December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Author: Brian Vandenberg

Past-in-the-Present

Genealogy

Genealogy has been a mystery to me. Why do so many obsess over their genealogical tree, trying to get the most complete and extensive record going as far back as possible? To claim being a 4th cousin to a distant relative who sailed on the Mayflower? To be dubbed a “Daughter of the Revolution’? A relative sent me a compendium of my ancestors, pages long, of the names of strangers in a geometric regress into the long ago past. It was as impersonal as the list in a telephone book. I am reminded of the boxes of old photos my parents kept of their relatives who were never spoken of, of whom I have no inkling. After my parents’ death, I did feel a pang of regret when disposing the photos, as if I was consigning them to oblivion, but had no desire to keep them. My genealogy consists of a generation or two, ending where the reach of memory fails.

Our Collective  Fate

Or so I once thought. An awakening occurred when I realized that many have the same view of history as I of genealogy. After being forcibly subjected to an avalanche of names, dates, battles and long-ago events, and required to memorize them, many ask: “Why should I care? How are these relevant to my daily life, my interests, cares, loves and labors?” History is but another genealogy, writ large, of a culture or a collective entity several orders removed from life’s immediate, pressing concerns.

My previous posts, Cockfosters and EMPIRE and Home in the Strange, offer a partial reply to the dismissal of history as a pile of facts that have little consequence for our immediate concerns. The past has a living presence in London and Amsterdam. But we need not travel to far lands or look to a city’s architecture. We live in and through history in everything we do, say and think. Take, for example, this very moment when I am composing this blog. I do so using paper and pen at my desk. Paper. What a remarkable invention—fashioning tree pulp into fine sheets that preserve the present for the future. Originating in China about 2 millenniums ago, paper slowly made its way along the silk road, not arriving in Europe for over 1000 years. The more immediate history of this piece of paper includes a scar in the earth where trees were efficiently hacked down, and the subsequent processing, packaging, marketing, and sales. All of these, of course, with their own long historical tail. And this is only one item in of many involved in this simple act: Writing. Writing instruments. Desk. Lighting. Chair. I lift my eyes to the window in my second story air conditioned study. My entire surroundings, everything that I see, touch and use have their own deep history, which is braided into the composite present that I inhabit, reflexively, without awareness.

The genealogy of my ancestors is a faint trace of the braided lives, loves and fates that have sired me; the miracle of “Why Me?!” . And the canals of a historically distant Home in the Strange are scribed into my character. Ancestral and historical genealogies are not background to our lives, they are constitutive. We are embodied genealogy. How ignorant, then, for me to unmindfully shout: Me! Now! Here!

History, collective or personal, engenders a reverence, indebtedness and union with those who have proceeded us. We die alone. The full weight of the singularity of our existence is experienced in the hammer-blow of our death. Genealogies help assuage our existential isolation, assuring us that we are part of a larger community, composed of the past and the yet-to-come— that our lives matter beyond the tight circumference of our time and place.

 

 ghost-haunted body
I open my mouth
my father speaks1

 

Home in the Strange

Amsterdam

10.1.171

London, Rome, (Paris) and New York are empire capitals, which I mentioned in the ‘Cockfosters and EMPIRE‘ post, that we enjoy visiting. I failed to appreciate that Amsterdam should be on the list. The Dutch empire is less obvious than the others and Amsterdam lacks the typical vertical architecture of power: palaces of monarchs, destination churches, towers of glass skyscrapers. Amsterdam does, however, possess an architecture of power of a different sort: canals. This horizontal architectural structure is evidence of a trading, commercial power and the city is ribbed with a multitude that is the defining feature of the city. They were the avenues that brought overland goods into this port city, to be exchanged and dispatched to the far reaches of the globe. Now they are charming waterways of houseboats, flower markets and tour boats.

