Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Wayfinding

Recently I gave some thought to constructing a family history. As the three of us siblings sat around the table looking at old photos and remembering, we re-proved the truism that no two children exist in the same family. Even shared events had different perspectives.

Organizing into some coherent narrative the multi-threaded events of three siblings and their parents and grandparents and friends and spouses and children over several decades is a daunting task. We started with a photo album our mother had created. The photo album, however, had no apparent rhyme or reason with photos from different times and places stuck without captions on pages with newspaper clippings or greeting cards whose connections, if any, eluded us now.

Some guidelines on constructing family history suggested organizing a history around houses. We started down that path, but were soon distracted. Another suggestion was pets, but that orgnaizational scheme too soon fizzled out. We agreed that perhaps a crazy quilt organizing scheme suited us best without saying exactly what we thought that looked like.

A crazy quilt is not, as the name might suggest, a random collection of colours and shapes put together in any way. Crazy quilt pattern, although freed from the constraints of a particular pattern such as log cabin or wagon wheel, offers the particular challenge of finding a pleasing pattern inherent in the materials provided.

This post and these ideas tossed and turned in the back of my mind for several days. It began with the title, "museum of curiosities" because I thought that a good way of organizing a history might be to look at those persistent inquiries that lingered throughout a life. The name was reminiscent also of those 19th century collections that were such bold, hopeful attempts at classifying and sorting the world like the Workingmen's Institute in New Harmony.

Conversely, I liked the thought of how those inquiries might be labeled from the outside. I liked the duality of the word curious, but such ideas usually lead me into smaller and smaller circles rather than into a proper conversation, so this post languished until today I found two keys.

The first key came in an email from a friend. I had joked that I was starting on another sweater and after having worked for a year off and on to create my first sweater following the pattern exactly, I was working on another pattern, but I had changed the yarn, the needle size, the color, and was doing it in the round and thought I would also change the design on the front a bit. I knew she would laugh. She has worked with me and played with me and knows that it is a rare occasion in which I follow the rules, even ones that I have made myself.

The second key came as I explored the web site for the Field Museum here in Chicago. They have a special exhibit about maps which I thought my husband would like, and my tech writerly self is also interested in the creation of information systems and what they say about the creators. An exhibit with something for both of us is a good find. As I scrolled through the exhibit description, I was captivated by the word "wayfinding." While I appreciated the flexibility of the English language to create a single word to enclose so much information, it struck me that the best way of organizing a history is to describe that wayfinding. How we got from place to place--whether houses or pets or curiosities is the pattern that makes the crazy quilt make sense.

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6 Comments:

At 11:07 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

very interesting approach.

To me family histories are by nature contained in structures that have no intrinsic meaning. Time? Some critical things play out over years, others begin and end in a moment. Place? ditto.

We can select for meaning to support a vision, but that also warps things. I haven't a clue how to evade this central dilemma.

 
At 5:07 PM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

My freshman World History prof told us there is no such thing as an objective history. I was shocked and disappointed. But he convinced me. Subsequently, listening to friends and family members recount events I was a part of has confirmed this truth. Each of us selectively forgets as well as casts events in lights different from others.

 
At 12:17 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

I agree that there is that essential paradox at the heart of constructing a history--any history--and that there is no such thing as objective writing. That just makes it harder to get it 'right' or to know when it is right. Arrgh. There was something very satisfying about the stark black and white yes-no of the 1950's when superman fught for Truth, Justice, and the American way and we all thought we knew what those were.

 
At 4:44 PM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

So, when does one stop? When it feels right? And if someone else comments such that we then see a lack, do we then change it--like an academic rewriting the article so the journal will publish it? It depends, of course! When we're doing art, and not scholarship, we have the choice.

 
At 5:23 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Houses and such and external time don't have meaning until we ascribe some meaning to them, which of course is what all the difficulty is about.

I think stopping when it feels right is a oretty good vernacular desription of it. And for someone who lives by the seat of her pants that makes good sense to me.

 
At 3:28 PM, Anonymous scorrie said...

getting to know one another is not so easy after all // but worth it //scorrie

 

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