Over and Over, We Forget

Featured

wall-street-bull

The Wall Street Bull

The public’s memory is very short. The panic of near economic collapse 10 years ago is all but wiped from public memory two weeks before the Nov. 6 American national election. We publish the following chapter from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf & Stock), which first appeared as a guest column on MinnPost.com September 10, 2009.

SORROW FLOATS

Concepts, like individuals, have their histories

and are just as incapable of withstanding

the ravages of time as individuals. But in and

through all this they retain a kind of homesickness

for the scenes of their childhood 

[Soren Kierkegaard]

“Sorrow floats.”

Perhaps the line from John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire in which “Sorrow,” the stuffed family dog preserved by a taxidermist, floats to the surface of the lake after a plane crash, helps explain what is happening in America.

Something dear to the American family died in September/October, 2008. Prior to the series of chilling events of that period, most of us had lived with the illusion of relative economic and financial health. Then, suddenly, Sorrow was rushed to the emergency room for government resuscitation.

Since then our memories of that pre-October 2008 world have taken a turn that families often take at funerals when the eulogies bear little resemblance to the reality of the deceased. We’re quarreling over what was real and what is mythical reconstruction.

Following the plane wreck that takes the lives of the Berry family parents in Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, the stuffed family pet bobs to the surface of the lake, floating among the wreckage. Sorrow floats. So does the thing we lost last fall.

What died? A ruling assumption

What died last year was the ruling assumption that an unregulated free-market system was the best way to organize an economy and that laissez-faire capitalism is democracy’s natural ally. The market almost crashed. It didn’t crash only because the federal government intervened to prevent a repeat of the crash of 1929. Sometime between mid-September and October seventh, when Congress passed its bill to stabilize the financial markets, the myth of the virtue of deregulated capitalism died. It was stuffed by the taxidermy of government intervention, but it still floats.

When a conviction or a myth dies, it doesn’t go away. It continues to bob to the surface. Sometimes, as in the case of the Berry family, the old dog is much easier to love after it is dead. Sorrow—obese, lethargic, and persistently flatulent in its old age—no longer waddles through the dining room to foul the air and ruin everyone’s dinner. In the public psyche, the unpleasant memories of the real life Sorrow give way to the stuffed Sorrow, a thing of nostalgia that lives on . . . even after it’s dead, and long after the plane has crashed.

Over and over, we forget

Sorrow and its old illusions float every time the reconstructed memory, forgetting the real Sorrow, barks about “socialism.” Sorrow floats every time we shout each other down in town-hall meetings. Sorrow floats every time nostalgia forgets that it was only by government intervention with our tax dollars that Sorrow is still around. Sorrow floats every time we forget the voracious appetite, unscrupulous predatory practices, insatiable greed, and the obesity that led to the deaths of Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Bear Stearns, not to mention insurance giant AIG and all the banks that had taken the plunge into a market of deregulated derivatives and mortgages that led to the epidemic of home foreclosures, bankruptcies, pension-fund collapses, and job losses. Sorrow, the old dog that failed us, still floats and still barks a year after the crash when the mind forgets and nostalgia remembers a system we thought was working in our interest.

Old ideas and convictions die hard. The powerful economic forces that grew fat during the years when government was viewed as the people’s enemy will stoke the fires of public anxiety and anger, taking advantage of the floating Sorrow that reminds us of something that we love more in retrospect than we did the day it died of its own obesity.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 21, 2018.

Nine-tenths of reality on a new/old corner

Thanks to the Chaska Herald for publishing this Opinion commenary last Thursday in advance of the grand opening of Chaska’s redeveloped site, a source of contention and controversy.

PARK PERCEPTION VERSUS REALITY by Gordon Stewart

"Illusion"- W. E. Hill

“Illusion”- W. E. Hill

Wednesday, Dec. 2 — after a hard public debate over Fireman’s Park — the newly developed site, with its event center, curling center, Crooked Pint Ale House, and redeveloped park will open its doors to a divided public.

They say perception is nine-tenths of reality. Listening to the public discussion about redevelopment over the past few years, the old adage helps explain the differences in how various Chaska residents view Chaska’s most prominent street corner.

