Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Past, the Truth, and Fair Hope

March 14, 2007

The following was posted about a year ago, including comments that were made to my post called "Imagine Fairhope."

There are always lots of versions of the truth – his, hers, and then what actually happened (which nobody knows). While nobody has come out with accusing me of coloring the truth (“facts”?) deliberately, it has been observed that my own memories may be subjective.

A friend who felt I was coloring the truth with my own brush in that earlier post made this comment:

One of the details in the picture you have of old Fairhope -- perhaps the most significant detail of all -- is that the picture has in it a different you.

I don't mean by this that there's necessarily something wrong with the new you, but that it would not be unusual for a person to look with longing eyes upon the times of their youth. I know when I think of old Fairhope, it contains nothing but my impressions, and because my impressions were among the most enjoyable of my life (there must be a better word than "enjoyable"), it is natural that I would tend to project that joy upon the whole of the scenery.

I recall a certain young lady who seemed to run through life looking for mudholes to splash through with bare feet, laughing, waving to anyone in eyeshot, urging them to join her in her frolics. Was there actually such a scene? I doubt it, but it is nevertheless real, just as real as if it had actually happened, or were happening right now.

Call it "nostalgia," or a "lost dream," but do not make the mistake of believing it's not real. The world of our dreams enlivens and deepens the world of our senses, here-and-now. Without our "nostalgic" remembrances, life would unfold almost two-dimensionally, like the still frames of a motion picture shown one-by-one, their subtleties robbed of life by the absence of time.

We're not in this world. We're in all the worlds we have ever lived. Your delight in the world of now is made what it is as much by the world of then as by any of the trappings of the "new Fairhope." Decades from now, this will be the "old Fairhope" for those of the newbies whose lives are enriched by what the town is today.

To the writer of that, I must add, I was that nymphet splashing in the puddles. Though a beguiling picture, I have no memory of ever having been remotely like that – but, as he says, his memory is real and may have provided a crucial lynchpin for his life. I know I could not rob that if I tried. I shall not attempt to do so.

My picture of old Fairhope, however, is more than a longing for my own youth. I had a testy relationship with Fairhope when I was a kid, because I lived in Montrose. The Marietta Johnson School was a high point in my life, and the characters of Fairhope shaped my young life, but I never considered life to be idyllic (until recent years, perhaps) nor did I have a problem of over-romanticizing the adults I came in contact with in old Fairhope. I have vivid memories of many of them, but those are probably selective too. I was happy then, but certainly less happy than I was to be in succeeding locales in succeeding decades.

It was not until I returned to Fairhope, rather by default, at the age of 48, that I did some research about its history, worked at the Marietta Johnson Museum, and was reminded of the reality of what Fairhope had once stood for. By the 1990’s, that reality was clearly eroding, and by now it is all but gone. I have stood by as long as I could. Something more must be said.

In 2001, my book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree revealed some of my memories. Its elegant, nostalgic tone was the work of my collaborator, the late and wonderful Bob Bell. When corresponding with Bob, I, too, could be transported to heights of literary fantasy that underscores that book. By the time it was published, I began to feel almost guilty about overstating the magic of Fairhope as we pictured it. Oh, it was true – but it was only partly true. To learn more about that book, visit my website or better yet, buy the book. As I said, I was not 100 per cent happy with the picture of Fairhope that it presented, but I will always be proud of that little volume.

So I went to work on what I hoped would be a more factual, hard-nosed book about Fairhope’s character. This is the book for which I can’t find a publisher, not surprisingly. Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree dealt with memory and went where memory took us. When We Had the Sky is based on research and interviews, with some chapters of speculation on the reality of present-day Fairhope. It may languish in my file cabinet, unpublished, until it turns to dust; at least, it will probably never find a publisher. However, I plan to run off a couple of copies and leave them at the Marietta Johnson Museum and perhaps the new Fairhope Museum. Someone someday will be interested in it.

The truth about Fairhope is like all truth: It is many things. There are people all over the world with their hearts thumping for their version of the girl splashing in mud puddles. There are university professors who have built their careers examining the finer points of the Single Tax Experiment as practiced in Fairhope. There are scholars and educators who owe their lives to the work of Marietta Johnson.

