Award-winning journalist and author Richard Louv explores with wisdom and heart the fragile network that connects people. "Re-enchants the everyday with a simple but graceful elegance". --Body Mind Spirit.
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The Web of Life
Weaving the Values that Sustain Us
By Richard Louv
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1996 Richard Louv
All rights reserved.
The Little Things
The little things. The click of your wife's makeup bottles and brushes in the bathroom in the morning, the subsurface sound of them, a kind of music. The accompaniments: the older boy's bedroom door opening and shutting in haste, a faucet running, a gust of wind in the eucalyptus, the last rain on the window. The little things are what we remember, what we know, of family life. Of life.
The large events have their place, but even the large events of a family's passage are assembled from little things. The rush to the emergency room and the way the air feels there and the brave little chin thrust up beneath the mask, the small choked cry and the sound—especially this sound—of the thread being pulled through the wound, and the way the little hand holds tight to your finger. The little things.
Without realizing it, we can neglect the little things.
Though I have never divorced and my vow is for life, I have like most people experienced a broken relationship or two. Grief does not attach itself so much to the empty space left by the other person, a loss often too abstract to grasp, but to the little things. The vertical space in the closet where familiar clothes once hung. The smell on the pillow or, on the street, a stranger's accent that conjures up a silenced voice.
When our parents and loved ones die, little things come back. Returning home after a death, you find a quilt that wrapped around you long ago, and you remember how the hands felt as they tucked you in. You find yourself startled by the way the dishes are arranged in your parent's kitchen cabinet; you are surprised because you know the arrangement, and you did not know it was so familiar until you looked at it within the context of loss.
The impression most remembered from my grandmother's death is not of the large fact of her body in the casket, but of coming into her cold kitchen a few days afterward and seeing the jar of mincemeat cookies, which she often made for me and my brother. In the jar, then, they were covered with mold.
Just as family grief is articulated by little things, so is joy. Here is an exercise: Go through your house when everyone is away and, in the silence, look for these little things.
In my house, I see the drawing of Wyoming with the owl in the tree singing, "Ho, ho, ho," and the little wooden toolbox, with the name Matt carved on the side, filled with crayons, some of them peeled. The smell of them connects you in time. The crumbs on top of the toaster, the empty cereal boxes left out, seem suddenly precious. So do the stacks of games—Candyland, Clue, Monopoly. Each family's Monopoly is stamped with its unique patina of worn corners and stained Chance cards. Little things.
The fishing rods leaning against the corner of the garage, some from my own childhood, some bought for the boys. The rods stand tall together. Shelves filled with books; most of them old, neglected friends, each with a story to tell.
A balsa glider on the stairs. At the top of the landing, a small landscape, a stop-time mountain scene painted in oils by the boys' grandfather. Once, twice, the bullfrog in my older son's room harrumphs, because spring is coming; in a distant time, when my sons or my wife or I, alone or together, drive past some stream or pond surrounded by reeds shaking with redwing blackbirds, we will hear this particular booming sound and in it recognize these years of our family life.
In the largest bedroom, the smell of a comforter; and in the closet, my wife's clothing hangs neat and fresh. And all around the room the bottles of roses, which she has carefully dried over seventeen years, all the roses I have given, not one missed. And beside the bathtub a thick, red, scented candle with lots of time left in it.
Here is the next part of this exercise: When your family is home again, listen to them, watch them, wait for the sounds and smells and tilted chins and the shouted competitions between the children and the sighs of the house as it slips into sleep. Hold these things. These little things are everything.
Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years.
The Essence of Family
Memory, it seems to me, is the essence of family; the longer and deeper the memory, the stronger the family. By stronger I do not necessarily mean better. Just stronger.
I was talking to a friend the other day about memory. We were sharing a feeling that we both have had, but seldom discuss, that we are the bearers of our parents, the vessels that hold the images and sounds and touch of them.
"Nobody will ever have the memories of my family that I have," my friend said. "Sometimes it gets almost creepy weird that a sound, a smell, will set it off—will almost bring the spirit back, and at times I do feel the presence of my parents."
But what happens when the vessel breaks, when I am no longer around to remember? Do these ashes of memory disappear?
