I’ve got a course coming up and I’ve been revising and updating my handouts and materials. It’s a course that encourages people to pass on their personal stories within their own families. They do it by putting together reminiscences, experiences, everyday thoughts… the stuff of conversation. And assembling these as a well-bound book.
In the course of my recent revisions, I spoke to a few bookbinders. One pointed out to me that someone who did as I was suggesting, and passed it on in their family, could well be responsible for the only book to be found in the home of a descendant, decades or centuries from now.
The course is called With Love: gifting your stories to grandchildren.
Imagine having in your family a book of personal writings that had been handed down, generation to generation for 400-500 years.
There's no quick way to come up with a treasure like that — but it's never too late to start. And for the past 24 years, I’ve offered these courses in New Zealand, Scotland and Canada.
Through the ages, in every culture you can think of, elders have handed on their stories. It has to continue. It's a responsibility they have to the younger generations. My hope’s long been to encourage more of our elders to meet that responsibility and make their gift to the future.
It’s something that's a bit weak in the West — we've got used to thinking the big, public stories are the really 'important' ones.
But start listening to the ordinary stories of ordinary people: you’ll find them connecting time and again with the universal experiences of humanity, and with each other. Story-sharing is the start of every friendship and the best stories are about the ordinary, personal things that touch us all.
But, especially across generations, people can find it difficult to hand stories on. The extended family no longer sits around the fire. As a teacher of cultural awareness to people working across cultures as nurses, journalists, police officers — young people who often knew very little about their immediate ancestors — I saw that as the problem to be overcome.
The need seemed to be for some new medium. It had to be compact, portable, reproducible ... durable and robust, and it would help if it had an increasing potential value. It needed to be easily accessible, independently attractive and as independent of particular technologies as possible.
It’s so simple it sounds silly, but the best option is to make a book: a special book that can become an heirloom. My inspiration was a friend’s family Bible, damaged but not destroyed, that spent six months under water before being salvaged from the wreck of the ferry Wahine that sank in New Zealand’s Cook Strait in 1968.
I’ve since been totally persuaded by the splendid collections of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany: properly constructed books are the way to go.
THE FIRST With Love course was offered it as an adult short course in 1988 at Whangarei, New Zealand, where I was teaching journalism and cultural awareness.
I remember a bit of official discomfort with the title but to me it was the only title that made sense of what I was trying to achieve with the course. I wanted to express my skills and experience in the simplest possible way to encourage people to hand on their own stories so that their children's children would have a keener sense of who they are and where they have come from.
I saw With Love as an approach, not as a single, simply-explained thing. Explanation wasn't the point... doing it was the point.
I put a lot of myself into that first course. I couldn't believe how well it went: and those wonderful people! They fired me up to offer the course whenever I could and I've done that over the years." And their popularity steadily grew.
We are living in the midst of ephemera… more and more of our experience is virtual and none of it seems to lead anywhere that’s particularly reassuring on enlightening. So I see more and more people sacrificing intellect, integrity and aspirations for almost any kind of apparent certainty. As the West continues to be drawn inexorably into ever-greater centralization of power and wealth, so it falls towards collapse: it the old, oft-repeated cycle of centralization and collapse.
As victims, we victimize; living without assurances or consequence, we grow assertive… and all we achieve seems to further the dissipation of meaning and responsibility. Visions meet with skepticism, ideals meet cynicism, creativity meets exploitation, and acquisition compounds disappointment. We can even lose the courage to be joy-filled and hopeful.
But the World continues to throw up beauty all around us — we just have to be bothered to look and listen — so our anguished confusion is not absolute, nor its it to do with reality — it’s within. It’s existential.
Each of us needs to know who we are. That’s a gift our elders can give us, no matter how right, wrong or misled they have been about the perplexities of modernity and postmodernity.
I launched the ‘With Love’ courses at a time when I was living in a community where that wasn’t happening: I came to realize that very few of my young journalism and nursing students had a clear or helpful sense of their personal origins and influences. Busy lives, mobility and social change had interrupted the age-old flow of wisdom from one generation to the next. The ordinary, intimate family stories were seldom getting told. So I went to my students’ grandparents — in person. They told me there was never time.
The extended family no longer sits around the fire.
But I have since found, over and over again, that a lovingly-prepared and well-presented collection of personal writing inevitably attains a value of its own and is probably the best way to hand on stories that might otherwise never be told.
One day, someone in the family will read one of the stories. And another.
Once one story is read, it can never be “un-read”: it has broken the barriers of time and place… and generations yet unborn may one day start writing their stories too…
We all need a sense of selfhood, of existential “rightness” or “fitness”, of necessary continuity, to withstand the torrents of ephemeralism and resist the pressures to conform to ideologies and dogmas that are, all too clearly, calamitous.
We need to know who we are — as unique individual human beings — before we can approach other people and other cultures with the confidence, respect and compassion that are needed to save us from self-destruction. That confidence, respect and compassion can open doors to new ways of being together as people and as communities, of sharing, of trusting, of finding firm common ground… of making a future that works.
|The book is currently out of print: sorry about that.|