Tales told by the light of flashbacks

Posted on January 13, 2008

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My neighbor’s been having flashbacks.  He figured his war was over 60 years ago: he fought it, he won it, it was done.  But here it comes again, in full technicolor, and this time it’s fighting him.  These dreams are not abstract or symbolic in any way.  They’re detailed, accurate replays of real experiences, and for him, it’s the same as being there all over again. 

Another friend was just a little girl living in the Philippines when the war began.  She and her family were interned by the Japanese for the duration.  She says it wasn’t much of a childhood, but she put it all behind her.  And now it’s back, plopped in front of her, taking up energy she’d rather spend on her grandchildren.  In both cases, it seems to help to tell the stories, to bring the memories out and look them square in the eye. 

All this was on my mind when I agreed to help out with an oral history project Terry Wooten will do with Elk Rapids students this winter.  It’s useful for younger people to listen to the stories of community elders.  If they ask the right questions and pay attention to the answers, they’ll learn that earlier generations had lives larger than they ever imagined.  They’ll glimpse the kind of grit it takes to deal with what life presents.  They’ll figure out that if “the old folks” could get through all that, they can do it, too, which is the beginning of confidence.  They might even figure out how hard they’re going to have to work at some of this stuff, which is the beginning of wisdom. 

As for the elders, they’ll enjoy having an audience for their favorite stories, but I suspect that for more than a few of them, bringing their memories out of storage will have a deeper meaning.  As surely as the oral histories our distant ancestors chanted in the glow of the campfire, tales told by the flickering light of flashbacks can heal.