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For Auld Lang Syne, Lest We Forget

by on December 31, 2014 6:15 AM

With 2014 winding down and four hours on I-80 ahead of us, my wife and I devoted part of our homeward drive from New York to summoning the year's memorable moments.

Not surprisingly, what came most readily to mind were the passages, both the physical ones and the ritual kind: the trips we had taken and the big life events -- my daughter's wedding, my father's death, a couple of big birthdays, the move to our new house, a professional achievement or two.

We then tried to recall some of the smaller moments:

A January morning when, after days of Polar Vortex, 40 felt enough like 60 for us to eat breakfast al fresco.

A February afternoon when my vintage cross-country ski boot disintegrated on the trail and I had to ski out in my socks.

A March 1 hike in the woods in deep snow (Posting photo documentation of the experience on Facebook helped jog the memory on that one. Caption: "Nope, not spring yet.")

A June night of lightning so frequent and spectacular that we raced around town in search of a good viewing spot, testing a fog-enveloped field in Tudek Park (too spooky and possibly dangerous) before settling on an unromantic supermarket parking lot.

A July night of 10,000 fireflies.

We concluded it had been a very good year – even my dad, at age 96, had had a good death, if there is such a thing – which is an odd pronouncement to make after another year of plague, violence and disaster on planet Earth, and only goes to show how much more salient is the news from within one's own circle of loved ones than the news from the wider world.

We could probably compile a similar list of memorable moments from 2013 and 2012 – it's been an eventful few years for me and mine – but farther back than that, things quickly get hazy. I've never been much of a diarist, except when traveling. My desk calendars are no help: They're mostly records of appointments and meetings. So I'm struck by how content I've been to let life stream by, undocumented, and by much undocumented experience drops out of memory.

Last week, a friend told me she had been jotting down memorable quotations from her daughter since she began to talk, and is now going to give her the best quote from each year of her life as a 21st birthday present.

Hearing that story prompted my wife to tell about a friend who bought a copy of Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" when his daughter started kindergarten and each year asked his daughter's teachers to write something about her on each successive page of the book. He then gave the book to his daughter as a high school graduation present.

I thought of those gifts a couple of days later at an exhibition of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum. Among the common denominators of the show was the artists' impulse to save and collect, to repurpose possessions, trash, found objects, the experience of time itself, as art.

What I admired about the exhibition wasn't the quality of the work so much, but the human impulse to make stuff – to wrestle a tiny portion of the vast number of material things in the world or the experience of the passage of time, into some kind of shape. Most of us hide our obsessions. Artists display them.

In that sense, at least, I resolve to be more of an artist in 2015, beginning in one modest way: We're going to keep a scrapbook that will tell us what in the world we did with ourselves all year. Where did we go? Who did we see? What lecture/concert/reading/show did we attend? What did we eat? What was the weather like? What happened in the news? What did we discover? What were our obsessions?

More and more, people are doing this kind of life documentation on social media. But I like the physicality of a scrapbook. I want, at the end of next year, to see what a year looks like, all heaped up in a big volume of words and pictures and clippings and stubs.

I want to see what kind of sense and nonsense it makes of me and I make of it.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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