At the Beginning

Harry Drabik

Returned to the Iron Range I daily see things that appear largely unchanged, as if they were transports from the past. In a way, of course, that’s a reasonably good way to view some things. A well-built old school or an attractive bridge is an instance deliberate efforts to bridge the span from past to present to future. Schools aren’t (or at least shouldn’t) be constructed to house and pass along the lore of cultural or social fads. There could be a trend calling for a studies program covering opinions and views of Geometry over the decades, but this will not impact the fact of an angle being oblique or right. (I hope that makes sense. It might make better logic if you (as I’ve come to do) ask yourself why on Earth we give so much importance to entertainers. Their aim is as much (or more) to attract attention as it is to entertain. To such a source I’d not look for medical knowledge or political wisdom unless the individual offers more than opinions based on ratings and a potential to increase their popularity.)

As I pass places well known to me in the past I often experience a rise of echoes that sharply (painful in ways) remind me of not fitting in or belonging any more now than I did decades past. My early intent was to leave the Range as fast and far behind as I’d be able. Not having found (or as I now suspect “not having helped build”) a friendly environment I hoped to discover the mythic unicorn prancing a University field of utopian Kum-by-yah flowers. My desires and dreams were as frustrated in a new setting as in the old. I should have known. Mark Twain couldn’t have made it much clearer saying “It’s not easy to be eccentric.”

Adolescence can be a lonely time as an individual wrestles with bodily, social, and emotional adjustments. I experienced the stabs of change felt by others, and while some level of personal suffering was involved I need confess not being particularly open to help. I didn’t want to change or be changed. Instinct told me working on the details of my life was difficult but necessary. Whether I was ready for it or not, I sensed the challenge of simply being an individual rather than a creature of the pack or herd. Whether I wanted it or not I had to accept the cost of being different. Difference seemed to fit me better than the norm. I enjoyed a breakfast of toasted rye bread with Earle Grey Tea. After school I found freedom on my bike pedaling to Whitewater and wade for a stringer of pan fish. Or find freedom shut in my room by listening to Tchaikovsky or Mahler at full volume. Note the absence of team activity. My ventures were more individual, but I’m sure people drawn to teams face challenges easily equal to my own.

Overall it’s been constructive for me to be reminded of my formative past. It’s good to review the conditions of personal struggles and setbacks; alternately known as growth. In particular I see the value of time having the opportunity to test my thinking, feeling, and responses. As a social isolate (a reasonably apt description) I hope it’s possible to review with a useful perspective of distance. You know well as I that things look one way when you’re fifteen and another when you are fifty. Neither we nor our world is static. Time and distance are significant factors of change.

One change that stands out is religious expression replaced by the ascension of political activism. The public once referred to as “the body of Christ” is renamed as the “body politic.” The new evangelists are politicians. Individually, as we know, religion and politics are individually potent. The American system managed to recognize this by establishing separation between church and state. But there seems to be less safeguard for the public when a state assumes the fervor and mantle of a true belief. A dilemma of that order has to rely on the savvy of the individual citizen to embrace, reject, or actively oppose all or parts of a political faith. Put plain and simple, life was limited but easier under an order where peasants were obedient to nobles. Democracy is more difficult and is as easily messes up our lives at the hands of willful voters as it was by the acts of arrogant nobles. As example, the French and later the Russian Revolution were both very bloody affairs committed by unchecked true-believer citizens.

Another change is the transformation of physical gulags and concentration camps into acceptable mental categories. The “notion” of a thing can handily (near miraculously) become an expanded reality. Note how easily the public will accept an assertion that holding undocumented entrants is the same as rounding up target individuals for detention. Two quite different social acts are made equal based on a fervent emotional belief. It seems natural that in the New World so peopled by newcomers there’d be a natural sympathy for immigrants. Complicating sympathy is the quite human habit to clump together in familiar groups. The Twin Ports and Iron Range are full of groups that were and in ways remain separated along lines of social and ethnic familiarity. A feeling of friendly human warmth is easily come by in a favorite coffee house and easily lost in traffic congestion. Universality of human experience is, I think, a veil for a reality of specific circumstance and wishful or Pollyannaish attitudes.

Traveling Duluth to Iron Range and along the Range reminds me of the structures that define and divide us. The complexity of those places as found in their individual stories is worth a pause to take note and ponder. It’s knotty to be cozy in our own box of belief and look compassionately at another box. Even a worthy speaker like Obama could flub badly when reflecting rural America was full of (by implication ignorant) folk unwilling to give up their guns and bibles. The problem for me is not that Americans and its leadership can be narrow and bigoted but that when doing so are confident of superior correctness.