Saturday, October 1, 2011
October 1-2, 2011: American Wedding
My sister is getting married this weekend, an occasion which makes me feel a variety of things; but, I must confess, chief among them is old. When you’re five years older than a sibling, I guess it’s just always hard not to think of that person as young; even when she has graduated from college with honors and worked in the publishing world and then gone to law school and now works at a prestigious Manhattan firm and makes frequent business trips to Switzerland and etc., she’ll always partly still be the 2 year-old with whom you played My Little Pony back in the day, y’know? But of course time marches on whether we care to admit it or not, and the reality is that she’s an amazing woman and is marrying a great guy and I’m proud and happy and excited to be part of it and lots of other good things too.
But for this blog, I wanted to highlight a couple of ways in which this wedding definitely captures some of that historically complex and cross-cultural American spirit for different aspects of which I’ve spent so much time over the last couple years (and so many posts here) arguing. For one thing, there’s my own small but hopefully enjoyable contribution to the occasion: I’ll be reading a poem that my sister and her fiancé chose, John O’Donahue’s “Beannacht (Blessing).” O’Donahue, who passed away in 2008, was a Celtic philosopher as well as a poet, a writer who tried very explicitly to merge ancient traditions with contemporary ideas, and represents for that reason alone an exemplary voice and perspective for Americans as well. But O’Donahue’s poem, which he wrote in tribute to his very traditional mother, has become indeed a blessing for many American audiences; that connection led to an NPR story on him and the poem which included him reading it aloud (link below), a story and reading that my sister and her fiancé heard on their car radio. A traditional Celtic voice and blessing meeting 21st century technology, and subsequently crossing the sea to join an American wedding—sounds right to me.
And then there’s the wedding’s location. It’ll be held specifically at a farm in Chilmark, up-island on Martha’s Vineyard; a beautiful spot, but I’m thinking here a bit more broadly, about the Vineyard’s multi-century American history (as traced most fully by my grandfather Art Railton). Just up the road from the wedding site is Aquinnah, home to the Vineyard’s remaining and in many ways reenergized Wampanoag tribal members (some of whom are likely descended from the first Native Americans to attend and graduate from Harvard, in the mid-17th century); just down the road is Menemsha, the fishing village where both the declining fortunes and yet persevering efforts of the island’s commercial fishermen are most overtly found. The farm itself is on the cusp of a couple different histories, connecting both to the Island’s roots in local agriculture (the summer West Tisbury agricultural fair up-island remains as vibrant as ever) and to its evolving and deepening status as a tourist resort (where farms are wedding sites as much as producers). As isolated and individual as it is, the whole of the Vineyard is really also representative of an America where commerce and production seem to be declining in favor of tourism and service—but where at the same time ethnic communities that have long been marginalized and ignored are finding strengthened and revitalized voices and identities. The pains and promise of the early 21st century in America are all there among the beautiful beaches and historic homes.
I’m not such an AmericanStudier that I’ll be thinking of all of this on Saturday—mostly I’ll be making sure I read the poem successfully, helping to keep my boys from destroying the cake, and sending good wishes to the newlyweds. But it’s nice to think about all of the ways in which this family occasion connects us, as so many things to, to the larger narratives of American identity and culture with which we’re surrounded. More next week,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The audio of O’Donahue reading his poem (his Irish accent is much cuter than mine): http://being.publicradio.org/programs/john_odonahue/ss_beannacht/ss-beannacht.shtml
2) A story on Caleb’s Crossing, a novel by Vineyarder Geraldine Brooks about one of those first Harvard Native American graduates: http://www.pri.org/stories/arts-entertainment/books/caleb-s-crossing-the-story-of-harvard-s-first-native-american-graduate3980.html
3) OPEN: Any AmericanStudies links in your big life occasions and moments?