The Public Humanist

In the Beginning . . .

When I was in the first grade, the nuns at school told me that God had no beginning; He just always existed. That made no sense to me. Everything has at least a beginning. I was fairly certain, in my self-assured 7-year old mind, that the nuns had just not looked hard enough. I was convinced, that if you just looked back far enough through space and time, you could see His beginning. And as far as I understood, looking back in time meant literally looking—with my eyes—to see the moment ‘before’ the beginning of God. My parents had just let me watch the Cosmos series, so I felt like I had a pretty good sense of where in the universe I should start looking: If I started at the Big Bang and worked backwards, I could see God getting bored and lonely enough to decide he wanted some friends, and darn it, he was going to make some, because he was God and could totally do that.WHAM! Big Bang! Thank you very much. Hi, I’m God, let’s be friends. Once I could locate that moment, I could work further back until I saw the very birth of God. So, for years, I would sit in church and search for a lonely God—closing my eyes, and rolling them back in my head, farther, and farther, finally arching, arching backwards over the pew in search of the moment before the beginning of all existence. (Man, I was a weird kid.)

Since Hayley asked me to write about the differences between history and heritage, I have felt like that seven year old, once again, rolling my eyes into the back of my head in the search for the beginning. It is clear that there is an interplay between history and heritage –one cannot exist without the other. History becomes heritage. Heritage begets history. But, how do you disentangle history from heritage and heritage from history? Where does heritage end and history begin?

Perhaps because it is August and we are once again in that in-between season of wrapping-up-summer-hurry-before-the-bedtime-rules-apply-again, that I am ignoring the wall of books that could offer answers. Mostly, though, I’m not quite convinced there are satisfying answers in there, because the answer, if it were to hold true about a country, a community, or a neighborhood, would have to hold true for an individual. Yet, as someone who spends much of my working life trying to teach people the intellectual rules and requirements of history, I must admit that when it comes to my own life, I cannot find the moment before, so I might witness the Big Bang of my own history.

I still think of myself as a little blonde Polish kid from a three-decker neighborhood in Worcester. Who graduated from the same parish school where my parents met. Was baptized in the church where they were married. It is where I’m from. These are my seminal stories, my creation myths. However, I cannot think of a moment when the first conscious thought entered my head about Christmas. I just don’t remember not knowing about it. But somewhere between conception and Kindergarten, there was a moment when I didn’t. And I could twist and arch backwards over furniture all day and never find that moment. Everyone else simply filled in those spaces for me and told me what I needed to know. And it was enough.

So, the dividing line seems to be this: there are the stories that you are born into and the ones you make for yourself. My heritage is what I was given: my ethnic and religious identity, that neighborhood, those people and places. My history, to me, it seems, began when I began actively creating my own story. My history is the sum of my choices.

But even that is blurry line. Did my history begin, then, when I insisted on being a horse—the only girl to do so—rather than a bunny in the Kindergarten production of Chicken Little? Or when I earned my first bit of money delivering the Sunday paper? Or when I chose to leave that neighborhood and go to New York for college? Which of the thousands of choices I’ve made stand out as the beginning of my history? And if I can only choose that moment thirty-odd years later, is it really my history, or has it lapsed into the mythology of who I think I was, in that moment in time, so very long ago? Is my mother, ultimately, a reliable witness?

The point of all of this musing, I suppose, is to ask you to take a moment in these waning days of summer—one of the haziest, most nostalgia-inducing parts of the year—to consider how difficult it is to disentangle your history from your own heritage, before attempting it with, or expecting it of students or visitors.

It is so easy to get snarky about what we think other people should know about history and deride the soft boundaries of heritage. As experts in the field, we often forget that there was a time and a place when we did not know all the rules and regulations of history. We forget what it was like in the before: Before we understood “food ways”, we knew our favorite foods; Before we built mental timelines through documentary analysis, we mostly figured what year it was by when we were in school; Before we knew to mistrust even our favorite historians, we trusted the stories told to us over dinner tables, during the holidays, in the chaos of summer vacations.

It is to say that before you knew what you know now, that once, there was a moment when you did not. And even if you cannot remember it, it existed. Absent the malice of willful ignorance, we need to respect that our students’ and visitors’ understanding of the past is tied up in those same utterly human ways of telling time and knowing what is true. And our work is to help them disentangle the evidence from the sentiment, knowing full well, that the easiest path from one to the other is not entirely clear.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate