In November, we published Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse, edited by Brian Bouldrey. Here Bouldrey reflects on the varied uses of the collective “We,” tying them to the impulse for pilgrimage.
A couple of times a year, I get together with several friends who all once lived in the same neighborhood in San Francisco. We were sitting around at a recent reunion, and one friend mentioned that our old neighborhood (still hers), full of expensive wooden Victorian homes, has a firetruck that patrols at all times, always out of the barn. “We sure do love our firefighters, don’t we?” she asked us. I told her that since I hadn’t lived in San Francisco for fifteen years, I must forfeit the right to use The Municipal We.
I’ve been thinking about the pronoun “we” a lot lately. Where do you usually see it? Often in declarations, and in manifestos, the difference being that declarations declare, calling out something that is already there, plain as the nose on your face—our Declaration of Independence stands on the sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” There’s that “we” again, the Patriot We, the Nationalist We, the Pep Rally We. We got spirit, yes we do, we got spirit, how about you?
The manifesto differs, for a manifesto makes something manifest that never existed before: the statements of all those artists, the futurists and surrealists, the modernists who wanted to “make it new,” and all the crazy ones, from the Unabomber’s caution about industrial society to Charlie Sheen’s 11-point manifesto for winning. Manifestos are more I than We, and a noisy, hilarious We at times, like a misfiring car alarm on a Saturday morning, waking up the neighborhood even if the neighborhood is not ready to be awakened.
I have bad memories of being knocked down by grade-school bullies who linked arms and ran me down while chanting “we don’t stop for traffic.” And I’m a bit terrified of the “We don’t like your kind coming around here,” which has become a troublingly common We of late. I will chant the Creed We of “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.”
I am surprised at how choked up I can get when I declare an Alma Mater We, as in We will sing thy praise forever. Northwestern University, my alma mater, has two fight songs, “Go U Northwestern,” which we sing when we get a touchdown, and one called “Push On,” which is what we sing when we don’t get a first down. “Push on, Northwestern, we’ll always stand by you,” we promise, like a legion of battered spouses whose partners have substance abuse problems.
There is the Royal We of queens and popes and threatening law firms. The Nuptial We of married couples is, as Joan Didion described it, the classic betrayal. When my mother tells my father, “We need to redecorate the guest room,” she doesn’t mean we, she means you, and when my father asks my mother, “Are we out of beer?,” he doesn’t mean we, he means I. Sometimes, there was never a We involved in the first place.
And there is the Memorial We. The Memorial We is a We that connects the present and the absent. I feel the Memorial We most strongly around Arlington or the Vietnam Memorial or the AIDS quilt, where most of the We are far away, but the multitude of names surrounds us, where pronouns become proper nouns, thousands of names. I felt the Memorial We when I placed my hand into the worn stone of the central pillar of the Portico de la Gloria in Santiago’s cathedral, thinking of the millions of hands that have also been there over hundreds of years. The Memorial We seems the closest kin to the paradoxical “Pilgrim We.”
My name appears as editor on a book recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press, with twenty contributors far more vital than I, each writing about what I would call secular pilgrimage. Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse includes attempts by travel writers to make a sort of “we” between the “I” of themselves and the he or she of some secular saint, some great original generosity of spirit. They tell of their trips to all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “little house” homesteads, Robert Scott’s Antarctic huts, the villages of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, and the grave of William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet.
It’s not coincidental, I think, that most of the secular and sacred saints we venerate now went charging against the grain of the Municipal We. They are the mad ones who make the manifestos. The Little Rock 9 were threatened for daring to integrate Arkansas schools, but now the high school that hated them is a museum in their honor and a place to which civil rights advocates make pilgrimages every year.
I have, as a Catholic, thought quite a bit about the saints of my religion. I imagine that in those early days of the Church there must have been in every village an especially marvelous person, a person who helped the We of us, maybe led the community, maybe would fix your ox-cart and wouldn’t accept payment, gave extra tomatoes from her garden, told a good story. Then that person would die and leave a huge, gaping hole in the fabric of the village, and the people would miss her so keenly that they just knew that person was close to God.
Perhaps we don’t want more. Perhaps we just want to give thanks. That is the essence of the Pilgrim We, I suppose.
I dream of a place where the “I” and the “we” are at peace with one another, where the spiritual and the religious, the left and the right, the We and the They, can all hang together in a great inclusive old-school democracy. This might have been the dream of a secular nation that our founding fathers tried to create.
has written eight books, including Honorable Bandit: A Walk across Corsica, and edited six anthologies, including Inspired Journeys and Traveling Souls. He teaches creative writing at Northwestern University and gave the 2016 keynote address to the American pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.