Tuesday, January 22, 2008

walk down memory lane

whenever i've read anything about the structure of early native societies, i've always been interested in that person whose job it was to be the guardian of the tribes' lineage. that guy who could trace families for generations and could recount the causes for change and upset in the structure of the village.

i'm always impressed by people who have the unique ability to remember names, first and last. am stunned when someone tells a story and is able to include not only the year something happened (skill i lost when i was no longer able to mark years by the grade i was in...) but the season as well!! incredible!

i recently had occasion to spend some time with a "time tracker" in the form of my aunt. she's visiting from ireland. swapping stories one evening she proved to have an encyclopedic knowledge of not only our family's history in each of the regions in which it's taken root, but the histories of our neighbours and relatives thrice removed.

as she spoke, effortlessly weaving names and dates into anecdotes, i began to wonder what her secret was.

a bit of a backseat thriver myself i immediately speculated that, like me, she's always just had her feelers out wherever she's been, taking it all in, unnoticed. i wondered, did she collect these names and connections like i did images? did she write them down or make a mental map when she'd meet someone new, pencilling in a connective line from one to another already embedded in the web?

and how do these lines become etched? are they rehearsed over tea in a neighbour's kitchen when there's nothing on tv? is the information swapped like trading cards on a schoolyard?

women's work it seems. as the idea emerges, i take stock of my previous encounters of these "social web savants" and note that there's not a man in the bunch.

i think of my own trunkful of memories that serves as my coffee table. constant reminder of things past. ever present in my present.

when i question her about her abilities, she shrugs, confused. simply survival. would've been chastised and shut out by the local women if she weren't able to keep the connections straight. wouldn't be able to participate in the conversation if she couldn't keep up. when you're in a small irish town there are rules, scripts to follow.

guess it's like an organizing pattern, a tool , a schema you can use across situations to get yourself sorted, to put things in their place, to determine your place...

as she spoke i kept thinking that someone should write it all down, should film it. felt like hers was a knowledge that couldn't be constructed from paper at a later date by a less skilled hand. listening to her was like watching a skilled craftsman of a trade that few apprentice anymore.

i've lived in my building for five years and don't know a single neighbour by name. ours isn't a shared story anymore. my history isn't stored by those whose walls border mine, it's in cyberspace and digital cameras, happening in parallel with the person at the other end of the telephone line, or email or camera.

who will tell the street's story? where will the new lines be drawn?

don't know that i have answers for that one, don't know that it's necessarily something to be upset about (would be the first to bitch about being stifled by a community that had decided who i was before i opened my mouth..).

just know that i have a sense that i was in the presence of something more than just a storyteller.

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