Tag Archives: Memory place

Therapy and Trauma

I have recently come to the conclusion that life is a combination of therapy and trauma. There are moments in between, of course, but these are often forgotten.

I’m not really thinking of therapy in the strictly medical sense. I think of therapy more as an overcoming of the past. Two months ago I wrote a similar post from a slightly different perspective. At the time, I saw our selves as haunted houses full of fear and stigma. The ghosts, I thought, were the memories of trauma. And the therapy for trauma I described in this way:

“We need to painfully return to embrace ourselves: chaos and all.
We need to walk the halls of this haunted house, to run our hands over dusty railings, to notice what has been broken, and perhaps to even find that our fears were unfounded.”

At the time, I don’t think I really respected the difficulty of therapy. That is, I don’t think I understood how difficult it can be to work through and overcome the past. I also had a shallow understanding of the memories of trauma I carry within myself. Now, I see that embracing ourselves “chaos and all” is a much more difficult and long road, but no less worthwhile.

My next thought is also related to how we form memory and how events in retrospect can become therapeutic while others later seem traumatic. The former are the stories we tell ourselves from the past that help us to understand the kind of person that we are and want to be. The other stories, the stories of trauma, are the stories that we usually ignore or try and laugh about and forget. These are the stories that remind us of who we don’t want to be.

These are the stories we ignore … as well as the people and places with which they are associated.

But they are as intimately “us” as are the stories we enjoy hearing about ourselves. They shape the way we approach every situation. These stories affect the way we interact with other people, perceive authority figures, the opposite sex, peers, coworkers. And since each of us carries different traumatic experiences, each of us will see vastly different activities as therapeutic. For me, baseball was a sport that I was never good at. Struck out in T-ball, put away the bat, gave the pants to a friend’s little brother, and never looked back. So when I threw a baseball with one of my friends the other day, for the first time in about a decade, it was actually a strange sort of therapy.

For someone else, public speaking might be a therapy. For another, going back home is either therapy or trauma depending on how productive we think that it is vs. how much we revert to the person we are trying to forget. We all fear different things in order to protect ourselves, but these fears are usually more internal than we realize: hanging out with the old traumatic stories we love to hate.

As we interact with the past we don’t get rid of it, but, rather we grow to understand it and appreciate it. We also learn more about our negative cycles and can catch ourselves before they set in. Unfortunately, this process never ends, but I imagine it develops over time. I suppose that’s really the goal of these sorts of processes anyways: longevity. The more we’re willing to submit ourselves to life, to therapy, the more we’ll develop and mature. So here’s to long, healthy lives. Here’s to the good and the bad and the perfectly normal in between.

 @Spozbo and the semi-controversial David Deida for leading me to consider the benefits of therapy not as something to fear, but as something integral to healthy human development: life as therapy.
 

Movement and Moment

Over the course of the past year, I’ve been writing my way through a bunch of different thoughts and ideas and the result has basically become the entirety of this blog. At the same time, I’ve also been gradually trying to connect the dots with one underlying theme: that life is all about circulation and significance, the movement as well as the moment.

Since my words don’t always make a lot of sense, I’m constantly trying to find new ways to explain myself and share what I think is interesting about the world: examples of circulation and significance in our daily lives. Most of these places are either what I consider Highways (circulation) or Hallowed Halls (significance). Today, I get to write about a place that embodies both of these characteristics and the tension that exists between the two.

I recently visited the Negro Burial Ground just east of downtown Richmond in Shockoe Valley. My approach to this site was across a VCU parking lot and through a tunnel under Broad St. As you walk through the tunnel, you emerge onto a huge empty field of beautiful grass that was once yet another parking lot in downtown Richmond. In recent years, the asphalt was removed and this area was designated “A Place of Contemplation and Reflection.” I appreciate this area mostly because it’s a complicated place. There aren’t physical buildings that most people would consider “historic,” but what happened on this one piece of ground (the public execution and careless burial of enslaved and free people) is considered enough to make the place significant today. Once a place of fear and violence, it has been restored to the people of Richmond as a place of silence and careful thought.

