Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Becoming Ourselves, Again

In which the blogger sincerely promises that this will be the last political post for a while, and commits to a return to dog stories, some meaty training topics, and perhaps more funny pictures of chickens. And in which I apologize in advance to my relatives for mining family history for a metaphor about America.

The core of conservatism -- real conservatism, not the loopy, vicious pseudo-Christian slash 'n' burn pre-millennialism that has been claiming the title in this country for the past, say, 27 years -- is a deeply-held belief that the way things are is the way things ought to be; or at least, that the way things are is preferable to the uncertainty of many unexplored possibilities. Real conservatism is, therefore, based in a profound love of this world as she is, and a respect for the gifts of the past.

The core of liberalism -- real liberalism, not some whinging self-absorbed reflex of pale political correctitude -- is a deeply-held belief that the world can be better, and that this end must be achieved through the earthly efforts of human beings. Real liberalism, therefore, is based on a profound love of potentials and possibilities, and an optimism for the promise of the future.

Those both sound pretty good to me.

I live in a nation that was audaciously founded to embrace both. I'm fine with that. Dynamic tension keeps life interesting, but not too interesting.

I also live in a nation in which the polymath genius who asserted to the world as self-evident truth the Enlightenment heresy that "All men are created equal," owned human beings as chattel -- owned his own natural children just as he owned rare books and fine wine and merino sheep. A nation in which, as well, the architect of the Constitution owned human beings.

I am not fine with that. Conserving that status quo is not okay by me. That was not being "of one's time." Nostalgia for those Good Ol' Days -- not cool. America, as in Shining City on the Hill America, as in Beacon to the World America -- America had a long way to go, a lot of progress to be made, before she fulfilled her promise to her people and her world and became herself. And things really did get quite a bit worse before they started very slowly and fitfully and with much fire and blood getting better, which supplies even the most committed progressive with some perspective about why some people do get awfully nostalgic for some other Good Ol' Days and always think everything sucks more now. Sometimes it does. The cotton gin was not a gift to the moral development and advancement of mankind.

It is the optimism of liberalism that could see not just what was wrong about that disturbingly familiar-looking young man waiting at Jefferson's table, but what was right about the sentiment that we are endowed with the those unalienable rights. Progress is not measured in how far we have come from the injustices and atrocities of the past, but how close we draw to the promise of our ideals.

Because my President has, almost in the hour of his victory, lost his grandmother -- his rootstock on this earth -- a word about my own maternal grandparents. And why I think that, despite some of what I'm going to tell you, I believe that tonight's historic victory for America honors both their memories, and the memories of so many of our honored ancestors.

My grandmother, Caroline Toso Shoenfelt, was a lifelong Democrat in a pretty Republican little town in the Western Reserve of Ohio. I don't remember her talking politics much, but I do remember that she worked at the polls in every election. Civic duty was more prominent than partisanship. It's not clear to me that there was a difference for her.

When I was a single graduate student, she tried in all seriousness to fix me up with a certain obscenely famous and ungodly talented recluse cartoonist who lived in the town. "Heather, he's single, and he's rich now, and I happen to know he's a Democrat!" What more could a Gramma want for her granddaughter?

Caroline Shoenfelt was also, during my lifetime, a Congregationalist -- Hudson being something of an outpost of New England in the nearly Midwest. What I did not know until the recent baptism of my youngest niece was that she had left the Lutheran church -- the Missouri synod, aka Shiite Protestants -- over doctrine. When the minister declared that my niece was born "a child of darkness," my Mom leaned over and whispered (and I paraphrase, but not as much as you might think) "It was shit like that that made your grandmother leave the Lutheran church." Now it happened to be Trinity Sunday when Sean was baptized, meaning that the congregation recited the entire Athanasian Creed. I'd never heard a loyalty oath being administered before, and it was uncomfortable. I had the distinct tactile hallucination of a pike point gently pressing into the small of my back. (Later Ken said I was mistaken, that it was definitely a gladius.) I saw Gramma's point.

She smoked little cherry cigars and drank the occasional Canadian Club, put too much salt on her celery and too much sugar on a bowl of wild strawberries. I inherited only the vice of oversalting; my taste in whiskey is more spendy as I age. She had great legs and skin that did not wrinkle much with age, and I was lucky enough to inherit both.

Robert Shoenfelt worked for Firestone through The War (and after), and also owned an auto repair shop in town. I'm pretty sure he was also a lifelong Democrat, but you know, he never told me that, and I could be entirely mistaken. He tended a huge garden and orchard, worked in metal and wood and photo emulsion and brick and stone, and was a Master Mason -- leading to a cognitive muddle that persisted well into my adulthood about where the practice of actual stonemasonry ended and the practice of Freemasonry began. (I was astonished to learn that most Masons do not know how to set mortar or lay a cornerstone.)

My grandparents' rural property was a few acres, I guess, but to a feral child it was a whole world. Pata cut a network of paths through the overgrown fields with his lawn tractor, and I would disappear into those fields for hours just about as soon as I could toddle off. It wasn't until I was an adolescent that I realized he had mowed those paths for me. I never, never got the slightest impression that a granddaughter was second best to a grandson.

This midwestern mechanic kept a bust of Nefertiti on the console television. Hand-forged a bronze ankh for my mother. Had bookshelves full of arcana, spiritualism, natural history, ecology. I read Silent Spring on my grandparents' living-room floor, and being about eight, cried for the dead birds. They tolerated -- even welcomed -- a swooping, pooping nest of barn swallows on the front porch every summer. They composted when no one had ever heard of it.

