In The World We Have Lost, Peter Laslett attempted to study life in fifteenth- and sixteenth century England. He was remarkable successful, all the more so because he had only public records to work with. He had few anecdotes, few diaries, and few personal accounts to inform his writing. Laslett extrapolated three-dimensional life from two-dimensional statistics. In spite of all the handicaps, he snatched a diamond from the coal field, even if he had to be cold and clinical.
We take literacy for granted. Five and six centuries ago, we would not have been able to. Reading and writing were reserved for the aristocrat, the cleric, and the merchant, and they seldom wrote about the the “common” folk. For “average” people, the ability to preserve personal experience was limited. If anyone asked, perhaps they could tell about their experiences. But that was pretty much it. The silence was deafening.
That’s not true today. Almost everyone can read and write. Literacy has transformed the way we live. Anyone who wishes can not only tell their stories, but they can also preserve them for posterity. Technology has given us tremendous advantages. We can now tell our stories and record them at the stroke of a few keys. We can use voice-recognition software to make prints out of our spoken words. We can make audio and video. We can add texture and meaning to the statistics social scientists use.
But we can’t just talk about it. We have to do it. We have no excuse except “I don’t want to.” Our kids will thank us. Future generations will thank us. We can offer the next Peter Laslett a vision the last one could only dream of.
I was lost in thought during my walk this morning when the Four Seasons “Marlena” came on my MP3 player. I was transported back many years to the nights when I shot pool with a friend on his unleveled table while “Marlena” and the other The Four Seasons’ Greatest Hits played over and over again on his record player. I wasn’t thinking much about what I wanted to do with my life. All I cared about was sinking the straight-on shot in front of me and smoking the stale the cigarettes I had pilfered from my parents ancient stash.
These are private memories. As I relive them, I live in the past. The details mean nothing to anyone but me. That’s the problem with so many memoirs and personal essays: they mean nothing to anyone but the writer. I may want to share them, but who really cares about experiences no one but I had? Maybe readers will be polite and humor me, or something.
It’s not that there’s nothing human and universal to be shared. I could talk about the ease with which kids can improvise fun from something like an out-of-plumb pool table. I could talk about the naughty joy of getting away with something like smoking stolen cigarettes. (How little I knew.) I could talk about the days when records played on turntables were the latest technology. I could talk about the unspoken friendship that was nourished by hours of doing nothing.
These memories bring out feelings that almost everyone has felt. They are “cocoon” memories. They are private memories belong exclusively to me, yet they are memories that are both universal and unique and private. It may not be possible for me to share precisely what listening to “Marlena” in my friend’s basement felt like. Still, I know that others have had their own “Marlena” moments and know exactly what I’m talking about.
I spent every summer between third grade and college at Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. I have vivid memories of the boardwalk, the bungalows, the beach, and the crowds; of taking my shoes off and putting them and my long pants away until the fall; of leaving for the day with the door wide open and returning to find nothing disturbed. New Jersey’s oppressive heat, humidity, and mosquitoes stayed away, replaced by gentle breezes and the aroma of suntan lotion, cotton candy, and 35-cent hamburgers. From the concessions pavilion a short walk up the boardwalk, the music of the pinball machines and skeeball alleys transformed every summer into a three-month carnival.
Hurricane Sandy destroyed all that. As I look at post-storm photos from Point Pleasant Beach, I recognize the geography, but the Martian landscape is hard to fathom. My family had ridden out hurricanes in the years we were there. Always, the magnificent beach kept the waves far from out house on the boardwalk. Secure in my teenager’s invulnerability, I even fantasized about body surfing a hurricane-powered wave into the ride of a lifetime. I never imagined that the broad, impregnable beach would one day prove so feeble.
