6th September 2015: Thoughts on Belonging after an American Summer

A week after we arrived in Utah this summer, Pam and I went with Pam’s parents to an open-air concert. The setting was a rodeo stadium in a small town. A large Stars and Stripes flew above the arena, rippling in the breeze, and illuminated with lights against the dark-blue evening sky. The concert was entitled “To be an American”, with music from a 300-voice choir and narration from Glenn Beck, the conservative radio talk show host.

As you may recall, I became an American citizen a year or so before Pam and I returned to England. I am glad to have taken this step, and I made a personal decision then that I would be loyal to that commitment in the same way as I am to my continued British citizenship. So, knowing the type of concert that we were likely to experience, I settled myself in and determined to enjoy the show.

I say “determined” because I confess that in the past I have sat in patriotic events and found myself viewing them through English eyes. Which is to say, I have noted what seemed to be too much emotion and I have over-reacted to any hint of national superiority. Now I wanted to make sure I was not letting one patriotic lens affect another –not necessarily easy when I had just arrived back in America.

As it was, I need not have worried. The presentation was marvellous. The music was stirring and elevating. Glenn Beck, who in earlier times I have heard ranting on the radio with the best of them, was thoughtful and insightful. And better still, he reminded me why I had signed up to America in the first place. With a series of readings and stories from great moments and people in American history he shared what America is actually about: an ideal. He taught that to be an American, truly, was not to think in terms of manifest destiny, of better-than-thou. Instead it should instil a sense of humility, a desire to reach towards that ideal, and therefore a desire to serve, to live honourably and with faith.

So I was back, and mentally refreshed with the adopted American element of my identity. Our family had some glorious times for the next month. Most important, Daniel and Stephanie Tidwell were married, to our immense satisfaction. But we also had rich moments with our children and grandchildren and spent delightful time with very good friends.

A couple of weeks into our trip I finished listening to an audio book that Pam and I had been enjoying over the previous month or so: “Blitz”, by Molly Lefebure. As the name suggests, the novel is about the bombing of London during the Second World War. The lives of a half dozen main characters become intertwined as they endure the trauma, death and terror that come from the nightly bombing of the city every night for almost two months, and then beyond that. One million homes were destroyed. In the story the characters live their lives and each play their small parts – in the emergency air raid shelters, in the fire-fighting, and the lifting and consoling one another.

I have mentioned in earlier letters how mom and dad experienced such bombing, in the town of Dover. I have often thought of them, rushing to the shelters with their parents, presumably terrified and fearful, seeing the destruction around them, but, I like to believe, coming to be courageous and resolute. They and their generation have inspired me and have framed part in my identity. Now in the novel I felt I was glimpsing the unfolding of such strength. Towards the end of the book one man writes to his fiancée:

“The best of this war is over. Indeed, the best of all war is over. Our finest hour. The defiance of the enemy from the acropolis is done. It was a marvellous hour to have lived through. The acropolis, the high citadel, the top-most place, and we defended it alone. Oh happy breed, for it will never happen like that again. We’re the last generation who know what it feels like, to stand there in cold blood and, spirits on the ramparts, wait for the enemy.  Future conflicts will be waged by heartless and mindless little robots, pulling switches. [By then] they’ll all have forgotten what freedom truly means. [But] there are certain crimes that free men say ‘no’ to.”

Ah, inspiring stuff. And the blood of such people coursing in my veins! But then it struck me. Two identities, both bringing something important: living for an ideal, and living with courage. I would be the poorer without them: a sense of being part of something larger, a sense of belonging, a sense of self, coming through the stories and narratives that I have taken as my own.

When we were little, dad and mom would tell us their stories, and the stories of our ancestors: of Grandpop Sheppard, who as a sailor in the mid-Atlantic in a violent storm was washed overboard, and then through another huge wave and the hand of the almighty, found himself lifted up out of the water and crashing back onto the deck. Of Granddad Child, a postman on Christmas Day with the deepest snow in memory, resolutely completing his round and coming home and collapsing. Of mom and dad themselves, on a cycling holiday together during their engagement, and dad refusing to even step into mom’s hostel room, such was his integrity. In his old age Grandpop lived with us for a while. He told us children his memories, wrote them down, and built me a model sailing ship which had a name painted on it: “The Valiant Sheppard”. These and a thousand moments like them became part of the fabric of who I was becoming.

And then there was my religious identity, as I learned what it meant to be a Mormon. As a small boy in the drafty hall that served as our church, I recall our watching a film about courageous Mexican saints in the Mexican war of 1912, and being thunderstruck to see them killed for their faith. I heard the stories of the saints walking across the plains, of their faith and fortitude. Their stories became my stories. That was what we Latter-Day Saints did, if we had to. I saw my parents, selfless, full of faith, kind, and energetic in the great work, and I knew that that is what we Sheppards did, what we Mormons did.

