Friday, September 02, 2005

Symbol Status

So much has been happening that I haven't been posting very regularly. I know, this statement reveals that I am not a "true blogger" or the opposite would be the case. Anyway I thought I'd post my Editor's Note, written for the October issue of NH Magazine, since it's probably more timely now than it will be when the magazine finally is shipped at the end of the month.

I posted this same thing to my "official" editor site, That's how lazy I am.

Here's the post:

My wife and I just dropped our son, our first-born, off at college. The ancient trees of his small campus in Maryland were throbbing with the shrill orchestra of cicadas that had recently emerged in droves from their 17 years of larval life underground. I plucked a few of their amber husks and showed them to my son and his roommates. I thought the cicadas were a particularly apt symbol for college freshmen. After all, their fine young minds were just emerging after a similar number of years in the cocoon of homes and public schools, but they were a bit too excited about the opportunities before them to dwell upon symbols of the past.

Back at home, one week later, Hurricane Katrina hit the shoreline of my past. When I was growing up in Florida, my family took an annual summer drive through Biloxi and over Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain Bridge on our way to visit my Cajun grandparents in Lafayette.

The contrast between the secure seaside village where my son was now soaking up great books, and the demolished seaplains of my ancestral homeland made me feel a bit like a survivor of some great tragedy, like a Jew who had traveled out of Warsaw before the Swastika cast its black shadow across Poland. (Can you tell we took a side trip while in Maryland, to visit the Holocaust Museum in D.C.?)

Since then I’ve heard many people trying to convert the devastation of the Gulf Coast into some kind of dark symbol: Environmental Revenge or God’s Wrath poured out because of Abortion, The War in Iraq, Mardi Gras Debauchery or Fill-in-the-Blank.

I’m a great lover of symbols. Like Orthodox icons, I see them as windows into heaven, links to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. But here’s a lesson I just learned from my son. Symbols pale beside opportunities.

The catastrophe on the Gulf Coast is big enough that everyone in America needs to lend a hand. It’s so big that other countries, so often the beneficiaries of American aid, have an opportunity to return the favors. The purpose of a powerful symbol is not to fixate upon the past, but to guide us toward the future. The great struggles of our history, from the Revolution to the Depression to Vietnam, have become guideposts for our culture. More recent ones, like 9-11, are still being processed. When the challenges are finally faced and overcome, each momentous event can become a symbol of hope and inspiration.

I hope that when Hurricane Katrina is finally boiled down to a historic icon, it stands not as a symbol of judgment or disaster, but one of unity and self sacrifice. In a country (and a world) that is so often divided against itself, that’s the kind of symbol I can get behind.