Sentimentality is my chief affliction.
I am trying to remedy that.
I have no interest in hardening my heart, although there are plenty of days I believe life would be easier were my cardiac componentry clad in cast iron. Rather, I am trying to find a way to honor the past without drowning in it. Or fashioning it into something it never was. Or sitting bogged in it as the present whooshes over me.
This all sounds self-dramatic, which is why I am prone to sentimentality in the first place. It is by dictionary definition excessive. It is also the perfect form of excess for introverts. The drama trends toward misty-eyed quietude, and yearning, and staring out windows.
My childhood was a roughneck idyll. Raised by parents who loved me, I never went to bed hungry. I spent my days exploring the surrounding woods, reading books on a screen porch filled with birdsong, and doing just enough farm chores to respect physical labor.
I knew early I wasn’t cut out to be a farmer, but I loved that farm. You could stand me on any acre and I’d have a story. I came to feel the land, the arrangement of the buildings, even the sound of the place as an integral part of me.
Well into my thirties I stewed over how I might keep it in the family should no other member be interested or able. I stood in the echoey stairwell I used to climb in my Winnie the Pooh pajamas and couldn’t imagine displacing this family history with another family’s history.
At some point things began to change. The land surrounding our farm was reconfigured. Small meadows became big fields. Woodlots were replaced by irrigation circles. One day I drove home and just after crossing the Beaver Creek culverts I realized I could see clear across all the open country to the family back forty, which had always been cozily hidden behind tree lines.
Somewhere in that moment, something loosened. I wasn’t happy about what I saw, but I also realized I had been freed from the imaginary (and self-aggrandizing) responsibility of preservation predicated on memory. That my energies were better focused elsewhere.
Last Sunday I walked the home place with my parents. Change — both on the farm and surrounding properties — has continued apace. There are also many tangible ties to the past still in evidence.
The low shed I remember playing in as a child, when it still held the plumbing supplies of the previous owner.
The old pole barn that was the new pole barn when the crew put it up during a stretch of weather so hot dad loaded everyone up for a rare afternoon trip to the local swimming hole.
The red barn.
Driving away from the farm afterward I was pleased to find the pleasure of those memories outweighed any desire to preserve the place they sprang from. I was happy to revisit them but no longer compelled to physically enshrine them. Slowly my sentimentality has been leavened with sensibility.
Down here on our place we just had a logger clear-cut a 20-acre patch of woods, and I was dreading the sound of his saw. But he’s finished now, and last night I stepped out on the crest of the hill and saw not a gaping hole but a whole new vista.
The memories are set, the future awaits.
An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio”(tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.