While I think the site itself is certainly worth visiting, what I really care about is a place located just above the actual burial grounds. From this vantage, you can see that less than 50 yards away from this place of contemplation is Interstate 95 in all of its glory. The cars and tractor trailers fly by on this crazy asphalt slingshot that shoots cars straight through the heart of my city. Like all highways, it’s a totally anonymous no man’s land where you don’t walk, you don’t slow down, and you don’t typically notice the historic burial grounds nearby. When you’re on a highway like this, you don’t care much for where you are because you’re more focussed on where you’re going. That’s essentially the nature of movement.

To get the photo above, I climbed up a little hill to the foot of the Broad St. bridge I had previously walked underneath. For a while, I just sat up on the hill and watched the disinterested movement of the highway next to the contemplative stillness of the old burial ground. I realized that we need both the movement and the moment, but I think sometimes we feel like we have to make a choice: You have to be either ambitious or thoughtful, motivated or lazy. When I experience a place like this, it reminds me that we should be aware of both aspects of life. It also makes me a little more hopeful that my writing is still relevant. What I have learned through writing this blog is still teaching me and making the world a more interesting place.

While I was looking out on the scene, I realized that photos and words are limited media for describing ideas such as movement and moment. So I filmed a brief and simple video (below) that might help to further explain this relationship. It’s much more about the idea than the video itself … and I recommend muting the video sound and listening to Lisbon, OH by Bon Iver while you watch it.

As always, more to come.

P.S.  to Gwarlingo for the movement/moment pairing … it used to be found in their explanation of the meaning of the word Guarlingo which is Welsh for the sound a grandfather clock makes before it strikes on the hour, “the movement before the moment.” Of course, my blog is about the movement and the moment, but I thought it was an interesting side note.

The Memories that Haunt the Mind

In church on Sunday we sang a song titled, “We Cannot Measure How You Heal.” I’ll be honest, usually when I sing in church I don’t have a clue what I’m singing about, but as I sang through this hymn I was struck by it’s message. After we finished singing, I wrote down the following excerpt:

“But present too is love which tends the hurt we never hoped to find,
the private agonies inside, the memories that haunt the mind.
So some have come who need Your help and some have come to make amends,
as hands present in the touch of friends.
Lord, let Your Spirit meet us here to mend the body, mind, and soul, 
to disentangle peace from pain, and make Your broken people whole.”
 

Most days I don’t like to think that I’ve picked up some baggage over the course of my short life. I don’t have the sort of personality that likes to revisit old pain, but every once in a while I have no choice. When I least expect it, the past asserts itself on my present and clouds my vision of the future. We aren’t always aware of this pain, but we all carry with us “the memories that haunt the mind.”

These memories often hold us back because they remind us of our weakest, most vulnerable moments. They remind us of times when we felt unloved. They remind us of when we failed. In these memories there is a lie that we will never amount to any more than that little boy or that little girl. I hate lies, but I especially hate the lies that trap us with small dreams. In the same way that the hymn speaks to the hurt of our past, I have been thinking a lot about the fears of our future. Like memories of the past, these can paralyze us and steer us away from our calling. So the other day I came up with my own metaphor for life somewhat following in the legacy of Rilke’s Letter To a Young Poet #4:

Chaos and despair. The flower has fallen from your brown, curly hair. But look up to the field of new days the Lord has given you. Pick each one with joy and vigor knowing that it too will fall. When it dies it will become the earth that composes the future. But don’t simply examine the earth! You cannot possibly know how it will direct the color and shape of the future. Simply know that each day the flower is restored and replaced.
 
In the same way, don’t look past it to the other flowers in the field. They are like specks of color on a painting: limited representations of reality. A closer look doesn’t tell you any more than what you already knew: this day too will come. And when it does, as if sprouted from the canvas itself, that day will desire your attention and affection. But that day is not today.
 
Today, as is true in the case of a painting, you must take a step back and begin to simply appreciate what you cannot understand. The future for what it is.
 

