Saturday 22 December 2007

Memories, life stories and their source

It’s Christmas, and one of the things you do in Australia when you have Christmas holidays is to visit relatives. This week my wife Carmen and I took her Dad to visit his last remaining sister, Isabel (aged 83). Aunty Isabel was the last of 12 children born to Harry and Clara French in Coolongolook (and later Lorne) on the Mid-north coast of NSW. This beautiful area just 15 minutes from the sea is known for its timber and dairy farming. The timber industry has dwindled because most of the original temperate rainforests of hardwood and rare (and non-renewable) Australian Cedar are gone, but regrowth eucalyptus forests are still cut. The dairy industry which once grew around small family holdings in picturesque valleys is now smaller and dominated by large consolidated dairies owned by large companies.

Just two of the 12 French children survive Lyle (Carmen’s Dad) and Isabel. They had seen each other (we estimate) just once in the last 20 years, and that was at the funeral of one of the brothers 10 years ago. Aunty Isabel expressed pride in the family “All 12 of us had not much money, but we all worked and never had trouble finding a job. All of us were respected in our communities, and none of us was stupid. Lyle was the only one who had the chance to go to high school and he only lasted 6 months”. Aunty Isabel expressed her disappointment that Lyle ‘blew his chances’. His response was “I had to leave home on Monday morning alone, ride my horse for 10 miles, leave it in a paddock, then walk for three miles to catch a train for the 2 hour trip to Kempsey to go to school all week, and stay with an aunty (sharing a bed with another boy I didn’t know), then come back Friday and do the ride and walk home in the dark – so they could see if I could learn - but how could a kid learn doing all that.” And who could argue with his response (although Aunty Isabel did!).

We spent hours sharing stories of their childhood (well we listened and they talked). While listening I was struck by a number of things:

  • How different life was in their childhood than that which children experience today in Australia.
  • How different family members' memories of life can be – Aunty Isabel was constantly contesting the details of Lyle’s recounts of childhood. Lyle wasn’t sure the house at Lorne had bag walls as Aunty Isabel suggested, she was certain he only had to walk 2 miles in the morning, their brother John didn’t get killed by a falling tree the first day back from the war but a few years later…..and so on.
  • How much Lyle and Isabel enjoyed re-living those contested memories from the early years
Memories and family traditions are important. It seems to me that the common memories and stories of key life events act as a type of glue that binds families together. There are some key ingredients to this. As you need spend time together – not necessarily good times – your lives become shared lives with much common ground. Your memories also become shared (though in old age perhaps contested) giving shape to who you see yourself as and the way you view the world. As parents, there’s a lot to be said for thinking carefully about the traditions and shared activities that are part of your family and how the sharing of these might be shaping your children’s memories and how they see the world. My daughter Nicole Starling has been writing a lot about developing family traditions consistent with one's faith; particularly, how this has an impact on how our children see the world. We need to think a lot about the dominant stories that shape our families' memories.

For many years I thought that my father had exercised little influence over the shaping of my life. I rejected much of what he seemed to believe and stood for and as a result we weren’t very close. And yet, a few years ago at 50+ years of age I realised that many of my beliefs had been shaped by his beliefs, his personal life story, and the sharing of it with me. My strong commitment to social justice was influenced by his experiences in mining communities on the fringes of Glasgow, and then later on the coalfields of the Hunter Valley where all 10 brothers and their father John Cairney worked in the pits, raised families, played soccer, joined pit bands and were actively involved in the trade union movement. It seemed that I was shaped to some extent by my father’s worldview (i.e. a set of beliefs or framework that affects the way we view the world). I suspect that my Dad’s view of the world had in turn been shaped in part by his Dad’s view of the world. All this reflecting on my family made me think about what I’m passing on to my children and grandchildren through my view of the world and the way this shapes who I am, how I see the world, and how I act on it. I want my Christian faith to shape my life, and the views and values that my family are ‘reading’, to reflect my faith. I hope they also have confidence that this is based on God’s word to us in the Bible.

Jean-Fracois Leotard (1979) suggested that what we accept as the truth is shaped by ‘big stories’ that we hold about the world we live in – he called these meta-narratives. As an atheist he cast doubt upon such meta-narratives, these sets of coherent and related beliefs. As a Christian, I see meta-narratives as important. My view of the world shapes who I am, what I believe and how I act. The Bible is the source of my meta-narrative. I believe what it says. That the Universe and all that is within it was created by God, that he made me, and he seeks to have a relationship with me. And he wants this so much that in spite of the tendency for humanity to want to lead life its way separate from God (in effect in rebellion against him), that he has always had a plan to bring his children back to him. This plan is centred on Jesus. The Bible teaches that God broke into history in the form of a person – he sent his son as both man and God to tell us about him and to take the punishment due for our rebellion against our creator. All he expects from us is that we take this free gift, seek his forgiveness and accept Jesus as our Lord and saviour. This in turn should shape the way I live, the priorities I have in life, my passions and decisions.

I’m pretty sure that Aunty Isabel wouldn’t have a clue what a meta-narrative is, and that she doesn’t hold to my Christian narrative (although I wish that she did). But I do know that in the house where she grew up (whether with or without bag walls) there would have been meta-narratives at work. Christmas is a good time to reflect on the dominant values and beliefs at work in your home and on what they are based. My hope is that the meta-narrative that dominates my life is the Christian story of God’s redemption through Jesus. As always, at Christmas I spend some time reading one of the gospels (available online at Bible Gateway) that tell the story of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and rule and to remember the story with wonder, joy and thankfulness. I praise and thank God at this special time for the gift of Jesus - "For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

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