Tag Archives: history

Inside Every Heart

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

 

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Reconciliation Is More Beautiful than Victory

This date in 1865, the signal act of reconciliation in American history took place, in the dusty hamlet of Appomattox, Virginia. The last embers of the Civil War were dying, as had 625,000 soldiers, blue and gray.  The courtly Southerner, Robert E. Lee, came to surrender his threadbare army, and he met the most unlikely of counterparts.  Union General Ulysses S. Grant had been a clerk in a leather goods store when the war began.  He wore his usual ordinary soldier’s coat, mud-spattered and distinguished only by the three stars in each lapel.

When the papers were signed, Lee thanked Grant for his surprisingly generous terms.  Union soldiers watched respectfully as the gray-clad troops filed past; the order had come down from Grant that there was to be no celebration.  Most importantly, the terms of surrender ensured that there would be no retribution against Confederate officers.  Since General Grant,  hero to the public in the North, had signed the document, the radicals and newspaper editorialists could shout for trials and vengeance until they were hoarse, but it would avail them nothing.

The previous month, in his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln had anticipated the war’s end with the words, with malice toward none, with charity for all.  He pledged to bind up the nation’s wounds and to care for those who had borne the battle, and their widows and orphans.  Nowhere did he distinguish between blue and gray soldiers.

The common wisdom might be that the Southerners were the beneficiaries of Grant and Lincoln’s generosity.  The better  view of reconciliation is found in the words of Shakespeare.  The quality of mercy is not strained, the Bard wrote.  It is twice blessed, blessing him that receives, but also he that gives.  By choosing reconciliation, the victor eschews the darker, revengeful  side of human nature.  He is then touched, as Lincoln said, by the better angels of our nature.  Given the fertile soil of accommodation, the slow process of evolutionary growth can proceed.

Significantly, with the abandonment of post-war Reconstruction, the promise of reconciliation was denied the freedmen, even the 180,000 who had fought valiantly in the Union Army.  This retreat from equality remained a  stain on the nation’s record for a century.

In recent decades, the simple, but profound message of the meeting between the aristocrat and the former store clerk at Appomattox Court House has been lost in the noxious atmosphere of American politics.  Triumph at the polls is now the occasion for contempt, not respect, for the vanquished.  The new majority arrogantly rams through its agenda without concern for the minority’s deeply held values.  Reconciliation?  How quaint.  However, as Lincoln, Grant, and Lee knew, victory without reconciliation is a prescription for an endless cycle of rancor and revenge.

“Reconciliation is more beautiful than victory.”
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, President of Nicaragua, 1990

An Artist Free to Follow His Vision

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.
–John F Kennedy

Newburgh Lake, Michigan

Our Toils Obscure and A’ That

The green Armstrong plaid  had once been a fearsome sight along Scotland’s  border, being  the tartan worn by rustlers and ruffians.  Reluctantly adopting a more settled life, later generations of Armstrong men went down into the coal mine dungeons near Edinburgh to eke out a  living for their families.  The course of my family history began when my grandfather Armstrong  glimpsed brighter days in Canada’s West.  His sense of adventure may have been inspired by his cousin’s letters back to the old country from the Canadian frontier, filled with yarns spun from scouting a passage for the Canadian Pacific Railway through the forbidding barrier of the Rockies.

[It’s the birthday of Robbie Burns, Scotland’s national poet. In celebration, I believe I will forego the haggis, but perhaps imbibe a wee dram. There’s also this re-post, a sketch of family history, maternal (Armstrong) side.]

Tam Armstrong secured passage for his family on a ship out of Glasgow, bound across the wine dark sea for Nova Scotia.  Along with various Stuarts, McEwens, and Smiths, they traversed the Atlantic, the convoy dodging U-boats during the First World War.  Upon arrival in Halifax, they took a train across the verdant  farmlands of eastern Canada to Toronto.  From there, the CPR tracks reached to the north shore of Lake Superior, left that great inland sea behind, and struck out through the tractless pines and muskeg of Ontario’s wilderness.  Finally, the train took the Armstrongs over the prairie, golden with wheat waving in the summer winds, to a coal-mining town on the eastern slope of the Rockies.

My mother often reminisced to me about her home town of Nordegg, an outpost of human activity encircled by the dark green  silence of the forests.     Over the years, I heard a hundred stories, and remain convinced that a few at least were true.  Cougars sometimes strayed into Nordegg’s streets, and family legend held that one cat chased Uncle Andrew into his house.  The Stoney Indians often showed up in town, and later disappeared back into the wilderness after having beguiled the white man in the Indian barter.

Yet, this mining town’s frontier brashness often yielded to Old Country courtesies.  Nordegg was no rough-and-tumble mining camp, my mother insisted.  A golf course, albeit with sand “greens,” followed the Saskatchewan River, grey with silt from melting glaciers at its headwaters.  My mother’s Uncle Jock soloed on trumpet, when he was not anchoring the Nordegg brass ensemble.  Proudly, my mother recalled the Literary Club, where miners discussed novels and plays, naturally with a Scottish burr.  As her anecdotes sparkled, I imagined that the cultural life provided a welcome tonic for the deadening drudgery of mining coal.

But not all her memories spoke of the promise of spring.  One October day, the mine’s whistle had screamed.  Terrified wives and mothers ran to discover what they really did not want to know.  Twenty-nine families mourned.  Nordegg wore black.   Uncle Jock, a pit boss whose warnings on hazardous conditions went unheeded, was among those who did not come up from underground.  The newspaper articles about the disaster mentioned that Jock himself had lost a brother to a prior mine cave-in.

