Practicing the Past

Tomorrow marks the end of reading week. Mine has been a fruitful time on many fronts. Last weekend we made our way up to Ottawa to spend some time with our middle daughter, and to enjoy a bit of Ottawa’s Winterlude. On Sunday morning we managed to hear Dr. Anthony Bailey preach, a Caribbean-Canadian with a stellar homiletic reputation, who did not disappoint. In the afternoon we managed to see an exhibit on Vikings at the Canadian Museum of History. I’m always up for learning a bit more about that bit of me down deep in my DNA. We then had dinner with a dear friend that evening and took opportunity the next day to skate on the world’s largest rink, the Rideau Canal.

After the trip home I was able to make use of some free time in this non-teaching week to get caught up on a few academic duties: putting some emails to rest, pulling together some proposals, getting some editing done, etc. Yesterday gave me occasion to attend the Conestoga College Annual Powwow, where I connected with some friends and again heard the earth’s heart beat.

All in all, it has been a good week and I feel recharged. Tomorrow we go back to the books in earnest for the back half of the semester. It will be a bit of a whirlwind with a number of special events, and some speaking responsibilities. I’m not quite there, but I am feeling close to ready. Reading week has been good.

As I think back on this break, it strikes me that one of the gifts it has given me is some space to stop and look back. In our harried existence, we too rarely do that. The present has its demands, and the future has its anxieties and the two together make for anxious demands and demanding anxieties. Sometimes a little historic distance is the tonic in need. Of course, the past is not always a balm. I suspect that most of us have moments that we would rather not remember, yet they sneak up on us unawares. A song triggers a heartbreak not quite mended. A smell reminds us of a loved one missed. A look in the mirror brings to mind years that have raced by. All of us overtaken by events and emotions, hurts and lost opportunities that catch us by surprise.

I sometimes wonder if part of the sting of the past comes from an incapacity that is, in part, self-inflicted. If we do not regularly revisit our past in its breadth, when it sneaks up on us with its deep pains we face them myopically. Our historic range becomes limited and when unsummoned memories emerge we can’t place them in a broader context. It is interesting that the Psalms – as but one example of biblical literature – revisit the past with astounding regularity: both times good and bad. The benefit of this, I think, might be in its developing our capacity to establish a context for landing recollections that come out of the blue. I don’t see this as a panacea for our pain, but I sometimes think the recollection of our past is rather like watching the nightly news. I sit in my chair and receive a distillation of the worst of humanity’s faults and vices in 22 minutes. Yes, there are horrors developing in the world, but I’m not seeing the big picture.

Well, soon my vision will focus again on the pressing needs of grading, lectures and meetings, and that is how it should be. But maybe, just maybe, a little bit of this week can seep into the weeks ahead.

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2 thoughts on “Practicing the Past

  1. shoreacres says:

    I’ve never heard of “reading week.” It sounds like our spring break, only without the beaches and beer. The free time certainly sounds good. Ironically, work that has no schedule, like mine, can be a bit of a vexation at times. There aren’t any “breaks’ to look forward to, since work time is determined solely by the weather and not by the calendar. Even a stretch of rainy days isn’t a real break, since I’m always trying to figure out if I can go back to work.

    But what a nice mix of activities you enjoyed.And what you say about rehearsing the past from time to time makes sense. One advantage of increasing years is the larger context those years offer. Events that might have seemed utterly traumatic at age 20 or 30 become just one more (survived) event by the time we’re 60 or 70.

    As for the nightly “news,” its greatest problem is that it’s no longer news. Do we hear about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine? The economic difficulties in Brazil? The death of Umberto Eco, or the latest in the state legislature? Of course not. It’s entertainment, titillation, and fear-mongering. Since I gave it up, I’m much happier. There are places for news, but the mass media aren’t it.

  2. agjorgenson says:

    News coverage certainly isn’t what it used to be, or at least television news. But you are correct. There certainly are alternate sources, some of which are quite good. It will be interesting to see how things unfold around network news in the future. I wonder when Netflix will get into the game.

    As for the break, my sense is most of our students stick around and try to catch up on projects etc, or make use of the time to get a mid semester family visit in. Some do the spring break thing, but that involves a flight for us and not too many can afford it unless they are travelling with parents, which not a few do. We also have some students who will do a Habitat for Humanity build or such. All in all, I think it is a good thing. This year our school also had fall break, which I think is a bust, in part, because they connected it with our Thanksgiving weekend in early October.

    My brother is an independent business owner, and like you he has few breaks. The breaks he has because of the economy are not so good for the blood pressure etc. But he loves his work, so that is good.

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