Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Experiment in Context
Every story has a plot, characters and conflict resolution to carry it along. It also—at least if it is captivating enough to be mind-bending—carries a meta-message. This theme sometimes serves to tickle our altruistic—or at least sophisticated—side in tempting us to think the effort we are participating in (trading our precious limited time for a running stream of tens of thousands of words) really is, after all, for a worthy cause. We are educating ourselves. Or enlightening ourselves. Or vicariously experiencing someone else's agony which will somehow make us, afterwards, emerge a better person.
I had no idea, when I took on the adventure of exchanging a few bucks for an old discarded family photograph album, that when it finally left my hands, it would leave me with a message. But it did.
With the first steps I took on this adventure—trying to figure out who the album belonged to—I only saw it as an experiment in applied genealogy. Form hypothesis and test. Use research techniques; document results. Repeat.
By the end of the marathon, I had not only explored the genealogical pathways between Lodi, California, and County Cork, Ireland, but I had received an epiphany of sorts—not about the process of genealogical research, but about the meta level implied by that genealogical process.
Part of that message I already had intuited from years of research prior to this experiment: the roots we untangle in our genealogical research are really the very fine strands of the micro-histories of many, many reiterated lifespans. Genealogy is really history; it's just history of "insignificant" lives.
Plying my trade to this mystery photo album reinforced that message about genealogy. With this album, I held in my hands the keys to the history of a family I had never met.
With that one experiment—the challenge of finding the album's originator and returning it to the family—I re-awoke to the wonder of that meta-message. History is embedded in much of the life we see as we pass, unaware, through it. While we may call that discarded album a bit of ephemera—the scraps of paper from which we may, if we know how, reconstruct the story of someone's life—it is an object within which is embedded history.
History is all around us—micro-history, admittedly, but history, nonetheless. It is our task—much like the sculptor who saw the angel in the marble and carved until he set him free—to release that history from the paper chains of the ephemera in which it is bound and present it to the world, reassembled, to allow its potential message to have its impact on others.