If there’s anything American, it’s the advice to Move on.
Persecuted for your religious beliefs? Move on. Jump on a rickety ship and sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Who cares if you get seasick or you can’t swim? There’s got to be something better on the other side of the ocean. They don’t call it a New World for nothing.
Feeling kind of crowded in your New World settlement, what with all those nasty witch hunts and long, boring sermons? Look at the western horizon and follow your nose. There’s a limitless land out there, teeming with wildlife and forests and some pesky people called Indians who’ll get in your way. Who cares? Keep moving on.
After a few generations, in fact, Americans get so good at moving on, always west, we come up with a new name for our habit: Manifest Destiny. It’s catchy, it’s imperative, it excuses a truckload of sins and slaughters.
I’m one of these Americans divided in my own skin, one-quarter native American, three-quarters English and Scots-Irish. Most of my ancestors were the pale-skinned, spunky, pushy, move-on types who bore God knows how many horrific hardships and rutted roads and mud huts to eventually spawn someone like me, who can’t even stand to camp out for a night. This is Manifest Destiny? (Given my decided lack of enthusiasm for Nature, I’m sure I’d be a tragic disappointment to my Native American forebears, as well.)
But that strays, as usual, from the point. The point is that the frontier got chewed up and paved and strip-malled and the whole move on, go-west movement got stymied by the Pacific Ocean and the price of California real estate. So, we’re a nation of go-getters and movers-on without new land to grab. Now what?
As far as I can tell, the same restless, can-do spirit remains quintessentially American. But it’s mutated into more of an emotional realm, where we tell ourselves stories of how we must move on, where we admire optimism above all other qualities. We don’t linger in the mire of sadness and loss. Get on with it! Push forward! Above all, just keep moving.
Which is, obviously, what I should be doing, too. My friend’s funeral was two days ago. I saw old friends whose faces I barely recognized. We talked and laughed about long-gone times in the past, we told funny stories, we drank. But that was yesterday. Today should be something else, something fresh and hopeful and new.
I admire this forward-looking American spirit, which I recognize I don’t have enough of. (I mean, let’s be honest: The character I always identified with in the Bible was Lot’s wife. She swiveled around to look at what she’d left behind and turned into a pillar of salt. I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson there.)
But I also recognize the limitations of always moving on, of never lingering in sadness. Always in a hurry, always moving ahead, you lose something. You miss some kind of depth and richness of experience. You forget memories that are wonderful, even if they’re painful to recall.
Which is perhaps the greatest pain of all, when a longtime friend dies: A part of your own past disappears, as well. You’re one of the sole keepers of what’s gone.
I’m remembering the time a group of us were in Cape Cod 10 years ago. We’d already had a minor wreck, but every trip has its mishaps. We were sitting outside in a small town, when a bridal party swept past in a coach pulled by horses. It was such a beautiful scene that we all teared up. Except for Pat, who screamed, “Wait! Have you signed a prenup? I’ll do it for free!”
Move on, don’t wallow, don’t linger. Good advice for another, better day. Not for me, not for today. I’m rambling along incoherently and randomly, thinking about unrelated things like American history and long-gone frontiers and times that are over. If you see a pillar of salt, you’ll know who it is.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about good times when you least expect it