I am thankful that I can call my brother on the telephone, sometimes late at night; I am here and he is in Eureka, but we can walk across old ground together. Sometimes, walking across this old ground, we see our parents approaching. Of course, my brother and I do not see them with the same eyes, but rather with a kind of overlapping stereo vision. At the very least, our sharing brings into more vivid relief the people and landscapes of the past.
But memory is tricky. Scientists are often amazed at the faithfulness of memory, but their studies have shown memory to be both powerful and fragile, constantly reshuffling and gradually decaying in the brain. We tend to remember best what we have experienced in stress or intense emotion; this means that the expanse of our memory does not accurately reflect the fullness of our pasts. Moreover, "source amnesia" is common; we can recall a fact or anecdote but cannot remember where we learned it. Source memories are the quickest to decay.
When I think about the fragility of my memory, that it will not only disappear someday but that it is already changing, I am filled with both fear and relief. Fear that I may lose my memory; relief that, rather than dying, my memory will, in a sense, lead a life of its own, and therefore can live on without me.
I remember, in the 1970s, sitting at a table in a dimly lit room on the Northern Cheyenne reservation with Marie Sanchez, a tribal judge and firebrand. Surrounded by her family, holding her grandchild tightly wrapped, she told me about her great-great-grandfather, Little Wolf, the Cheyenne chief who, in the late 1800s, led his people out of forced confinement in Oklahoma back to their native country in what is now Montana. She told how, for thousands of miles, Little Wolf and his people had evaded U.S. soldiers by building sweat lodges, entering them, and emerging hundreds of miles away.
To Sanchez, this story of spiritual transport was absolutely true, historically and personally. As she told it, surrounded by extended family and tribe, she often used the words "we" and "I," as if she had been a participant in the long escape. This is one of the traits of mythic memory; not trapped in time or place, it becomes our own. Orally, this story had been passed down for a century, and it had never lost its power. It had, in fact, lived and grown.
In my culture, though, memory does not live as easily. Most of us are not surrounded by extended family or tribe; we are more nomadic and fragmented than even the most traditionally nomadic tribes, and our personal memories compete with an overpowering, never-ending onslaught of information. As a result, it is too easy to discount our family memories. Not enough action. The plots are obscure. No name actors.
Still, my memories and yours are unique. There is nothing like them in the world. Each set is a work of neurological art. If I owned a Picasso, I would not leave it out in the rain. The memories we carry should be treated with as much respect. We should find somewhere safe to put our memories, and the safest place is not in our own vessel, because it will inevitably break.
The way to preserve our memories is to make gifts of them. We make our collections of videotape and Kodachrome; we keep diaries; we write family histories; we pass on family stories to our children and to what we can muster of a tribe of friends, and we call our brothers and sisters late at night and walk old ground with them. And the memories, like children with lives of their own, move on.
Preserving Our Stories
Our stories, our personal stories, our family stories, are our real gold. If we're lucky, as we age, we put our stories in the bank, where they gather interest, in deepening meaning.
"As I grew up, I loved listening to my grandparents' stories," a friend, Liz, told me recently. "I was drawn to their calm and intrigued by the scope of their lives. I remember my grandmother telling stories about my Great-Aunt Ag, who once modeled camisoles and ladies' undergarments."
Today, Liz's family members rarely tell stories.
Somehow we assume that if a story isn't in the video store or on TV, it must not be worth much.
"One evening I was baby-sitting the nine-year-old daughter of a friend. This little girl loves to hear about her mother's life. So she asked me to tell her a story about my childhood, and I was struck with panic. I couldn't think of a thing. I know I have stories. But here was a child asking me for something so simple as a story and I couldn't think of one.
"I learned two things that night. One was that I had lost touch with the stories I grew up with; and two, I'm not making many new stories. Maybe the lives we lead today are mind-numbing, and not the source of many good stories. A lot of the stuff of good stories has to do with family life and we have precious little time for that now."
It's tough to live good stories when you're stuck in traffic.
Author Rexford Brown contends that true literacy is impossible without the ability to value and tell our stories. Brown describes a Navajo school, where one-third of the children come to class illiterate in two languages, English and their native tongue, an indirect, storytelling language that is fading from the culture.
