On President's day, I took my young offspring and our Namibian exchange student, Burton, to Old Sturbridge Village. I hadn't been back to this living embodiment of rural Massachusetts as it was in the 1830's since a grade school field trip three decades ago, but I have carried fond memories of that place with me ever since. The plunge of freezing water at the Grist mill, the green shutters of the congregational church on the village common, and the posts and beams of the covered bridge over the Quinebaug materialized before me from the mists of memory. My children delighted in discovering this New World Brigadoon for themselves, imprinting fresh associations alongside those of my remembered past.
Burton's experience was profound in a very different way. He has been with us for more than a year, a stranger in a strange land, and his roots and connections to home are unraveling the longer he stays. It is unclear what family he has left and what his prospects might be when one day he returns to Namibia, but even in our household -among people who spent many years in his own country and have a basis for comprehending what he is going through- his isolation is often acute.
Burton walked through the historic idyll of Sturbridge and grasped something familiar in the patterns of rural life lived close to the land. The trigger for him was that most primal and transporting of memory's portals: sense of smell. On the threshold of the Freeman farm, he breathed an infusion of air laced with the aroma of woodsmoke and cast iron farm-fare simmering on the embers and visibly brightened. "I know that smell", he said.
Our subconscious senses can be like power chords reverberating through time and space that awaken long dormant memories. Poetry and music are famous for their ability to conjure memory. Sometimes the words and sounds of a particular time take us back to that place where we first encountered them. Although I have been a passionate fan of Richard Thompson's music for my entire adult life, I can never listen to Shoot Out the Lights without re-inhabiting my younger self. I am nineteen again, in the summer of my great college romance, already betraying fatal tears in the fabric. We had discovered Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, and above all RT's music in the used record bins and the underground airwaves. It's hard not to hear universal echos in his lyricism and the root chords and the virtuosity of his playing. It's hard not to turn over the stones that memory kicks and see what's buried beneath.
Linguists and literary critics speak of tropes, signs and signifiers. All of these devices are gateways to the soul, and madness and salvation lie at either hand. There are some sensations that are so fundamental to the constructs of our core beliefs and lives that a skilled orator or propagandist can play them like guitar strings. Inflame the passions and sway the masses. Shell games and smoke and mirrors, boys, misdirection, mystify. Perpetual power needs perpetual enemies. The bible cautions this is the way of Satan the deceiver. George Orwell had something similar to say that is as equally applicable to 2006 as to 1984.
These same power chords of being can also be great uniters. Watch how an entire community turns out to find a lost child, or a grassroots movement stands up to the powers that be and overcomes by force of heart and hope. Hear them in the fall of Newton's apple, in the searing light of Paul's epiphany. e e cummings said it simply and well: "now the ears of my ears awake and the eyes of my eyes are opened."
Power chords and human hearts. To me they sound like Fairport before a festival crowd, arms swaying, defiant and hopeful, while Thompson plays:
"Meet on the ledge
We're gonna meet on the ledge
When my time is up I'm gonna see all my friends
Meet on the ledge
We're gonna meet on the ledge
If you really mean it, it all comes round again"