December Songs

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

Category: Essays

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

 

“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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