Beneath an autumn sky the color of lead, the funeral procession descended the hill along main street, black flatbed trucks each bearing six flower-draped coffins to the special cemetery plot.  The entire town turned out, many trudging behind the trucks, while others mutely watched from the sidewalk, men and women with bared heads bowed, their faces ashen.

Sometime after the empty trucks returned to the mine, and the sidewalk witnesses retreated to the privacy of their homes, to the privacy of their sorrow and despair, the mine workers’ union built a monument at the cemetery.  The simple stone sentinel bore the names of those lost.  Thirty years later, on a family vacation, I had watched my mother weep at the grave site.  “Jimmy McLaughlin, he was only eighteen,” was all she said.

The Nordegg mine, no longer profitable, closed after the Second War.  The town soon followed, and cougars met no people in Nordegg streets.  My grandparents, hoping to start anew, moved to nearby Edmonton.  Neither my grandfather nor his descendants ever went into a coal mine again.

Tolerance and the Spirit of Liberty

The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit that weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.
Judge Learned Hand, 1944

…and alas a spirit that is noticeably absent from the current
political and cultural landscape.

Hartwick Pines, Michigan

A Marvelous Renewal

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous

~ Aristotle

The view last weekend from the high banks of the Au Sable River in northern Michigan.  100 years ago or more, rugged loggers rolled cut trees down the sandy “Rollways” to the river, which took them to sawmills on Lake Huron.   Such  work was fraught with danger and it wore men out by their mid-30s.  The lumber built the burgeoning towns of the American Midwest, but vast areas of Michigan were denuded.  During the 1930s Depression, a nearby plaque explains,  400 million trees were planted to reforest northern Michigan, by out-of-work young men  who joined the federal “Civilian Conservation Corps.”   Theirs was a dual renewal–that of the forest and of the young men’s hopes for the future.

Au Sable River, Michigan and the “Rollways”

Who Is My Neighbor: the Quality of Mercy

A young man in his blue linen cloak paces the dimly-lit room, then looks out the window at the crowd gathering in the village square. His ambitions exceed his current station, but he expects that to change after today. He is a lawyer, which is to say he occupies a lower rung in the religious order. He steps down the mud brick stairs of his house to the courtyard, then walks through the arch and onto the street.

Shielding his eyes against the sun, now glowing white in a molten sky, he can clearly see the plaza. There are more people than he expected. Surprises irritate the young man, but he consoles himself that the larger audience suits his purpose. He walks briskly to the village square–he always moves briskly–thinking over his scheme to confront, and perhaps trap, the itinerant rabbi from distant Nazareth. His superiors cannot fail to be impressed.

Near the well, Jesus is talking to a small circle of men. As the lawyer approaches the crowd, he feels his hands sweating. Moving through the throng, he strides up to face the rabbi. After a modest  introduction, he asks, “How can I attain eternal life, Teacher?” He expects that Jesus’ answer will offend the orthodox and prove his undoing. The crowd is silenced by the lawyer’s boldness, just as he had hoped.

Jesus’  expression takes no note of the lawyer’s sarcastic tone and his voice is mild as he  turns the question back on his inquisitor, offering him a dialogue. The lawyer knows the law by rote and so he confidently quotes its letter. Jesus’ response, now provocative, exposes a chink in the lawyer’s armor. The lawyer tries an evasion. “Who is my neighbor, that I am to love?”

The crowd waits for their teacher to take up the challenge, perhaps with a sermon like the ones they have heard him deliver. Jesus smiles thinly, a knowing smile, but in his eyes there is a flash of anger. He has faced so many of these inquisitions–meant to trap him into some blasphemy–over the last year. The rekindled memories leave him inwardly seething. He has thought about the answer to this question, or one very like it, through cool, dark velvet nights with only the flickering fire as companion, and so He retains his composure.

Masking his anger with an even voice, Jesus tells a tale of two pious men who pass by a wounded stranger on the robber-plagued Jericho road, not even approaching him to see if alive or dead; and of the third traveler who stops to assist the man, bathing his wounds in oil and taking him to an inn for shelter. Jesus faces the lawyer, but the crowd is his real audience–and when mentioning the solicitous man, He calls him a Samaritan. Even his close followers glance at each other–did he really say Samaritan? According to Jewish tradition, Samaritans are despised outcasts; there is bitterness and enmity between the two peoples. A Samaritan as role model does not sit agreeably with the crowd, but Jesus had warned his followers that he had come to bring a sword.

His parable completed, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, sir, was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves?” In the telling of the tale, his anger has faded; his voice is almost serene.

The lawyer’s arrogance has wilted in the Light. “He that showed mercy,” he replies, leaving unspoken the distasteful name, Samaritan.

Jesus’ voice is a friendly invitation. “Go and do likewise.”

As the Samaritan ministered to the injured man, so Jesus discerned the wounded spirit of the lawyer inside the cynical shell. He treated his foe with acceptance, but with the parable challenged him to think anew. In so doing, He placed before his audience a gift, allowing them to see, if they chose, that the quality of mercy is for outcasts as well as members of the tribe, for the reproachful as well as the faithful.

Sometimes a story’s meaning is inside, like a kernel in a husk; and other times the story’s most eloquent message is revealed by the manner of the narrator.