Holland was one of the earliest republics in Europe, having fought an 80-year war of independence from Spain in the 16th  into the 17th century. What sparked the rebellion was taxes; money. While religion also played a role, it is noteworthy that it is a secular, mercantile empire that emerged, not a theocratic state. Amsterdam became the capitol of modern day capitalism, as the first stock market was established here, along with an accompanying civil, secular government based on contracts and led by influential burgermeisters. No monarchy, divine sovereignty or hereditary privilege here. Indeed, these were violently opposed. The religion, Calvinism, venerated hard work and worldly success as a pathway to eternal redemption, thereby harmonizing spiritual and economic aspirations, and Amsterdam became a beacon for religious refugees, free thinkers and republicans from countries across Europe. Fifty percent of Amsterdam’s population in the 16th-17th centuries, were immigrants; something that continues to this day.

Aristocracy in medieval countries derived its wealth, privilege and power from land ownership; tangible, concrete and essential to securing the basics required for sustaining life. This is a culture of stasis. Holland is small— it would be ranked 42nd  in area as a state in the US, above Maryland and below West Virginia. Yet it was, and continues to be, one of the world’s great economic powers. It derives most of its wealth from trade and commerce. Most of what comes into the country goes out. Holland signaled a shift from medieval to modern nation state, where wealth and power are based, not on landed stasis, but on the dynamics of capital ex-change.

This dramatic emergence of a new form of culture, government, and economic life is reflected in the art. The Dutch Golden Age of art dates from this period. The “Persons of Quality” that were the objects (and financiers) of art are not popes, kings, bishops, nobles; they are wealthy merchants and traders. And the themes are not religious or biblical dramas but still-lifes, portraits and landscapes. The topics and approach are thoroughly modern. I cannot muster much enthusiasm for art prior to the 16th century, but the Dutch masters, especially Vermeer and Rembrandt, speak directly to me. They are personal and psychological; they convey the “epiphany of ordinary life”. This is why we went to Amsterdam and The Hague—to see Vermeer, Rembrandt, and the newly renovated Rijksmuseum.

We were not disappointed. The Rijksmuseum was built and recently renovated to showcase Dutch art and, in particular, Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”.  Arriving at the second floor, we turned into the “Hall of Honor” and were immediately drawn into a telescoping architecture that focused all attention to the end of the hall, on the golden spot at the center of the “Night Watch”. It must have been 50 yards away, but it halted our steps. Oh my! Oh my! (See pic; I am in the foreground, unsuccessfully trying to take this picture).

We slowly worked our way toward it, viewing the art in the side chapels. As we turned into one of the last of these chapels, there, before us: 3 Vermeers. Sharon broke into tears. I was overcome. In contrast to Rembrandt’s golden glow, here is a luminous light. And in contrast to Rembrandt’s high drama, here is a hold-your-breath immediacy of an “ordinary” moment, transformed. The Milkmaid is, for me, the pinnacle of Vermeer’s work. The personal intimacy of a prosaic moment, several centuries past, set before us, now; timeless infinity, grasped. Yet all is dust; painter, milkmaid, pitcher. All that remains is the painting and, thus, it also intimates finitude and mortality.  This whipsaw of immortality and death renders his work breath-stopping. The tiny spec of paint on the corner of the mouth of the “Girl with the Pearl Earring’; the thread of milk from the Milkmaid’s jug that becomes more translucent and immaterial the closer you inspect, are instances of the masterly details, almost invisible, that create this temporal magic.  (Pic offers only a weak similitude).

To see a World in a Grain of Sand.
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour.

–William Blake

Holland’s early history as a center of trade and commerce, free thinkers and religious tolerance, proved to be a magnet for publishing scientific work that was considered dangerous, blasphemous and subject to religious Inquisition and persecution. Galileo, while under house arrest, had the manuscript for his most important work, ’Two New Sciences”, smuggled to Holland to be published. It proved foundational for the emergence of dynamics, a branch of classical mechanics that addresses the physics of moving bodies. Descartes, another 17th century pioneer, spent 22 years of his adult life (he died at 54) in Holland, where he published his philosophical masterpiece, “Discourse on Method” (e.g., “I think therefore I am”).   It is considered the seminal work that ushers in Modern Philosophy, where philosophical bedrock is secured in perception, reason and mathematics, not Church doctrine, Biblical text and scriptural exegesis. The Calvinist religious tradition emphasizes the importance of each person reading the Bible, which fostered literacy among the entire population, including women, as early as the late 16th century. In the 17th century, ½ of all books published in the world were published in Holland, and 30% were published in Amsterdam. Today, this commitment to science and literacy has very visible consequences. This scientific legacy continues, as almost all of the most important contemporary scientific journals are published in Holland. And despite its size, Holland is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural goods, after the US. It has transformed its landscape into a veritable hothouse of high-tech farming.

