Over my two-week vacation in July, I not only got to read, but I also got to spend much needed time with family. One of our favorite things to do is to visit historical sites-- museums, the homes of former presidents, sites of wars, etc. This time, we visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Wherever we visit, I always like to envision what the place was actually like during its hustle and bustle-- when it was at the peak of its existence, or when it was functioning at its busiest, most productive point in time.
At Ellis Island, I was meandering through the exhibits, looking into the faces of immigrants from years past and places I’ll probably never travel to, thinking about how writing-- even fiction-- preserves moments that would otherwise become lost and forgotten. Images preserve memory too, but writing preserves thought, which is probably the most accurate depiction of a time or place you can ever hope to uncover. As I looked at the images of children and families who slept on benches waiting to get the final pass to come to America…the pictures of immigrants staring into the camera, likely filled with either annoyance or pride as someone took a picture of them wearing their cultural dress... I wondered, “what were they thinking?”
Yes, speech holds its own form of power, but you can’t refer to it unless its preserved by way of transcript, audio, or the written word. Writing, for better or worse, is immortalized. Contracts are what you come back to when the spoken word cannot be trusted. A signature is still worth more than a thousand words. Words just sound and feel more sacred when they’ve been written and can be read.
I’ve been reading (for forever it seems) The Art of Power about Thomas Jefferson by the author Jon Meacham.
Here’s a random passage:
“For Thomas Jefferson, politics were ubiquitous. They were the air he breathed. ‘May we outlive our enemies,’ Jefferson once wrote in a private note to himself. On the same page of a memorandum book on which he noted that he had sent to London for summer clothes for his slave Jupiter and scarlet cloth for his own waistcoats, he added an aphorism: 'No liberty, no life.' ”
I hope one day someone will publish the contents of my digital to-do lists, including “paint your toenails” and “buy groceries.” My quote will read less like “no liberty, no life,” and more like, “no Netflix, more boredom.” All jokes aside, without Jefferson’s written words, would we ever know the mundanity that is buying scarlet cloth for a waistcoat? Would we know the name Jupiter? Jefferson leaves behind a note he wrote hundreds of years ago, and now it's 2014 and I’m Googling his slave's name. I know Jupiter's wife’s name was-- IS-- Susan. His life becomes relevant again.
You can have children, Instagram your dinner, or do any number of things that lets people know you EXIST and that you were here, but there is still no better way to set aside your moment in time than to write about it. Talk is cheap. The written word is priceless.