Record a Personal History & Stop the World

When I read this excellent essay at NPR’s website, I thought: That is why we take the time and make the effort to record people’s stories, their personal histories. Because it’s the stories that keep our parents, our grandparents, our siblings who died too early and cherished friends and great-grandparents and others from winking out of our memories.

From npr.org:

September 20, 2010

by ROBERT KRULWICH 

Now that it’s almost fall and there is a hint again of things passing, I think about a boy who once looked out a window, and wistful about time slipping by, he made it stop. Yes, he stopped time.

I love this story. It was told by Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist and one of my favorite science writers. Eiseley grew up in Nebraska and one day, when he was in high school, he happened to glance out the window and saw a junkman heading up a city street.

In 1923, junk men collected potentially valuable garbage and hauled it off for resale. This particular junkman, Eiseley wrote, had “a broken old horse plodding before a cart laden with bags of cast-off clothing, discarded furniture and abandoned metal. The horse’s harness was a makeshift combination of straps mended with rope. The bearded man perched high in the driver’s seat looked as though he had been compounded from the assorted junk heap in the wagon bed.” 

A few moments later, when the junkman and his wagon were about to round a corner at the intersection of R and 14th streets, Loren says he “leaned from a high school window a block away, absorbed as only a sixteen year old may sometimes be with the sudden discovery of time. It is all going, I thought with the bitter desperation of the young confronting history. No one can hold us. Each and all, we are riding into the dark.”

That is when he stopped the world….  READ THE REST

This story fascinated me, and well-illustrates why I help people organize, record and publish the personal or family histories that are most important to them. It is so satisfying to help people keep their stories from disappearing. So the people in their stories stay alive for the people still to come.

So they don’t wink out.

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‘America Writes Home’

mailbox2America Writes Home is a website with a wonderful collection of some existing pre-1920s letters, giving a flavor of that time before iPhones and email.

They are indexed by state, for the most part. Really fun to poke around in. So many stories!

Do you have old letters? Have you thought about how to preserve them so others, now or in the future, can enjoy and learned from them too? There are suggestions at this website.

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Remembering & Being Remembered

sandStefani Twyford is a video biographer in Houston, and she is also a wonderful writer and thinker. I just rediscovered her blog post about an African proverb, and it haunts me a little bit:

…The proverb recognizes two spirits. “Sasha are spirits known by someone still alive, while Zamani are spirits not known by someone currently alive.” According to James Loewen in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: “The recently departed whose time overlapped with people still here are the Sasha, the living dead. They are not wholly dead, for they live on in the memories of the living … when the last person knowing an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the Sasha for the Zamani, the dead.”

Walsh’s use of the proverb was in illustrating the power of oral and personal history. As a Personal Historian, I spend a lot of time educating people on the power and value of leaving your story for future generations. As long as people are alive and can pass your stories on to future generations, you will retain some degree of immortality. But like the game Telephone, each iteration of the story becomes less and less reliable and more anecdotal until what is left after a few generations is, if you are lucky, merely a name on a genealogical chart and some mention of characteristics… Read the rest

“When the last person knowing an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the Sasha for the Zamani, the dead.” Wow. It’s a powerful way of thinking. And it does make you think about keeping track of your family stories. Ask about them, and then write them down!

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Glued To The Screen

p8125460Here is a great reminder of just one of the reasons we should take the time to document, in one way or another, our personal stories – and, especially, those of our elder family members.

It’s personal historian Stanley Dalnekoff describing the first time his client’s family watched the two-hour audiovisual personal history he created about the grandfather:

The first viewing of the production at his home was in front of his wife, children, and two of his grandchildren. The most interesting reaction was that of his grandchildren who sat fascinated. They had heard some of his tales over the years but for the first time they were able to get a true picture of just what an incredibly resilient and fascinating person their grandfather is. They also received a lesson on how one can survive in the most difficult circumstances and indeed find the strength to thrive. Indeed this is the legacy he is handing down to future generations of his family. They, in turn, now have a physical record  to hand down to their offspring. Read the rest

Our histories are so easily lost track of, and what a shame that is every time it happens.

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What She Learned About Jack

micRead this article and you’ll understand why I’m interested in gathering and writing personal histories.

It’s called What I Learned From Jack, and it’s from Barbara Allen Burke’s excellent blog I Am Story.

