We all have a relationship to the past. Oftentimes, that relationship is conflicted – we don’t feel as though we want to take ownership of it, or can’t make sense of parts of it. It can be challenging and confusing. So we do our best to make sense of the past, to try to piece it together from the wisps of memory and emotion that remain with us.
Usually, we do this quietly, through our interior monologue. We retell our past to ourselves by using the lens of our present experiences to filter it. A real question we often face though, is how do we make sense of the great events of the past. Wars, famines, natural disasters and other tragedies mark our collective consciousness and can undermine the confidence we have in our collective present. We really do need a solid interpretation of the past that we can live with. Without that reasoned understanding of the past, we can feel like leaves being blown high and low by winds that are beyond our control.
One way that we try to make sense of the past is through our monuments. These can be literally temples, such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC – a sacral temple to the great emancipator who defined freedom and liberalism for a nation and the world. Or they can be metaphorical, like the Vietnam War Memorial which is literally a gash in the side of the Mall, that starts small with the one or two deaths at the beginning of the war, and turns into towering black wall with silvery names engraved upon it. What is even more ghostly is that you see yourself reflected in the dark mirror that the memorial presents. I have also seen small memorials in villages and towns – humble monuments to men and women who gave their lives in the wars, or who suffered at the hands of others for just causes.
There is something very special about walking through and by these monuments. You feel the elements around you – the breeze on your cheeks, the rustle of the leaves in the trees around you, the drone of autos as they pass. All of these experiences lead you feel human around the memory of the shape and words of the monument. They enact all your senses as your experience the moment of living as you remember. If it is a spring or fall day, you feel the cool stone underneath you as you sit down. It feels hard. You see you coat reflected in the marble or granite. You are with history when you stand beside a monument, and you are experiencing its traces – tendrils from past and reconstructed memories – reaching out to you in the present.
You have to be in a quiet mood to experience monuments. You have feel the hum of tranquility in your muscles and a cloak of calm on your shoulders, heavy like a snowy blanket on a sleeping, chilly city. This is a rare moment – we are usually so preoccupied. But when it happens, you are transported back in time, all the while connected to your feeling of the present. You experience history, rather than just read about it. Most beautiful is the fact that you experience it in your heart, in your own way and begin to take ownership of it. That is a good feeling.