Anniversary clock, 2018.
challenge history history relevance practical history pragmatic historian purpose of history using history

What’s in Your History Bin?

Anniversary clock, 2018.
Anniversary clock, 2018.

History is everywhere. I’ve always kind of known that, but since starting The Pragmatic Historian and purposely looking for it, I want to shout it from the rooftops: “HISTORY IS EVERYWHERE!!”

Where the Past Begins

Within the past week, I finished reading Amy Tan’s memoir, “Where the Past Begins.” If the title isn’t enough to convince you that she used history to write the book (the word “Past” is a dead giveaway), she opens the introduction with:

“In my office is a time capsule: seven large clear plastic bins safeguarding frozen moments in time, a past that began before my birth.” (pg. 1, “Where the Past Begins” by Amy Tan)

Tan sifted through the contents of these bins filled with memorabilia saved from her family and a book was born. Photos, letters, emails, a recipe, mementos of her brother Peter’s death all show up in the book as Tan examines her past, looking for markers of how her family and life experiences made her who she is.

In Chapter 9, “How I Learned to Read,” she digs into her memory of a woman who visited her parents when she was six. The woman, who was sharply dressed and carried herself with an air of importance, was there to discuss Amy with her parents. Between first and fifth grade, this woman conducted tests with Amy twice a year in school. The woman’s attention made Amy feel special in front of her parents and classmates.

She decided to see if she could track the woman down. While she couldn’t remember her name at first, she did an online search of the circumstances of the testing, the year they started and the location of what she figured was an academic study. She managed to find the woman and spoke to her about the study. Her history with the woman played such an important role in shaping Tan’s concept of herself that she had to know more, to excavate the purpose of the study.

Tan used history for several reasons:

  1. To understand herself better
  2. To connect with her family, especially her mother, father and grandmother
  3. To write a book

You, too, can use history for all of these reasons and more.

What’s in Your History Bin?

Many of us have bins and boxes and suitcases and tins filled with mementos from our past — items, photos, copies and clippings that we have saved from our lives or that were passed along by family members.

Have you looked at your history bins recently? If not, have a look-see.

What’s in your history bin? What have you deemed is important to save?

If you had to pick one thing out of your history bin that most speaks to you, what would it be? Why did you choose it?

If you had to choose an item from your history bin that most defines you, what would it be? What does it say about you?

Challenge: Be like Amy Tan. Pick an item or several items from your history bin and create something new. Don’t use the originals for your new creation, use copies or let the items inspire a creation without using them at all.