Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Black Tulips, A Golden Age, and Me (part II)

This year—my third visit to the Netherlands—the most striking perception I came away with that in Holland there was, at one time, a legitimate Golden Age. Once upon a time, Holland ruled the high seas, if not the world. Its ports were the greatest, its revenues sky-high, its level of cultural character—its art and music and literature—as accomplished as anywhere in the world.
I’ve always used “the golden age” as if it were a myth. When old folks wax nostalgic about “the old days,” I’ll gently remind them that there is no such thing as a golden age, that every age has its horrors, that once upon a time people had to clean out a barn with a pitchfork.

But there was a golden age in Holland. Honestly. The Rijkmuseum's jewel is Nightwatch, this dark, sprawling Rembrandt that attracts fully as many tourists as the Mall of America. Think Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Visit Het Loo sometime, the summer palace of the Holland's royalty. Visit any of its castles. There was a time in Holland's past when its national accomplishments were extraordinary. And the proof is there--it's still there, preserved in its museums, its cathedrals, its concert halls. You can hear it in the teeming power of its magnificent pipe organs.

And I wonder, having been there again, how much that past has to do with the way the Dutch live their lives, day to day--if, in fact, Holland’s Golden Age and its reality hasn’t nurtured a character that is, somehow, happy and even satisfied with a magnificent black tulip or a couple of glasses of wine. When compared to Americans, it just seems to me that the Dutch do much, much more with far, far less—and, they’re happier for it.

Here’s my question: how has having its own real golden age affected the national character?--that's what I'm thinking about. Having been there again, I wish I had a part of it myself. Honestly.

One of the most interesting aspects of Native American life and culture that I have encountered is the prevalent notion among Native people of many tribes, a notion that is simply not in my own psyche, is the proud sense of accomplishment and strength Native people take from their having survived. Not long ago, a six-part PBS documentary titled itself "We Shall Remain." Native people take great solace from still being here, but I don't know any white folks who would trumpet that commitment as if it were--simple survival as a measure of pride. Only an oppressed people, a suffering people would sing out that line like a mantra, an attitude that has grown from their story, the story of a people.

And what I'm saying is that the Dutch mantra--whatever it is--is also formed by its story, a story that includes, like few other nationalities, a real verifiable golden age.

We visited, one day, the Castle Muiderslot, where the story told by the guide and by the paintings all over the walls was one of opulence and royalty, really. But I couldn't help wonder where my own Dutch ancestors were in the 13th century, what they were doing when the nobles were lavishly entertaining their counterparts from all over Europe. They were baking the sweetmeats, maybe. They were tending the yard, weeding the potatoes. Even more likely, they were probably scrambling to stay alive.

I've always believed that my people were more aking to Van Gogh's Potato Eaters, a painting from a whole different era picturing folk who are messy, roughhewn, and rural, the bottom rung of Dutch society. In almost every national circumstance, the poorest of the poor, the most disenfranchised, are those who dream of America--the poor and tired, yearning to be free.

Maybe I’m just crazy, but I’m thinking that maybe I don't have that classy Dutch character because my own people, even though they were Dutch, never did. They were peons and pawns with decidedly weird religious ways.

The very first real Dutchman I ever met was registering to camp at a state park where I was employed just after my senior year of high school. When he signed the register, he listed his address as some strangely spelled place in the Netherlands. I flashed him my name tag--"Schaap," I said. "I'm Dutch. There are lots of people who are Dutch right around here."

He sort of sneered. "You're the kind who can't ride bikes on Sunday," he told me. "We got rid of all of those."

He was right about our not riding bikes. Maybe he was right about getting rid of us too.

I loved visiting Holland again this year, but this time around, for some reason, I wondered why I didn't have something I saw--and had seen before--in spades: a kind of cultural elegance. Never before did I think about the reality of a country and a culture that actually experienced a golden age. Never before did I consider the legacy of that reality on a national psyche. But never before did I feel like someone who didn't have it at all.

I am a Dutch-American. I suppose that's the best I can say.

And I'll take it. And maybe a good glass of wine.


D Roamer said...

A wonderful read this morning. Thanks. Always admired the Dutch, making a lot of very little, comes to my mind right now, but there is more. A bumper sticker I remember,"If It Ain't Dutch, It Ain't Much."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Wikipedia has interesting posts on the Dutch Golden Age as well as Ethnocentrism, Enculturation and Acculturation. Anthropology has offered interesting concepts about human motivations and cultures.

Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering if America ever had a GOLDEN AGE????? I guess maybe after WWII and into the 50's- 60's. Long gone now, don't you think?

Dutchoven said...

Actually the US had a golden age, unlike European countries- Netherlands and such, it wasn't measured in gold...but in people. In fact we experienced this four different times- 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Weather it was indentured servants, Irish famine refugees, Dutch religious refugees, or Latin "fence hurdlers," each has brought a richness to our cultural mix, a uniqueness that makes gold pale by comparison! Our golden age is measured by the character of those who fought to become citizens- something that may have been lost by those of us who come by it naturally. Yes, our native Americans have suffered greatly-that is very unfortunate, but they to have added to our mosaic richness that continues to define us today- just like those of African descent who suffered as slaves and gave us "Roots" to be proud about.

Too romantic for you? Sure there are skeptics, and nay-Sayers; but just ask one of those new citizens what the measure of their joy really is...and they will perhaps give you the same answer echoing those who came here from Holland so many years ago- hope, new beginning...freedom. Now there is something you can “take to the bank!”

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, the Bank of America is now here, on Navajo land, bringing "hope, new beginning--- freedom".

Anonymous said...

Hold up, Dutchoven. Keep in mind that the White Man had to GET the land before he could promise it to Europeans looking for freedom. According to Noam Chomsky, the price of that offer to Europe's dispossessed was the lives of 80,000,000 aboriginals--65,000,000 in what is now the U.S. and 15,000,000 south of the Rio Grand.