Robert Shoenfelt had male pattern baldness and Alzheimer's. My uncle and both of my brothers were lucky enough to inherit the former. If I inherit the latter, I have a friend (no, I am not telling who) who has sworn to put me out of my misery and find some good woman to take care of my husband.

My husband-to-be met my grandfather when Alzheimer's had already reduced him greatly -- but not yet beyond recognition. The core of the man was still there, and it was a good day for him. As we left the house and drove away, Ken turned to me and observed "Your grandfather is a wizard, you know."

Oh yes. I knew.


The conservative says, cleave to what is good in what you have, and embrace all the baggage that is attached.

The liberal says, we must do better to become what we truly are.

My grandfather did not self-censor around the grandkids. And my grandfather indulged many prejudices. At times he seemed to do little else.

I learned from him that Japanese cars were complete shit.

That cats were hateful creatures, suitable for target practice.

That black people were ... I cannot even begin to catalogue the shortcomings of black people. At my beloved Pata's knee, I first heard the injunction to "send them back to Africa." I kid you not. And worse. These lessons did not set. These lessons made me confused at much too tender an age about loving someone utterly and, utterly rejecting some part of him too.

Vile speech in front of little children -- and hateful, unworthy thoughts -- were the slave master's bastard of my grandfather's life.

But things did change.

I took my driving test in a little white Toyota. My grandparents' little white Toyota. Because those Japanese were sure making good little cars now!

One of the last big manly projects Robert Shoenfelt undertook was to put a new roof on the house. And who should join him up there but a tomcat who had been hanging around? Caroline finked him out to the rest of the family -- she heard him talking companionably to the cat while he worked. Caught him petting the cat. That cat was OK. Good company. Not like other cats.

And then there was my parents' friend, Evelyn Chatton.

My mother describes her as "The most truly spiritual and beautiful soul it was my pleasure to call my friend." I remember her as a quiet presence of comfort.

With trepidation -- and I'm sure more than a little fortifying coaching for Evelyn, and cautionary threats for Robert -- they introduced this dignified black lady to Robert, a man who was as his true self, in spiritual resonance with her.

And he loved her, and respected her. And that changed him. Not completely. Not holding hands and singing Kum-bay-ya with Carl Stokes change. That would never come. Since Robert fervently believed in reincarnation, I'm sure he will have or has already had an opportunity to continue to evolve.

That bronze ankh that he crafted for my Mom (the one I'm going to inherit one day, and my nieces will inherit from me)? He labored just as long over its twin, cut from the same slab. The ankh, as the hieroglyph for "a journey" is derived from the shape of a sandal strap. They should be made in pairs.

The other ankh was a gift for Evelyn Chatton.

Tonight I saw my America become, not just a little bit easier to love unreservedly, but more itself. I saw the promise to the world that is America the Big Idea leap forward towards its own realization, and away from the centuries-long betrayal that has been, at various times, America the bully, America the greedy, America the fearful, America the shrill -- and buried deep, but still there, swaggering in its ugliness, America the slave master.

I know that it is hard for a conservative -- a true conservative, one who loves what is so much that changing it seems too perilous to risk -- to face the future without genuine fear right now. The line between an abundance of prudence and clinical paranoia, once so clear, has been erased by years of cynical manipulation. Big changes are coming -- big changes would have come no matter what, but now we have a direction for them, and that seems threatening to those who suspect change on principle.

Step outside. The stars are spectacular over Pennsylvania tonight; maybe they are where you are, too. For all human purposes, they've been there forever, and they'll be there forever after tonight. That thought should calm anyone. Take a deep breath. Think about what it is that we have to conserve in America. Our oldest treasures. One of them begins with an unsupportable, wild-ass assertion: "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..." Another, 18th-century collectivism: "We the People ..."

American conservatives are charged with the difficult task of maintaining the radical propositions enshrined in our civic scriptures and national ideals, from the Mayflower Compact on forward. Guys, you have to conserve liberalism! That's hard to hold down with a fork. But a great task for all Americans, starting on a momentous night when we will begin to

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.


  1. Heather, brilliant post. Your writing is, and has always been, top-notch. You have just the right amount of unbridled cynicism and rapier wit. I've enjoyed all your RBW posts so far, but this one took the cake.

    The Pooch Professor
    Atlanta, GA

  2. Beautiful, insightful, and uplifting. Thanks for sharing your personal family experiences and how they relate to our collective American experience.

    Lesley Million

  3. Wonderful post Heather.

    My mother lives in Armstrong County and told me that the hot topic at Bible Study last week was Murtha's comment that his district was racist. Everyone who was born in Armstrong County said that the district used to be racist, but wasn't anymore. Everyone who had moved to the county (like my mother) said that it still was. Hilarity did not ensue, but at least everyone had known each other long enough that a serious discussion with real listening did occur, which was encouraging.

    On a lighter note, I think it's time to put away the Kevin Bacon game and start the Bill Watterson game instead. For a known recluse, an awful lot of people know him/have connections to him! My husband's eldest sister family lives in the same town and they know the family, also.


  4. Yes, America has come a long way but there is still much work to be done. I like your definition of real liberal. It's time to reclaim that word and bring it back into a positive light rather than the epithet it had become.


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