A Meditation on Change

In his review of Melissa Hobrook Pierson’s The Place You Love is Gone (Progress Took It Away) (a book given to such observations as, “Change is a violation of personal laws,” and “‘Progress’ is just another word for larceny”), Anthony Swofford observes of Pierson that “change, again,” is “this author’s silent enemy.” Change is, of course, the only reality we’ll ever know, so to declare it your enemy, implicitly or explicitly, is to invite a lifetime of unrelenting suffering. Pierson is right to be suspicious of attempts to portray change positively as “progress,” but she falls into the opposite version of that error when she portrays it negatively as “a violation of personal laws” or “larceny.” Change merely is. To speak of it in normative terms is to be mistaken.

Elsewhere in this week’s New York Times Book Review, Bella Bathurst decribes another front in the delusional war on change, as found in Belinda Rathbone’s The Guynd: A Scottish Journal:

“The disposal of trash is as abhorrent a concept to John as the keeping of trash is to some of us,” Rathbone writes of her husband. “He takes pity on everything. For John is interested in how everything is made and, once it is made, it seems criminal to dispose of it in so callous a way as most of us do. Most of all, he believes that for everything he gives up he should get something in return. Was this Scottish, I wondered, or was it just John?”

John abhorred wastefulness and could find a second use for almost everything, but his determination to preserve meant he believed that nothing should be discarded–so nothing should be altered.

I suppose that, looked at from the proper perspective, this could all be seen as comic, but I’m neither that enlightened nor that capable of irony.

2 Replies to “A Meditation on Change”

  1. I did not read the book, I’m going only on what you’ve excerpted. I think she is reaching out to readers who might be threatened by change, to try gently to get them to see their own irrationality.

  2. I haven’t read Pierson’s book either, only Swofford’s review. But based on that (and the title of the book), I don’t think Pierson’s up to anything so subtle or ironic. Granted, I don’t think she set out to write a screed denouncing change, but she does seem to have some serious problems with the notion, especially when it’s sold as “progress”:

    We receive the shorthand history of Akron in vignettes that explain the making of the city and its growth via a shipping channel and then the rubber industry, and tires, which will attach to more and more cars and really begin to do us in. “So who to blame for the elevation of the Destroyer Car – the first enemy that comes to hand for anyone of age in this age–to godhead . . . our whole damn history moving, moving like a stream that can’t be stopped?” she writes. And: ” ‘Progress’ is just another word for larceny.” Change, again, this author’s silent enemy. One irreversible change: people die. “Since an accounting of home is an inventory of loss, start listing. Begin arbitrarily, say with your grandmother’s house, a place of deep and gorgeous mystery.” One is struck with the sensation that Pierson is angry because cities, like those people you love and who love you, change without your permission; they progress toward death. The rapid expansion of the big American city, the degrading loss of a downtown life in most of America is like the death of the grandparents, those deep and gorgeous people. The city loved you, and then the city was gone.

    Elsewhere Swofford writes:

    She begins near her beginning, at Garner’s, an Akron hamburger drive-in: “A certain pleasantly anxious question (“Will you . . .”) was posed and breathless answer received. Since that conversation took place between two people who are responsible for making me, as far as I am concerned Garner’s is where the world began.” Yes, a hamburger joint in Akron is where the world began, and Pierson spends the first section of her book convincing us this is so. But that place is gone. Today the babies of Akron are born in a city that looks like many others in America.

    While I’m sympathetic to her sense of loss, and Swofford suggests that she offers a very insightful critique of what’s been done in the name of progress, I think that attaching yourself to the world as you first found it and viewing any change from that arbitrarily chosen state as a loss is to set yourself up for enormous suffering. It’s not necessarily wrong or inaccurate, but it is ineffective.

    The aversion to change described in that review, coupled with the similar aversion described in the review of Rathbone’s book, just struck me. They are the Buudha’s Second Noble Truth in practice.

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