Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Walking

I read in a magazine recently that it's ordinary items that don't often survive history. Most of us have family heirlooms--clothing, particularly--from special occasions. We have grandma's wedding dress, Aunt so-and-so's wedding veil, our own prom dresses. We take care to preserve the biggies. But the point of the magazine was that it would be incredibly cool to see the outfit grandma wore most days in her twenties, or to have a simple household item from long ago. Apparently it's the ordinary day-to-day artifacts that constitute the more interesting finds for historians because they're more rarely preserved or passed down.

Storytelling is like this as well. Social events like weddings, funerals, graduations and birthdays inspire the same stories year after year. We get the "big" stuff (as we should) because we're reminded of its importance each time we gather for another one of these events. But oral history is passed down at the whim of the teller--the listener is at the mercy of whatever inspiration strikes. Most of us don't think to share the minutia of an ordinary day at some moment in our lives, or we don't think that anybody would want to know about something so average as us. I find the blessings of "ordinary" are both in its universality and unique details. Ordinary is fascinating and it shows so much about a person.

I'm interested in the day to day, the small, walking in someone's footsteps. I love that place and smell and sound are such familiar memory triggers, and I feel fortunate when I'm around to benefit from the stories they inspire in the teller.

I got a dose of storytelling this past weekend as K and I walked the grounds of her alma mater. We filled the time waiting for a former student by circling the lush, green campus and K showed me where she'd spent so much time. The curve of a rounded roof: this is where I took my art classes... A rectangular structure near the road: in there is the basement where we set up a darkroom... The smell of wood and high ceilings, like church: this is where they brought us when we started school... A heavy wooden door: my office was here. Empty cubbies at the top of the stairs: here is where we'd pick up our messages... A shaded courtyard: my dorm room looked out here... A common room with big windows: this was a beautiful living room with a big fire... I could see her there. I could see her better. She walked, musing about what had changed or remained the same, smiling wistfully about details she kept to herself. I walked beside her, a happy and interested audience.

I just can't tell you how much it means to step into someone else's history. It doesn't matter how ordinary. There's something special about bearing witness to a person's story, walking it, making it a piece of your own by listening. Even if all you catch of it are echoes, the tail ends of memories diffusing like puffs of smoke, you glimpse at a person's past and at who they are. It affects you both to share that kind of walk.

I love the Norse mythological notion that one's immortality is in the retelling of his story. We need close relationships in our life to witness these stories; essentially we witness each others' lives so there's a record of us. It was an incredibly cool way to spend a few hours on Sunday. It made me think about what I'd like to show my own kids someday. I'm so thankful K shared it with me.

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