education,  history,  meaning of life

situated within history

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Today I am thinking about the places that inspire me. I am thinking about Arcadia Village, and about Victoria Settlement. I am thinking about the ornamental and vegetable garden at the Botanical Gardens in Montreal, and how I was drawn to it despite it being one of the plainer uglier parts of the garden because I found it inspiration to think of people historically cultivating a much wider collection of the plants than most gardeners today, and with more of a dependency upon those plants. I am thinking of libraries filled with books, a recording of thoughts past, a source of knowledge.

I’m thinking about why these places inspire me. I’m thinking about how I want to belong to something bigger than myself. I want to be a link in the chain from the past to the future. I want to see my life as but the tiniest footnote in an unbelievably huge story that stretches back to the dawn of the universe and incorporates everything from the decaying of hydrogen into other other elements onwards through that great amazing forming of our planet and the amazingly slow process by which it became what it is today and on into whatever might come tomorrow. The universe is huge, greater than any of us can imagine and we know so little about it or about our past.

I want to know about the past. I want to turn to daydream about what life might have been like in earlier times, and I want to read the great works of literature to try to understand how others dealt with the falling apart of their empires. I want my own challenges and worries to be put into perspective by the knowledge of what people have endured already. I want my preconceptions to be challenged by the knowledge that others have thought differently before and will think differently in the future.

I was watching a documentary about ancient Egyptian engineering with my children and I was thinking how many religions involved honoring the dead and trying to preserve the memory of them. Many religions involve emphasising and preserving the chain from past to present to future. Somehow it makes sense to me that religions would do that, or rather, it makes sense to me that preserving the chain of memories of the past is part of a religious journey. Positioning oneself and one’s loved ones as a part of a larger picture is a religious act, I think. It shifts the focus of a person’s life outward.

Yesterday I saw some sword fighters from the society of  creative anachronism and I talked to a lady there about sprang, a type of string-work. Fingerweaving is a part of who I am, so talking with someone else about strings work was refreshing. There are people attempting to preserve the skills of the past.

Afterwards when I was home I found myself thinking about the book Fahrenheit 451, and how in the story individuals preserve books within themselves. I started to think about how anyone with an interest in the past, whether it is historical knowledge or skills, can be like that. We can preserve bits of the past, carrying them with us, and it is important to do that.

In some ways it seems like practicing older skills is not necessary. Surely we have written records of any known skills. Of course our records are on paper or computer, and two or three thousand years into the future we can hardly expect them to remain readable but I think the more compelling argument about the need to preserve history within oneself is because knowledge within books is not alive. It is in storage. It exists only to the extent that people read it, think about it, talk about it. To know that the information is preserved in writing is good but it is in some ways like a play read and not performed. There is magic in the performance, in the interpretation and experience of it that cannot be found by silently looking over the lines.

Homeschooling my children, I know that the secret to getting them to learn something is to make it part of every day life. If we act like certain information is relevant only in schools and textbooks then children are justified in forgetting the information. The periods of history are relevant only if we talk about them, reference to them, draw our heroes and stories from them. Science is the same thing. The names of elements are important only to the extent that knowledge of the elements can help us understand the matter around us – why some things rust, why others don’t, why things burn and how to build with things. Yet we can enrich our lives so much by drawing upon both science and history. Each new idea, new story or big of information becomes like another color of pencil crayon giving greater depth and range to our pictures.

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