So that’s my thought for today: what you can’t understand should not dictate your outlook. Rather, let what is true guide you and let yourself breathe in the space you have been given. Today. As Rilke writes,

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
 

Amen.

C is for Cemetery

Cemeteries are memory personified.

They are the tangible outcome of the human desire to be remembered. The desire to last beyond our death. They are the pyramids of the masses; each grave a person’s last chance to make their case for God and men. Cemeteries are also a halmark of civilized society … not everyone receives the dignity of a headstone. And because not all headstones are created equal, they’re also a tangible and public investment in the future of the family name.

In his book, The Language of Towns and Cities, Dhiru Thadani writes an entry for cemeteries that includes two photos of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. “Authentic towns and cities have cemeteries,” he writes, “and space should be planned to accommodate this essential component when designing new towns.” When I read this, I appreciated Thadani’s attention to the value of cemeteries in modern life. I also considered it a bit of a coup for Richmond considering the other noteworthy cemeteries in America. Then again, it’s completely justified.

There is something so basic and yet remarkable about the time and care that was taken in the planning and development of Hollywood Cemetery. It’s no wonder Richmond’s aristocracy used to picnic on the hills of Hollywood overlooking the James River. They escaped the smoke of the city, tidied up their family plot, and caught a cool breeze on warm summer days. Since the cemetery was first planned, it has been maintained, improved, and today remains a destination in this old American city. A brick walkway was added to create “President’s Circle” where two former US presidents are buried. The cemetery stands, in part, as a testament to the longevity of power and tradition in American society.

Another remarkable cemetery in Richmond, one that is not highlighted in Thadani’s epic, is Evergreen Cemetery. I visited Evergreen four days before I visited Hollywood and, as anyone would tell you, the difference is stark. Where one has improved, the other has declined. Where one is prominently placed on the hills overlooking the James, the other is beside a highway in Church Hill. Where one is a testament to power, the Other is a testament to the longevity of systemic stigmatization and shame.

At one time, Evergreen Cemetery must have been a place of prominence in the black community. At least a generation of leaders, their family and friends were buried in this place. The most noteworthy resident is of course the famed Maggie L. Walker: the first American woman to “charter a bank in the United States.” Her grave, like many others, is now shaded in the canopy of a forest that has grown where there was once a field. Mausoleums have been raided, pathways are hidden by brush, and the lives of black Richmond are gradually being lost to time.

With cemeteries, it’s always difficult to understand who is responsible for upkeep. The children of the deceased, the businessmen who sold the plots, or the society at large. The more fascinating question to me, of course, is not who, but why? At its most fundamental level, the maintenance of graves is actually a maintenance of one’s personal identity and heritage. In the case of Hollywood, this is both American and Confederate heritage. In both cases, the members of these groups seem totally unashamed of their pride. They live boldly in their past and work tirelessly to maintain the vestiges which prove it’s legitimacy.

In contrast, the people who would have maintained a place such as Evergreen were a vastly more manipulated and displaced group in the twentieth century. The successful class of black Richmonders, once confined to the city, were proud to erect monuments and sustain traditions that defied the white power structure’s condescending narrative of black inferiority. Once segregation was overthrown, however, many left the city behind and perhaps coincidently left behind their heritage as well. Of course, this is true of nearly every American who left the city in the twentieth century. And yet, one cemetery shines and the other is being slowly eroded by time.

“Segregated at Death” was a title that I considered for this post, but I decided that  it wasn’t the message with which I wanted to lead. I decided that it would be more worthwhile to simply present these two cemeteries and hopefully develop more of a holistic understanding of both (and cemeteries in general) in the context of the other. Thadani’s omission of Evergreen is unfortunate, but not unexpected: his work is often more concerned with aesthetic than politics. For me, I believe that if if we’re going to talk about cemeteries, we ought to at least consider both sides of the American color line to get the full story.

If anyone else wants to start tearing down trees at Evergreen let me know! I still think it can be saved and I would love to be a part of clearing the brush from old Richmond graves. The task is daunting (if you’ve been there, you know), but I think would be worth it.

Perhaps the more we work the more we will know why.

