Thursday, August 6, 2009

What is old is new again

Yesterday I spoke of my love for pouring through old archives and getting a sort of voyeur's view of daily life from the past. I find it incredibly comforting actually. Today I want to explain why that is.

In 1957, I was 10 years old. Russia launched the Sputnik satellite, beginning what was to become the space race between us and then Soviet Union. People were beginning to transfer over to color tv in lieu of black and white. Our home computers were our brains and perhaps a slide rule to help for the older kids. Calculators were pieces of office equipment and not at all compact. As a child, I reflected how lucky I was to live in this brave new world of technological advancement. I felt worlds apart from those who came before. We were the modern generation, the generation that would transform the planet! It was exhilarating over the next few years while I looked with patient understanding towards my elders who just would never quite comprehend what this all meant.

Of course not that many years later, it would be my turn to look towards the breathtaking speed of technological progress, and hope I could just hang on and keep up. Even today, there are my young friends who with compassionate eyes understand that theirs is the generation where we enter that brave new world, a world where peace and prosperity and progress will bring all of us together. A cosmic Kumbaya. What I did not know back however was that I would look backwards with smile, finding peace in the knowledge that it's the same as it ever was.

Technology may be advancing at record speeds, but human beings now and a thousand years ago are really more alike than different. Yes our politics change, but even there, the age old struggles between those who would see the people and diversity as an ally and those who would view the same as a threat. The parties may have different names, but underlying motivations remain the same.

While going through some of the archives several months back, I read a note from the pastor to the board. He expresses the importance of getting a quorum to show up for a congregational meeting. Serve food before the meeting he surmises, knowing that food will ensure a crowd. I seem to recall food before our last Congregational meeting. Nothing like traditions it would seem.

Then there are the letters of the young folks going off to war. Tragically that has not changed either. We like to think only in recent times have others have held tolerance in high esteem, such as Pagan belief for instance. Yet in one sermon James Tuttle said,

"But what about those who have never heard of Christ? Such persons are not Christians of course. But they are not necessarily bad persons. Pagans are judged as Christians are, according to the light they have, and the use they make of it. G_d loves them no less for their being pagans and Christ lived and died no less for them."

His language was framed of course in our earlier Universalist Christian terms, but expressing himself in terms of universal salvation, a Universalist notion. This from a collection of sermons published in 1891.

Among some old civil war era memorabilia in our family, was a letter written by a young woman to my great great grandfather Steelman. She poured out her heart to him in a remarkable letter by any standards. In that era women were expected to marry early. The man she loved had left for war, and because of the pressures of the women at their time, she married another young man instead The pain in the letter could be felt over a century later. Paraphrasing, "I will be a good husband to him of course for it is my duty. But my love will always be with the other." I could just feel her shaking fingers as she crafted the words on paper she would send to my ancestor. Perhaps we don't make people marry any more, but unrequited love for a host of reasons is still very much a part of our lives.

Reading old committee meeting notes by people who were part of the sewing circle, or the Women's Universalist Association or the Clara Barton Guild, beyond the crisp dryness of meeting notes, there are deep friendships, conversations never recorded, loves and lives gained and lost. Through it all there are the acts of incredible kindness, the good, and sometimes the ignoble, the bad as well. One hundred years, three hundred years, a thousand years ago. It could be but yesterday, and that is comforting.

I tend these days to think of life as part of one of many ongoing cycles. We are born, are children, are adults and give birth, have children, then become older, wizened crones and elders, then fade and die, making way for the next cycle. We have cycles of the day, the month, year, and of lifetimes. With each cycle, small gains are made. Technology is not the important gauge of development as I thought it was as a child. Rather it's the steady progression towards justice. It was Theodore Parker, later quoted by Martin Luther King, who said,

"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

We have seen the end of slavery, the granting of the right to vote for women in this country. To varying degrees this has been repeated elsewhere in the world. But still the issues of racism, of misogyny, of poverty, of injustice continue to plague us. My time on this earth is finite. Yet in the greater scope of the history of our planet, in the greater scope of the cycles of life, my own journey, each journey has a role in steadily bending that moral arc towards justice. For me, that will suffice.

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