It’s not like Point Pleasant Beach was ripped out of the past. The town had visibly changed since I summered there. Huge, star-wars-style condominiums had gone up along the inlet, and many of the ramshackle bungalows on the boardwalk had become year-round pleasure palaces. The Tilt-A-Whirls had been replaced by amusement rides that would scare you to death and dislocate your neck out at the same time. The memories lived, though. I could take them out of my memory chest any time I wanted. The dream of returning to the good old days may have been just a dream, but I could still touch it and taste it.
Point Pleasant Beach will be there next year. It will rebuild. Insurance money will pack McMansions into the narrow lots along the boardwalk. Jenkinson’s will repair the damages, cater to a new clientele, and raise prices. The cotton candy will come from brand new machines. All I have left are photographs, feelings I can describe only vicariously, and memories in two dimensions and black and white. The physical touch and tastes are irretrievably gone, so I can share them only as caricatures. At least, I’ve shared them.
I indulged myself by watching the history channel’s broadcast of film made during World War II. I grew up with these clips, but this was the first time in a long time that I’ve paid more than superficial attention to these gems from the vault of history. I was struck by how young the soldiers were. When I was a kid, they were wizened old men. I saw them now as mere kids, many of whom were younger than my own son is today.
I couldn’t see very many ways in which these kids were different from kids today. They looked and probably acted like my son and his friends. They may have grown up faster on the front—they didn’t have much choice. And maybe they felt more like a part of something larger than themselves. Life was much more immediate and fragile. But you could see the same emotions, the same sense of self, the same youthful awareness.
What were their lives like? What was it like to be conscious of the fact that you were alive in the middle of Normandy or Iwo Jima? What was on your mind? Home? Survival? The guy next to you? Did you think about the future? Did the soldier you were pointing your gun at think about the same things? And what would the kid on the television screen be like if he lived today? Would that kid have the same thoughts today?
Tell your stories, if only so that people who live 60 years from today won’t be asking the same questions.
What do the Mayans, the Picts, and the Apache have in common?
They were all illiterate societies. They shared their lore, wisdom, and tales orally. The stories may not have been entirely factual. Over time, their heroes may have become larger than life and their histories may have become more fantastic and mythological. But, they told their stories and they shared their history. When the line was broken—when the tribes were wiped out or the language was erased—the stories died. What happened to the Toltecs? We have only the archaeological records to tell us.
Heyemeyohsts Storm is the son of a Cheyenne Indian teacher, an itinerant story teller who went from village to village telling the stories and transmitting the wisdom of his tribe. His was entirely an oral culture. As the people became “civilized,” they began to forget their language and their stories. Storm’s magnificent book, Seven Arrows, is his attempt to put these stories in writing before they disappeared entirely. It suffers the fossilization that any oral story frozen in print must suffer. But at least the essences of the stories are preserved. We won’t have to reconstruct the Cheyenne only from cave paintings and genetics.
Today, we are all blessed with ways to capture our stories. We have a variety of print resources. We have recorded resources. We have photos. We even have collection of souvenirs and memorabilia. There is no excuse for any of us, individually or collectively, to become the next generation’s Atlantis unless we choose to.
Robert Keayne should be remembered fondly. He was a pioneer, a tailor, a chronicler of sermons, a Selectman in seventeenth-century Boston, a member and Speaker of the Massachusetts General Court, and a philanthropist. In his will, he left a donation that helped establish Boston’s first town house.
In 1639, however, he had been called before the court and fined for charging too much for his goods. At the time, he confessed his sins and professed his contrition. But before he died in 1656, he composed a 50-odd page last will and testament as an extended rationalization and justification of his earlier behavior. He was right, and he’d go to his grave publicly professing his innocence.
We might remember Keayne as a philanthropist and one of the rocks upon which Massachusetts Bay Colony and the United States was built. Instead, we remember him more as a whiner, a self-proclaimed victim, and a person who would not accept that he offended the people who lived around him. His fate was sealed when the historian Bernard Bailyn published Keayne’s will as The Apologia of Robert Keayne.
How do you want to be remembered?
“I’ve got nothing to say. I’m nobody.”
