It started with a list of travel blogs we respect. Then our internet went out and it became instead about story, memory and the intransigence of lists.
It’s a funny thing when the internet goes out on us, the digital nomads. At first, we get all cranky and disjointed. There are items which will be left unaccomplished, lists that go unchecked, schedules that fall behind. There isn’t a thing you can do. The internet in this part of Malaysia has been wonky ever since the floods two weeks ago. Off and on. “Maybe tomorrow,” they say. So we have an excuse to sit on the terrace and listen to the sea, maybe walk the beach, or read a book for pleasure.
If the internet hadn’t gone out, I wouldn’t have read a line in a book about the intransigence of lists. The book, Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film, is about a home movie. Author Glenn Kurtz‘s grandfather shot it during a trip to the Old Country. In less than a year thereafter, the world according to the village depicted in this family film would be completely lost.
Kurtz has made an exhaustive and fascinating study of the three minutes his grandfather captured in the town of Nasielsk. Almost incomprehensibly, frame by frame, he tracked down living survivors from the people who crowded the camera that day in August, 1938.
It wasn’t every day Americans came to visit a little village in Poland with their gold-rimmed glasses, fancy touring car and a movie camera. One of the boys jumping up and down in the 1930’s version of photo bombing turned out to be a Florida retiree named Morry, who led Kurtz to other survivors in Israel, Toronto, London and Detroit. All in their 80’s and 90’s, their memories were simultaneously sharp and dim. Some had shared their accounts with the Yad Vashem repository of Holocaust remembrances.
It was in Yad Vashem and other Holocaust archives that Kurtz encountered the lists. Lists of this shtetl and that ghetto, lists of documents, letters, photographs, records catalogued and organized by key words. Catching “fleeting glimpses” in a “cruelly narrow sample of its relationships, contradictions, scandals,” against these lists Kurtz realized it might be possible to save little Nasielsk from “the fate of so many others that were also destroyed and that have now succumbed to the one-dimensional tyranny of lists.”
The one-dimensional tyranny of lists.
Every travel blogger knows one of the easiest posts to publish is a list post. We all write them. The list post serves a purpose: Top Ten Things to Do in a New Place, Five Best This or That, Six Things that Will Get You in Trouble at the Airport. Lists are searchable, lists are linear and sequential, lists organize our thinking.
But, lists are inert, devoid of life, as Glenn Kurtz realized when his grandfather’s home movie drew him into a world nearly lost. Reading the ship’s passenger list, consulting the archived records, he laments. A list can’t hold the story:
It can be hard to open a vein and reveal the inner workings. The best writers do, of course. One is Lewis Thorwatever, who writes in lists for Rudiments of Gruel – lists of miles traveled, loaded up and unloaded, feet climbed, feet descended, reasons to love Wisconsin starting with taverns, counties traversed. Lewis shares what led him and his partner, Brandy, to it all and what comes or doesn’t out of it:
Rather than the linear sequence or categorization we find in lists, memory has a warp and weft. It is in the intersection of observation and emotion where story resides, its fluidity like rippling fabric taking on color and sheen.
A bulleted list of obituaries I recently encountered doesn’t convey the story of a woman in the itemization who put up a fence between my childhood home and hers. But it evokes my own story: of a boundary that prevented little girls from ever playing again in an arbor over which vines with shriveled purple grapes were draped, their leaves with curling edges turning brown in August, crackling underfoot.
Or the faded pastel shreds of an ancient cotton quilt, draped over its side for a carnival tent. The 30 cents in admission fees collected from six playmates. Who were they, each with a nickel? A sister and brother, probably, and the girl who lived behind us? But where are the others in my memory, or did we charge a dime? The same quilt which went on to cover the box spring in a Birdseye maple frame, sold to an anonymous buyer in my driveway forty-five years later. Yes, that woman’s obituary.
The “how” is in the list, but the “why” is in the story. Emma, from Gotta Keep Movin’ reveals: “In 2010, I stepped on a plane to India. What followed was an eye-opening, poignant experience, an impactful glimpse into our planet and the millions of stories it tells each day.”
