My mother-in-law has been giving some thought to what she might like to take with her when she moves one last time. When I asked her which of her keepsakes were most important to her she said immediately, “My pictures!” I could relate to that sentiment since I have been in charge of family photography. Recently I digitalized all of that wealth so that my next move will be easier.
The task of cleaning out storage lockers, cupboards, closets, attics or sheds can be onerous and honouring. Through the layers of dust, artifacts of a personal nature are revealed. Letters and journals can be examined to make a time stamp, like rings on a tree stump, showing what was going on in our past, in times passed. Sorting comes easy when items literally break apart in your hands. Things that someone once thought might retain value, are not even yard sale worthy. Then again the adage,’One man’s junk is another man’s treasure’ continues to contain a nugget of truth.
I met up with a fellow who ran a New Immigrant Fellowship based around learning how to use a bicycle. My in-laws created a new memory for themselves by donating the wheels they had used when they were still able to peddle. In my job as cleaner/sorter in this downsizing adventure it is helpful to work with someone who sees value in letting go. I believe some of our curios are meant to make someone else smile. Clothes can be laundered and given away. Garden tools can be offered up to create new gardens of earthly delights.
My special mom has treasures from her daughter and grandkids that help her remember things hard to recapture. She wants to pass on family heirlooms. She has a pottery figurine she likes to have right next to her bed. It’s curious what each of us counts as treasure. I used to wonder what my birth mother was thinking as she stroked an old deckle edged Kodak black&white photograph. It was one taken of her sister, its corners now softened to the consistency of linen.
What we keep may be ‘art-in-fact’. Respect must be shown to the original owner of the relic. Museums around the world are coming to terms with this truth; that their cultural artifacts (some involving human remains) may have been procured under false pretences. Governments are seeking to rectify and reconcile with Indigenous People who have had their heritage put on display. Justice for these situations may be found through repatriation; a giving back of what was not ours to begin with.
I can’t imagine what I might leave behind as an artifact. I’ve already discarded things I once thought useful but no longer found important enough to shelve or even seal in a box. I can be very sentimental when exposed to an idea. I can cry when I see an artist earnestly creating. Generally though, old things are just curiosities to me. I’m an old thing after all, and pretty curious to boot.
My dad was a great story teller. It took patience to listen to his picturesque anecdotes about his day at work, his thoughts on clover, his belief that we all mattered. He rarely repeated a story. Each new day brought new material for him to wonder over. Each tale was embellished beyond practicality. For my father, the act of storytelling was the most important thing. He once held my sister and me captive as he dramatized his amazement over the amount of condensation he had had to wipe from a bathroom window after he had taken a shower.
His presence in my life was undervalued when I was young. His legacy remains however, as I have recorded that joy of the awesomeness of life by journaling. I have kept anecdotal thoughts on the events of my life in diaries, on note pads, in newspaper columns and internet blogs. I’m not alone, nor unique really, since anecdotes are the history of humankind.
Society can dismiss information that comes from others as not being accurate or not science based. Yet we do love to gossip. Often evidence in a trial is invalidated if it is anecdotal but get a large enough group to say they believe in something then fiction becomes truth. Old wives have been shamed for hundreds of years just because their tales were considered suspiciously held. Stories that are passed down from one generation to another may lack documentation but that doesn’t necessarily make them untrue. An oral history can indeed be worthy of note.
Indigenous peoples of the world have taught us colonizers that stories from our elders can be genuine. We can trust what our mom or dad or grandparents tell us. Take the recent discovery of the two ships from the Franklin expedition in 1813 as an example of the value of anecdotal evidence. Searches using various scientific methods were conducted on many occasions but it wasn’t until oral heritage descriptions from Inuit stories were analyzed that the search narrowed to the location of discovery. Now the area is a Parks Canada Historic sight.
Speaking or writing anecdotally is sort of an analogue version of history. We may not need to gather around the tribal campfire anymore but family gatherings always enable experiences to be shared in an informal way. At the family level or nationally this is heritage talk. Inevitably there are paper trails to be followed when one is researching antiquity. There are legal documents, court reports, death notices, registries of births. The pages will sit in some file, or listed in a computer data base, maybe even laminated and framed for posterity. My eldest son is a historian. He does painstaking research through various archival sources but the final product he creates reads like one of my dad’s stories.
Tales of where we have come from or who we were can act as a guide for us to discover our own lost wrecks.
