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Memory, Place, Being
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Memory, Place, Being Joseph Wilder with Elizabeth Honor Wilder I live in a city that is forgetting itself, forgetting itself even as it constantly remakes itself into new impermanent shapes. A city driven by change, but not renewal, which might suggest an idea, a civic principle seeking expression. A city ordered, if at all, only by its changing, by its ever-expanding rivers of traffic coursing ever-widening channels. As it forgets itself, I lose myself. We are relational beings, our ontology predicated on our ties to each other and to the places we inhabit. Behold I recall as a boy accompanying my mother as we went to Old Pascua, Tucson’s original Yaqui Village, at Easter-time. Across the great dirt plaza, late at night, out of the darkness, I could see the yellow-white light from a bare bulb hanging in a ramada, as we made our way quietly toward the small bunch of people gathered, the silence only interrupted by the irregular drum beat coming out of the darkness like an echo, the beat hanging in the air. And then the flute. Working our way to the front, I would behold the pascolas and musicians and the central figure, motionless, ready, standing in the center. My mother bends down and whispers in my ear: “Look, Joe, the deer dancer.” A Yaqui pahko is a ceremonial event celebrating and expressing religious meaning. It is especially associated with deer songs and the deer dancer. To me attending, observing, or just being in the vicinity and hearing a pahko underway captures the quintessential feeling of our desert Southwest. For me it is one of those apertures through which I am tied to place and tied to the layers of my own being experienced over time. A seeming lifetime after my childhood, I remember a night in Joseph Wilder is director of the Southwest Center and editor of Journal of the Southwest. Elizabeth Honor Wilder is a sophomore at Reed College. This essay was presented to the Tucson Literary Club, December 17, 2007. Journal of the Southwest 50, 4 (Winter 2008) : 471–476 472  ✜  Journal of the Southwest Potam when I was the guest of Felipe Molina and his Sonoran compadre. I was sleeping in a daub-and-wattle structure in the family compound. I had gone to sleep hearing, in the distance, a pahko underway, the sound of flute and drum. In the middle of the night I awoke and heard that solitary drum beat—a resonating “bong” that carried through the black Potam night—followed by an interval of silence before a brief trill of flute. Lying there I felt at once the exoticism the sounds conveyed to me, as well as the deep comfort of the familiar, the remembrance of the many deer dances I had seen, from childhood on. I drifted back to sleep easily; Yaquis—the Yoeme—were doing a pahko, and an almost chiropractic adjustment was being made in our corner of the world. Cities of memory I live in a city increasingly defined, for me, by its absences. In one of his “City Life” essays for the New York Times earlier this year, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote that we carry with us “footprints of vanished places,” leaving us in our daily navigation “the strange sense of knowing our way around a world that can no longer be found.” Klinkenborg’s expression locates exactly a peculiarly American alienation—or perhaps as well the estrangement experienced by victims of total war or natural devastation: the routine loss of particular place imbued with memory and meaning and, thereby, being. I cherish the places I may walk that my father walked and that I walk with my son and daughter, three generations absolutely joined in place and time and memory. Linkages broken casually, brutally, thoughtlessly, and usually needlessly. Sometimes, almost as a miracle, the chain of being survives intact. In her 1935 diary, my mother wrote of my parents’ first home together on Main Street: “We would walk past our own open window , and by a light from one of the back rooms we could see outlines of our things. From the sidewalk as we strolled past our own...