Friday, January 30, 2009

Living History

“A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.”

T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

When I was young, I worked as a docent at a small state park in northern California. I told my friends I was doing it for Brownie points toward my college applications, but secretly, I loved it, because once a month or so, it meant I dressed in period costume and re-enacted history for visitors.

My job usually entailed guiding summer campers and RVers through a mining home circa 1860, pointing out and demonstrating such items of domesticity as shaving razors and coffee grinders. I’d explain how the people who had lived in the cabin had done their laundry and made their meals, where their children had gone to school and where the mother had bought her dry goods groceries. I found all of it fascinating; the candle burned down by the bedside to add a touch of realism, the primitive, button-top shoes laying on the floor, the leather stiff with age and grime. I wonder now what that family would have thought, had they been able to stand in during one of my tours, watching me document the most mundane details of their every day existence. Certainly, butter churning hadn’t been the pinnacle of their life.

But that’s what fascinates us most, isn’t it? Of course we need the big booms of history--the battles, the usurping of kings from thrones, the swearing in of presidents and the natural disasters. They orchestrate change and alter nations, and they’re the landmarks we use to navigate the vast expanse of the past as we stand before museum displays or while reading novels: “Was that before WWII or after?” “Wait, who was president then?” With each answer, we find our context. We mark our place on the page. But surely what piques most of our interests is what happened between the lines and in the margins, during the long stretches between wars, victories, and disasters. What were people reading? What were they wearing? What were they eating and thinking? How were they living?

It‘s a matter of sorting the past using the principle of respect des fonds, which simply means filing information based on where it’s from. You respect its provenance, lest it looses meaning. Historians don‘t lump all food or fashion into one category, for instance, but rather document it separately by origin, because a potato in one period, place, or people is a pot-ah-to in another. A piece of parchment, a strip of clothing, even an instrument of torture will take on unique meaning within the context of each unique decade, each town, each family.

So what’s the context of our lives, here in the present? We are, after all, living history. I find I often neglect to document it, skipping instead to only the most noteworthy events…the firsts and the achievements, the competitions and the vacations, but rarely the day-in, day-out details. This blog is at times the only place I practice respect des fonds, the only place I’m writing of the still life, the sitting down at 8 am with coffee, the preschooler plying me with Pokemon cards, the unremarkable misty morning out my window. In the long run, that’s the context I’ll need to find meaning of the whole.

So in that spirit, indulge me while I take it a step further. Just for one week, I'm going to post a photo each day, taken that hour, perhaps even that minute. It won’t be anything exciting, just what was. I know people who have maintained photo journals for months, even years, and what they’ve archived must be amazing to revisit.

Maybe someday, looking back, these photos will help anchor me to this place and time. They will remind me of the context of my own existance, here in 2009. Care to join me?

Day 1: Toby's moon light, his security blanket at the moment, shining above his bed (still illuminated at 8:30 am).

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