Story, Memory and the Intransigence of Lists

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.

three minutesIf 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:

“I’ll never know how my grandparents felt as their ship pulled away from the pier and put out to sea. I’ll never know what they experienced when they set foot in Poland again, forty-five years after emigrating to the United States. I’ll never know what they thought once they returned to New York, or what they would have thought about the significance [of] their trip…”

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:

“We couldn’t go on seeing the world in flashes. . .Up and over the mountains we went back to Manchester, an expensive conglomeration thriving on the hyper-consumerism of suburbanites spending their life savings at the outlet stores. Really. We met some locals who work in the stores and people spend an INSANE amount of money in these stores. We’re talking a decade worth of clothing spending for me in one spree. Whatever, people can spend their money how they want. I choose to take a mini-retirement and travel the world for a couple years. Others go for a Lexus and a Gucci bag. I think I got the better deal, but who knows.”

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.

the intransigence of lists

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:

“It sounds absurd, but there is a certain level of pressure that comes with living a life of travel. Everyone comments on how brave you are and how much of a wonderful time you must be having. When you actually are having such a wonderful time and feeling rather brave, these sentiments are very flattering and you can’t help but stand there with a slight satisfied glow and sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, when you’re having a terrible time you feel like a total spoilt-sport and whingey-pants turning around and saying ‘Actually, I’m exhausted, and if I have see another backpacker lulling a crowded camp fire to sleep with Save Tonight by Eagle Eye Cherry, I’m going to fill my bag with rocks and hurl myself off Iguazu Falls.’”

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:

“Normal seems out of sync with what we want in life. We are fed up with the 9-5 existence, 5 day working week and fortnight long holiday once a year…We are conditioned into believing this is the way life should be, holding out for a retirement which may never come and buying away our everyday dissatisfaction with consumerised and pointless ‘things’. We believe the ‘safety net’ most people live their lives by is a myth; what is the bigger risk, settling for a life of dissatisfaction and regret, or going out there and taking the chance to create the lifestyle you could only dream of?”

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.”

the intransigence of lists

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.

“After the second day– when I was knocked into a reef by another Scuba diver who didn’t see me beneath him, got severe leg cramps during our second dive and ultimately got seasick after my ascent– I literally broke down. Honestly, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. You won’t see any photos of me getting sick over the side of the boat. You won’t see pictures of the ugly scar I got from scraping my elbow on the reef.  And you won’t see any shots of the tears I wept when I finally let go and acknowledged that I just wasn’t able to handle all of the myriad things that had been piled upon my plate.”

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.

intransigence of lists


    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Juergen – Yes, so true. I think we should be more conscious about creating space for this kind of reflecton. Inconceivable as it may seem to me, though, not everyone is going to be interested in the same thoughts and subjects as I am. 🙂

  1. says

    Dear Betsy,
    Brava! How beautifully you have captured what we all long for — the substance of life and connection with others — and to be validated. Wow, what an essay.
    I’m so glad the internet went out — so that you could write this post!

    Two things come to mind: (oh the irony — it’s a list!)

    1. A recent NY Times article has gotten a lot of attention — which focuses on a study stating that 2 people could fall in love by asking each other these 36 questions :
    After reading them, I realized that people must not be talking to each other any more if these 36 are novel!
    2. Downton Abbey. For anyone who’s a fan — don’t you love the way they have real conversations over dinner? We’ve forgotten how to talk to each other these days!

    Anyway Betsy, what I’m trying to say is this — that your thoughtful essay illustrates the need to go deep, take an interest, and laser-beam onto any given issue for the sake of posterity — and not just reduce it to a list.

    Thank you so much for this post. I so appreciate your style.
    Josie has an awesome blog post here: Free Airfare 101My Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Josie – Thanks, you grasped the thought perfectly. Yes, I do love Downton Abbey for many reasons, not the least of which are the juicy conversations people have. Particularly Violet and Isobel – their sparring is delicious! I think we get conversationally rusty without practice. I had seen the NYT link about the 36 questions but hadn’t a chance to read it. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. says

    Lovely, thought-provoking post, Betsy. But, for what it’s worth, we also like list posts, too! I think different approaches are necessary for different types of stories, and different types of stories attract different types of readers. Ultimately, we try to mix it up like a magazine would, so that readers can always find something that works for them and perhaps something that surprises them.
    Bret has an awesome blog post here: 5 Weird Foods the French Consider DelicaciesMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Bret – Oh, I like me some lists, too, and will keep posting them. Someone is going to search for things to do as a first-timer in Vienna, or for movies made in Hanalei. Are they going to search for “the intransigence of loss” on the internet? Probably not. 😉