In teaching psychology, a particular drawing of a woman is used to illustrate the power of perception. Every member of the class is asked to look at the same picture. Some see the beautiful face of a young woman wearing a fancy hat with a plume. Others see a mean old woman with an enormous chin and the kind of nose that belongs next to a witch’s brew in fairy tales.

How could different people see the same reality so differently? Or were they seeing different realities? Some who saw the beautiful young woman could not perceive the old woman. Likewise, those who saw the mean old woman could not see the beautiful young woman. Objectively speaking, both women were in the picture waiting to be perceived.
What we see is shaped by memory and experience.

During the debate before the final decision on its redevelopment, many of us perceived the corner as a beautiful park under assault. The memory was of a pristine Firemen’s Park, a lovely open-space created in honor of Chaska’s firemen, green space surrounding the historic clayhole. It was where we went as children or teenagers to swim, fish, or enjoy a family picnic.

Others had a different impression of the corner. Our memory was the truck manufacturer that stood on the corner, an eyesore that struck visitors more like the witch in the psychology class picture. Passersby did not see a beautiful park or green space; they saw a site with no aesthetic sensibility. It was not a corner to be proud of, and it had nothing to do with Firemen’s Park.

No one seems to have remembered what the corner looked like 10 years ago. It would be hard for anyone to look at that the corner of Highway 41 and Chaska Boulevard and say it was beautiful.
Reality may be nine-tenths perception. But the other one-tenths also counts. Sometimes the buried memory lies in the one-tenth we don’t recall.

One of my first days in Chaska in 2006 I stopped in at the downtown Dunn Bros for a cup of coffee. I asked the young person behind the counter to tell me about Chaska. “Which Chaska?” he replied. “Old Chaska or new Chaska?” I was surprised; I didn’t know there were two. He explained that I was in old Chaska; new Chaska was up the hill.
In American general perception — sad though it may be — new means young and vibrant, like the beautiful young woman. Old means over-the-hill and dying.

All across America, downtowns are either crumbling with boarded-up businesses or they are being successfully redeveloped to preserve, re-populate, and energize them in ways that overcome the old-new divide.
The promise of the new site is that younger people from far and wide will be drawn by its beauty for curling, a pint of ale and a hamburger with a beautiful view of the clayhole, maybe a fishing rod, and a stroll on the new walkways around the old park.

Chaska redevelopment at corner of Chaska Blvd. and State Highway 41

Chaska redevelopment at corner of Chaska Blvd. and State Highway 41

As one of Chaska’s more un-athletic residents, older in age but newer to the city, I’ll be there Wednesday, where the forgotten eyesore stood, to learn a new sport that won’t threaten my health and celebrate the renewed promise of a thriving “old Chaska.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 2, 2015

Verse – Old Age and Dogs

When my dog’s on a trail I can’t see,
And I call him to sit by my knee,
It never takes long,
His idea is just gone,
And with age it now happens to me!

Steve and his constant companion

Steve and his constant companion

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Jan. 28, 2015

NOTE: Steve and Nadja’s Collie enjoys the tall fields behind the Shoemaker home on the Illinois prairie, but his ears are tuned for his tall friend’s invitation. I [Gordon] would include his name, but I’ve forgotten.

 

Verse – 50th Anniversary Memory

She brought her long brown hair
home in her hand.

From twenty-five to forty
it had grown
till she could tuck it under
her fine, round,
full bottom as she sat.
When she would stand
in front of me, my fingers
found her hair
and stroked and petted. Now
it all was gone…

The pixy cut was cute–
it would compare
to Michelle Williams now,
or Audrey Hepburn then–
the stylist was a friend
of ours, but so
was Bill, the County Sheriff.
I called, he sent
a deputy with handcuffs
to get Sue
at the downtown salon,
make her repent
of her barbaric crime
against true beauty.

I had no doubt it was
my civic duty…

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Jan. 16, 2015.

Steve and Nadja were married August 21, 1965.

Nadja Shoemaker

Nadja Shoemaker

The Burning Bush and Alzheimer’s

Christ Hospital, Cincinnati, OH

Christ Hospital, Cincinnati, OH

It had been three years since I’d seen Polly.

“Mom’s had a heart attack,” said Polly’s daughter. “She’s at Christ Hospital. There’s really no reason to visit. Most days she doesn’t even know me anymore.”

