I finished the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War as the sun came up today, or, well, yesterday I suppose. I’ve joked that I fall asleep each morning (I can’t sleep at night) with the narrative of Mary Chesnut in my head, but truthfully she’s been with me all day and all night and as I lie here and try to make sense of a night in my life I’d like to forget. The impulse to write it down seems like the only antidote. I do believe I often tell myself things I didn’t know I knew simply by writing, and that’s what I’m hoping for tonight.
Mary Chesnut kept a diary of the Civil War–those 4 horrible years in our history when 620,000 of our countrymen killed each other, spilled each other’s blood on this very land. I think I got that number right; I’ve been watching this 9-part series for days. Mary was a southerner. She fought on the opposing side of what I imagine I would have if only by birthright. My family has always been from New York; they came through Ellis Island (except for that one wild uncle or something from Montana that no one seems to be sure about….but that was only, like, a territory then, right? so that doesn’t…oh, shut up!) I can say today without question that I would be on the side of the north, the Union, and that I would have fought fervently for the abolition of slavery. But then again I didn’t live in the context of the nineteenth century. If I grew up the daughter of a plantation owner in South Carolina in the 1850s I can’t say for certain how I would have felt about the war. This horrifies me. Yes, I never experienced that era. A while back it may be, but it makes me think of the sides we take in an argument without stopping to think how the context affects our perception. Some things do often seem like a given, like an innate characteristic we have no control over. It could be the political leanings of legendary families like the Kennedys or something as trivial as rooting for the Giants over the Jets because I grew up watching football with my dad and thought that was just the right thing to do.
Anyway, if it weren’t for the accent of the voice that reads Mary’s diary aloud in the Burns documentary, I’m not sure I could ascertain if she was on the side of the Confederacy or the Union. Most of the fighting was on southern soil, though, so I guess one would assume. The point is, she never seems to declare allegiance to one side even though when I Googled her, I learned her husband was very much tied to the Confederacy and often she was along with him, experiencing the brutality first hand. An entire generation of American boys and men killing each other off. Mary’s concerns are more heart felt than political; they are more humane that her biography would suggest her diary would be in the sense that she felt a great loss was occurring regardless of which side exactly was losing the fight. At times it looked like the south would win until that final year, really, when Sherman marched the Union east through Georgia and up to South Carolina like a wrecking crew and the Confederate numbers dwindled with lack of food and supplies and the horrid spread of disease. (History buffs–was it Sherman? I think so..)
If I’ve learned anything beyond the basic facts of the Civil War it is that “sides” became irrelevant when Lee’s army was forced to surrender. Surely there still exists a great cultural disparity between the north and south today that lingers from this bygone era, but I think it might be more apt to say it’s kind of like two different personalities more than two distinct cultures since together they are what form American culture at large. I think this is kind of how it works within families, too. More specifically, between siblings–for me, specifically between sisters. Of course you are always on the same side–that is innate, right? But God knows we sometimes want to fight our brothers or sisters. We don’t get them; they don’t get us. Our personalities clash even though in the grander scheme of things, we’d kill for each other.
Here’s the secret (I figured it out): We can fight our siblings all we want, but no one will ever win because we are not playing by the same rules. We’ve grown up together, true, and our greater moral standards and values may be on par, but our personal values and perspectives aren’t even on the same playing field. It’s like we’re speaking two different languages; it is a bunch of chatter that ends up meaning nothing because we simply will never be able to decipher what the other is saying; there’s no translating these parts of us.
I can think I’m right all I want. I can feel the conviction in my gut, in my heart, logically sort through it in my God-given brain and still, in context, I might be wrong somehow. This horrifies me, similarly to the thought I had a few minutes ago. How can I know if I’m right? At the end of the day (surely 4:14am counts) I don’t think I know what the rules ever really are and therefore I’m willing to say, maybe I was wrong when I thought I was doing the right thing. Maybe I didn’t consider the larger context. Maybe we’re all selfish in this way, even as we think we’re being self-less, being good people. Sometimes I don’t know which is weaker, the human heart or the narrow minded human brain, but tonight both of these are aching and I feel a horrible sense that my side might not always be right and what I thought justifiable might be as futile an attempt to prove my point as it is when I’m fighting with myself and so as it when I fight with my sister–the ground is never level and the rules are never spelled out. There’s no lines to cross or stay within–these, I see now, are imaginary.
Civil War is an odd and horrific thing. An internal war. A fight within yourself, within a family, between brothers or sisters. We are a such a part of each other and yet we’re so ignorant at times to think we can somehow be separated.
What is right and what is justifiable? Well, just about anything if you’ve got a good lawyer or even just some good rhetoric. I suppose what I’m saying is that when we fight with people we love, people that are so much like us and at the same time somewhere over there, the other, the unconsidered perspective, inevitably we’re fighting ourselves, too. Endeavor to be good we may–I can honestly say I try for this daily–but as humans we will falter. We will find holes in our convictions. We will wish we didn’t listen to some or wish we listened more to others but instead I think we need to listen more to our hearts before we’re so willing to fight with our loved ones. I sound like Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas, now. “Listen with your heart, you will understand.” Maybe there’s something to it. The irony of this song stings me now as a child growing up with my sisters. It is true; I only have one blood sister. But there’s another that’s always in the picture–literally and metaphorically–and she would get this part, she would understand and smile despite herself right now. The three of us are so different, so dynamic, such strong, dominant personalities it’s amazing to me the walls don’t rattle when we stay under the same roof. And I love this about us. But it is also what so often tears us apart. Alas, it’s like we’re in Babylon and as the decibels increase and the blood pressure rises we’re suddenly speaking in different tongues until we’re ready to take to the streets and tear this city down.
Tonight I go to sleep blurry eyed, feeling defeated, and wrong when two hours ago I knew I was right. I fought on my own soil an internal war. Epic as this may be in my own life as the Civil War has been a legacy in our American history, I know I won’t be able to assess the damage until the dust settles and we take a good, hard look at the ruins that remain, if any. Thank God the Union was able to stay in tact. I hope my family, as I know it, will have the same stamina, the guts and glory to admit the war was a waste. And while we remain wounded and heartbroken, maybe a simple gesture will be enough to remind us of our kinship. I hereby lay down my weapons. Will you meet me unarmed on the battlefield and shake my hand?
You, Hun Yes, you.