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Cleaning my Desk

By Daniel Hubbard | January 13, 2010

I just ran across a scrap of paper as I cleaned out some boxes. I’m not sure when I wrote it, though it was sometime before moving back to the U.S. from Sweden a couple years ago. At the time, I was intending to start this blog at some point after the move and I’m sure it was a note for a future post for the future blog. Obviously my thoughts were occupied by the stories that reflect the meaning to be found in the lives of our ancestors.

I’ve blogged about family stories as myth before (Humans as Storytellers and Genealogy Without Documentation Is…). The real key to understanding the stories that make up each person’s past is to understand that they are not to be taken lightly or cast aside just because they are improbable or impossible. Impossible or not, they are worth contemplating and preserving. An unlikely or impossible family story may need a preface to explain that, as wonderful as it is, evidence shows that it cannot be true, but that nevertheless, decades or even centuries of retelling show that, despite its flaws, it should not be forgotten. Put another way, genealogy is all about evidence and fact, but it is also a fact that generations have found that impossible story worthy of retelling.

Stories, folktales and myths seem to me to be rooted in two ways that take on special importance for immigrant societies. The Arthurian legends, for example, were possibly Welsh in their origins, were first written down in French, were expanded upon in German and are the most important myths of the English speaking world. That list of nationalities may do a half-way decent job of summarizing my ancestry but it says nothing about my location. Only the most recent stories speak to my family origins and the place in which I find myself. Perhaps that is why immigrant peoples place such an emphasis on ancestry.  The stories we are told by older relatives and the stories we find in our research are, in a deep sense, all we really have. Those stories are so very recent on the scale of myth, yet they are what we have that are both of our people and of our place. Despite my surname, I’m not an Englishman. Despite my location, I’m not a Potawatami.

Anyway, that seems to have been what was on my mind at the time. So here is what I found on my scrap of paper-

We seem to have an inner sense that myth is rooted simultaneously in people and in places. Yet we North Americans are almost totally a people from elsewhere. The amount of time when both people and place have been in this hemisphere, when myth can take nourishment from the conjunction of its twin needs is very brief, only a handful of generations. The most ancient myths of this place, though full and rich, truly belong to only a few. The myths of our own forebears belong to places across the sea. We have been required to sow our own myths in the short span of time we have been upon this continent and we must tend them like the fragile seedlings they are.

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