Messy History

From I Tried Leaving Facebook…But I Couldn’t:

Facebook had replaced much of the emotional labor of social networking that consumed previous generations. We have forgotten (or perhaps never noticed) how many hours our parents spent keeping their address books up to date, knocking on doors to make sure everyone in the neighborhood was invited to the weekend BBQ, doing the rounds of phone calls with relatives, clipping out interesting newspaper articles and mailing them to a friend, putting together the cards for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and more. We don’t think about what it’s like to carefully file business cards alphabetically in a Rolodex. People spent a lot of time on these sorts of things, once, because the less of that work you did, the less of a social network you had.

Facebook lets me be lazy the way a man in a stereotypical 1950s office can be lazy. Facebook is the digital equivalent of my secretary, or perhaps my wife, yelling at me not to forget to wish someone a happy birthday, or to inform me I have a social engagement this evening. If someone is on Facebook, I have a direct line to them right away — as though a switchboard operator has already put them on Line 1 for me. Facebook is one step away from buying my kids their Christmas presents because I’m too busy to choose them.

My mom, and her mother before her, every year would transfer events from one the previous year’s calendar to the current one. Birthdays, marriages, deaths, job milestones, and other various dates to remember would be moved from one calendar to the next. Sometimes my grandmother would gift my mother said calendar, with her messy script covering the top of more days than not on each page. Now, my mom’s impecable handwriting is what covers most days. It still lives on the same spot on the fridge, near the top. head-height to be able to best see it.

This was, and almost always has been, as the piece points out, women’s work. My brain, my ADHD brain, does not work this way, and I have struggled my whole life, even before facebook, to keep dates straight, remember birthdays (I forgot my best friend’s birthday a record 5 years in a row), don’t remember addresses (an up-to-date address book is always something that would get re-done every few years by my mother and grandmother). Instead, I’d have post-its stuck all over a bulletin board behind my computer monitor with phone numbers and email addresses. I always felt like I had failed at one of the most important parts of my “job” as a woman, a wife, a mother.

I’ve alway sbeen terrible at remembering names and dates and numbers, let along the names and dates and numbers involving my kids’ friends. Because I have been in school for so long, I remember things by when they happened during the semester, what it corresponds with according to the flow of the work that is happening. As soon as the kids get their school calendar and activities set, I write it all on the family shared calendar, pushed to all my devices, and my husband’s. I never want to be surprised again with, “Remember, I told you about this…” again.

What I was good at was taking pictures, snapshots with my instant camera, making scrapbooks, collecting ephemera, amd telling stories with them, from them. I wrote letters and journals and poems and press releases and op-eds and news reports and everything in between. I debated and did public speaking and taught and sang and spilled over everything and everyone, for better or worse.

I’m not lazy, I’m just not as interested in these kinds of familial record keeping. That calendar was almost the only thing that recorded my family’s history. There we so few stories, only moments and events, without context, written every year on a cheap calendar. And even then, those moments are highly curated, subject to what my grandmother and mother decided was worth marking as an event. The calendar was the limit of our family’s history to be passed down from one generation to another.

There were whispers, to be sure. But the added emotional labor that I inherited from the women of my family was silence, to be a secret-keeper, not to speak of anything beyond what the calendar said. I never learned how to do many of the things that the author writes about because we never did them ourselves. We covered ourselves in a lead blanket of silence, of secrets, of shame, of wordlessness.

So if I reject the lists, the calendars, the addressbooks, all impecably written and preserved, I also reject the silence, the secrets, the shame that came along with them. The stories I wanted to hear and the stories I wanted to tell could not be contained inside those small boxes, organized neatly by date or in alphabetical order. I will leave traces of myself on facebook, on Twitter, on my blogs, in my writing, traces of our family, traces of our history, littering the web and pages with us.

I get to choose the emotional labor that I do now in the service of my family and our history and my friends and the ways I show that I care and am thinking of people. I am not a 50s housewife or secretary, but neither am I the lazy 50s husband or boss. I am imagining a different way.

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