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November 3, 2003

Pieces of Other People's Lives

In his entry, "Pieces of a Life," George briefly lists three experiences and comments that "stitching the pieces together makes a life." Some of these experiences (Halloween costumes in Kansas City, several of his classmates taken captive at gunpoint on a beach in Naples, chipping away at the Berlin Wall) are more interesting than others, but they all contribute somehow to his life narrative. Of course, it's not just our own experiences that we stitch together, but the experiences of others as well.

I was talking to my father tonight on the phone, and he was telling me about his recent trip to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend a reunion at a church he attended when he was a child. Naturally the weekend of seeing old friends and family left him feeling reflective, and he began telling stories about some of the people I knew.

He then mentioned that one of the church members told him that he (a family friend) had heard the explosion of the bomb that killed four young African-American girls on September 15, 1963. The two churches were just blocks apart, but in ways, there was, no doubt, a greater distance. My father has mentioned on several occasions his experiences growing up in the south during the Civil Rights movement and his frustration at the violence (both physical and emotional) committed by many whites at the time. A few years later, my father witnessed some of the rioting in Washington, DC, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

While I didn't experience these events directly (I wasn't even alive during either event), I imagine they must have shaped my life in some way. Both events are inaccessible to me in the way that History itself seems inaccessible, but they also must have had a profound effect on the life I lived, if only because they shaped my father's values in some way. I wonder about the powerlessness he and others must have felt when they saw the riots or heard the explosion. I wonder about the choices or decisions they must have made in those crucial moments. I don't want to reduce these events to my personal narrative, but I know these experiences must have overwhelming power for those people who lived them.

I had been planning to blog about this conversation tonight when I read George's entry, and I found the connection between the two entries too coincidental to avoid mentioning George's observations, even though my encounter with "History" is mediated by my father's fragmentary narrative and my partial memory of it.

Posted by chuck at November 3, 2003 12:30 AM

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I think about these things, too, Chuck, particularly with regard to the civil rights era in America. Things our parents and grandparents were witness to can't help but affect how we were raised. But it's not easy to determine how.

Posted by: George at November 4, 2003 7:38 PM

You're right. I don't know why I put it in those terms, but I was struggling with the framing narrative for talking about a story that didn't really belong to me (and in a sense, I'm not sure it entirely belongs to my father or even the guy who heard the explosion). Still, hearing about the friend's experience gave the event an additional power and brought back to the surface my reaction to the Spike Lee film (when I first learned about the bombing).

Posted by: chuck at November 5, 2003 12:53 PM

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