09 Mar Our Stories Matter
Next week I am moving house again. This will be my 23rd move in 30 years. No … I am not running from the law, I’ve just lived my life as though I were. As per the last 22 moves, I embarked on the ‘packing phase’ with the best of intentions. To ruthlessly purge…. and implement some kind of sophisticated, cutting edge, colour coded box itemisation system (yet to be invented). This was going to be my most organised and seamless move ever. And then I got sucked into a deep abyss of memorabilia and nostalgia and have spent the last two weeks (the very same two that I had allocated to my meticulous packing project) reminiscing … leaving exactly two days to throw everything I own into a mish mash of random boxes that I will deal with at the other end. Go me.
As I was wading through this mire of memorabilia, I realised that the paradox of nostalgia is bittersweet, like a slingshot that catapults your heart between happy and sad. There is a beautiful Portuguese word – Saudade – that sums up the sentiment of nostalgia better than any English word I know. It basically translates to mean a recollection of feelings, experiences or places that once brought pleasure. It is infused with the happiness of having experienced something and sadness in the knowledge that it’s gone. It is equal parts of reverie, melancholy, happy recollection and wistful longing. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.
As I ‘sat in the depths of saudade,’ it became clear that it wasn’t the weird assortment of ephemera I was surrounded by that sparked joy, but rather the memories it was all infused with and the stories that each piece told. It’s the memories and stories that give the mementos their meaning. If memorabilia is defined as ‘things worthy of being remembered,’ then it stands to reason that without the memory, the ‘thing’ has little value. The yellow rose petal pressed between the pages of a 1977 ballet recital program, doesn’t elicit joy per se; it’s just the trigger for a happy memory that lives deep inside me. And ‘Tom’, the doll after whom I named my son, and who bears an uncanny and disturbing resemblance to Chucky (the doll not my son that is), is not particularly special in his own right; he just connects me to wonderful memories of my childhood.
If my kids were tasked with the unenviable job of going through all those memorabilia filled boxes after I was gone, then I doubt that Valerie (the teddy with one arm), or the Avon perfume bottle shaped like a Saint Bernard dog would make the cut. And nor should they, because there is no meaning or joy to be found in those items alone. It’s the memories they’re infused with and the stories that accompany them, that make them precious and define their value. So, if that is true, how do we go about reattaching the memories to the hotch-potch collection of mementos we’re hoarding, so that they have meaning outside of our minds?
As a passionate storyteller, you’d have thought the answer to this question would have been obvious. But it has taken me to now, to realise that stories are the key. Mementos come to life through the magic of stories. They are like the invisible threads that connect memory and meaning. After my Mum died, I inherited a few special things, like her beautiful bone handled cutlery canteen, her silver Glomesh evening purse, a handwritten collection of her favourite recipes and the sapphire eternity ring that Dad gave her when I was born. I treasure all these things, but if I could trade them for her stories, I’d do it in a heartbeat. As Sue Monk Kidd says in her book, The Secret Life of Bees; “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
So, as I systematically (avoid packing) and sift through fifty years worth of memories and mementos, I am feeling overwhelmed by this curatorial desire to reunite at least some of them with their meaning and share the joy that lives inside my own heart and head. Because however the future unfolds, it’s the stories that we leave behind that will endure us. If variety is the spice of life then perhaps stories are the ‘splice’ of life. They are the ligature that connects the past to the future and gives meaning to the present. They help weave together memories of where we’ve come from, give meaning to who we are and provide clarity around where we are going. Our stories define us. Our stories matter.