There are nine Muses, and they are sisters who visit the town periodically; most of them married and moved away, but one of them stays here year round, and she is Clio: the muse of History.
She has a chariot with wings—actually it is a bench on the carousel for the people who are too old or too young to bob up and down—but it is a graceful seat that carries the Mistress of History round and round the merry-go-round of the zodiac, year after year after year.
In her arm she carries a giant and ponderous journal, opened to a page numbered today; and she gazes out on the town taking note of the changes.
Now remember that our town is north of the equator, and in this hemisphere carousels go counter-clockwise.
Naturally this is no little bit disorienting for a lady whose primary objective is keeping track of the flow of time: the clocks go one way, she goes the other. It would be easy to forget whether your last diary entry was from yesterday or tomorrow.
So she is very well practiced at remaining strictly in the moment of now, when it is always today. That’s why she stays so young looking. That’s why she never has to pay a hairdresser.
Her name, Kleio, translates roughly from the original Greek as “To make famous;” and her job description as a Muse requires her to be the “proclaimer, glorifier or celebrator of history, heroes, great deeds, and accomplishments.”
This makes it sound like everything recorded in her journal is rosy news and fond memories. Yet there is murder and mayhem, and there are some really bad episodes in our history; and it is certainly not all “celebrating great deeds.”
Every town has a history, and I’m sure it’s interesting to those whose families make up the cast, but if everybody behaved well for generations: where is the story in that? Who wants to read about well-behaved people? There’s no plot.
Who wants to open the big book and read, “They were all very nice and everybody went to church every week and everything was lovely for ever after.”
That’s hardly enough to make you want to turn the page. It’s only when the peace is disturbed—like an angel who troubles the waters—that the story gets interesting.
There was a prominent congregation in Mansfield in the 1970s where the pastor was famously exposed as an epic scamp. It was a wholly unforgettable story. One day he was up in his pulpit excoriating sinners; and when he condemned the adulterers, a woman stood up in the pews and called out, “Reverend, you are a hypocrite! I have been sleeping with you for nine months!”
Before the shock and awe even had a chance to soak into the audience, another woman leaped up with sparks coming out of her head and she screeched at the first woman, “You’re sleeping with him?!? I have been sleeping with the Reverend for TWO YEARS!”
The sanctuary went into bedlam in an instant eruption before a third, and then a fourth woman sprang to their feet and indignantly pointed fingers at the Reverend and at the other women.
Now that’s the kind of misbehaving that becomes legend. You’d never find it in the pages of Graham’s History of Richland County, but it’s surely inscribed into the Chronicles of Mansfield that Clio keeps for us.
Some people consider it history, and some people just consider it something they’d rather forget and maybe no one will mention it again… a little too close to take objectively.
When you call it history, the pain is one step removed. To us it seems like a documentary—the ship sank, the people died—but to them back then, it was just outright horror and heartbreak.
What we see as interestingly historical today was at one time, often enough, embarrassing to somebody, or scandalous, or downright illegal.
Yet there is considerable value in a checkered past.
I am no stranger to questionable choices in my reckless youth, and I have paid the steep costs they incur as well, with a couple near passes with death; but I don’t believe we are allowed to judge our own histories in any way that can weaken us today with shame or guilt. The past is sacred ground for us, in tempering, pondering, shaping the kind of generous soul we are designed to develop.
It is our suffering that gives us eyes to see the pain in others, and until we have that vision we’re not really adults; not worthy of the nobility of calling ourselves human. I knew an old man once who told me how much he envied me my pain. I didn’t understand him at the time, but now I know that it is only adversity that gives our life depth.
And, correspondingly, it is the uncomfortable history of our community that has carved for us an identity and a soul and an interesting character.
That is why Clio is committed to remembering all the challenging details of what happened in our time on the timeline.
When you come right down to it, the only aspect of time that really matters is right now. We don’t live in the past; we don’t live in the future: we live exactly right now.
Those stories of years gone by brought us to now, it’s true; and they have defined the character of our community; but there is only one point of history, and it’s not in the past.
If what you read about history makes you hope to be better, by the examples of our ancestors—good or bad; then history has fulfilled its purpose. If it gives you some depth of feeling, of wonder; or some sense of identity or feeling of belonging, then it has improved the quality of your life right now where it matters. If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, then you have been touched by the Muse.
Sometimes it just leaves you in awe. When you see how time has doubled back around, and the story has repeated itself in a new and mind blowing way: it gives shape to the mysterious unseen forces at work behind our world.
Richland County has a wealth of really interesting history; and the story is fascinating enough to imply our community has a future as well.
Our past, in fact, has the integrity of a mandate.
When kids read this history it says something to them: if the story is awful it says, “You can do better than this;” and if the story is glorious it says, “See what you are capable of? Go ahead and take this to the next level!”
We are the ones who are making history now. We are all heroes in our own way; our very thoughts can be great deeds; our daily lives are vital accomplishments.
The whole point of history is to launch us from right now. This is the lesson that Miss Clio brings us, and it is denoted best on her statue in Washington DC, where her iconic image conveys these words:
“What is Past is Prologue.”