Holland felt like home to me in a strange way. It is certainly foreign, but the cultural practices and personal interactions are familiar. My family name is Dutch. I was raised at 55 Amsterdam Rd, and attended a Dutch Orthodox Presbyterian church (NOT Dutch Reformed—they were too liberal), composed of extended, interlocking families of Dutch origin. When I viewed a gaggle of school children at the Rijksmuseum, they looked like a collection of my cousins and me in our old family photographs.

This commonality is evidenced not only in physical appearance. Conversations with Dutch colleagues, Dutch residents, and reading convince me that I, and my family, share core character traits with the Dutch, despite a remove of over three generations and the Atlantic Ocean. (I know it is politically incorrect to ascribe national character types, as it ignores diversity and individual differences found in any national grouping. However, I would argue that national character types exist and are the product of a shared cultural heritage. Crossing from France into Germany, or from the US into Mexico, is a convincing demonstration of this—at least to me). These traits are, in my mind, intimately connected with Dutch history and cultural heritage; the interpersonal and psychological concomitants of the horizontal power of a trading, mercantile nation that spent nearly a century at war freeing itself of monarchy, the Church, and hierarchical power. Here are some traits:

Distrust of/opposition to authority (vs. deference)
Direct and plain spoken (blunt) (vs. mannered & elaborate social protocol)
Informal (vs. formal)
Frugal (cheap) (vs. extravagant)
Pragmatic and functional (vs. poetic and ornamental)
Display of personal accomplishments and position shunned (vs. self-promotion)
Stoic (vs. emotive)
Serious and industrious (driven) (vs. fun loving and relaxed)

The canals that define the landscape, history and power of Holland have complementary channels of habits, values and character etched into the lives of its descendants, centuries later, in a far-away New World. I have journeyed into strangeness and discovered home.

 

 

 

 

 

Cockfosters and EMPIRE

London Postcard

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Before we left for London, my hair stylist asked me what my highlight of the trip would be. I was a bit taken back, as we hadn’t yet gone so it would be hard for me answer. However, as I now consider the question, I realized that what is most memorable, and what is most striking, is that we are HERE; the sheer thrill of walking down the street and seeing double-decker busses; Black London cabs; drivers on the wrong side of the street; beautiful, novel and historic architecture; upholstered seats in the Tube; the quite politeness of the people (in contrast to the bold, brassy look-at-me Americans); the daffy and striking names and use of language (the destination of the northern direction of the Piccadilly tube line [that name is, itself, a tickler]: Cockfosters—really! What about the children??); and most enchanting of all, hearing the lilting sing-song of British English being spoken in nearly every encounter.

Do you think it possible that a successful restaurant chain in the US would choose the name for their establishments, ‘Slug and Lettuce’? Of course not. What would possess someone to do this? Equally surprising, it works—at least here. And I love these;  the first, a moving truck (or whatever a “Master Remover” is…) with the company slogan in the side—it is an aphorism of humorous wisdom, not compelling sales hype, at least it would not be in the US.

“Tell the Truth and Run”

The second, another large truck with an admirable, if puzzling, mission for a vehicle this size.