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This post is a part of a series I’m putting together on my RVA page.

Plastic Cities

Considering the trauma of urban destruction abroad, it’s not altogether surprising if the American city lost its ethos in the decades following WWII. While our cities were physically spared, our citizens may have lost faith in places that could now be so easily destroyed. In a matter of minutes, cities that were once homes became memories and photographs. While foreign nations surveyed the damage and made plans to rebuild, our nation realized that social damage was more difficult to restore. In this environment, such an urban rebirth would not suffice.

In contrast to the the restoration abroad, Americans returned home to find their cities inadequate to satisfy the need for privacy and control that accompanied post-war life. In a state of collective PTSD, upwardly mobile Americans fell into consumerist mania searching to restore the peace that had been lost during those war years. The dense urban spaces — those which had been so easily uprooted abroad — could no longer be trusted at home. As the banner photograph of this blog implies, the American city would soon be destroyed as well. Not as a destruction, but as a progression toward the better life many believed they would find at the end of the highway.

Sixty-six years later, many of us find ourselves still hopelessly desiring stability, but unable to remember the traditions and pride that once connected us to our cities. We also seem to carry an unspoken longing for that time when cities could be trusted and investment sustained. Uprooted and displaced, we move as much as the walls of our plastic cities: completely worthless to human memory and love.

In this third or fourth generation removed, I seem to notice that we are finally beginning to settle back into each other’s lives and our oldest spaces. We may have a very hard time excavating what was lost in the post-war mania, but it will be worth it, vale la pena.

Restoring trust in a city, like everything else, takes time.

From Drinking Songs to Pet Theories

I recently felt convicted on behalf of the individualistic, intellectual, global community. Didn’t we used to sing drinking songs together? It seems like these days we spend our time talking and debating rather than getting lost in something greater … something that unites.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between beer and coffee. In 2010, Stephen Johnson gave a TED talk titled, “Where good ideas come from.” I highly recommend it. In his presentation, he argues that the advent of the English coffeehouse played a significant role in the development of ideas during the English enlightenment. With the coffee house, Johnson states, the English people moved from a perpetually drunk society to a stimulated community of thought and collaboration. The ideas that transformed society emerged, at least in part, from within the incubator of the coffeehouse. So I originally saw this as a good thing. Don’t we need good ideas to progress? Well, yes, but I think we’ve lost something in the process of becoming enlightened and thoughtful. In short, we’ve lost drinking songs. We’ve lost this social tradition that connected us to each other and our sense of belonging and place.

I see the effects of this coffeehouse culture on my own upbringing in Tyler, TX. My friends and I would often meet for coffee at the “local” Starbucks and talk about life. These were great times we spent laughing and solving the world’s problems. But they didn’t unite us or connect us to our city in a meaningful. We never spontaneously burst into song with steins of beer sloshing around as we sang, “Tyler, oh Tyler! Da-dum de-dum de-dum …” Or anything of the sort.

In addition, the people that did drink together in high school did not usually do so with members of the older generations because they were partaking in something that many consider immoral. Thus, if there were a drinking song for Tyler, they wouldn’t be singing it. Instead, they would still be stuck in the teenage ghetto while their parents either condoned or condemned from afar. It really is a tragedy. When it came time for me to look for colleges, I felt no remorse leaving that city in the dust. I had clearly not connected to it’s people or culture in such a way that made me feel like I belonged. I had not yet come of age.

Here’s the deal: It’s not about beer and it’s not exactly about drinking songs. It’s about the cultural traditions that unite people.

The thing about these traditions is that they have to be taught. This teaching process requires close, intergenerational relationships. Drinking songs clearly had an incredible ability to galvanize that “togetherness” of community because they eventually became Baptist hymns and even the national anthem of the USA. The difficult question for me is whether this generations is producing material that could be redeemed in the same way. Does our philosophizing  bring us together? As I sit here at my computer developing this theory I wonder if instead I could be singing a drinking song (or any song) with a group of people. Granted, it’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday, but my point is this: I don’t want to care more about my pet theories than our collective humanity.

