Last night at the library, we had our book club meeting. We talked about the book My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Remen. This is a non-fiction book where she discusses the things she learned from her grandfather, who was a rabbi, and how she uses those things in her work as a doctor, especially as she tries to offer comfort, knowledge, or understanding to the dying. I read and loved this book about ten years ago, when a friend gave it to me, and I wanted to re-read it for the discussion but didn’t get around to it.
During the discussion, it hit me about how this really IS a book of stories, and how much stories matter to us as humans. With stories we share histories, but we also teach, and assuage, and heal; stories in the mouths of others keep us alive after we're gone. As this recognition resonated with some of the topics that are important to me, namely the power of story and how important it is for each of us to record our own stories in some form, I couldn't let today go without writing this blog post.
Last Sunday, we were eating dinner and the conversation turned to dogs. I mentioned something about Britteny, the dog I had as a kid, and how I loved having a dog when I was little but I don’t want one now. Nathan said “I didn’t know you had a dog!” so I told him about Britteny and about our poodle, Ziggy, and the story of why he had a horizontal scar across his nose. As I told the story, I felt a strange combination of emotion: that childhood happiness of running around in the back yard with your dog, but also the sadness remembering her death, and also a bit of surprise. I’m certain I’ve told Nathan the story of my dad putting a rubber band around Ziggy’s nose because he was teasing her, and then he forgot it was there, and how bad he felt when we figured out what was wrong with her.
How did he not remember that story?
But then I thought about how, when I was a little girl, my favorite thing was spending the night at my grandma’s house. She had a little trundle bed, and she’d make it up with the Grandma Amy quilt. She’d lie in her bed and hold my hand in the dark, and she would tell me stories about her childhood and her parents, Amy and Nathan. I loved those stories—they were romantic and old-fashioned and sweet.
But I can’t remember the details of a single story.
I remember how hearing the stories made me feel, safe and loved and as if I were a part of something bigger than just my own life. It was something startling and magical to my young mind, that I could be cocooned in a quilt made by the great-grandma I didn’t know but was named after, touching something she made and left behind. Those memories are intrinsic to my very being; they shape me and influence me even forty years later.
But I wish I could remember the stories.
Relying on memory to preserve story is how human history was transferred. But it is a faulty, unreliable mechanism. And we have technology now that allows us to work around the vagaries of memory.
It’s called the pencil.
It is so important that you write down your stories. Whether you have kids or not, whether you think anyone will care or not. Maybe it won’t be the people you imagine, but someone will take value from your story. And no one else—no one—can record your story. Someone in the future could write down what they knew about you, but that would be their interpretation of you.
Only you can tell your story.
Maybe it is incredibly conceited of me to think that some progenitor of mine will be interested in my story. Maybe they’ll all think Wow, grandma Amy was crazy. Maybe they will just be busy living their own lives and not really care about the past. I don’t know.
What I do know is my own particular sadness that none of my ancestors wrote down their stories. If somewhere in the future there is a great-something grandchild who has that same need to know that he or she is a part of a much larger life than just the current one, then my craziness will mean that person doesn’t have to feel this sadness.
One of the patrons who came to the discussion shared this quote, which was also underlined in my copy of the book:
Every great loss demands that we choose life again. We need to grieve in order to do this. The pain we have not grieved over will always stand between us and life. When we don’t grieve, a part of us becomes caught in the past like Lot’s wife who, because she looked back, was turned into a pillar of salt.
Grieving is not about forgetting. Grieving allows us to heal, to remember with love rather than pain. It is a sorting process. One by one you let go of the things that are gone and you mourn for them. One by one you take hold of the things that have become a part of who you are and build again.
This made me think of a recent conversation I read in a scrapbooking group I belong to. The discussion was “do you make layouts about the hard or bad things that have happened to you?” This isn’t a new topic, it is a conversation that comes up over and over, but I am always surprised by the people who say no. “I only scrapbook the happy stuff,” they say, or “I don’t want to remember the bad things” or, even “why would I? Why would I focus on the negative?”
Of course, I’m not the memory-keeping police, and people can do what they want. But, for me, I don’t only scrapbook about the happy, fun, positive stuff. I include the harder things, too. Scrapbooking (and sometimes just writing in my journal) about difficult things is part of how I choose to be alive; it ties in directly to what Rachel Remen said about grief: loss demands that we choose to live again. Not looking at the hard things clearly, pretending like they are not there—that is how we tie ourselves to them. That is how we get caught inside of the hard things.
It is how we turn ourselves to salt.
So yes: I do make scrapbook layouts about myself.
I also keep a journal. And a blog.
And yes: I write about the hard stuff. I write about the good stuff, too. But I think all of life makes up our stories, good, difficult, sad, joyful. All of it. And if we believe that our stories are important, we will come to also see that all kinds of our stories are important.
Wouldn’t you love to know how your grandmother felt about WWII, about the invention of the washing machine, about the birth stories of her children? And wouldn’t you also love to know how she coped with her heartaches, endometriosis and miscarriages and infidelity and not-enough-money and failing hearts and painful knees?
All of it is worth recording.
And It doesn’t matter if you think scrapbooking is the dumbest hobby ever. You don’t have to scrapbook to record your stories.
You don’t have to be the world’s best writer.
You don’t have to write down your entire life history, starting with your first breath and working forward to today.
You just have to write. No—not have to. Get to. Pick up a pen. Pull your keyboard closer. Start with a memory, write it down, save it somehow. Just don’t trust to memory.
Write it down.
(And while we’re at it—get yourself into some photographs too. Your image matters as much as your stories!)