An excerpt:

For the past 2 ½ years, I’ve had my version of Tuesdays with Morrie. I’ve had “Wednesdays with Jack.” Just about every week—with occasional breaks for holidays or travel—I’ve spent a couple of hours with a bright, engaging 89-year-old former military colonel and inveterate sailor. Each week, I’ve gone to Jack’s apartment, armed with a tape recorder, my laptop computer, and an atlas. Jack sits in his favorite chair and I set up my equipment and sit next to him. And then we talk. Read the rest

Click over and you can read a little bit about Jack, and why putting together his family and personal history was so satisfying and rewarding to Barbara.

What a life! (Bonus points if you get it right: Am I talking about Jack, or about the writer?!)

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The Magic of Letters: I Believe It, Too

Wow. I am a huge believer in reading and writing and the power of it all — but have a look or listen to this woman from Nepal, who was a child bride and didn’t learn to read until she was 21.

The story she tells — her story — is enormous and beautiful. Now that is somehow who has learned to appreciate the power of the alphabet. Wow.
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It’s another This I Believe story from over at NPR. What an amazing collection of essays they are gathering, saving, sharing.  People have the most incredible stories. I think everybody probably has one. This woman’s story really struck me.

From her essay, which someone else read in English:

…Before learning how to write, my life was like the nearby Indrasarovar Lake, always stagnant. I had the pain of child marriage, my husband did not support me, abject poverty was my way of life and I didn’t have any skill or courage to do anything. But I saw that the number of people learning to read and write was growing — and their lives were improving. I then realized it was neither wealth nor beauty that I lacked, but letters…

Powerful.

Edited to add: I just stumbled upon a TED presentation (do you know those? fascinating) by Isabel Allende, one of my favorite authors. In her video, she discusses passion and also women. Specifically, the plight of women in much of the non-privileged world — and it brought me back to thinking about this one Nepalese woman’s words. 

Her talk is really worth a listen. It’s humorous (she says someone asked Sophia Loren how she can look so sexy in her 70s, and she replied something like, “Posture. My spine is always straight. And I don’t make old people noises”) and also poignant and important. Listen to it here.

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“This I Believe” on the Importance of Preserving Family Stories

I mentioned that I’ve become a member of the Association of Personal Historians, and I just listened to an interesting “This I Believe” audio story by Stefani Twyford, one of its members, on Houston Public Radio. She talks about family stories and working as a personal historian. From her essay:

Each time I coax a story out of a client, I am excited at the richness of each person’s experience. When the son or daughter of a subject says, “I’ve never heard that! How did you get that story out of her?” I glow inside and feel that I have worked the magic that is my job. I rejoice when extended families get together to watch the video biographies I’ve created for them. And when I hear how many boxes of tissues were needed while viewing the video, a part of me gets emotional, even though it isn’t my family or my story.

It’s an honor and a privilege to help people tell their stories and put it down on a medium that will last. I know that when a great-grandchild asks, “Who was my great-grandfather?” there will be not only a photo and a story, but the child will hear his great grandfather’s voice, see his mannerisms, and hear those stories first-hand.

Listen to it here.

She really captures the magic of capturing people’s stories and preserving them for future generations.

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My Words Are Gonna Linger – Personal Histories

It’s one of my new writing interests, and something I’ve almost always been fascinated by (my uncle once told me I was born a genealogist) — I’m starting to write personal and family histories for people, in order to help preserve some of the great stories people carry around with them.

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I have joined the Association of Personal Historians, which recently launched an anthology of 49 true stories out into the world. From the My Words Are Gonna Linger press release:

New anthology captures stories from real life, told in the authentic voices of the storyteller

TAMPA, FLA February 12, 2009 /PRNewswire/ — The passion for sharing personal stories is not only the most powerful way to pass on the experiences, wisdom and voices of one generation to the next—it’s an expression of a deep human need to shout to the future, “Do not forget me! I was here!”

A new anthology, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History, celebrates the preservation of stories to ensure that our eyewitness accounts of history endure. Available February 1 from Personal History Press, the publishing arm of the Association of Personal Historians, the book differs from other anthologies by providing insight into the memoir-writing process and practical tips on how to start writing your own or someone else’s life story. Read more.

I have been hearing about this book and I’m eager to get my own copy. I thought I’d let you know about it, too.

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