When the past expands

As a teacher, I have been using my Summer time to do a great deal of reading and research. The fiction works I have read are a mix of contemporary and those written in the 19th and 20th centuries – from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to Stephen King’s Carrie, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

I’ve done this for several reasons, and it’s all related to the nonfiction I am reading – James West Davidson’s A Little History of the United States, Ann Royston Blouse and Cynthia Schafer Mann’s What Lies Beneath: The Farms, Mills, and Towns Under Our Reservoirs, David McCullough’s 1776, Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life, and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions.

To better understand where we are in the present, I must better understand the origins of this strange and outrageous time in which we live.

Here’s the challenge we face. Our lives are in these micro time capsules buffered by twenty or so years on each side. No matter where we are in our existence, we think about where we are in relation to what has happened in the last few decades, and what we foresee in the coming 10 to 20 years. We are connected by overlapping generations that create this span of 40 years where we remember “the good old days” and think ahead for what we might want our children and grandchildren to be and inherit in a future that we hope still includes us.

This time capsule makes us outraged of what is happening in our lifetimes, in our present, and how all of that establishes some kind of new foundation for our children’s future.

We remember the past as always better; we are in shock of the present world in which we live; we are hopeful (and fearful) of the future that awaits our most immediate and youngest relatives.

Reading about our history – and more creative works from times that were before my 57 years here on Earth, gives me greater pause in how I understand and reflect on this present. Our contemporary films depicting an earlier era – Downton Abbey, Emma, and Mr. Malcolm’s List, to name a few – can lead us to believe in a slice of that world that we might find romantic, perhaps even idealistic.

That’s what these nonfiction works are helping me better understand: having a greater grasp of the events that happened in the last 250 years expands the space of experience in that micro time capsule to capture the lineage connecting this “historical” event to the next, to the next, to today.

To help me appreciate this even more, I have started to dig into the genealogical roots of my own family. Suddenly, everything is more relevant, more immediate. Present Time includes my ancestors from World War I, The Civil War, The American Revolution, Their landfall in New York in 1602 from The Netherlands or, later, Barbados.

The weaving of our past and present allows us to embrace who we are today, with the DNA of our ancestors who have fought, survived, and even thrived through very difficult times. It is in us to do this very thing: Survive.

So writes Delia Owens in Crawdads:

“In Nature – out yonder where the crawdads sing – these ruthless-seeming behaviors [of a she-fox abandoning an offspring under great stress] actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. and on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive – way back yonder.”

Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens, pages 237-238

This cross-weaving of history, fiction, and genealogy gives me greater perspective to understand who we are, where we are, and why. Perhaps it will help me, as well, understand how to navigate through these challenging times and effect change that offers greater hope beyond our micro time capsules of existence.