Sonder in the great forgetting

sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra, sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

John Koenig

Have you ever looked at an old house in your neighborhood and wondered, who lived there, what did they do?  You are guilty of sonder!

It’s rare for our stories to survive the edges of time, as a great forgetting occurs with each generation and our digital landscape is filled with nonsense.  Our Humanity is found in those stories, those mythologies with the deeds, loves, lives and history of our species. The stories are IT, the thing we base our existence on and the stories have a true origin.  A real history behind them.

For instance…

Grant’s Farm in south St Louis is famous because a President owned the property. In fact, the General lived on the farm only on rare occasions. The massive farm was actually called White Haven when he was a young cadet falling in love with his wife on her family’s land.

Grant maintained the property but it wasn’t his, it was his Love’s. Ulysses S Grant brings in the tourists to this historic space and that story is needed to maintain the financial needs.  *link to history

Historical places need stories as much as archaeology itself is a story of a science, a study and data collection. A web of words used to build narrow stories about dense, complicated, archaic peoples that are unable to speak for themselves, in some cases*. (*see the entire criminal history of archaeology for context)

Magic Chef Mansion in Compton Heights was purchased by architectural enthusiasts in 1990, which was originally built for Charles Stockstrom (1852-1935), the founder of the Quick Meal Stove Company, later renamed Magic Chef. The largest stove maker in the world at one time.

Now worth millions, this historical landmark has tours, and actively works with a collection of history buffs who also own Mansions in the neighborhood (the street blocks called Longfellow and Hawthorne mostly) all created by the same architect.  Collectively they  kept the story alive about their favorite Architect Ersnst Janssen, by telling their own story! *Link to story

To sonder over the history of our neighborhoods, our neighbors, the buildings, parks, streets and thriving culture of our Metro/Urban landscape, well, this is a common love for the residents keeping their own history alive.

The Haunted Mansion at 2323 Lafayette drive was a mystery to so many in the Lafayette Square neighborhood. People whispered about those windows that sat empty for 15 years as the back “carriage house” was a bustle of activity and weirdness.  This 8000 square feet House had a weird garden, was tucked behind a funeral parlor, with a gentle “mad” Doctor operating in the old Victorian kitchen and more ghost stories then human occupants. *link

With just a name and an envelope I discovered the history in the Annex city records, in the basement of the Olin Library at Washington University, newspapers/obituary and in the local lore surrounding the Seib Family.  A story that is true, strange and mysterious.  Sonder comes into play as we wonder, what it was?, the history?, the people?, and the ghosts? *Link

To sonder is to find significance, and as any Writer will tell you, a great story is far too interesting to pass up.  Art must be made and its often described as a magnet pulling you deeper into a Narrative layered with poetry, meaning and beauty.    

This was the real reason I created Dumpster Archeology.  I love those narrow stories Archaeologists tell, I love the puzzle work that is human experience, I love history and I sonder about the environment I live in, with a rich history of meaning behind little things. 

The Art is piercing it all together with the clues from the dumpsters, the archives and those personal stories.  The ups and downs of the Seib family inspired the Dumpster Archeology project as I wondered…what truly existed in these stories. *link

Indeed the realization of sonder is a powerful experience.  To move beyond the self and see the complex lives around us. Each historical person I found in a dumpster was (for the most part) vivid and interesting humans with accomplishments and experiences that are powerful visions of the humanity that is within all of us.

The View from 2323 and that first attempt at reflecting the story of the Seib Family and the roots of their strange but loved Mansion at 2323, was my way of showing the sonderness of St Louis. That all these complex and odd characters are very real and wonderful examples of a life well lived.

From the alleyways and streets of my city, house by house, block by block are the people that share my air, provide money for our social system, fellow passengers in the human experiment and also they are all unique and reflective of the beauty that being human has to offer.  *link

The meaning of sonder is tied towards a realization, an accepting of all humans as complex unique creatures within their own epic story.  Perhaps there is comfort within the experience? As Mythologists, Storytellers, Historians, Priestcraft practitioners and Writers attempt to reflect where we came from and our collective human endeavors. 

Perhaps that house, down the block that catches your eye, and makes you wonder, what is inside, what history exists, and what human drama took place? Perhaps the answers would surprise you and shake your own notions surrounding reality as our collective experience overlaps.

Curiosity is a wonderful human virtue and maybe we should look deeper into our past to find answers for the future.  Understanding sonder is a rewarding thing and the essence of my art.

Post script:  I didn’t bring up a key aspect of this story, the next rabbit hole of importance. Privacy: which is also important and a lost art in the modern world of digital imprints.  What should and shouldn’t be said or articulated about very real people and when does conjecture become the enemy of those living souls still holding a flame for the legacy of their people. Stand by for next week’s story.