Friday, December 23, 2016


Swan River, Manitoba
photo by Bruce Strachan

Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my family through the generations and when I say my “family” I mean the chain of descent clear back through the hominins to the point when they are only primates.  I’m too old to have had the complications of “three parent” situations: surrogates, mitochondria transplants, glass dish conceptions, and all the other high-tech experiments we perpetrate on each other with mixed success.  Most of the struggle in my most recent generations has been the wrack of world war and extreme economic depression, with the complexification of industrialization smashing into Victorian bourgeois society that wants Spanish shawls spread over their grand pianos in order to conceal their embarrassing bare “limbs.”

Sounds fancy.  It just means that my family has pretty much dispersed in spite of the fantasy of American nationalism.  My parent generation, the one that was born at the beginning of this century, is all dead now.  My grandparent generation, the one that was born at the end of the 19th century just after the Civil War, was known to me in their old age.  The generation after me in my genetic line is only one person with little children.  The descendants of my cousins are unknown to me.  Mostly, I know how many and what gender they are, but that’s about it.  They know nothing about me at all, except that at Christmas I send books to my genetic line, my niece and her family.

The fault line, the boundary that is sometimes a crevasse, is due to education.  Some of them are college graduates, even have advanced degrees, but they are of a different kind than the experiences and reflections that have shaped me.  I feel I can defend the idea that I’m standing with one foot on either side of nothing less than a huge shift in civilization.  If it takes hold around the globe, we will be a new kind of hominin.  If it doesn’t, we will be Trumped, Gingrich will have stolen Christmas, and yet it has nothing to do directly with politics, particularly American politics.  It’s more like the industrial revolution.  More like climate change.  Close to the oxygenation of the earth’s atmosphere.

So far I’ve only gotten one of the traditional Christmas newsletters.  Maybe six people sent traditional Christmas cards and none of them included their email addresses so I could reply without spending money on stamps or going to the post office when it’s twenty below zero.  (They DO have email for shopping.)  Most of their images are their faces, ranged around in a circle, so that the places are obscured.  They’re just tic-list entries anyway, notable places.  “So beautiful.”  Innocent and a little menacing.  They are prosperous, though they hated their jobs, and retired with no health problems.  

They say, “Let us know what you’re doing.”  But all I’m doing is sitting here thinking and writing and they don’t have time for blogs.  They do Facebook.

Luckily, Tim and the Cinematheque boys-to-men are quite different.  So are the Blackfeet whose generations have been in my experience for half a century, back as far as my great-grandparents.  Their hordes of descendants range arrayed across the economic and educational spectrums from one extreme to the other.  I recognize their names, but they pass them down so sometimes I have puzzling conversations with people before discovering that we’re talking about different people with the same name.

Both these groups live in worlds that my family and past friends don’t know exists.  How do I tell them about a traumatized boy trying to survive the Appalachian wildfires that nearly suffocated him?  The response of friends is “Oh, well, they were set by humans weren’t they?”  A media echo.  How do I tell them what it means for the Eloise Cobell pay-outs to arrive at last?  The response I get to that is silence.  They do echo media on the Dakota pipeline.

My cousin-level family on both sides would not claim to be atheistic (they don’t think about God) but they are non-church.  On my mother’s side the grandparents were rather aggressively Presbyterian, but on my father’s side I never knew them to attend church.  They were careful monitors of the government, reacting in terms of prairie survival in Canada, but my cousins and I don’t even know whether they qualified for social security, which is designed for wage earners rather than small businesses or farms.  

Grandpa and Grandma Strachan were poor in old age but owned their little house and the garden around it at NE 63rd in Portland.  At the time it was just at the edge of housing.  Their children helped them as much as possible, but the only one who could really spare much money was the airline pilot.  Though I have a little house and enough land to grow at least a few winter-hardy vegetables, I have SSI and a pension.  Other than that, I’m living at about the level of those grandparents and a lot of rez residents.  This modest living is what makes my writing possible, that and the Internet.  My grandparents did not write beyond journals and correspondence.

But I did have an aunt who wrote poetry, popular enough in content to be published in Arizona Highways, Ladies Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post and the Christian Science Monitor.  Her grandmother was one of those orphaned English children who were transported to Canada to make new lives.  No one talks about it.  It’s seen as failure or at least a puzzle.

When I started out I thought I would write “lyric essays,” or “mystical naturalism”, sort of like Annie Dillard or Mary Oliver, but it hasn’t developed that way.  I get too outraged, and I curse.  No Strachans ever cursed, drank, smoked, or otherwise would offend a Mormon.  (Maybe caffeine.)  When mental and emotional issues wash over them, they do what they must and what authorities recommend.  They see suffering others with pity and consternation, but not intervention.  They don't pray or attend church, not even on Christian holidays.  They don't baptize babies nor necessarily marry in churches.  The young ones don't know Bible stories. 
My mother on the right, with a friend.

Native Americans, of course, get all bent out of shape about white people writing about them.  My father went around innocently talking about squaws and papooses.  My mother always had a quiet bias to American Indians and Asians like my Chinese classmate and the Vietnamese student who lived with her for a year.  When the old Swedish lady next door died, a black couple bought it.  They were stable and friendly.  My mother took in their daughter for the gap between school letting out and the parents — who both worked — getting home, feeding her snacks and helping with her homework.  When that girl grew up, she got onto drugs and became a terrifying witch with a daughter so abused she was barely human.  

On the other side, Pinkerton/Hatfield, some of the children of cousins made money with titty-bars and other barely legal venues.  One became a brilliant scientist in California.  The rest kept on with the ranches, selling off the timber.  Or married well.  

All this means that I see the world with a sceptical eye, far less indulgent than I once was, and terribly conscious that something is coming into being that is different.  The two-hundred (estimated) individual brain cells that sense far more than the five organ-based senses — things like whether one is near a wall or a drop-off — are telling me about a parallel universe that may come close enough to join this one.  It will be nuclear in a metaphorical sense, but hopefully not explosive.

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