Saturday, June 4, 2011

Where Are We From? Part II

So, where am we “from”?

Human beings are body and soul. Factors of time and space shape who we are. The environment we are "born" into, and the events that happen to us in early life enter into the makeup of our personal history, and shape particular features of our memory, temperament, and inclinations. At the same time, our freedom enables us to adapt to a new environment, and to develop dispositions, habits, and affections that enable our personality to embrace a "new home." This new place can become more "ours" than the land of our birth. We, in turn, become more identified with it. Great figures of our own time illustrate this. When we think of Mother Teresa, we think of India and Calcutta--her adopted home and a land that claims her as one of their own--even though her life began thousands of miles away, in the entirely different society, culture, and climate of Eastern European Albania.

It even seems possible for human beings to “belong” in a profound way to more than one place, to “contain” different places internally as elements of their own identity and of the way others relate to them. This is true of anyone who has gone forth from their homeland to establish a new place, such as the settlers and pioneers of the New World.

Indeed, various people, with varying moral qualities, illustrate this human phenomenon. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte. His life is bound permanently to the history of France, and yet he was born and grew up in the (at that time) decidedly un-French island of Corsica. Certainly, rulers (especially conquerors) often exhibit this quality, while they in turn make elements of their native culture into formative features of their adopted culture. William the Conqueror brought his Norman identity to English soil. Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree from his native Austria to England in the 19th century, and from there it made its way into our homes today. I find myself inclined to consider historical personages because there is evidence of their awareness of place and their impact on other places

But on a much broader scale, all of America is a fabric woven from the experiences of other places which so many brought here with them when they came. Most of us have a varied ancestry, and grew up in homes that blended various cultural traditions. American society itself is (relatively speaking) “young,” which is one of the reasons why we are often less attached to a particular place that many peoples of older cultures, and perhaps why we are more willing to change the places where we are, as well as move about from place to place. And yet, America as a whole is “one place” (in spite of the very distinctive history and characteristics of certain locations). I know that one of the things that amazes a European visitor to the United States is its relative unity of life and culture over vast distances.

As a place, our country is still developing its identity during this epoch of mass transportation and the contraction of space that results from it. As I said, we are young. As we move about from place to place, jumping over thousands of miles, most of us carry family and cultural traditions that are only a few generations old.

By contrast, even the ordinary Italian of my generation often grew up in a region or a city or even a neighborhood where his ancestors lived for hundreds of years. I have a friend whose family has a large house in Ligouria. In its library are documents including a verification of ownership signed and sealed by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II in the 16th century. A place that would be a historic landmark in the United States is, in Italy, just someone’s house.

These reflections on what it means to “belong to a place” certainly suggest that a sense of one’s “place” has an impact on how one perceives the world. It’s all part of my trying to figure out how to answer the question, “where am I from?” Traditionally the question has been phrased as “what am I?” I am an American. I know that for sure (and if I ever had any doubts, a year of living in Europe cured me of them). But how much more specific can I be? Am I a Virginian? After thirty years I would like to say so, but there are many Virginians who would disagree. To them, I’m just another transplanted Yankee. Why? I don't think of myself as a "Yankee." But I was born in New York and grew up in Pennsylvania. Is there something "yankeeish" about me?

To be continued.