Life and literature are full of stories of people looking for their roots. The adopted child wants to know who his biological parents are. Children of holocaust victims struggle to understand their parents’ lives, and to recover their cultural and social origins. Native Americans whose culture has been taken forcibly from them study tribal customs. Innumerable Americans whose beginnings lie in some remote part of the planet, even on another continent, are delighted to discover Ireland or Guinea, Russia or China, but they also learn that “they can’t go home again,” to borrow a phrase from an American writer.
Then there are people like me who were brought up in middle American places with middle American values, and whose birthright was the future, not the past, because mostly that’s what America has always been about—the future. Opportunity. Tomorrow.
I think the people like me are in the ascendancy, as we have been for many centuries now, and that there are increasing numbers of us—Americans, but also the vast numbers of people around the world who have been culturally colonized by us, whose pasts, like ours, are mostly only reclaimed through sentiment. For us our deeper connection to time is to the future.
A decade or so ago, I talked to a Romanian friend who had just returned from a trip to his country after many years. He was happy to be back; Romania, he said, was a place where people had no sense of freedom; the future for them had already been determined by fate. He was claustrophobic there. Of course, Romania is a country that has been kicked around for centuries by neighboring political, economic and military powers. It is a country where the past rules the present and the future. America, on the other hand, is always about the next day, the next month, the years to come. It’s not just, or even primarily, because of the political freedom we talk about so much. It’s in our hope for tomorrow; it’s that empty frontier, that vast horizon that most of us share.
Still, even in America there are people whose pasts are rich with community and the earth itself. In New Mexico, maybe in Vermont, maybe somewhere in Nebraska, they’re the ones with centuries-old rituals, where connections with place are profound, where almost no one lives alone or even dies alone. Where people’s lives are steeped in meaning.
In the Museum of Art and History in Albuquerque, there’s a painting by Georgia O’Keefe of a huge cross dominating a New Mexico landscape, not one of her better paintings, perhaps, but interesting for the quotation the Museum has placed next to it: “I saw the crosses often… and often in unexpected places,” she wrote “….like a dark veil of the Catholic Church spread over the New Mexico landscape…. I painted a light cross that I often saw on the road to Alcade. I looked for it recently, but it is not there…. For me, painting the crosses was a way of painting the country.”
A text touched with ambiguity: Crosses like a dark veil, but she painted the light one. Crosses spread over the landscape, and yet this particular one isn’t there anymore.
Besides, and of course, a cross painted by a member of the community and one painted by Georgia O’Keefe will be crosses of a very different color.
In a way most art, I think, is about finding roots. Who the devil are we? And in America at least—what next?