Jonathan Sacks, the great Jewish Rabbi whose books dot our shelves, described his boyhood memories of Passover. He described the preparations, the smells, the gathering of the family, the food, the flickering light, the ritual recitations of long-ago history. “It was heady, magical and fun, and like most Jewish children I have never forgotten it.”

Then he observed: “What was happening in this ritual? I didn’t know it then, but I was being inducted into an identity and a series or moral commitments. I was becoming part of a people, its shared experiences and its hopes. This was not history but memory. It was in the process of becoming ‘my story’. … This was moral education, not education as the act of making choices, but as the process of learning who we are, where we came from, and the language of ideals of which we are a part. Passover is about the handing on of Jewish memory across the generations.”

I read those Passover memories, and recognised such times in our Christmases. From the hunting for the right tree, the searching for gifts, the cooking, the smells, the lights, the excitement, the candles, through to the reading of the Nativity story in Luke chapter two, we as children and then as parents were living the rich traditions, rituals and memory of being Christians, Mormons, Sheppards.

We had two family reunions this year. We had a Sheppard gathering, this spring, in Dover, with our cousins who still live in the area. One highlight was the family history treasure hunt. We were given copies of old photos and writings from mom and dad, and were then sent out in groups to find the locations. There we had to re-enact an event, or take a picture. So it was that we found the rowing club where dad and Uncle Peter “succeeded in coming third in their heat” (as the local newspaper described the race of three boats); where dad as a boy punched a little girl on the nose who liked him and followed him around; where they met at the town hall dance. We saw the photo of mom and dad on their wedding day, with their parents, standing under the arched front door of St Mary’s church, and we found the church and stood there too – the place, as Jane said, where our family began. We felt a sense of kinship, of belonging – a sense of rootedness.

In Utah we celebrated Pam’s parents’ sixty years of marriage with a day of events and looking back. If ever there was a perfect passing on of family stories, narratives, identity, this was it. Someone had made a list of when each of us had become part of the extended Workman family, either through birth or marriage. We all got a badge with our number. I am number 28. Steph, who had married Dan the previous week, is number 130. During the course of the day we learned about mom and dad Workman growing up in the small town of Delta and relived glimpses of life there. We listened to the music they had danced to, ate the treats they would get at the store, learned about milking the cow, tried the rifle that dad received when he was twelve. We heard of them setting out to make their way in life, we saw old videos of their growing family, and we shared tender thoughts and memories together. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren played and ate and all us of were strengthened (as the Rabbi would say) in our “identity and moral commitments, becoming part of a people, its shared experiences and its hopes”.

I know that all this runs counter to the perceived wisdom of the age: that we should not be loading up our young people with traditions and narratives in case we suppress their ability to find themselves. Well, I for one profoundly disagree. Young people as they grow will make their decisions anyway, choose their life paths. But what we do when we give identity is to provide a map, an anchor, a starting place: a lens through which to make sense of life. We give them a sense of belonging, of acceptance. We do our children no favours when we fail to pass on our traditions, our stories. We then fail to give them true education: about who they are. As Jonathan Sacks said, “To have moral commitments, even an identity, we must first belong.”

So there we are – what started out in my mind as a quick update on good times in America this summer became a bit of a reflection on the preciousness of identity, of belonging. Well, I for one am grateful for it all. As Douglas Adams might have said, ‘So long, and thanks for all the fabric of life.”

Lee

 

PS: A note about those Christmas traditions. Catherine had a book published this summer, entitled “Emily’s Perfect Christmas Tree”, and, delightfully, it is illustrated by my sister Jane. Catherine told me how she had been invited to write a children’s Christmas book by the publisher and had discussed ideas with her sister Emily. It was touching that our two older daughters had gone back to our own traditions as inspiration.

Take a look at the book on Amazon and in Utah book stores, for Catherine Christensen and Jane Delve.

http://www.amazon.com/Catherine-Christensen/e/B011FJUC16

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Hi Lee, Welcome to the world of blogging. I enjoyed your post and well done. I hope that we will be getting some of your older writings published here too. That would be good.

    As I think about your post above, it seems to me that we even gain our sense of identity, of who we are, by our interactions with those around us. If we were to grow up without anyone else around, we would not be able to know ourselves. That means it’s important that we make our contact with each other count, in building up and establishing a positive outlook in everyone we meet but especially our family members.

    Like

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