  3. says

    The Internet goes out – we read. Not a bad trade! Looks like it was worth it to read Kurtz. It’s not just “developing” countries that suffer from poor Internet connections, by the way. Every winter here where we live in Vancouver, wind storms rage, causing havoc with the power lines and trees (it’s like a virtual forest here) – the power goes out, along with the Internet, for hours at a time, at least several times a year. Out come the candles, and we talk, or sleep :-). Again, not a bad trade.
    Sand In My Suitcase has an awesome blog post here: Colonial Cities of Mexico Guide: A luxury travel resourceMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Janice – It’s the equivalent of a schoolchild’s snow day, isn’t it? We all need the break from routine. Days at the office, even if you’re working from home or on the road, all blend together. The hours I spent sitting on the terrace will more easily come to mind.

  4. says

    The internet goes out, I go nuts and my wife starts making lists. I have been addicted to the internet for quite a while and it is something I can’t shake off. Great post!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Denis – I share your addiction, I’m afraid. It’s so easy to get sucked in and go through withdrawal when it is taken away.

  5. says

    Such a lovely, honest and reflective post. We too go through internet withdrawal, checking and rechecking to see if and when we can get our next fix. Your post points out beautifully how we fill our time with busyness even when we have no jobs or homes to care for. This is a great reminder to UNPLUG. PS I’ve put Three Minutes in Poland on my Kindle wish list – it sounds like an amazing book . Thanks for the referral.
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go has an awesome blog post here: An Urban Garden in Getsemani: Cartagena, ColombiaMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Anita – Thank you. Three Minutes is really an exceptional book, unraveling the stories and bringing forth all those who may have been forever lost. Let me know what you think when you get to it.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Michele – LOL, we all do lists; they serve a good purpose. I hope you enjoy the book. 🙂

  6. says

    I wish we would get more snow days! It’s rare to be able to turn off the noise that buzzes around constantly. It was only last year that we finally gave in to internet at our family place in Nantucket. Really regret the decision. Board games with the group was much more fun!
    alison @GreenWithRenvy has an awesome blog post here: 5 Highlights of SpainMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Alison – I like the idea of snow days, too. Now that we’ve fled winter for the most part, they’re going to have to be self-imposed. 🙂

  7. says

    Hey! Thanks for mentioning us in such a great post! It’s wonderful when you get moments to just roll with your thoughts and really explore what they mean. I kind of miss that about my MA but the blog really gives us room to talk about how we feel and share it with the world too! Lists are something that, as you said, need a context sometimes! Lists help us to keep all our crazy thoughts and plans in order but at the same time below the list is a personal journey! 🙂
    The Roaming Renegades has an awesome blog post here: Climbing in the wonderfully picturesque Peak District!My Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Renegades – You’re most welcome. You’re right, the moments we get to be truly alone with our thoughts are rare. And I very much like the way you’re sharing the thoughts associated with your plans. 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Jerome – So glad you liked it, and we’d be interested in your thoughts after you’ve ruminated for a bit. 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Jennifer – Yes, it’s amazing how the internet permeates our lives, and the clarity we gain when we don’t have it interrupting. Thanks.

  8. says

    A very insightful post! The production of replicating memory, space, and time is one that it seems that humans have struggled after for the majority of our existence on earth–so much of literature, art, photography, film seeks to capture a moment in time. Sometimes it works and the creator is able to connect with another person, but more often, that memory slips through. Still, we all keep on trying!
    Natalie has an awesome blog post here: Ernest Hemingway, Key West, and 6 Toed Cats: Literature Comes to the Florida KeysMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Natalie – A very insightful comment! We’re all trying to catch that falling star before it fades into the cosmos, yes. Thanks.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Chris – Yes, it’s easy to get sucked in. And nothing wrong with lists. I find them very helpful in the appropriate context.

  9. says

    I think it’s so important to unplug and reflect every once in a while. That’s why I try to go to yoga AT LEAST once a week! 🙂

    It’s the only time when I can really be still and think (of non-blogging things).
    Beth has an awesome blog post here: Recipe of the Month: Tong YuenMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Beth – I’m not one to schedule regular downtime, but I’m thinking I should.

  10. says

    Betsy! Thank you for a great post. But I got to say. I usually check those lists beforeI travel to another country. I think list gives you the outline and you have to fill in the details with your experiences.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Travelwith2ofus – I do the same. Lists are helpful and appropriate for the right reasons. But story provides the depth, as you say.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Sue – Just another thing we can add to the list of things corporate lifestyle drains out of you. 😉

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Lies – I don’t think it’s laziness as much as it is convenience and writing to what readers want. I like list posts, too, for the same reasons you mention. But I don’t remember them as much as look them up when I need them. Story, on the other hand, I remember. 🙂