At Home, by Bill Bryson

For those interested in going beyond the theme of places that loom large in our family stories to the theme of how these places fit into a larger human history, this might just be the book for you. Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life was published in 2010 and reviewed by the New York Times and the Washington Post. Bryson was also interviewed about it on NPR’s Morning Edition, where you can also find a link to an excerpt from the book.

I must admit – I have not personally read this book, but it has been recommended to me by many people and it is definitely on my list. Let me know how you liked it and/or if you have any other recommendations on the topic!

 

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Try This: List of Addresses

93 Lewis St, the second track on Dreams & Ghosts, invites you to consider what places loom large in your family stories. For those interested in actively recording their reflections on these questions, I like to offer a variety of writing exercises to accompany these invitations.

Try this:

  1. On a blank piece of paper (or with a voice recorder), try to remember all of the addresses at which you have lived in your life, starting with where you were born and working forward to where you live now. It doesn’t have to be a complete address, just whatever you remember. Post office boxes count, too. Extra points if you can remember the home phone number attached to the address.
  2. When you’ve finished, take a moment to review the list. How did you do? Which residences had you almost forgotten? Which residences stand out more in your memory than the rest?
  3. Start a new page / voice memo. Start with the first address. Do you have any memories of it? If not, what do you remember others in your family mentioning about it? Go for as much detail as you can gather: its physical appearance (throughout the seasons), the people who lived there, any and all events that took place there (in your life or someone else’s that you know about). If you get stuck, close your eyes and visualize the location as best you can.
  4. See how far down through the list you can work, jotting down detailed notes about each location. This will likely not be possible in one sitting, but can be a good place to start any time you want to work on your recollections.

What have you discovered? What surprised you? What are the places that endure in your memory and in your family stories? What are the gaps that might be able to be filled by others who remember these places?

If you like, I welcome you to share your story, and let me know how you experienced this exercise. You may also be interested in looking at other writing exercises on this blog.

Track 2: 93 Lewis St – Stories in Places, Places in Stories

The photos featured in the banner of this blog are all from the front steps of what I like to call our “family homestead”. 93 Lewis St has been home to three generations of my ancestors, including to my great-aunt, who still lives there. Whenever I visited her as a child, I heard new stories about the people who lived there and what their lives were like. I wrote about these story snippets in the song 93 Lewis St, the second track of Dreams & Ghosts.

In writing this song, I realized that the spaces in which our family stories take place are as much characters as are the people who move through them: gardens, kitchens, tool sheds, living rooms, main streets, workplaces … they are more than the backdrop for the real, human moments we tell about later. Sometimes there are entire stories to tell just about the “lives” of these places and what they bore witness to over the years.

In honor of all the spaces that shape family stories everywhere, this song’s invitation is: What are the places that loom large in your family stories? What are the addresses that people still talk about? What are the homesteads (real or figurative) you long to return to?

You’re welcome to share your story and experience, as my ears and heart are always open! You may also want to check out posts related to the category 93 Lewis St: Story & Place and/or other Invitations offered by the songs of this album.

Time Capsules: Time Travel for Your Stories

This week, we’ve been reflecting on how we keep the past alive in our lives in different ways. Human cultures keep their history alive through different storytelling traditions. Individuals find private ways to keep alive the memory of lost loved ones. But what happens when our lives become the past? What might we leave behind for future generations to keep alive in the future?

We know we won’t live forever. We know that life will continue long after ours has ended. We talk about the legacies certain individuals leave behind in their life’s work, but that can feel like a tall order to those of us just trying to put one foot in front of the other. How about … a time capsule?

Photo by the Bostonian Society, featured at: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2014/10/15/contents-inside-old-state-house-time-capsule-revealed/#gallery-2-7

In January 2015, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts opened a time capsule originally placed underground in 1795, likely by Paul Revere and John Adams. Inside the capsule, they had preserved – among other items – five newspapers from that time, a collection of coins, and a seal of the Massachusetts Commonwealth. How cool, right?! (Or am I the only history buff here?)

Everyday artifacts like those found in the Boston time capsule would otherwise easily deteriorate, go missing, or otherwise disappear over time in our homes. Making your own time capsule is one way to send your stories traveling through time, leaving something of life as you know it to be discovered by someone in the future. Here’s what you need:

  1. A secure capsule. Find a container made of strong plastic or stainless steel that will accommodate all the items you want to pack inside. You might also consider a screw top bottle. Whatever you use, make sure it seals against outside water and air.
  2. A collection of everyday artifacts. Paper items work well (newspaper articles, maps, a personal diary or a favorite book), as do metal items (coins, key chains, pins, jewelry), textiles (item of clothing, handkerchief, etc), and photographs. Make sure everything is clean and free of bugs or any kind of chemical treatment. Don’t put anything that might contaminate other items in the capsule or will change in any way on its own over time, like food, plants, animals, or anything made of rubber.
  3. A place to plant your capsule. You might bury your capsule in your yard, for the next owners to find, or maybe hide it somewhere in your home to uncover later yourself. If inside your home, keep away from heating / cooling vents and anywhere else where temperatures may reach extremes.

I suggest taking a look at the guidelines put together by the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute on constructing a time capsule and what to include. They have ALL the details you could ever imagine, including a list of chemicals you may not realize are emitted by certain substances over time.

