the present is built out of, if the tree of the present has its roots in the past, then we are surround with raw material with which to make something new for the future. 

It is an irony the way we relate to the past. It is as if we want to take anything that might remind us of the elements of the past we don't favour and put them out onto a boat in the ocean to send them 'away' but the tides faithfully keeps bringing those things back to shore. Maybe our shores immediately or the shores of others and then, in some other form, back to ours like the proverbial chickens come home to roost. So, the past never really goes away. It is constantly arriving here in this moment. 

The only question before us is how will we relate to it. Will it be with pain, shame and avoidance? Or will it be with hard won clear seeing faithfulness and a commitment to the composting of it into something that might serve life again, or finding a place for its terrifying shapes in the designs of our culture so that it's terrible beauty might remind us of what matters in this life?

Our regrets and shame (and those of our ancestors) have a place on the altar. 

But I think they need to be placed inside the nest of our heartbreak which surely is a missing ingredient itself on the altar of what might yet be. Maybe the regrets, losses and and devastations aren't put there so much to be immediately fixed but so that we remember how it was and might yet be - so that we can remember what it is we are fighting for in the first place and, more so (impossibly more so) so that those to come might have a chance at remembering this. Remembering something longer than their own lifespan. 

Derrick Jensen says it so beautifully in his article, Against Forgetting:
I’ve gone on the salmon-spawning tours that local environmentalists give, and I’m not the only person who by the end is openly weeping. If we’re lucky, we see 15 fish. Prior to conquest there were so many fish the rivers were described as “black and roiling.” And it’s not just salmon. Only five years ago, whenever I’d pick up a piece of firewood, I’d have to take off a half-dozen sowbugs. It’s taken me all winter this year to see as many. And I used to go on spider patrol before I took a shower, in order to remove them to safety before the deluge. I still go on spider patrol, but now it’s mostly pro forma. The spiders are gone. My mother used to put up five hummingbird feeders, and the birds would fight over those. Now she puts up two, and as often as not the sugar ferments before anyone eats it. I used to routinely see bats in the summer. Last year I saw one.

You can transpose this story to wherever you live and whatever members of the nonhuman community live there with you. I was horrified a few years ago to read that many songbird populations on the Atlantic Seaboard have collapsed by up to 80 percent over the last 40 years. But, and this is precisely the point, I was even more horrified when I realized that Silent Spring came out more than 40 years ago, so this 80 percent decline followed an already huge decline caused by pesticides, which followed another undoubtedly huge decline caused by the deforestation, conversion to agriculture, and urbanization that followed conquest.

My great-grandmother grew up in a sod house in Nebraska. When she was a tiny girl—in other words, only four human generations ago—there were still enough wild bison on the Plains that she was afraid lightning storms would spook them and they would trample her home. Who in Nebraska today worries about being trampled by bison? For that matter, who in Nebraska today even thinks about bison on a monthly, much less daily, basis?

This state of affairs is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s harder to fight for what you don’t love than for what you do, and it’s hard to love what you don’t know you’re missing. It’s harder still to fight an injustice you do not perceive as an injustice but rather as just the way things are. How can you fight an injustice you never think about because it never occurs to you that things have ever been any different?

This is a process we need to stop... Everything in this culture is aimed at helping to distract us from—or better, help us to forget—the injustices, the pain. And it is completely normal for us to want to be distracted from or to forget pain. Pain hurts. Which is why on every level from somatic reflex to socially constructed means of denial we have pathways to avoid it.

But here is what I want you to do: I want you to go outside. I want you to listen to the (disappearing) frogs, to watch the (disappearing) fireflies. Even if you’re in a city—especially if you’re in a city—I want you to picture the land as it was before the land was built over. I want you to research who lived there. I want you to feel how it was then, feel how it wants to be. I want you to begin keeping a calendar of who you see and when: the first day each year you see buttercups, the first day frogs start singing, the last day you see robins in the fall, the first day for grasshoppers. In short, I want you to pay attention.

If you do this, your baseline will stop declining, because you’ll have a record of what’s being lost.

Do not go numb in the face of this data. Do not turn away. I want you to feel the pain. Keep it like a coal inside your coat, a coal that burns and burns. I want all of us to do this, because we should all want the pain of injustice to stop. We should want this pain to stop not because we get used to it and it just doesn’t bother us anymore, but because we stop the injustices and destruction that are causing the pain in the first place. I want us to feel how awful the destruction is, and then act from this feeling.

And I promise you two things. One: Feeling this pain won’t kill you. And two: Not feeling this pain, continuing to go numb and avoid it, will.
Maybe it's that our transgressions, personal and cultural, are like seeds and that they need to be planted back in the soil of our personal and collective memories and watered with the tears of our grief so that they might grow into some magnificent, scrappy tree that has a chance to weather the coming storms. And maybe that tree can be a sign to them that, knowing these times were coming, there were those who prepared for them, planting the seeds of our own greed, forgetfulness and stupidity at tremendous cost to ourselves so that they, not yet born and sure to be born in harder times than we can imagine, might have some shade to protect them from an unforgiving sun, fruit to eat and a reminder that they were not forgotten but kept in mind by those who came before them. And maybe, one day, a child amongst them will climb such a tree and find in a carefully made birds nest, a small, carefully laid bundle of shames and regrets unappealing to any child. And perhaps they will ask some adult, with some memory of these times, what these things are? And, if we are lucky, he will tell them honestly about these times of greed and excess. He will unwrap the bundle and carefully tell the story of each piece, as best as he can remember, silently cursing himself for not having paid more attention to the stories when it was his time to learn them. And he'll tell the child that, during these times of running from the past, there were those who stopped running long enough to plant this tree and make this nest and fight for a better day. And he'll tell the child about what's been lost in his time, the time of his parents and how very much has been lost in the generations before that. 

And, if we are very, very lucky, the child might kick at the dirt and with some mix of frustration and wonder, with some pride in the brilliance of the possibility occurring to him, open a door for you both and ask, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"
"By trying to feed the Holy in Nature the fruit of beauty from the tree of memory of our Indigenous Souls, grown in the composted failures of our past need to conquer, watered by the tears of cultural grief, we might become ancestors worth descending from and possibly grow a place of hope for a time beyond our own. ... the rental rate for this gift of being allowed to flourish and reside in this continuum with the rest of the world is that we do everything possible to be indigenously beautiful, promising that we make ourselves spiritually full and delicious so as to feed the next ones to appear in the ongoing river on the occasion of our passing." - Martin Prechtel, The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic
What is happening?

In every moment, the past is washing up on the shores of the present like some long voyaged boat from beyond the horizon's horizon across the ocean. It is full of a crew that is weary from their travels and hoping beyond hope to be received by us as the esteemed and honoured guests they are and for a bit of food and hospitality in the mead hall of our considerations. 

That is what's happening.

And is there a more beautiful music in all of the world?

Additional Reading:
Why Don’t You People Just Get Over It? Here’s Why
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