A holy clutter

Journals and other memorabilia tell the holy stories of our lives
October 31, 2004

There are some things you cannot throw away.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are useful or not, troublesome or not, or even if you bother to look at them very often. They remain with you, mute and haunted by the past, perhaps a bit shabby, but for all that a part of the luggage you carry through the years.

Now you may think I’m speaking of such things as habits, good or bad, or spiritual values mindlessly held or other such metaphysical matters, but I’m not. I’m talking about solid, material objects, the kind you pack in a box and take care to see safely stowed when you move. Things more useful and perhaps more beautiful come into our lives and leave them, usually via the Goodwill bag, but these stay with us.

Until a few weeks ago, I was -- I believe “custodian” might be the proper word -- of two hefty scrapbooks and a diary kept by my father as a record of his wartime service in the army. They were boxed, neatly sealed and labeled, and never looked at, a quintessential example of the things that cannot be thrown away. When something reminded me of them, it was always with the vague idea that they should be dealt with. Only when I chanced on a small news item, however, and followed it with a web search, did I discover the Military History Institute and a voice on the phone that warmly welcomed my contribution.

I repacked the books gently in a new, clean box -- and of course I looked through them first. And I began to understand, as I hadn’t before, that the reason such things can’t be thrown away is not because of their sentimental value but because of their stories.

Stories are what we live by, the way we define ourselves. They are the chartings of the sacred journey of our lives, a journey that is the unique experience of each and every one of us. It is by our stories that we preserve the events, the actions and the thoughts that shape us. My father’s scrapbooks are holy, the journal you jot in is holy, the snapshots your cousin treasures in a special box are holy, the newsy letters your mother writes at Christmas are holy. And they are holy because they are the way we understand ourselves and thus the way we understand the universe we live in and the God we worship.

There is more. In my father’s books there are several group photos, and over the heads of some of them a name has been neatly inked. Why? Did my father suspect that the passing of time would blur those faces, erase those names from his memory? Or was there another reason, a reason he himself may not have been entirely aware of but that was dictated by the very nature of story itself?

I keep an off-and-on (mostly off) journal, and the best thing about it is the cover, which is a pleasant shade of red. Inside it are short records of events, opinions not always charitable, scraps of poetry and ideas grabbed by the tail feathers before they could get away. In short, it is a book I would shudder to think anyone else might read, and yet over and over I find myself recording explanations (“Diana, who was a friend I met in college ...”) my future self will never need.

This, it seems, is a necessity of stories so powerful that we instinctively observe it even in the most private of our documents: When we tell a story, we presuppose a hearer or a reader. It is no accident that some of the most resonant words in our religious lexicon -- communion, community, communication -- all come from the same root.

It is only in contact with others, I think, that we tell the stories of our lives and thus define ourselves. In journals and memoirs, in letters and photos and postcards, we detail our doings as if we cannot truly understand them except at one remove, as if we cannot see even our own reality except at one remove. Somehow we recognize that our stories have meaning only in the context of the wider human community.

And then we tell them to each other. We tell them at fieldside and streetside and over the dinner tables and water coolers of the world, all in the relentless conviction that they are somehow important, somehow valuable, somehow essential to our being.

And of course we are right. Our stories are not only ours; they are also a part of the great heritage and legacy of our kind, a part, small but necessary, in our ongoing definition of what it is to be human. We rebel with passion against the idea that they should be lost, and so, with words written and words spoken and images preserved, we make our stay against oblivion; we ram our fingers into the dike that holds back the dark.

So we must tell our stories, and then we must tell them again. They are very holy.

The Military History Institute collects U.S. Army diaries and other memorabilia for all eras and archives them for future historians; similar organizations exist for other branches of the military. All may be located through Google or other Internet search engines.

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