“Is this the Dutch Village?” My friend Liz asked this of a New York City police officer who happened to be standing in front of a replica of a big Dutch windmill, its blades slowly turning against a bruised-looking sky.
“This is New Amsterdam,” said the cop. His deadpan tone suggested that this should be obvious to us, given the fake windmill and the location, which was Bowling Green, the city’s oldest park, on the southern tip of Manhattan. We were standing on the site where, in 1626, Peter Minuit, the Dutch colonial governor, “bought” the island of Manhattan from the Lenape, the Indigenous Americans who lived here.
“Your ancestors really liked to shop,” said my friend Liz.
“That’s the stereotype about the Dutch colonists, that they were all about commerce,” I said. “But my ancestors were terrible at it. They left this place, thinking it wouldn’t be worth anything.”
The policeman seemed as underwhelmed by the scene that faced us as we were. An article in the New York Times described it as a colonial village with “12 traditional houses, a windmill and a greenhouse.” This “village” turned out to be a row of little kiosks with Ye Olde Dutch facades selling French fries, herring burgers, stroopwafel, little wooden shoes, and gouda cheese. There was indeed a greenhouse selling tulips and demonstrating flower arranging, and all the selling and demonstrating was being done by smiling people from the Netherlands. But still.
I had known that it would be hokey. And yet I had pictured being able to step into damp little wooden cottages, replicas, certainly, but still proportioned in a way that would allow me to imagine what life was like for the first Dutch colonial settlers on the island of Manhattan. Among them, some of my ancestors. I stood looking around. A light mist shrouded the kiosks on the green and the towers of the financial district that rose up all around us. The whole scene, including my naive assumptions, was very sad. I thought my ancestors were right to leave.
The event was sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Trade to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage on the Half Moon (Halve Maen) into New York Harbor and up the river that came to be named for him. The Lenape, of course, had already named it. They called it Muhheakantuck, or “the river that flows two ways” or “waters that are never still.” I came down here because there was a question bubbling in me that could not be quelled.
Months before, during my father’s last trip to visit me, my sister and I drove him to Hyde Park, the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the site of his Presidential Library. The President was buried in the rose garden. My father was a child of the Great Depression and a veteran of World War II, and we thought he would find this historical site moving, and he did. But something unexpected happened.
It was a humid summer day, and my father, who was living with advanced COPD and emphysema, couldn’t take the walking tour. Instead, he rode along in a golf cart driven by a park ranger as the tour proceeded, and I rode with him. We came to stop at a point on the grounds that had a sweeping view of fields sloping down to the Hudson River. The park ranger hopped out of the cart and gestured around, inviting us to consider the long history and lush prosperity of the Roosevelt family. They weren’t rich like their neighbors the Vanderbilts, the ranger explained. But there was plenty of inherited wealth.
The earliest Roosevelt American ancestor was a Dutch farmer who owned a fifty-acre farm in New Amsterdam, in what is now Midtown Manhattan, around 1649. As the wealth of New York grew, so did the Roosevelt family wealth. They traded in dry goods, sugar, and real estate. The ranger flashed a broad smile. It was easy to become rich in America, if you came that early.
If you didn’t come in chains, I thought.
“Isn’t that about when our Dutch ancestors came?” asked my father.
“Boy, it takes a special talent to come here as early as they did and stay as poor as they did.”
My father beamed at me and roared with laughter. I thought it was funny, too. And I also took comfort in the fact. My ancestors stayed poor, which meant that there were things they didn’t do, didn’t it? Didn’t trading in sugar mean having some connection to slavery? Wouldn’t dealing in real estate mean pushing Indigenous Americans off their land?
My ancestors decided their little farms wouldn’t be worth much, moving up the Hudson Valley, and farther north, becoming part of a group that family lore called “Mohawk Dutch,” ultimately establishing rocky little farms on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. It’s as if my ancestors couldn’t get far enough away from success as it was measured in the mercantile terms of the Dutch colonists.
But did that make them good, or just not savvy? To be bad at a cruel system, to have no knack for accumulating property and wealth, this didn’t make them wise. But it was something I took comfort in. Early accounts of Jesuit missionaries describe the shock and contempt Indigenous intellectuals expressed at the deceit and competitiveness of the early settlers. Benjamin Franklin and others recount the unwillingness of those taken captive by Indian tribes to return to a system based entirely on material gain and toil, utterly lacking in dignity and freedom, especially for women.