Then there is Fairhope itself, pulling out of an economic sleep by joining the modern world of commerce and all but leaving its heritage behind. It is on the verge of even more growth, and can be expected to be a great deal more like all the small cities of this country, a little classier perhaps, a lot more expensive, and a lot more pretentious. But it will never the be Fairhope its founders had hoped for.

Life isn't always fair, but there is always a possibility of good as change comes. What's certain is that the past is not going to return.


sinjap said...

one thing i've noticed about reminiscing is that, for the most part, you only remember the good stuff...when i've told people stories over the years about my country bumpkin upbinging, i'm amazed at how good those stories actually are...i used to joke that my town was a cross between 'mayberry' and 'deliverance'...definitely no fairhope, not on that level...but there are interesting characters everywhere...i'm of the tom wolfe school, don't think i can ever go home again - i'm always looking for a new mayberry...but if i'd grown up in a place like fairhope i might have a different don't knock it, far as i know my hillbilly hamlet doesn't have any books written about it and there's certainly no websites or bloggers devoted to it...and although i've been searching my whole life for the perfect town, i've recently come to the realization that it's not the place that i'm obsessed's a feeling of certain times in my life that have been wonderful...and those feelings have truly been defined by the people i'm with, not geography

Benedict S. said...

sinjap: I think it would be wonderful if memories were as you say, only of "the good stuff." It's true that some memories give us joy, but unfortunately, equally true that some bring sorrow. But because we cherish joy more than pain we do tend to recreate joyful times and shun the rest. Here's a more recent example of the phenomenon.

I'm the guy who wrote the words Miss FF quoted, and I feel joy while reading those words. But ma'am, I don't remember writing them, even though it must have been no more than a year ago. That fact gives me sorrow, for you see, I'm an old man now whose memory of the recent past is dull at best. But I know that I did write the words the nice lady has re-printed. The images they create remain as real as they ever were, and they are unmistakably mine.

Age does indeed seem to deaden the senses to unfolding moments, some of which may hold promise of future joy . . . if they could be recalled. But for some reason, there are some moments -- real are imagined -- beyond the reach of time. Perhaps it is those permanent things that give life its meaning. It did not seem so at the time, but . . . we were young then, unwitting that we were making the stuff of unending joy.

Bless you, my sailor.

Bert Bananas said...

As practiced on Family Guy, I like to drink until the repressed memories surface.

There is probably a significant percentage of the populace who only think about the past when it might help them deal with a situation in the present, or foreseen developing in the future.

If you consider reminiscing and dead people as the same thing, (which I'll admit is a stretch, but not that much...) then it's the above noted percentage of the populace who follow Christ's admonition: "Let the dead bury their dead."

Because, IMHO, there is no "Right Way" to live life, people ought to be able to do what they want. And so, Even-Handed Hope, go ye forth and gather rosebuds while ye may.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Bananas, there is much to what you say. Unfortunately I'm have trouble understanding any of it.

But I'll take it as a sort of pat on the back, and say thanks, which is what nice people do I'm told, and work on that bit about reminiscence being dead people.

I might disagree that there is no right way to live a life, or that people should just do what they want to do, but I know because I just saw your house and know that you've got a pretty good one with a wife and a dog (and some say a marble staircase and a playroom). There is more to the bananaman than he would let on.

Benedict S. said...

Banana Person: Yeah, I understand. But then cynicism is the flip side of nostalgia. I gotta tell you, I've had my cynical periods, several of them. During one of them I wrote this: "To me all memories are pretty much the same, just dark spaces filled with flickering light that occasionally looks like something real. People who try to live on such lean fare lead undernourished lives. Even when they stumble across a satisfying recollection, one they might make a meal of, starved as they are they proceed to gorge themselves. They get all puffed up on wet, nostalgic fodder they think they can never get enough of. If they keep at it, they eventually sicken of life altogether. Most people don't stay in that trap very long. Eventually, they're overpowered by the tastes and smells and textures of the moment at hand. Caught up in reality, they turn from memory as they would from any mirage, falling back into it only when they forget how deceitful it really is." See what I mean? Better I think to adopt a verse from Philippians. verse 4:8 I think it is. I ain't no Bible wimp, but those words are pretty good . . . at least in the KJV version. [Yeah, I looked it up: 4:8.]