At the reservation he studied, a medicine man stood up at a school board meeting and told a story about twins, one crippled, the other blind: the blind one carries the crippled one, and the crippled one guides them with his eyes; both of them are looking for signs to give their lives meaning and end their wandering. Together, they make their story.
The medicine man went on to attack the schools for neglecting the native language, and for failing to realize that Navajo children have traditionally learned through experience, not books or videos or computers. And he chastised his own Navajo people for losing touch with their inheritance of stories and legends.
In a sense, all over America, children are losing their inheritance. They're bused long distances to what amount to educational reservations: schools colonized by bureaucratic story-killing language, schools too often cut off from neighborhood or family. But there are exceptions. "I did find a teacher in Kentucky who created a coal curriculum," Brown says. "He took everything back to square one, and related every part of the class study to coal and to miners: this is what we know. We know coal. Kids need context."
So do the rest of us.
Mental hospitals and our parks are populated with people who have lost their stories or their connection to other people's stories. Nonetheless there seems to be a growing hunger out there. The reaction to the PBS Civil War series is an example of how starved people are for powerful, authentic stories about real people, about ourselves and our legacies. And the new popularity of salons—where people get together to do that most radical of acts, talk face-to-face—suggests the hunger.
A college friend, Jewell Scott of Kansas City, told me about a special recent evening, in which her friends' family stories came together. "I was invited to a party to which each person brought their favorite childhood food. The evening began with exclamations over the various dishes—homemade macaroni and real cheese, salmon patties and apple pie and chocolate chip cookies. One dish was cooked right at the party in an authentic, 1960s vintage, Harvest Gold electric skillet"
"What is it?" everyone asked. They peered into the layers of sliced red potatoes with shredded cheese and crumbled bacon, crowned with eggs poaching in the melting cheese.
"It's 'potato stuff,'" the cook responded.
The group reveled in the old-fashioned tastes of real eggs, butter, animal fat, sugar, and cholesterol. After the last apple pie and ice cream had been eaten and they had discussed whether it was better to eat well and live long or eat "good" and die young, the talk returned to their childhoods, their families, and their feelings about them.
Though they had known one another for years, they had never shared these stories, and what they learned was remarkable. "Three of us were descended from circuit-riding ministers who brought the Gospel to the wild Midwest of the mid- to late 1800s. One grandmother had lived in the northern plains. From Texas to Canada, these great-grandparents we remembered had seen their world change from saddles and shotguns and lonely prairies to electric lights, central air conditioning, and jet travel.
"Our own parents merited our respect for their experiences in the Great Depression and World War II and for rearing their children through a time of incredible rebellion against them and their values. As we sat on the redwood deck, sipping our Chablis and watching a police helicopter cut through the starlit urban sky, we marveled at the legacies they share and how we so rarely talk about them."
The group yearned a bit for the simpler days of "potato stuff" and visits to their grandparents to hear them spin stories of a different time and place. They wondered whether they would live to be eighty or ninety or one hundred, and laughed about how many years the evening's meal had subtracted from their lives.
"And, finally, the evening ended without any conclusion to the most important question: Would we bring to our old age a sense of humor, patience and kindness that would make us lovable, likable human beings and, someday, thirty or forty or fifty years from now, would there be any reason for another group of partygoers to remember us and our incredible lives?"
When children are asked to define family, they are more forgiving than many adults, and more accurate.
Valeria Lovelace, Sesame Street's director of research, asked children to define family. Children, in her study, were most likely to identify "Mr. and Mrs. Brown and Billy" as a family. "However, later on in the interviews," says Lovelace, "we said Mr. and Mrs. Brown and Billy live together but they don't love each other. Are they a family?" Half the children who had earlier identified Mr. and Mrs. Brown and Billy as a family now said no, they were not a family. "In the minds of three- to five year olds, when you say 'family,' they don't just think about a configuration, but an expectation of love and caring as well. When they talk about family, they talk about love. They talk about caring."
Excerpted from The Web of Life by Richard Louv. Copyright © 1996 Richard Louv. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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