But her own story, her why, took a hit in the face of those many:
In a teenage summer before I could drive, I got a temporary job as an R.L. Polk enumerator. R.L. Polk was a print publisher of City Directories, and my enumerator’s job was to go door to door. I was a sort of census taker, verifying the information on the paper lists obtained from my supervisor – a faded transient with ghastly lipstick consigned to a shabby room in our town’s only hotel, barely in business, threadbare carpets in a tilted, creaky hallway.
These lists the ghastly one doled out suspiciously. How did I accomplish my verifications so fast? Was I skipping locations or cheating somehow? Of course I was! You know who everyone is and where they live in a small town. Chances were the data was as correct as it needed to be.
The lists R. L. Polk compiled didn’t tell the story of the empty rooming house whose occupants had returned to the farm for the summer. My grandmother did this in her later years, preferring to live winters in town instead of isolated by cold and too-deep snow. Or how the two first grade teachers in sensible shoes came to share a house together. Or the woman down the street whose life was so extravagant she gave out individual boxes of Cracker Jack on Halloween.
The lists of businesses and proprietors were accurate in their way, too, conjuring up the faces we’d see at church on Sundays, behind the counter when shoes were delivered for repair, or where the Sears catalog order was retrieved. Is the list a way to verify the stories, jog a memory, or compare? There were three shoe stores then, a couple of druggists, a bonafide department store (J.C. Penney, socio-economically matched), and the doctor’s office was upstairs over one of the two jewelers. What was the smell in that office? Formaldehyde? And the instrument with which he tapped my knee to make it swing. Is all this in the list? If so, only as long as I last.
The Roaming Renegades – don’t you love their name? like a retro folksinging group – have lists of destinations in an ambitious plan to travel the world over the next several years. But to know the why we must read the story:
Until we’re told this, we can look at their itinerary as if it were a foreign object for which we have no comparative reference. If we do, our own memories overlay their list. Their places become what we saw, heard and felt. Without the Renegades’ share of their “why” their list isn’t theirs at all. It just is.
Glenn Kurtz describes the urge to preserve and clarify what his grandfather’s film depicted within context: “preservation is meaningful only in the face of loss.” He speaks of absence laying “coiled inside every memory. . . Loss framed and sharpened every story I heard, or it displaced what might have been remembered and spoke of, but was not.”
The things we have, we take for granted. Those, Kurtz says, “that appear self-evident are always among the first to be lost.”
Loss sharpens the focus for many travelers, changes perspective, creates urgency. Our own losses sparked a desire not to be beholdened to traditional expectations which might keep us from the experiences we wanted to have. But as seekers, we still may make the mistake Kurtz describes as trying to “replicate an image rather than discover a place.” He looked for things in the film footage and couldn’t find them. In his present reality they had been refurbished, rebuilt or destroyed. As travelers, we might look for the things we expect to see, too.
When we’re laid bare by circumstances, we do not have the energy for such facade. A better truth more easily emerges, like the one Bret Love discovered in Belize. I’m not going to remember the name of the resort he visited, any of its features, or its location other than a country. What I will remember is the story Bret shared of being tapped out. Emotionally, physically and spiritually depleted.
I’ll remember Bret telling about the estrangements in his family which bubbled to surface in his thinking upon the sudden death of his father. Don’t we all have estrangements and regrets? And then I will think of another photo he shared from the same trip. He’s playing a conga-like drum with his head thrown back in sheer abandon, surrendering to the joy in the moment. No list will ever convey these things.
Even so, perhaps we do all this – this writing, this recording, this photographing, this list-making – in a vain, as in vanity more than futility, attempt. We try to cheat the impermanence, just as Kurtz set out to capture memories before they dissipated. We could be the ones who elude this inevitability, whose thoughts and dreams survive in a time capsule to be discovered, opened and remarked upon by curious minds – or maybe even important historians! – in the future.
We barely dare admit that we dream of producing a cache so vivid that it breathes life into the past, that we may live again however briefly. That we mattered and someone is listening. All this is the unspoken, buried intention with every click of the shutter, every key that is pressed, every scratch of the pen, every item in the lists we write.
We want to capture the elusive animal of memory and cage it for others to view, pin the insect of existence behind the glass frame, put the seashell in a jar to keep the story of the day we gazed upon the horizon far out to sea. So that, just maybe, it won’t all fade away.