Remembering who we are
A heated conversation is growing about the building of more and larger hotels within the city of Sonoma, a conversation that we’ve had before. The greater discussion has to do with the need to maintain our local identity in a world that is rapidly undergoing significant transformation. It’s a discussion among people whose family roots were driven deeply into the landscape over the decades, and among those who have more recently fallen in love with this wonderful place, and so have come to live here, to enjoy and improve upon it.
Sonoma – the town, the valley, the entire county – is a warm, relaxed, hospitable place. We are proud of our climate, our landscapes, of what we grow and how we live, and most of all, of our heritage. As industrious and productive as we have been, a reliably natural, bountiful land has always supported the constant change. We welcome the visitors and are proud to host their stays; and we are pleased they recognize our home as a good place to live, so we help them settle in. We are a generous people here.
My grandfather’s grandfather would recognize the landscape through which he rode 150 years ago – although he would be confused by what we have built since then. When he arrived from the goldfields in 1850 there were very few people in the area. Now the towns have become cities, and the paths he followed are highways. And still the people come. We can’t escape the fact that the very qualities of the “good life lived well” that attract people to our valley are increasingly risked by their very arrival. Our quiet country roads are gathering more and more cars and bicycles, from farther and farther away.
The paradox of this situation is brought into focus by the two groups that have formed during the current conversation about hotels. One calls itself Preserving Sonoma, in reference to our remarkable heritage; the other is called Protect Sonoma: Sonomans for a Sustainable Future. The two seem to be stubbornly opposed.
Such paradoxes, however, need not perpetuate a conflict but – as with Zen koans – can introduce an abruptly new perspective. As I’ve pointed out before, my two eyes may have different views of the world, but together they will see something neither can see alone: depth. To discover this deeper, more fundamental vision, and to understand how to remain the healthy place that we have been, we must gain depth and grow – rather than simply change.
To change is to completely stop being one particular way, in order to become something quite different – rather haphazardly. Growing, on the other hand, does not reject what or where we have been; instead it adds to the wisdom of our experience in order to become something more, rather than something simply new – in this way embracing all of who and what we are and can become. How well we respond to and incorporate these new experiences is what we need to think about, not whether we should allow new experiences at all.
Becoming nostalgic runs the danger of objectifying what could otherwise be inspiring past events into souvenirs that become caricatures of who we once were, thus losing a greater perspective. This is a regressive sentimentality, the sort that establishes a fictitious past so that we can indulge a comfortable present.
It’s time to begin talking about what should be preserved and what must be let go of, in this constantly fluid world. Letting things go, in this sense, means allowing things to move – rather than requiring them to stand still as static monuments to an increasingly distant past. With the right attitude the past will certainly add to a graceful shaping of the future – especially if we are willing to embrace without prejudice what works well here and now.
We need to consider how we want to identify ourselves. Do we want to preserve our appearance, or our vitality? Would we really want to return to looking the way we did as adolescents, or would we rather keep the hopes and ambitions of our youth? Should time be stopped, resisting the natural progression of the seasons of life, or should we allow our explorations and discoveries to be guided by our curiosity and dreams?
Who we are, after all, is not a group of unrelated events and characteristics, but rather the accumulation of an increasingly mature, seasoned nature, like pearls on the thread of memory. The function of memory (and the responsibility of our historians) is to supply continuity to what would otherwise be a discontinuous and random collection, remembering – rather than dismembering – who it is we are and where we live. This makes possible the telling and continued living of a gathering story of this good place, and these good people.
Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org