But even if my ancestors couldn’t thrive in such a system–even though they were repelled by slavery–did this mean they were compassionate and wise? Some friends of mine can find refuge in their ancestors, taking strength and inspiration in their capacity to survive. But my ancestors? They amassed no wealth at the expense of others, committed no atrocities. But this didn’t mean they couldn’t still have been selfish or miserly, part of a culture that prized rugged individuality over care for the whole community. They knew how to farm the land and make things with their hands, and some of them knew how to navigate and sail. But they were nonetheless part of this system that sought to colonize and extract what they could for as little as they could.
The Bowling Green field where Peter Minuit met the Lenape was once their council ground, a place for group meetings and public debate. Accumulating evidence in many fields (recounted in books including David Graeber and David Wengrow’s recent The Dawn of Everything) supports the view that the Indigenous Americans would have scoffed at the notion that anyone could “own” land. This was not because they were primordial woodland folk, innocent of the ways of European civilization, but because they had reasoned it through. Greed, including the form called miserliness, led to a loss of freedom and personal autonomy and dignity.
Certainly, the Indigenous inhabitants of this land had their own blind spots and conflicts and mistaken beliefs, but standing there on the green, the financial district rising up around us, it was easy to imagine the Lenape being repelled by the grasping and deceptiveness of Peter Minuit, buying Manhattan island for sixty guilders worth of trade, which amounts to about $1,193 in 2020 U.S. dollars. He probably thought he was getting a steal.
I couldn’t sleep the night after my friend and I visited the Dutch colonial village. I kept thinking about how imbalanced and driven the white colonists must have seemed to the Indigenous Americans. In his memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung describes an encounter with an elder named Mountain Lake in the Taos Pueblo in 1925.
“Ochwiay Biano said, ‘See how cruel the whites look. Their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something…We do not know what they want…We think they are mad.’”
“I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad.
“‘They say that they think with their heads,’” he replied.
“Why of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.
“‘We think here,’ he said, indicating his heart.”
Our most precious inheritance is our humanity, I realized. But it is not just passively received. It is acquired as we learn to turn towards ourselves with curiosity and compassion, seeing what has been unconscious or rejected. Being fully human depends on discovering inside ourselves a state of awareness that is greater than our conditioning and inherited beliefs and reactive functioning.
Every year in Japan, the ancestors are remembered, and hungry ghosts are fed, in a ritual called Obon. I once experienced a Western Soto Zen version of this practice, including among the hungry ghosts all those beings that society rejects and those parts of ourselves that we abandon or try to hide. All beings are heirs to their karma, taught the Buddha. We cannot escape our individual or collective past deeds.
But we can change the past. The root meaning of heal in English means to make whole. Healing the past means being willing to see without looking away. We are more than what happens to us, and more than what we have done out of ignorance or fear or grasping. We are also capable of compassionate awareness and wise understanding.
Recently, as I was visiting my daughter, who lives in Europe,
Russia invaded Ukraine. Invasion of another land for gain is not a relic of the past. What Buddhism calls the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion are still alive and causing immense suffering, now televised and live-streamed. A week after the Russian military invasion, my daughter and I went to see Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, which many consider to be the greatest work of anti-war protest ever created. A twenty-five-foot-long mural painted in thirty-five days in Paris, it is a masterpiece of compassionate awareness.
It was a cool evening in Madrid, and we waited in line outside the Museo Reina Sofia for a good while. My daughter fretted a little about the wait for my sake, and this touched me because it reminded me of being young and fretting over my mother during her first visit to me, newly grown up and worldly wise, and wishing to care for her as she once cared for me. Looking out over the courtyard, it dawned on me that Alex and I, and everyone, also stood in a line of mothers and children stretching back and back to our earliest ancestors.
Picasso understood this lineage of caring, pushed into the background by history, by the deeds and misdeeds of men. Guernica is full of images of animal innocence and human goodness destroyed by an unspeakable act of violence. Picasso painted the mural after hearing about the 1937 bombing of Guernica, an ancient Basque town in northern Spain. He used a kind of house paint, specially formulated to have no gloss, and in only black, white, and gray, echoing newspaper photographs.