I think it’s time to start singing.

Elks, Masons, and Odd Fellows: antiquated past or valuable tradition?

“I just worry,” my dad told me one day this summer, “that there won’t be enough Shriners in the future to maintain hospitals like Scottish Rite (Hospital, Dallas).” “Well,” I responded, “why don’t you become a Shriner?”

Growing up, I never would have thought about fraternal societies. To be honest, Barney Flintstone’s membership in the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes was the closest I ever came to even knowing they existed. Then I went to college, joined a fraternity, and never looked back … until now. I graduated in May and in the last few months, fraternal societies for grown men have started to make a lot more sense. I think it was when people started doing this weird thing — calling me a man instead of a guy — that I started to wonder what I was getting myself into. Isn’t being a man all about being lonely and depressed? Work all day then come home and sit in your house? Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone makes a strong case that we’re living more of our lives without each other. As a result, it doesn’t feel like there’s any benefit to this whole “guy-to-man” switch … just more responsibility. There’s nothing cool waiting for me on the other side. But in the context of our nation’s history, that wasn’t always the case. There was an era of the American city when the fabric of society was dense with organizations and groups that carried and supported you through all the stages of life.

Douglass Rae summarized this era of ‘urbanism’ in this way:

“All or virtually all of the people who were assembled by these organizations — whether for religious or a fraternal lodge meeting or a sporting contest — were members of locally grounded communities. And the acts of assembly and association almost certainly deepened and enriched participants sense of loyalty to and identity with place.” Rae, City: Urbanism and its end (2003).

Rae’s research focussed on the city of New Haven, Connecticut and the 100-year deterioration of urbanism. In his research, he documents how each city block in New Haven was once a thriving microcosm of society. Middle-class men and women were usually a part of several societies in the city for different purposes including fraternities, sports teams, and social clubs. It’s wasn’t easy life in 1900, but it was lived together.

Today, things have changed. The America of 1900 no longer exists. But what I love about cities is that the buildings in our cities (the ones that survived) are the constructed monuments to our past. Tyler, TX is no exception. While they don’t hold the same place of prominence in the region, there are still buildings in Tyler that harken to an older era. The Masonic Lodge (pictured above), built in 1932 is the most striking downtown example that is still in use. I’ve driven by this building numerous times, but never thought it was special. Today, I almost felt like someone was going to come out and kidnap me for taking a photo of their building. The awesome neon sign (left) on the street is also worth noting … I don’t recognize some of the symbols, but I’m sure they all mean something to the men involved. The pentagram at the top looks slightly demonic, but I’d still think it was cool if my dad went to this building for a meeting once a week.

Other buildings in Tyler are no longer being used for their original purposes, but still bear the markings of early twentieth-century urbanism. The old Elk Lodge is one such building. I believe there is still a group of Elks in Tyler, but now they meet on the edge of the city in a newer lodge. It’s kind of a shame they moved, but I’m partially glad they did because the building is amazing and I got to walk through it today (without being properly initiated). It’s currently being renovated by Ron Mabry of Tyler for events in the city. I believe All Saints Episcopal is having a dance later on in the year. I hope that at least one high school student walking by notices the plaque on the building that states the founding purpose of the building: “Tyler Lodge No. 215, B. P. O. Elks, M. E. Danbom, Exalted Ruler.” The people on this plaque cared enough about each other to build a building where they could meet, talk about life, celebrate and mourn.

Only the oldest parts of our nation harbor these artifacts of the American past. It is always good to remember where we came from because it gives us a context for where we are. Plenty of people today are talking about why guys aren’t growing up, etc, but I don’t think they ever ask the question, “What’s waiting on the other side?” Yes, traditions are cumbersome and (quite necessarily) antiquated, but even in this postmodern society there is utility in having a structure to stand up under. There is a beauty in being told how to act. So don’t mock the Oddfellows, Lions, Masons, or Shriners. The men involved in these organizations are engaging in a tradition of American civil society that was once a grand element of this American life. Today, it is mostly just plaques on buildings … and a memory of how life could be.