For eleven years we had shared the same church in Cincinnati. Polly had been chair of the Pastor Search Committee that invited me to candidate for the position of Pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church, and over the years the times together over cocktails and dinner had been frequent before we moved to Minneapolis.

I walk into her room in the cardiac care center expecting nothing.

I say her name. She opens her eyes and stares. “Well, Gordon Campbell Stewart, what are you doing here?”

“Well, that’s not the question. The question is what are you doing in a place like this?” We both chuckle, as we so often had done over something that had struck our shared funny bone.

She asks about the boys and how things are in Minneapolis. She’s clear as a bell for a good three minutes until she goes away to wherever people with Alzheimer’s go when they’ve had enough of consciousness.

Buried somewhere deep in the depths of Alzheimer’s are sacred memories that bubble up for a just a moment before they slip back down into the reservoir from which they’ve been drawn. When they bubble up, we know we are standing on holy ground. The bush is burning but it is not consumed.

Memorial Day and the soldier’s helmet

Japanese soldier's helmet

Japanese soldier’s helmet

Memorial Day once honored the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers. They called it “Decoration Day” when they laid wreathes and flowers on the graves of the dead soldiers.

When I learned this in elementary school, it struck me as more than a little strange. My father had served as a Chaplain on Saipan. My father was a good guy. The people he went to war against were not. How strange to honor soldiers who fought against each other, “heroes” all, killing each other, especially when one side was good and the other was evil. And then, on top of that it seemed to pay homage to something we were also taught to scorn: war itself. It was more than a little confusing.

Many years later, it’s a Monday morning. I’m a pastor. (The person in this story is since deceased.)

A 70-something year old ex-Marine calls the church office. He’s a big ma, what tough guy call “a man’s man,” a World War II Marine, 6’2”. 250 lbs, part of the invasion of Saipan in the South Pacific when he was 17.

“My wife’s out of town. Can you come over tonight for a drink?”

I’ve never been to their home. I’m guessing he wants to talk about his marriage.

He takes my coat. We sit down. He pours us each a Scotch.

“You know, your first couple of years here I didn’t come to church much. I didn’t like your preaching. I’m not one of these peace guys. But something made me keep coming back. I started to listen and I kept coming, and all this peace stuff and Jesus stuff started to get to me. It’s been a long time now. That’s why I called you. I hate the Japs! I know I’m not supposed to call ‘em ‘Japs’. I hate them! But I can’t hate them anymore.”

He gets up and walks over to the mantel above the huge stone fireplace.

“My wife has no idea what’s in this box. I’ve never told her. I can’t tell her. I don’t want it anymore. I’m asking you to take it. I can’t live with it anymore.”

He takes the box from the mantel, places it on the ottoman in front of me, and opens the locked box with a key. He is shaking now and crying.

“This poor bastard! I killed this [expletive] with my bear hands!”

His whole body shakes as, one by one, he removes the contents from the box –

a soldier’s helmet;
a lock of hair;
two eye teeth;
dog tags, and
a gun –

that had belonged to the Japanese soldier he killed in hand-to-hand combat on Saipan.

“All these years of hate. And this poor bastard was just doing the same thing I was. He was just doing his duty to his country. How will God ever forgive me? I just want this stuff out of my house. I want it out of my life! How will God ever forgive me? I can’t hate any more. I can’t.”

We stand in the middle of his living room. I hold him like a baby: a grown man – a “man’s man” – sobbing and shaking with guilt, sorrow, and grief.

I take the box and the contents home. I give the gun to a friend who’s a gun collector. I have no memory of what I did with the box or the artifacts of what remained of the Japanese soldier. Memory is like that. It was too personal. It was too hot.

_____________

So…today I observe Memorial Day by returning to the original sense of Memorial Day as a day to remember the fallen – ALL of them – but even more, to re-commit to ending the insanity of war itself. It’s a day when I remember the in-breaking of sacredness – three men in the living room – two live Americans and one Japanese – and pray for something better for us all.

The Deeper Memory

“At New Year’s, a Visit with the Deeper Memory”

by Gordon C. Stewart – January  1, 2012

At the end of a year and the beginning a new one, I visit a memory care center.

 

I walk into Red’s room — the room where he has been now for more than a year. His short-term memory is gone. He doesn’t know his wife or his children. He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t recognize anyone.