Monday, November 10, 2008
A Guy Playing the Bagpipes Near Edinburgh Castle
It seems like it was ages ago that we were in Scotland and in reality, I suppose it was. The trip was relaxing and fun, we met some great people, saw some beautiful places and stayed in some unique and historic locations, including an inn that was literally fifty yards from Rosslyn Chapel (you can actually see Rosslyn Chapel and the inn where we stayed at the end of the movie, The DaVinci Code).
The trip was arranged by the owner of one of the galleries where Scott exhibits his work and he was one of several artists on the trip. There was a couple from Dallas, a couple from New Mexico, Brian (the gallery owner) and John, a Scottish painter who joined us there. Brian arranged for our accommodation through an organization that has bought up historic properties throughout the UK that range from small cottages to castles. Scott and I stayed in hotels in Edinburgh for a night on either end of the trip and then with the group in the inn at Rosslyn for several nights and in a huge manor house in another part of Scotland for several more.
Not only was there no internet access, there was no phone, television or newspaper anywhere we stayed and considering the distraction the election had created in our lives before we left, it was a terrific break from everything.
A few random thoughts on the trip:
1. International air travel was much more fun when I was younger, less creaky and the planes were never full. In the old days, there were always empty seats and I was much more bendy and able to sleep no matter where I sat. I never sleep on flights now and I feel like I'm 90 when I get off.
2. Driving on the left side of the road is terrifying for the first half hour or so. I lived in England in the early 80's and I was in Australia for ten days in 1990, so this wasn't the first time I'd done it, but it might as well have been. The anxiety never really went away, but I'm a nervous driver anyway. I don't even like driving here. Nevertheless, I did all the driving and once we were out of Edinburgh on the second day and we got into the country, I was fine. A word to the wise international traveler: Whenever possible, always rent a car with a navigation system in it. It made all the difference in the world and it had a lovely accent. We called her Emma.
3. Haggis isn't bad, as long as you block what's in it completely out of your mind. I consider it to be in the same category as raw oysters. It was something to try so I could say I ate it.
4. I don't think I've ever visited a country so uncluttered by reminders of the century we're in. There was very little in Edinburgh that seemed out of place with the centuries old buildings and the countryside was uncluttered by billboards or signs of modern life of any type. If not for the occasional petrol station (and they were not a common sight), it might have been 1908, not 2008.
5. Edinburgh is a cosmopolitan city and despite being aware of that, it was still a charming surprise to be served by a waitress with Asian features, speaking in a heavy Scottish accent.
6. The first night I plugged in my laptop and got on line for about 45 minutes. And then my power supply blew up. I didn't get any writing done at all.
Despite the break from the day to day news about the election, there was some talk about politics, but not much. One couple was very conservative and two couples were not. Since we were in a place with such a rich history, I couldn't help thinking about what it all meant relative to what was happening back home. No matter where I've been there seem to be two kinds of people. There are those who are very invested in history, and in particular, their own history and those who just aren't that connected to it. Scotland is full of reminders of the bloody battles the Scottish fought against the English for centuries and it's clear to anyone who has ever met a citizen from the UK that people there are generally proud of and tied to their country and city of origin.
One of the couples had been to Scotland several times and they were gathering information on their ancestors. She talked quite a bit about her family's history in America and how her great-grandfather had traveled west and staked a claim on a homestead and how it had been in her family for many generations.
It made me wonder how best to live with the legacy of the past. There are always two sides to history and there are winners and losers. They say those who forget the past are destined to repeat it but I wonder how we ought to remember it and what we should feel about it.
To forget all of it would be to ignore the achievements of those who came before us and it would negate the suffering of those unjustly treated, often by those we admire. Overzealous pride seems misplaced and in often (to me) insensitive. I've always considered Southern pride and the display of the Confederate flag to be racist gestures. On the other hand, I'm not sure that the legacy of slavery should mean that southerners shouldn't and don't have things to be proud of.
But that pride or shame about the past (and I know I'm a little odd when it comes to this) is something I've never understood. After all, what my great-great-grandparents did, whether good or bad really has nothing to do with me, does it? If he was a genius, it doesn't make me any smarter and if he was a murderer, it doesn't make me a criminal. Yet people do feel very personal connections to distant relatives or to the history of their particular region or ancestral country of origin. It seems to me not unlike the way sports fanatics talk about their teams. When someone who has just watched a football game on television says, "we won" or "I hate the [insert name of team or city here] " I've always been puzzled at what the people on TV have to do with the guy in the chair.
On the other hand, identifying too closely with the victims of the past, whether they were slaves, Native Americans or European immigrants doesn't seem to benefit anyone either. Many people feel a lingering guilt by association for things that happened in the past, whether our ancestors could have been involved or not. Maybe it's because people "like us" did them. And yet it seems wrong to put these events too far behind us because although many of the worst wrongs have been righted, the long term impact of injustice is still with us in very real ways. Since a great deal of racial injustice and oppression is relatively recent, when I see people of a certain age I can't help wondering what they've seen, done or suffered.
Perhaps we haven't yet learned to recognize and identify with both historical sides of the coin.
Maybe I'd feel differently if I knew anything about my ancestors. As far as I know, most or all of my great-grandparents came to this country in the late 19th or early 20th century and they were all ordinary working people. I don't know anything about their English and Irish ancestors and I've never been curious enough to look into it. I was born in Boston and lived in New England until I was nineteen. I confess an affinity and perhaps a certain pride in that area, but I'm sure it has more to do with familiarity and spending my formative years there than anything else.
I love and appreciate being an American because of the freedoms we have, the opportunities we have and because of the unique diversity of culture here. There's nowhere I'd rather live.
America is not a perfect place and there are dark chapters in our history that most of us don't like to think about. In that, we're no different than our neighbors around the globe. Just as there have been amazing achievements from every culture, throughout history all cultures have found ways to treat other human beings terribly.
I admire the many accomplishments that have come from Americans and there is a part of me that feels a certain warm emotion about the great things our nation has done, but I've never been able to relate to the the phrase, "I'm proud to be an American" because I see my place of birth as a happy accident. When I consider how differently my life might have been had I been born elsewhere, I feel very lucky to be an American. My views on sports and ancestors probably make that a predictable sentiment. My pride is limited to only those things I've personally done.
There have been many times I've envied those who feel that strong connection. At times I do feel like an outsider. There is no ethnic or regional identity I strongly associate myself with and the number of living relatives I have is small and somewhat scattered. I'm probably in a minority with my feelings of rootlessness, but the world has become much more mobile and transient, so I have to believe people like me are growing in number.
What about you? Do you identify strongly with your ancestors? Your ethnic identity? The place you're from? If you do feel proud to be an American or a Texan or a New Yorker, where does that emotion come from? What about shame? Do you ever have a sense of guilt over things done before you were born? Why do some of us feel that? If we don't, should we?
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It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.