Emily Dickinson got a lot of mileage out of writing that. Was she really no one? If you believe that about yourself, perhaps you could use some Buddhism or some therapy. You are too close to yourself to know that you don’t count. Your friends wouldn’t be your friends if they agreed. Your colleagues don’t agree. Your kids better not! You are a unique someone. No one else has your experiences or your responses to them.
“I’ve got nothing to say. Who’d want to hear what I have to say, anyway?” You’d be surprised how many people DO want to hear it. Don’t worry about the people who aren’t interested. Think about the people who are.
“I’ve got nothing to say. Suppose I leave something out or make a mistake that embarrasses me.” You aren’t in academia, are you? You know your subject better than anyone else. So what if you don’t know everything? No one does. You have your own perspectives, your own memories, and your own insights. That’s what people are interested in. Don’t let how you think others will react keep your voice silent.
“I’ve got nothing to say.” Only If you keep quiet will you be you right.
Rick had watched his octogenarian father slowly lose interest in everything. Once vital and alive, Jack was aging too fast. The only time that changed was when Jack reminisced about his childhood in Brooklyn. He snatched back a part of his lost vitality whenever he relived his past. Rick had an epiphany. He said to his father, “Dad, you tell your stores, I’ll write them down, and we’ll make a book.”
Jack had something to look forward to again. He became visibly younger as he waited for the book to appear. By the time the book went to the printer, Jack was impatient. “When’s my book going to be ready?” I met Jack for dinner at Home Town Buffet after the book was in his hands. He looked and acted nothing like the man Rick had first described.
Heirloom Stories from the Harnessmaker’s Son is more than a good book. It gave Jack something special, his joie de vivre. Jack lived seven years after his book came out, seven years that no one expected him to have. His book couldn’t restore his youth, but it could resuscitate his interests and bring his youth back to life. Stories have that power.
When he was young, my son’s often asked, “what was it like when you were growing up?” He wanted to know what it was like to be a kid before video games and In-N-Out burgers. It was a world he could experience only in his imagination. His own world began when I was 40 years into mine, by which time computers had replaced pencils, ATMs had replaced bank books, and cell phones had replaced black, rotary phones. I tried to satisfy his curiosity, but there was so much I had to gloss over.
It was the same between my parents and me. My frame of reference began when theirs was practically half over. They didn’t talk much at all about their childhood. Then my father died too young and my mother began asking me if I went to school with her brothers. Their stories now sleep silently in a New Jersey cemetery, and the world of their youth is silent.
Don’t you owe it your children and grandchildren to keep your world alive? If you don’t have children, don’t you owe it to all the people who want to learn from your experiences? Share your stories while they are still fresh. Write them down if you can. If you don’t think of yourself as a writer, make an audio of them or make a video. But do share your stories before they, too, turn to dust, like the stories in that New Jersey cemetery.
The ancient Babylonian epic traces the life of its hero, Gilgamesh. At the end of his life, after he has tried and failed to achieve immortality, Gilgamesh stands outside the city of Uruk and meditates on life. All people are here for a short amount of time, and then they are gone. Even Gilgamesh, himself the offspring of the Gods, eventually must die. Don’t look at mortal creatures to discover immortality. If you want to see something that lasts forever, look at the wall of the city. They will stand forever.
Gilgamesh was on to something. You and I are going to leave this earth one day. But what we leave behind becomes immortal. Our works live on, perhaps forever. The thing is, we have to leave something behind. It does us no good to say that we intended to build our walls but we never got around to it.
Even if we don’t leave something earth-shattering behind us, we can leave our stories. We can leave our ideas. We can leave our memories, the things we stood for or tried to accomplish, the things that give our life meaning. We can do this by putting it in writing. And who knows? We may realize, for the first time, what these things are.
That’s one reason to record your stories. Don’t worry about whether they will end up on the Times best-seller list or be featured performances on This American Life. They don’t need to be. Don’t worry about whether other people will think you have something to say. You do.