The Museo Reina Sofia once housed the first public hospital in Spain. Walking through the halls to the gallery where Guernica is exhibited, it is easy to imagine the sick and wounded on stretchers, their cries echoing through the halls. But Guernica brings a kind of stillness. It changes the atmosphere of the gallery where it is exhibited. Pay attention, it commands. This really happened. Stop and see. Stop and feel. Glimpsing this great work reminded me that to be fully human we must be willing to see and to feel.
Gray and black and white, featuring among other images a gored horse and bull, a dead soldier, and women screaming, including one holding her dead baby, flames. The mural feels like one gesture, one unified action of compassionate witness and artistic realization. Picasso captures the horror of war. The root definition of compassion is to “suffer with,” and Picasso’s feeling for suffering inflicted on the Basque town of Guernica is unmistakable. And yet, just as apparent is his clarity, confidence, and consummate skill.
We stood in front of the artwork for a long time. I am not an art historian or a student of Picasso, nor is Alex, who often filled in historical context when we traveled together. But I felt very directly that the mural’s power to hold the attention came from being a work of heart and body and mind. Awakening means awakening to our full humanity, our full capacity for being present. It means bearing witness to life, using all of our capacities. And it means sharing what we experience.
The bombing of Guernica was conducted by the Nazi air force with the approval of the Italian Fascists and at the request of Spanish Nationalists. It lasted for three hours. The Nazis called the mission “tactical,” disrupting a trade route used by the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. But most of the world branded it an act of terror. Most of the men of Guernica were off fighting. The inhabitants of the town, as Picasso knew and immortalized, were mostly women and children and animals.
The monumental work toured the world, raising attention and funds for the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, Picasso loaned the work to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for safekeeping. Picasso himself lived in Paris during the German occupation of World War II. A German officer once visited Picasso’s apartment and saw a photograph of Guernica.
“Did you do that?” asked the officer.
“No, you did,” said Picasso.
The artist decided that his masterpiece should stay in New York, until democracy in Spain was fully established. In the summer of 1981, just months before it was returned to Spain, my mother and I saw Guernica, at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. I had just moved into my first apartment, and she came to stay with me. I was thrilled at her visit, as I was determined to take good care of her. I wanted her to experience beautiful big city things. But the impact of Guernica on both of us was beyond all my earnest hopes and imaginings. It brought us both to silence. Afterwards, we had lunch in the museum dining room. I remember how summer light washed the room. There were irises on the tables. But we were still quiet. “War is terrible,” my mother said at last. It wasn’t the kind of thing she was given to saying.
In the Museo Reina Sofia, Alex peeled me away from Guernica. We found we were too full of it to look at anything else.
“I feel a little guilty,” said Alex.
“Don’t,” I said.
“I don’t feel like looking at the Guernica t-shirts in the gift shop, do you?”
“No. I don’t think the t-shirt version would do the experience justice.”
I felt that I had just glimpsed what “doing justice” can mean. It means bearing witness, and expressing this witness. You didn’t have to “like” Picasso to feel the depth of his protest against those who sought to take life and freedom from people.
“How could anyone think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death?” he proclaimed, revealing through his work the real inner freedom, living a life that is not mostly reactive, that calls us to be as awake as we can be, head, hands, and heart.
We emerged from the museum to find the museum square full of people and heavenly sounds. Blue-and-yellow banners and Ukrainian flags waved slowly in the night air and a chorus sang Mozart and Verdi for peace. The crowd joined in, holding up their phones like candles. meeting war with prayerful beauty.
“This will be our reply to violence,” wrote American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. “To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
So much pain and suffering, I thought, watching and listening. But also so much creativity and courage and compassion, seeking to meet that suffering. There is reason to hope.
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic,” wrote historian Howard Zinn, who chronicled the horrors of colonization in many works, including The Peoples’ History of the United States. “It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
After the exhibit, Alex led me to a little noodle restaurant on a side street, near our hotel. It was cool and a light rain started to fall, and bowls of noodle soup seemed just the thing. I looked at her across the table, my descendent, sharing the awareness that this was a small good thing to be doing, to be together and having soup in a world full of suffering and the struggle to overcome suffering. Small, but a good start. ◆
This essay appears in Parabola’s Summer 2022 issue, “Ancestors”, which is available to purchase on our online store.