Recently I attended a writing workshop offered by Poetry Hickory. For those of you who don’t know, Poetry Hickory is a monthly gathering of readers and writers at Taste Full Beans, a coffee shop in downtown Hickory. It’s organized by Scott Owen.
That evening Jaki Shelton Green, a revered North Carolina poet, shared how objects can inform writing. She told us of a nail that has been handed down in her family since slave times. As the story goes, one of her ancestors was sold to another white family, and as the mother ran after the buck wagon whisking her daughter away, a nail fell to the ground. The woman picked it up and sewed it into the hem of her skirt for safekeeping. The nail has since been handed down for more than 150 years.
Such a dramatic story gives me goose bumps. Later, the dozen or so of us shared brief stories of objects that we had brought with us. They were as varied and interesting as the people telling them. A toy plastic truck, a driver’s license, an Air Force navigation computer, a diploma.
My object was a small pocket diary from 1965, and shared that at age 10 I had kept my daily comings and goings in its pages. Such unrelated events as “Made ant cemetery. Watched Johnny Carson. Had a milkshake.”
The diary is precious to me because it was my first attempt at keeping a daily log. I get this honestly. My mother kept her diary from 1929 to 1963, a remarkable feat. Reading through her pages, I confront my younger self, the day I was born, and the days I progress up to age 8. And then one day my mother stopped writing. Life got in the way, things got too complicated and knowing that she could never recapture all those lost days she gave up.
In 1965 she hoped that she could pass the writing gene to me. For six months. I wrote what I was doing in fifth grade, of Girl Scout meetings, class assignments, playmates, piano lessons and a fantastic trip we took to California and back. The diary serves as a document, a personal and a family history. No one can argue when and where we went on that trip. It’s all there in my fifth-grade handwriting. And then on June 17, 1965, almost halfway through the year, I stopped writing. Keeping a diary requires dedication and discipline, two qualities I had not yet fully developed. And out of frustration and hopelessness, I gave up.
My mother would be pleased to know that her effort wasn’t in vain. I still keep a journal on my computer (with backup of course). I have done so since May 17, 2001. It has served to oil rusty memories and settle arguments. When did we buy that car? When did we visit DC? When did we replace that water heater? When was our niece born? My journal settles it,
It’s also a historical document for me and my family. Someday someone may delve into my typewritten pages and learn what life was like in the early 2000s—not that my life is particularly important or exciting, but how it, like all other lives, matters. My thing is to write it down. Maybe yours is to tell stories or to capture them in photos or another art medium.
Our stories are part of a greater story that connects us to everyone else who has ever lived or is yet to be born.