We have chosen to return to London rather than go to somewhere new and I now know why. Our favorite places, which we love, and are drawn to, are New York, London and Rome (and Paris). The reason is that they are the capitals of empires that have shaped Western history:  Rome from 1st century BCE to the 16th century (via the Church); London from the 17th to the 20th century; (France in the 18-19 centuries); and the US in the 20th century. They are bursting with the art and architecture of empire; both what was plundered and what was created, housed in the great museums, and with deep historical markings woven into the fabric of everyday life. What I particularly enjoy, especially in London and Rome (because of the reach of their historical past), is walking down the street and encountering historical “mashups”. Here are several pics of what I mean:

A view from inside the British Museum of the column of Ramses II, 13th century BCE (Egypt being part of the British empire and the column taken from Napoleon), looking through a glass roof constructed at the beginning of the 21st century, looking through and out onto a 18th century building constructed in the model of ancient Greece and Rome to confer the imprimatur of EMPIRE.

A traffic stop in the London financial district with “Greek/Roman” buildings from the 18th century, stoplight/double-decker modern foreground, and striking 21st century glass buildings in the looming background (the “Shard” and the “Gerkin”), with cranes promising more.

Greenwich, a lovely town outside (but a part of) London, is the location of the Royal Observatory, a naval museum, and Greenwich Mean Time. This spot, longitudinal ground zero, marks where the shipwrecking navigational uncertainty of east-west seafaring was solved using astronomy and time keeping. It is also the resting place of the Cutty Sark, the last, greatest, and fastest clipper ship (see pic; it is moored on a pedestal).

It is sleek, elegant and shark-like, built in 1869—the culmination of human history of sailing, soon to be replaced by smoke, fire and iron. We saw the Turner painting,  “The Fighting Temeraire” at the National  Gallery that captures the moment of steel replacing sail; very evocative, and it will be on the British 20 Pound note in several years.

And finally, the visible effects of empire are to be encountered in the people: many dark-skinned people from the far reaches of the empire; the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, many speaking the Queens English. And many not. The first language of over half of Londoners is not English. The mashup is in the streets—in both the architecture and in those walking the streets.

The London skyline is a cultural Grand Canyon, where the strata of history is visible in the architectural layers; from the Tower of London to St. Paul’s to the Shard. The strata of the Empire is also visible in the people; from the Anglo-Saxons to the  accented speech of the  Scots and Irish (that hint at centuries of enmity, conflict and compromise); from to the brown faces of colonialism to the  newly arrived EU members  speaking many languages, seeking work (who, ironically,  are the byproduct of Hitler’s failed attempt for racial purity).  Unlike the architecture, however, the people are the living, breathing, dynamic presence of history that walk the streets, make love between the sheets, and shape what is said, sold, eaten, discussed, disputed, legislated.

“The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past”—Faulkner.

Indeed.

 

 

 

Footprints

 

1

Shoes on the floor where they were tossed after yesterday’s walk. The frig, with the tomatoes, special lettuce, mushrooms, beets and milk for the day’s meal. The radio, tuned to NPR, for the morning chat. Porch chairs askew, as they were left after we spent the evening reading. Laundry basket, checkbook, a pile of unopened mail; desk clutter, yesterday’s newspaper, phone charger, to-do list and purse on the counter. TV clicker on the couch, half completed crossword, grocery list, opened book with bookmark, pills to be taken. The pillow with the impress of where she laid her head. Habits, routines and concerns of daily life leave behind a trail of our presence; the intimacy of the mundane, overlooked in our headlong rush through our days…into the night.

 

 

footprints
in the sand
incoming tide

 

2

 

Water

 

 

I swim for exercise several times a week, and undergo a species transformation. Vertical to horizontal, gravity-bound to weightless, a lumbering biped becomes an aquatic mammal.  Immersed, massaged, chilled, my entire body tingles from the supporting surround of water. As I ‘crawl’ along, head swinging from down to up, my vision turns from watery shimmer to sunlit solidity…and back. Embedded in this frolic in an alternative universe resides a thorn. Lose a breath, sense the remoteness of landed safety, gulp the aquatic environ, and a stab of fright reminds me that my shape-shifting self is not untethered. I must breathe. The water that supports can also kill. Whether in the pool, the page or the mind, we can gain blessed respite from our fate, but we cannot be rescued. I swim, I sing this joyous panic.

