Some years ago, I became friends with a woman from East Germany. "The country that I was from as a child doesn't exist," she told me, "You just don't know what that is like." Not to belittle the enormity of such an unsettling experience as changing passports and governments, I do know what it feels like, and so do you. The country I'm from doesn't exist any more either. The people who lived there and the buildings from it are gone. The landscape is forever changed.
It is the past and it doesn't exist any more.
The people who lived there are gone, having left inaccurate memories trailing through the minds of those of us left here. We can't speak with them and ask about what it was really like.
I can't speak with my grandmother who came of age as a farm girl wanting to be a flapper. She passed away last year. Also gone is my grandfather who remembered visiting a mutual relative (by marriage) and seeing Lyndon B Johnson and being told that as long as he spoke like a redneck no one would catch on to his political savvy, giving him free rein in Washington. "They never see me coming," said Johnson. Also gone are Jesse, an old Mexican illegal who lived in a boarding house across the street from me when I was a young child in Austin, Texas. He used to play the accordion for me and sing old songs. He didn't have any family and perished some years later when the boarding house burnt down.
I could go on - I have always been the sort of person who likes to listen to the elderly, hearing their stories. There is an African proverb that when an old person dies, it is as if a library has burned down. Having not been in the times they lived through, the past feels mythological, fictional. But there are things that connect the past to the present, ephemera like photos and letters, paintings and sculptures. But to really feel a connection to the past, we need to walk in the places that were created in the past. Old buildings connect us to people from the past, letting us know that they were like us. They opened and closed doors. They sat and looked out windows. They lived lives like ours, full of significance, with days of boredom, love, and frustration.
It is because of this that I am so sad about something I read in a NY Times article about a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in danger of being torn down.
A while ago, I made a Frank Lloyd Wright ketubah and got to know his body of work. When I make a ketubah design inspired by an artist, I study them. I enter their style of composition, learn the tricks of color and light, see how they formed their art. They become familiar to me, my friends from a country that no longer exists. This attachment is not to their lives, messy or staid, but to their process, the way they saw their worlds. The connection I feel is in the holding of a brush or pencil.
When we lose buildings from the past, we lose proof that those who built them and lived there existed. We lose the ability to walk in their footsteps and to learn from them. To do this on purpose is horrifying. It shows such a disregard for human endeavor. It reduces us to living only with ourselves, to learning only what we can learn. It is burning libraries. It is entirely contrary to civilization which is built in accumulated layers of experience. Not everything old is worth keeping, but it is not worth destroying just because it is from the past also.