What Box?

I was thinking about pruning our blueberries this morning. Whenever I look at that patch, grown to multiples of its original size, I think of my old friend, Merle, who gave me some of the first sprouts.

Merle was in his late seventies when we met. He was possessed of a vigor which refused to submit to the calendar, or to the doctor who told him he needed to slow down. After a trip to the hospital for some “repairs,” in his words, and in defiance of doctors and calendars, he planted a forest while he recovered. No, not just a few ornamental trees, but a “wood,” with a healthy variety of tree species covering several acres. Merle refused to be boxed in by opinions which ran contrary to his own truth, and he retained his vigor until his last day on earth.

Merle told me he was one of the last remaining full blooded Delaware Indians, and I will always carry with me his story of the dispersal of his people, also known as the Lenni Lenape, across the Iroquois Nation and beyond, like the ancient Hebrews, as he put it. The Delaware, like so many other native peoples, lost their homeland to broken treaties with a government which refused to be boxed in by honor and integrity.

Merle always referred to himself as an Indian when we spoke of his people. I think he would be amused that there are people today who would label him “racist” for using the term, not even pausing to consider that he had earned the right to refer to himself in any manner he chose. The rush to condemn people for using words considered by self-appointed arbiters of social justice as pejorative, and then affix to the condemned another pejorative label, is another type of box. This one is about control, which is the purpose of many types of container.

We’re talking about boxes again this week, which is a reasonable thing to discuss inside a column called “Outside the Box.” A younger reader recently asked, “What box?” A reasonable question in a culture which has nudged aside the metaphor for the meme.

You might not know that “meme” predates the internet. The word first appeared in Richard Dawkins book, “The Selfish Gene” in 1976. He used the Greek word, “mimeme,” which means “that which is imitated,” to describe the way genes replicate, mutate and survive through natural selection. The word was shortened to “meme” before it was appropriated by users of the web.

Chances are you did not know that about memes. I didn’t either. The internet was supposed to increase knowledge. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Lately it has served as a means to another kind of box. Increasingly controlled by ever smaller numbers with political and social agendas, the web can be a tool for drawing boxes around thoughts and expression, to manipulate and subdue them.

Nothing new there. My parents referred to the television as the “idiot box,” and I’ll never get back the hours of life spent watching people pretend to be other people or talking about what someone else said.

Going farther back in time, the square bindings of the humble book could be considered a type of box, but here the metaphor begins to weaken. Once you possess a book, the contents, and the way you process them, are beyond the control of any outside influence. Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Books have many times been considered such a threat to people who wanted to control other people, that they have often been burned in fits of outrage and righteous indignation.

Books are still being burned today, metaphorically speaking. Outrage is acceptable behavior to those who see it as the ultimate expression of virtue. In many colleges that still bother to teach the classics at all, the Great Books are not read in order to teach the universal truths they contain, but to illustrate modern puritanical notions of oppression and gender thought crime. There is a widespread effort to habituate the young to asses the world around them through permanent lenses of race and gender. That particular box is one for which we here will always seek an exit.

Not everything boxed is bad. Who doesn’t like to come home and see an Amazon box sitting on the front porch? A box can be parameters, guidelines, boundaries, without which we surrender to chaos, like an unpruned blueberry patch. Or a mostly peaceful protest.

George Jones wrote, “I’ve got four walls around me to hold my life, and keep me from going astray.” Four walls and a roof over it can become a home, or it can become a prison. The difference is in how we choose, and what we emphasize.

And this, my friends, is why we attempt here to look outside the box, to see its shape and get a sense of what it contains – and what it keeps out. A box without doors or windows is a spirit-crushing confinement, but without any boundaries at all, we are exposed to the elements. Without investigating, we might not know the difference.

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