"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 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?"
"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 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 libraryI 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?
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?
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).
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…”
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.
"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
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.
"Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"
"Who will get paid to rebuild?And who will they build for?Who will endure the drought and the rainWho will be safe and sound indoors?Who built the missiles, the smart bombs, the rocketsWho gets raided and who gets paid from whose pockets?Who gets sent off to warWho 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 GodBut moved fartherOur histories been lost to forgetfulness."- Climbing Poetree
"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
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.
"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