In this New Year I can see Mount Rainier from my window on a clear day. Perhaps for this reason I appreciate clear days more than I did when I lived on the Right Coast. Most of my family and friends still live on the Right Coast. Their emails and phone calls always include weather updates, as if it’s understood that the main difference between the old East and the new West is the climate. And, it’s true, the climate here doesn’t seem as prone to the wild mood swings of Virginia.But I find the differences that resonate after a year of living here are more subtle than sunshine, more complex than plain vanilla patriotism. And lately I’ve been thinking it might have a lot to do with point of view.
Back in Virginia, the distant past seems closer, more imbedded in the mindset. Colonial days still cast a long architectural shadow, and in places like Williamsburg, Leesburg, and Old Town Alexandria it’s still possible to imagine a simpler time. The scars of the Civil War remain vivid in parts of rural Virginia, and many families stubbornly revere more than one American flag.All this looking-back is natural, but as a child growing up in that climate of nostalgia, I was impatient with the burden of the past. I wanted the future.
Well, as it happens, I was lucky enough to have one, and to grow old enough to appreciate the price paid by our ancestors to wrest this country from its original inhabitants. Here in the Northwest, the few reminders of the once thriving Native American tribes who lived here for ten thousand years before the first fur trappers set in motion the engine that would completely alter the landscape are the names on the maps: Snohomish, Puyallup, Yakima. The Native Americans, like the salmon on whom they depended for their survival, are struggling to avoid extinction in the face of continual pressure from development and the relentless degradation of the environment.
The guilt gene is firmly embedded in my DNA. But even so, I am disinclined to dwell on past. I think the only way to work through problems is to go forward. However, I have come to realize that not everyone shares this view.One of the most curious unintended consequences of the Internet Age is the proliferation of borrowed communication. While a handwritten letter still holds a power that no amount of electronically expedited information can match, these days anyone who can master the act of clicking the “forward” and “send” buttons on a computer can flood the inboxes of thousands of relatives and relative strangers in the blink of an eye.My husband tells me I should simply tighten up my spam filter. But some of the people who seem driven to share every joke, every cute photo, every “amazing” fact or dubious political “truth,” are old friends or relatives with whom I have no wish to sever all ties. I have a delete key, and I know how to use it.
However, among all the drek that gets forwarded ad nauseam, there is a particular kind of “letter” which must hit a nerve with a lot of people, since I seem to get some version of it regularly. And the curious thing is that it comes from every direction of the political spectrum. Some versions are sent by distant relatives on the far right political extreme – people who dispute evolution and global warming – and from old friends on the far left – war protesting hippies. And what’s the common ground on which these disparate spammers come together? Nostalgia.
“Oh, wasn’t it great back in the days when nobody wore seat belts or helmets? When you could lick the bowl without worrying about food poisoning? When Elvis was skinny and candy bars cost a nickel and a tankful of gas was a dollar? Blah, blah, blah…”Sure. I remember some good old days. I also remember some bad old days before the Civil Rights movement. I know that only in the last century did women in this country win the right to vote. I remember when people built bomb shelters in their basements to prepare for the nuclear attacks we all thought were coming. I remember when Pat Boone was played regularly on the radio. Dark Ages indeed.
The wish to return to simpler, seemingly happier times is a natural desire, like wanting to return to the innocence of childhood, before you found out that terrible things can happen to nice people, when the world seemed bigger, more filled with possibilities. Now, thanks to all this information and disinformation we have at our fingertips 24/7, there is no way to avoid the uneasy feeling that we have made a mess of this world, and, unless my far-right-wing relatives are righter than I think, it’s up to us to clean it up.Unfortunately, this will require the full participation of the class, and from where I’m sitting, it looks like not everyone read the assignment. Global warming? Coming soon to a city near you. Terrorism? A drag and a nightmare and a foolish waste of time and resources. The terrorists don’t care, I imagine, because in their view they are destined for paradise in the next world after they torch this one.Sigh. What a species.
Anyway. I think it’s way past time to stop looking backward. Enough with the nostalgia already. We need to focus on the future if we hope to have one, for us and our children. And this is what I have come to respect about the Left Coast.Everyone here recycles, as if it’s as natural as breathing. True, you do see too many SUVs. But there are more hybrid cars and bikes on the road, and buses. There’s an effort being made, and a consensus that conservation is patriotic.
To a child looking at a map of the United States it’s obvious that there’s a right side and a left side. Here, in the Left Coast Washington, there are many similarities with the one on the Right Coast – there’s a Capitol Hill, a Union Station, a Cherry Blossom Festival. But people here seem to have a different perspective on what’s important politically. They tend to a more global view. They’re not looking back to the way it’s always been. They’re imagining the way it could be, and should be.And that seems right to me.