Sunday, May 08, 2011

Slip slidin' Away

Mennonite Heritage Museum
I am currently board chair of the Mennonite Heritage Museum. Occupying the historic first-campus building of Rosthern Junior College, it houses donated artefacts, photos, books, etc. reminiscent of Mennonite settlement in the valley of the two Saskatchewan Rivers.
               Museums, auto restorers, antique collectors, nostalgia magazines—seem to me—are all working toward the same goal. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to describe it. Call it conservation, preservation, call it pickling-the-past-so-it-won’t-go-bad, if you like. You can probably describe it better than I can.
               At age 69, I’m the youngest member of the board. I’m reminded of the lyrics of Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin’ Away:
God only knows, God makes his plan
The information's unavailable to the mortal man
We're workin' our jobs, collect our pay
Believe we're gliding down the highway, when in fact we're slip sliding away.
And then, the haunting chorus:
Slip Slidin’ away. Slip Slidin’ away
The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away.
I suppose it’s a natural consequence of living; unfortunately—as Simon says—the information’s unavailable to mortal man. This much we know: as we near our destinations, we become more “preservative” in our thinking, become more nostalgic about the myths of “good-old days,” become more burdened by the prospect that we and our lives will be unappreciated, forgotten. That what we have learned and found to be true will not be passed on to a next generation.
               So we create museums, write memoirs, collect artefacts.
               What we should have cultivated—along with the collecting of material objects as “preservative tools”—is the art of storytelling, of myth and legend building. There’s an enormous difference between looking at a Woodland Cree stone hammer lying under glass in a museum and a wrinkled elder holding it in his life-worn hands and telling its story to a rapt audience.
               Let me put it more bluntly: what are slip sliding away are not the collections of stone hammers, samovars and Roger’s Golden Syrup pails; they’ll be here long after we’re gone. What is urgent is the preservation of language itself:  

Hey! Hey! You! You!
I don’t like your girlfriend!
No way! No way!
I think you need a new one
Hey! Hey! You! You!
I could be your girlfriend
Hey! Hey! You! You!
I know that you like me
No way! No way!
I know it's not a secret
Hey! Hey! You! You!
I want to be your girlfriend

Contrasting Avril Lavigne’s I wanna be your girlfriend to Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin’ Away is by no means a fair fight. But consider this: if we lose the art of myth, legend, storytelling that bridges the past to the present and the future, will our language then be all and only about our personal appetites and desires expressed in monosyllabic utterances? Will we cease to contemplate matters beyond ourselves if we forget how conversation, storytelling and listening happen; if we no longer have the words to express much beyond hey, you, I don’t like your girlfriend?
               We are to blame in this. We’ve flooded the world with books, cartoons, games geared for pre-schoolers, then children, then adolescents, pre-teens, young adults, all appropriately scaled to “their level of understanding and interests.” What we’ve missed in this process is that our efforts have served to retard their language learning when we thought it would advance it. Watch “children’s television” for an hour or so if you don’t believe this. It’s the Sesame Street curse on the human race. We’re in danger of wiping metaphor, allegory, parable and poetic appreciation out of our cultures in just a few generations.
               And no collection of artefacts will ever make up for that unless accompanied by the storyteller who’s not afraid to turn off the TV and gather the children ‘round.
               Don’t worry if the last washboard is lost; worry that the story and the storyteller may be slip slidin’ away, gagged with the duct tape of mediocrity and material relevance.
               Have a happy day: tell your grandchild a story.


  1. Cranky or not, I think you have a point about the story telling. Maybe that was a part of everyday family life, before television and other electronic distractions, around the hearth, or quilting frame, or vegetable garden, or ... Where are the opportunities today to listen to our elders' stories?

  2. I think your point today is more important than those on previous days, important as they are. I have to chew on this a bit. Later