1 September 2010
Small Pictures Colliding
The first cabin to come in on a little lake near Nisswa, Minnesota was built over a hundred years ago and is owned by the family of my good friend, Tom. Tom and some mixture of his sisters and parents would invite a group of us to venture north each summer to stay at the cabin for a week or so. It stood about 3 1/2 seconds (sprinting gleefully, that is) from the clearest lake I've ever swam in and we spent days there in the water. The cabin's creaky three season porch composed the bulk of its space, where we slept and spied the lake at night, accounting for the rare hours we weren't actually in it.
Aside from being quaint, charmingly old, and invaluable for its potential tranquility, this cabin was a forward operating base in the war on sane judgement and sound behavior. We never (really) slipped into criminality - at least not more than trespassing while looking for paintballing warzones - but instead our shenanigans were the perfect mixture of absurd and dangerous, the kind of foolery that inflates the chests of young men and leaves them with scars long-worthy of small talk.
We familiarized ourselves with the bite of pellet guns, we dared fireworks fuses to burn faster than we could run, we suffered one another's addiciton to the words "I dare you..." and ate more Taco Bell than one might think humanly possible. We swam and fished, and peed in the lake, and made up stories about what our pee would attract, and peed ourselves again - this time in panic - snorkeling on the dark edge of the lake's ominous sink holes. We terrorized each other with all the love a quartet of delinquents can muster; they slapped my inevitable sunburns, we won Doritos from each other in poker games we didn't really understand, we learned to catch bullfrogs in lillied marshes and, subsequently, learned to remove herds of leeches from our legs. Storms thundered in across the lake and lured us onto the dock, as did flocks of mosquitos which chased us inside. We bitched about humid nights in a hot, century old cabin. In our down time, we lit things on fire. We shingled the cabin to earn our keep and purposely capsized canoes when we exhausted our lists of things to destroy. Tom's parents - canonization pending - supervised the madness and, miraculously, welcomed us back.
It was, all of it, one treasure in the simplicity of small picture living.
One challenge of being American is also dangerously touted as one of its luxuries. We don't really have to think. What I mean is, we don't really have to think big. Ok so that's no less harsh. Humor me.
In America you have the opportunity of isolation paired with relative prosperity. You can live in a small town of people that look and think like you for the most part, work a simple job, pay your taxes, maybe even vote to keep them low, and venture no further than what concerns church events or the youngsters' school activities.
This picture of American life suits a great many people and my own musings about swimming in streams and taking countryside cruises under cloudless night skies are very much at home in that America. It is a simple life and - more and more with age - simplicity compliments the part of us that wants rest and deliberate appreciation of what we have and work to provide. This simplicity is small picture, its an oasis in a larger narrative which churns with the energy of big picture drama. Big picture drama doesn't fit in our small picture simplicity.
Wars seem distant these days, outside of the realm we regularly concern oursevles with, until we know a soldier that gets called up. All of a sudden a piece of our small picture leaks into the larger frame and if we watch where that piece goes, we're confronted with alien elements of big picture drama: we curse audible walls, built by language, between us and understanding; foreign people confound our world view, sporting allegiances to other people and other values we don't understand (the enemy of our enemy may be our friend, but the friend of a newly acquainted stranger is our...?).
Often times the most powerful encounters we have are the ones where we glimpse someone else's simplicity, the other pieces of the big picture. Their small picture is more likely to include a god you don't worship than one you do. Someone's small picture life may be constant war. Another's small picture simplicity may be political imprisonment or slavery as a defacto condition of their race or class. Someone's local reality may be governed by drug cartels or warlords, their living made on illicit crops, their struggle framed as a struggle against prettier small pictures. Yet you're far more likely, no matter whom or where, to encounter someone who loathes terrorism rather than harbors it; more likely to seek the simplicity of peace, at home, than the chaos of conflict and conquest; more likely to bemoan, as you do, the burdens of the modern world on your children.
To reckon with those other small pictures before tragedy throws them in our face we have to venture into the big picture on our own - books, travel, discussion. But we often do not. This is America's luxury and her peril. We have every reason to want the silence and familiarity of small picture - which can be empty rolling hills or bustling concrete sidewalks. After all, small picture stuff is the stuff of cabins by summer lakesides, enriched at least as much as it is threatened by moronic, barely post-pubescent boys. Small picture is family, community, tradition - at home in your city or your farmland. But the collision of small pictures is among the few truly inevitable things we are subject to. And when we opt to think only within our small picture, even encouraged to do so by the various obligations and attractions inside that confined space, we are not prepared for the collisions surely coming.
America's small pictures usually observe narratives of success. Few of us live in exuberance and our struggles are very real, but mostly we surive them and often shed them and find some precious time for that quiet, deliberate appreciation. America's big picture, however, is not so successful these days. The dichotomy seems strange. Its not unreasonable to think that adding these generally good, small pictures into one large picture would yield a similarly positive sum. But our small pictures do not add, they collide, and in the colliding we measure the health of our nation's big picture. How willing are we to understand the contents of someone else's typical experience, and how patient is our learning? Collisions of good people living their lives in relative cultural solitude has the paradoxical ability to churn the ugly dramas of the big picture. We should not be surprised when small pictures - respectively containing productive communities with hospitable families - collide and we witness peace-loving people embrace the rhetoric and ambition of thugs, seemingly overninght.
This is because the question of big picture health has less to do with the content of its smaller components than with the events that take place when those components collide. Future, my point is not that you have to alientate yourself from the values of small-picture living or denounce the warmth of small picture simplicity. But you can prepare for those collisions in the mean time. The current of local responsibilities is strong and those responsibilities are important. But make it a point to peak your head up out of the river and study your worldly context. One day, if America continues a legacy of decent human endeavor, we'll hold tight to the church gatherings and swims in the creek and cruises under starry skies that make our small picture 'home', but the health of that small picture will also be measured by the way its ready to run into others, to resist the impulse toward aggression, to understand that though the interest of many small pictures are in play, and often in competition, we are not enemies until we forfeit the willingness to be neighbors.
I wish for you the elegance of small-picture living, of love and adventure that resides in your conception of home. I hope that there are places in your life, like old lake cabins, where you cause the best kind of trouble and appreciate the safety of small picture reality in America. I also hope for your big picture a composition of small realities that collide and manage to smile at one another, welcoming new neighbors. Live awake and aware, Future, and by doing so, live free.
- Erik in the past
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