 

 

 

weightless in the surge
jeweled creatures
snorkel dreams

1

 

“Why Me?!”

“The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

This famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar wisely advises that we are not doomed by the heavens, but by ourselves. I would like to add a corollary—that how we regard the stars can doom or liberate us; that our lives are deeply affected by our cosmology.

Consider: “Why me?!”

This is an oft spoken lament when fate delivers a mishap, a crisis, a tragic blow. The emphasis of the query is on ‘ME’. Of all the people in the world, why have I been singled out for this misfortune? What have I done to warrant such unfair treatment?!” The misfortune is experienced as a deeply personal violation of the natural order, of how things are supposed to unfold. We presume an implicit causal structure in this lament; that the universe is fair, that cosmic justice privileges us, and that we have been dealt a dirty deal.

How we understand the cosmic order gives rise to our experience of “Why me?”.

I would like to briefly explore the cosmic order as it applies to me; that is, myself as a unique, conscious being, present and alive at this moment. I begin with the basic causal question: What are the origins of ‘me’? How did I get here? Biologically, I am the product of my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg. But what are the circumstances of ‘me’; of my unique presence? This is a matter of probability. Of the millions of my father’s sperm, the singular one that impregnated my mother’s singular egg is ‘me’. One in millions—that is the probability, or improbability, of ‘me’. But while this is the improbability of the biological event, it does not encompass the circumstances that gave rise to it. What if my father had been too tired or my mother too busy? What if a phone call or an emergency had interceded? Another untold million contingencies of intention, motivation, happenstance and caprice now magnify the biological improbability exponentially.

But this is only the first order improbability. What about my father’s parents? And my mother’s? And their parents. And then, again, their parent’s parents— and so forth. Indeed, this generational regress eventually traces the lineage of the human race. And, further back still, as the genome of our human ancestors emerges from earlier primates, and these, in turn, harken to earlier unions of more distant life forms. Each coupling, and the circumstances surrounding it, stacking more orders of improbability on improbability, receding into the mists of the first primordial awakenings of life.

This, however, is not the end of the causal thread. Life emerged only because of a host of remarkable planetary developments— the appearance of water and of oxygen among the most notable. And these, in turn, are descendants of big-bang cosmic events that created this precious globe and its sweet-spot orbit around our life-giving star. My being here, now, is a point on a singular trace among the near infinite number of possible trajectories that could have spun out after the big bang.

From cosmic beginnings to the formation of our planetary outpost, from water to life, from slime mold to ape, and from my father’s sperm to my mother’s egg, one single moment askew in this house-of-cards tower of improbability stretching to the stars… then—no ‘me’.

The singularity that is me also embodies the entire arc of creation: In my star-dust body, animated by the elixirs of water and oxygen, my heart throbs and my breath heaves to the rhythms conferred to me by my evolutionary heritage.

This cosmic order brings me to my knees in gratitude— and in astonishment, I ask:

“Why me?!”

 

 

 

Statues in the Park

Billy Collins 1

 

 

I thought of you today
when I stopped before an equestrian statue
in the middle of a public square,

you who had once instructed me
in the code of these noble poses.

A horse rearing up with two legs raised,
you told me, meant the rider died in battle.

if only one leg was lifted,
the man had elsewhere succumbed to his wounds;

and if four legs were touching the ground,
as they were in this case—

bronze hoofs affixed to a stone base—
it meant the man on the horse,

this one staring intently
over the closed movie theatre across the street,
had died of a cause other than war.

In the shadow of the statue,
I wondered about the others
who had simply walked through life
without a horse, a saddle, or a sword—

pedestrians who could no longer
place one foot in front of the other.

I pictured statues of the sickly
recumbent on their cold stone beds,
the suicides toeing the marble edge,

statues of accident victims covering their eyes,
the murdered covering their wounds,
the drowned silently treading the air.

And there was I,
up on a rosy-grey block of granite
near a cluster of shade trees in the local park
my name and dates pressed into a plaque,

down on my knees, eyes lifted,
praying to the passing clouds,
forever begging for just one more day.

 

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