Any Star Trek fan will tell you that The Prime Directive is the primary consideration whenever contact is made with another life. I’m priming the metaphorical pump here, when I suggest that this fictional Star Fleet Regulation is relevant to current discussions surrounding colonialism. In our real world of the late 15th century, explorers were faced with similar moral dilemmas yet were emboldened by The Doctrine of Discovery to claim whatever land was found for God and Crown. Aboriginal land was considered prime real estate by powerful naval nations. The expectation was to expand the Empire, fully sanctioned by the powers of the day. Living things, including fellow humans, were either considered in the way or resources to be used by the conquerors. Settlement and extraction of wealth was the prime directive. Throughout the world there is currently a renewed accounting of the results of this maniacal arrogance.
It’s enough to make anyone want to give a Primal Scream. Countless millions of lives lost like so much prime beef: Disregarding, dismissing and debasing fellow humans by renaming them as Primitive. Disgusting! Impossible to escape from the reality of man’s inhumanity to man. Seemingly impossible to reconcile the idea of human progress with all that degradation. Information we were fed in schools is sanitized through the lens of the victor. In my experience, public schools in the 1950s and sixties did not promote diverse historical viewpoints. In the countries affiliated with the British Empire, the pink area on old maps, we were taught to honour the establishment of the colonies. We traced maps and learned of benevolent conquest. We wrote essays about the captains of tiny ships who sailed through impossibly vast seas. Between the lines researchers can reveal grasping power hungry individuals, corrupt systems, antithetical religions and evil societies. The injustice has always been there and new evidence of it is being brought to light everyday. Truth is being spoken. Secrets are being exposed. Lies are being challenged. Apologies are being made. There is a demand to have these errors acknowledged by current governments.
And still the primal patterns of power and racism continue.
I dream of a world where we are united by discovery and share what we find. Our planet suffers due to our selfishness. As shepherds of the Earth we are failing to unite around a common healthy cause. Primarily we seek to serve our own needs regardless of the consequence to others. It seems a grim reality, an inconvenient truth even, that our primary function is to satisfy our urges. I’d like to believe that science has the answer: a Unified Theory of Everything as envisioned by the likes of Stephen Hawking. I wonder if there is a place of thought where it’s understood that individuals are like prime numbers sometimes and composite numbers at other times. Yet it’s impossible to dream up an appropriate metaphor for what it means to be human. We don’t fit into Number Theory. We have names. We are far from being mathematically perfect. We are all united by life.
When I first started writing this blog my only followers were my friends and family. I remember my niece asking; “How can you write about such personal things?” I told her that I didn’t think I was giving away any secrets. “But what about your privacy!” She countered. Well, I told her that there are some things I consider private and I guess it matters only to me what I might consider to be a secret. I honour the people in my life by never telling their private story, only mine. Their secret is safe with me.
Most cultures have body boundaries. Privacy comes with a perimeter. When there is little room for privacy, we may be cautioned not to look, out of respect. Children are taught early what parts of their body require coverage in public. Modesty is often determined by these early codes of conduct. An uncovered window is a privation for some and a source of liberation for others. In this way privacy suggests a space that surrounds us but it can also be within us; as in the privacy of our own thoughts, where no one may enter.
Comedians make a joke of this sort of conundrum by saying things like, ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’ My mother warned me early in my life that what happened in our house was no one’s business but ours. She would often say things like, “This is a private matter between your father and me.” Keeping a secret involves information. Information that someone else might want. I never thought anything that happened in my family would be of interest to anyone, anyway.
Privacy is a big issue in the www. world. Our devices are becoming so linked that it is harder to police your own privacy. We are told that if we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear, yet our private stuff is entrusted to a Cloud.
There are many instances in life where the difference between private and secret gets fuzzy. For example, after a death you often hear family members requesting that they have privacy, out of respect for their grief. The death is likely known in the community, so that much isn’t a secret. Yet sometimes the circumstances surrounding the death may become a closely guarded secret by family members who feel that the cause of death itself is a private matter.
Many Canadians have kept the realities of the Indigenous Residential School System like a secret. Privately, many things were done in these state sanctioned institutions that have brought grave dishonour unto a people. Awful secrets cannot stay private for long. Secrets like these must be uncovered so that all may find healing. Original intention does not matter. Excuses don’t count. A healthy society is responsible for making amends. All citizens have a right to privacy and in that private space a determination must be found to eliminate secrets. For secrets are like lies, impossibly fragile and destructive even before they come to light.
Truth must come first.
