windows into the past

Mom has been doing some cleaning over the past few years, and from time to time she sends me pieces of my past that she’s come across. Most of these relate to high school or university days (for instance, multiple copies of my university graduate programme, in a box on a shelf), but occasional she finds something properly interesting.

Over the weekend, she sent through a report written at the end of my second grade year, in the summer of 1972. I won’t go into the details, and it has been interesting to reflect on some of the points raised therein, but rather than these specific details, I’d like to spend some time perambulating around the fact of having such a window.

These occasional reports, this recent one and others previous, as close as I will ever come to having a conversation with the young Jimmy, on the cusp of 8 years of age, a time long enough ago that my memories resemble snapshots of moments more than moving pictures. And for those incidents that are formative if only because they’re the moments and memories that persist, we have to accept the possibility that decades of reviewing those memories have corrupted the tape.

I think about this whenever I read history. I’ve recently finished The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, a detailed account of the discussions and deliberations that took place across Europe in the few years leading up to the beginning of World War I in 1914. I enjoyed the book and the exquisite level of detail, but even here we have only what was written down and what survived, and we can only speculate on the conversations of which we have no record.

The farther back we go into our collective human history, the more pervasive an issue this becomes. The written record becomes thinner as we go back through the decades and centuries and millenia. And it’s not just that the record becomes thinner; it’s that what is written becomes more focused on particular areas of our past lives. This might be why we appreciate the individual voices from the past that sometimes arise, in documentaries for instance.

It’s this I think that lead to the reading project I set myself a couple of years ago, to read human writings from the beginning. I am still wandering through the streets of ancient Sumer. I listen to stories whose context I don’t yet understand. I wonder about the events and beliefs that sit behind these stories. And I ache to know what stories we told to each other and our cousins, sitting around fires tens of millenia ago, and what echoes of those stories still inhabit our stories today.

~ by Jim Anderson on 25 October 2020.

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