Once you make your time capsule – I’d love to hear about it! You can share your story by clicking on “Submit Your Story” in the menu above and, if it’s alright with you, I’d love to share it in a future post on this blog. If you have a photo or video you’d like to submit along with your story, let me know. If you’d prefer to remain anonymous in the sharing of your story, I will not share your name. If you’d love for people to know about your creative work with your family stories, I’m happy to share your name and links. THANK YOU for taking a moment to share your story, I will do my best to honor it in the sharing.

Some other helpful resources on making your own time capsule:

Library of Congress

Northeast Document Conservation Center (for the general preservation of family artifacts)

Time capsule ideas on Pinterest

 

 

Life and Death and Life: Keeping the Memory of Lost Ones Alive

I lost a favorite aunt to cancer last year. At her graveside service this summer, we each selected a different flower from a bouquet to place in her grave with the ashes. After laying my flower, I was watching others do the same, when I saw a great blue heron flying in its awkward gait in near silence, low to the ground and right over our small group on its way to the pond beyond the trees.

Photo uncredited, from http://dunescenter.org/dunes-in-flight-the-great-blue-heron/

Was it her? I thought. Is she here among us, still, in some other form?  

As we grieve the loss of a life, we come to fully comprehend death as a part of life; over time, we see how death also gives way to new life, and we find both little and large ways to keep living our own lives. As a collective human culture, we keep past lessons and experiences alive through the telling of stories in a variety of cultural traditions. Our little family is no exception, filling the empty space at the dinner table with new stories about my aunt’s life every time we gather.

Hello & Goodbye, the first song on Dreams & Ghosts, is a song about how our past lives remain a part of our present lives, and invites the question: How do you keep the past alive in your life? For those interested in actively recording their reflections on these questions, I like to offer different writing exercises to accompany these invitations.

I’m sure my small story about my aunt made you think of someone who had a large presence in your own life. Or perhaps it made you think of a small ritual or some creature or object that always reminds you of someone from your past. Whatever it made you think of, start there.

Try this:

Set a timer for 10 minutes. On a blank piece of paper, or in your journal, or on your voice recorder, start with that person or that symbol and tell the story of it. Don’t stop talking, don’t lift the pen from the page if you can. Don’t worry about the order of things, just write. If you get stuck, come back to this: Who has had an important impact on your life? How do you keep that person alive in your life? What are three things you want to make sure you never forget about them?

What have you discovered? What surprised you? What are the gaps in the story that might be able to be filled by others who remember these places?

If you like, I welcome you to share your story, and let me know how you experienced this exercise. You may also be interested in looking at other writing exercises on this blog.

 

How Stories Are Told Around the World

Stories are how we make meaning of the past. We tell stories to share this meaning in the present and inspire action and thinking for the future. This week’s blog question is: How do you keep the past alive in your life? I encourage you to consider submitting your story, which might be as short as a description of some small ritual or as long as … well, as long as you like.

In the meantime, it’s important to remember that there are many ways to tell a story. The oral tradition of storytelling is the most obvious, but every artistic medium offers itself to the telling of a story: dance, visual art, music, crafts, and more.

TED is an organization that is devoted to sharing ideas that are worth spreading. Check out the article Amy S. Choi wrote for them, titled How Stories Are Told Around the World, about just that. See if it doesn’t inspire you to consider how you might tell your story?

 

Track 1: Hello & Goodbye: Keeping the Past Alive

The opening song on this album, Dreams & Ghosts, is a tune called Hello & Goodbye. On the first listen, it’s a simple story about someone walking around their neighborhood. But listen closely – this is a song about living in the past.

There are many ways in which living in the past is not necessarily a good thing, as you might imagine the narrator of the song feels when he makes his discovery. However, keeping the past alive in our present lives can also be in service of staying connected to a person, a place, or an experience that is no longer in our lives. In fact, as humans, it is in our nature to make meaning of our experiences. These meanings all together make up our memory, or what we remember.

Individual and collective memories interact with each other, so that individual experiences contribute to a sense of a collective’s history, and likewise, this history contributes to the learning experiences of new individuals. This process of remembering our way into the future is a basic mechanism of human survival. Without making meaning of the past, we have no direction forward, we learn nothing and we know nothing. Being meaning-makers is what makes us human.

Ok, one more step. Stay with me. How do we make meaning in a way no other species does? We tell stories. What we remember and how we understand the past can determine most any choice we make, from what to order at our favorite brunch spot this week to deciding what career we want to pursue (or not); from the smallest to the greatest of goals and aims.

Each song on this album offers its audience – that’s you! – a certain invitation, a question, an opportunity to pause and think about your own stories and experiences. With Hello & Goodbye, I invite you to ask yourself: How do you keep the past alive in your life? What are the memories you keep with you in some tangible – or intangible – way through each day? The people, the places, the meaningful experiences? What rituals – intentional or not – have emerged in your life in honor of the past?

You’re welcome to share your story and experience – my ears and heart are always open to a good story! You may also want to check out posts related to the category Hello & Goodbye: Keeping the Past Alive and/or other Invitations and Writing Exercises offered by the songs of this album.