Harvest is an old word that continues to gather new meaning. Harvest is the very act of gathering. For as long as there has been something to sow there has been something to reap. The word can be connected to autumn and the farmer’s harvest of crops. A hunter or fisher can return with sufficient catch for family or village. There is hope laced through the harvest. We wish that the abundance will be sustaining, bringing us emotional, spiritual and physical energy. We are all harvesters in that sense.
An urban worker can think that the weekly paycheque is a type of harvest for tasks completed. The feeling of reward that comes from harvesting the results of our efforts can bring much joy. It’s no wonder that history is filled with tales of harvest festivals and fairs. I used to go to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. Beginning in 1897, its origins were agricultural yet as time passed it became a celebration of industrial and technological harvest. Annually, we got to see, touch and hear all the newest products and services that were the result of research and development. Likewise World’s Fairs, such as the breathtaking spectacle in 1939 New York show us the results of harvesting the ingenuity of humanity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIlhPFasI38
Harvest has a lot to do with assuring the future. A successful harvest ensures continued progress and healthy outcomes. There may be insurance for a failed agricultural crop but there is non for a dead planet. When it comes to our planet’s biological resources we have often failed in our harvesting. We have let greed guide the way rather than maintaining a sustainable resource. We’ve made a mistake thinking that the Earth will always provide. Numerous examples around the world show that we can’t continue taking without an eye to the future consequences. When I visited Newfoundland recently I was gobsmacked to learn just how significant the collapse, in 1992, of the cod fishery was to the inhabitants. Harvesting is more than an activity, it can be an entire culture. In this tragic, almost Biblical, scenario I saw meaning of the phrase ‘You reap what you sow.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aG8bSNpEGoE
Harvesting in the absence of stewardship is irresponsible. Monetary gain has to be removed as a motivator for harvesting non renewable resources. Climate change realities have been apparent for decades. I remember my university environmental science professor telling us in 1974 that the world’s ice fields were melting at a dangerously fast rate. Climate activists are now warning that the rampant harvest of fossil fuels will continue this warming trend and result in the ocean’s rising and flooding of coastal communities.
A responsible harvester takes only what is needed and saves the rest for a proverbial rainy day. Gluttony is ill advised. These harvest values have been the bedrock of civilization. Just as the sun sets and the moon rises, the earth will likely survive with us or without us. I’d like to contribute to the bounty. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMjDc8MJotU
One of my favourite concepts is infinity. I used to tease my students with the notion that if we had a chance to travel in a straight line in space, we would never stop and we would never encounter a wall. In relation to time, infinity means forever. In regard to space, infinity is limitless. Scientists have tried to calculate the beginning of time and space. Referring to this moment as the Big Bang, they have concluded that the Universe (as close a synonym for infinity as I can imagine) was created almost 14 billion years ago. Every year, during this lesson, one of my students would tease me back by asking; “What came before the Universe?”
Because infinity is so incomprehensible we prefer to think in a finite way. Sorting things into boxes brings us a sense of order. Scheduling things on a calendar or in a day-timer app on our cell phones gives us a feeling that when we start something it will have a predictable finish. Thinking in a finite way reduces randomness and gives us the illusion of control. How else are we to comprehend the vastness of time and space if we don’t create within it, a structure?
In relationships we may romanticize the idea that a special union, like a marriage, can last at least as ‘long as ye both shall live’. ‘Forever and Ever’ is how we may conclude a prayer in the security of believing that some things never end. Organized religion and other power structures have helped us to feel calmer about the shortness of our individual lives in relation to the infinite expanse of time and space. We are encouraged to think that our spirits will live on and our earth will last for future generations. However, we all know that someday our bodies will cease to support and transport our essence. There is no practical way, save for Cryogenics, to extend our body’s natural life span. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Bedford
The Metis flag is an infinity character on a blue background, symbolically suggesting that a people lasts forever. Indigenous people have an oral history that indicates reverence for the natural and lasting world. Currently, in Canada and elsewhere, aboriginal tribes have gathered to protest against political structures that don’t recognize the sacredness of Earth. When I was a child summer seemed to last forever. I felt secure that water would always flow clean and the land would always grow stuff. I worry that I, along with my white ancestors, have messed up the planet so badly that my grandchildren will inherit an environmental apocalypse.
We are about to begin a new calendar year. We will talk for a while about new possibilities or a fresh start. We may encourage our young folk to believe that their lives contain infinite opportunities. I’m hoping that I will do more than wishful thinking. I am an idealist at heart. Perhaps I’m hopeful in a similar fashion as a grade two student who once said she liked me, “Infinity plus one.”