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Things, Family Stories, and Choosing New Narratives

Telling new stories through things


The fragile china cups stored in the back of the cabinet rattle against one another as we take them out of the cabinet where they have been stored for the past year. As we lay them out on the dining room table, deciding which ones we want to use for our Christmas parties, I ask my mom to tell me their stories. Which Aunt gave us this one? Where did my grandmother get that one? And then the Christmas decorations; several of the decorations are 50 years old, carrying with them the stories of many Christmases with various configurations of friends and family helping us to hang them or create stories about them.

All these material things: they can just sit there, or they can come to have a life of their own, interacting with the energy of everyone around us. And they can become conduits to hear stories - from older family members; re-interpretations by younger family members.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m just a curator,” my mother once complained. She has rebound old family bibles, framed family portraits, taken in random antique objects to learn their history - and see if they are worth anything (often not, to her chagrin).

But when she has a chance to talk about the objects, they go from being objects to conduits of stories. And as we tell the stories, we have a chance to change the stories we tell.

The meaning of the Christmas Tree, for example, is vast. There are the old celebrations from pre-Christian times: the evergreen tree was of particular symbolic value in an ecosystem where all the other trees lost their leaves and the world was white and dark. There are the generations of families in America who have celebrated the birth of Jesus with a tree; the multi-million dollar Christmas decorations industry; each family’s individual stories of the meaning of trees, the specific decorations, the year when everything went wrong.

Christmas trees work as a symbol in part because so many different meanings can become associated with it. They don’t have just one meaning: that’s their power.

And because so many different meanings are possible, we have a degree of choice of the stories we tell about them.

So we can ask questions, such as, what does this symbol (Christmas tree, particular song, favorite food) mean to you? Where does it come from? What kind of human- earth stories do you associate with it?

Objects can become exceptionally good ways to learn about families - but also to retell their stories. How else might other people who created the object, or who traded it, or who fought for it, or who yearned after what it represented, tell the story of the same thing?

One of the biggest challenges we face in this current era is how do we change the story of who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Holiday time with family can be an amazing time to do this. Time with relatives can be time to illicit those stories you’ve been meaning to record (deciding if you want to use oral recording or written or a hybrid is an important question).

Or it can be disastrous. Beware of the arguments that something as “simple” as a holiday ornament might illicit. Sometimes we don’t know what emotions objects hold for others - or what meaning has been lost or embittered over time.

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© 2018 by Sequoia Samanvaya, LLC