Remember that time? Did I tell you what happened? You’ve got to hear this, you won’t believe it. How many times have we all either heard or said words like this? What follows them are the snippets of fabric that get woven into the tapestries of our lives. There is oral tradition, a verbal codification of ideas and knowledge, art and culture which is passed down through generations. Religions and epic poetry are examples of oral traditions along with Native American storytelling used in place of the written word.
Oral histories are those in which individuals are interviewed. When their narratives are combined with others, they comprise a layered picture of periods in time. Most of us to some degree, have a group of stories that are shared from generation to generation. Depending on the loquacity of our family members and friends, our personal tapestries unroll along with our lives, leaving traces of what makes us unique and part of a culture specific to our experiences.
I remember the first time I thought about life as a tapestry, when I was a twenty year old traveling through Europe, touring castles and observing the aged fabrics unfurled along the endless walls. Most of what I saw were grand historical events, not the smaller tales that were the stuff of everyday life. But tapestries, made of mutable, flexible material seemed a good way to keep track of life to me. You could add to them and remove things from them so they were more alive than what is based on bedrock and stone. Perhaps a softer approach is what appealed to me, a little more room for the adjustments made to stories as they flow from one generation to the next with the promise of a space to sew in the latest event or perhaps to correct an older one.
Right now I am making a big effort to turn my own tales into written form, to make a volume of memories for my children and grandchildren and maybe people farther down the road than them. After Michael’s death a little over two years ago, the urgency to tell our stories became stronger as I have no clue how much time I’ll still have to remember and to share. For the most part, it’s a private and intimate effort. I’m finding my way to memories by going through my living spaces which I visualize in my mind. Those walls and rooms and furniture evoke all kinds of stories, some which I’ve told many times and others which have remained quietly in the background. The reasons for those which remain unshared have mostly to do with what was either age-appropriate for my kids, too embarrassing to share with most people, and others which just slipped into my mind’s crevices. I just glided over them. It’s funny how that works.
The very specific delicate nuances of how our individual brains process the world is one of life’s intriguing mysteries for me. While some people view space as the final frontier, I’ve always thought that how our minds and bodies work in tandem with each other are the ultimate frontier, the final mystery. I’ve always had lots of ideas about our remarkably complex infrastructure and the myriad functions firing away as we go about our business. While we talk, eat, sleep, make love, work, parent and everything else, there are zillions of activities purring along inside us. We pay no notice to them for the most part. Unless something goes wrong there’s no reason to get lost in the autonomic activity.
Thoughts like these always led me to interesting conversations with Michael during our many years together. I, who in recent years have been referred to as an engine, a furnace and a motor, would be humming away, trying to hypothesize about virtually anything. I can still remember driving home from some sizable party, the two of us sharing our opinions and perceptions of all the other people there. Suddenly I looked over at Michael and said, “don’t you wonder what everyone is saying about us on their way home?” He looked absolutely gobsmacked. Of course he hadn’t been thinking about that. This led us into a discussion about how little attention we pay to our effect on others, apart from obvious faux pas, when we feel like we’ve put the proverbial foot in our mouths, or when we inadvertently embarrassed someone or hurt their feelings. Like mentioning a gathering it seemed like everyone had been invited to except the person you just told about it. So it is with life in general. We go along, conversing with people along the way, telling stories and sharing events without necessarily being aware of how our words are affecting them or recognizing how those interactions will become part of who they are and how they think. In the past couple of days, I’ve had two experiences that reminded me that the receiver of what I’d shared at some point in the past had incorporated a bit of me into themselves.
What interesting and pleasant surprises. The first incident happened with a young man who was all ready to leave the country to start a teaching position abroad. Just a few days before he was getting ready to depart, he got a message from his new employer, informing him that his contract was cancelled. A stunning shock. He’d given up his apartment, sold a bunch of his possessions, stored the rest and was making the rounds of saying goodbye to family, friends and colleagues. A college teacher, he was bowled over by this news as most schools are already geared up for the fall semester and there’s not much out there in terms of open positions. As we talked through this emotional and economic blow, I suddenly heard my own voice talking at me out of his mouth. He was uttering one of my most often repeated pieces of advice, that when you look at your problems in their entirety they become overwhelming and almost paralyzing because they’re just too big. He talked about breaking that big ball into smaller more manageable pieces that he could deal with one at a time and there wasn’t a hint that this notion was anything other than his. I was fascinated to realize that my advice and wisdom from years of experience was now a natural part of his skill set. I knew that he as goes forward, part of my tapestry is now interwoven with his. I thought that was amazing and kind of like an osmosis exchange.
The other story was less profound but nonetheless significant. When my daughter was growing up she had a long friendship with a classmate who spent a lot of time with us. They played together, studied together and thanks to social media, continue a relationship which is one of those childhood gifts that are very special. Our kids’ friends spent a lot of time with us. We hosted play dates, shared meals and hauled some of them with us on vacations. This particular girl was one of those friends. In addition to my current memory sorting and writing, I’m still trying to go through the 40 plus years’ worth of accumulated items Michael and I collected in our house. Yesterday, I managed to let go of the oxygen dive tank he used on so many underwater adventures during his life. I took a photograph of the tank and put it next to one of him underwater and posted a little story about it on my Facebook account. A while later, this friend of my daughter’s commented on the post. She told me that she’d always remembered the story I’d told her about the time I was walking through the house looking for Michael and calling for him but getting no reply. I figured he’d left without saying goodbye. A few minutes later, I opened the door to the bathroom, flipped on the light and saw Michael, submerged in the tub, head underwater, face mask on and snorkel sticking out a few inches above the surface. Truly one of the funniest things I ever saw. I hadn’t thought about or remembered that story in years. But here was this was friend who’d listened to my tales as a little kid, remembered this one and gave it back to me at a time when I’m hunting for things precisely like this family fable. So, so great. We crisscrossed to the point that we’re now little pieces of each other’s histories. I just love it.