Storytelling as Archaeology: The Weird Stuff in Your Parents’ Basement
A beautiful thing happened on social media over the Thanksgiving weekend. At the request of Jennifer Singer(@jenndangerous), people visiting the homes of their families took to the basement and posted pictures of the treasures they found there. In case you missed it, you should take a break and click here.
I imagine this shared expedition served multiple purposes in the moment: it may have given them something else to do when the pressure of family life and conversation got to be a little too much. In some cases, maybe the presence of these family artifacts confirmed their own suspicions about their family of origins and the alienation they feel around them. Maybe it was a moment for them to connect with other people around the world who see their own families as mysteries to be solved.
Also, it was just really funny.
Though I didn’t join in the game, I know I could have found some amazing stuff in my parents’ basement. I know I could have found an army of Cabbage Patch Dolls, loot from my mother’s relentless pursuit of the most sought-after toy of the early 80s. I know there is a collection of macramé art, marking a time when the best thing people could think to hang on their walls was an elongated owl made out of rope.
The whole thread and phenomenon reminded me of a great poem from Wendell Berry about how storytelling is like archaeology:
How can we be so superior
to “our barbarous ancestors”?
The truth will never be complete
in any mind or time. It will never
be reduced to an explanation.
What you have is only a sack of fragments
never to be filled: old bones, fossils,
facts, scraps of writing, sprawls of junk.
You know yourself only poorly and in part,
the best and the worst maybe forgotten.
However you arrange the pieces, however authentic,
a story is what you’ll have,
an artifact, for better or worse.
So go ahead. Gather your findings into
a plausible arrangement. Make a story.
Show how love and joy, beauty and goodness
shine out amongst the rubble.
Our family archives hold pieces of evidence from several mysteries about who we are. This is as true for the discarded remnants in our basement as it is for our family stories. These strange fossils have contexts: They emerge from seasons of celebration and struggle. They belong to the moments that created them just as much as we do.
As people searched for strange and creepy stuff in their basements, they were also searching for themselves. We all want to understand how and why we are. At least a part of the answer is the collection of stuff we hide—at least until the right hashtag comes along