Sunday, September 20, 2015

Always a Novice

I’ve written of the memory jar, filled with memories, that I gave my mother years ago.  It was a ceramic jar with the title "Memories" inscribed on its side. Among the keepsakes that I got from my parents' home after their passing were the gifts I had given them over the years.  Fortunately I gave them things that I rather liked.  Now they are imbued with the essence of my parents.

One of the things I came back with was another ceramic jar, a gift I had given my father.  It is titled "Brilliant Ideas".  My father was rather known for brilliant ideas so it seemed an appropriate and complementary gift.  I now eye it thinking about what brilliant ideas I will fill it with.

Years ago in my first job I used to keep an idea file.  At the time I was starting a nonprofit that was a new concept.  It actually became a model program because novice that I was, I didn’t know my own limitations yet.  There is something rather freeing about not knowing what you can’t do.   In those days when I had an idea I would write it down.  Then I would write what resources I needed to make it happen and the people I needed to engage.  When I had fleshed it out as best I could, I put it in the file.  I seldom opened the file and when I did I was always amazed at how I had forgotten about the ideas I had dropped within it.  Many of them I had implemented.  There was something rather magical about thinking it though and filing it away that somehow translated into action.

I think perhaps I should use the jar much like I used that early file, to give ideas life.  I have found that I am good at coming up with ideas and reasonably good at implementing them, yet I still hit impasses that I founder upon. They are not for lack of ideas. I have no shortage of those.   Rather they occur because I now know my limitations and need to learn how to move past them.  Usually they are a lack of knowledge about a new pursuit or uncertainty about how to begin in a new direction.  Sometimes they require me to reach beyond myself, to connect with new people and propose my idea to them.  I need to be persuasive about something that exists only as an idea.  To be persuasive we need to believe in our idea enough to be convincing that not only is it a good idea, but we can execute it successfully.  The more successes I have, the better I get at that, but there is always that novice within me who hesitantly drags her feet like a recalcitrant child.  She whines about her uncertainty and secretly wishes someone would take her by the hand and show her how to do it.  I suspect I’m not alone in that. Most of us keep that novice pretty well hidden leaving others to think that they are alone in their feelings of ineptitude.

I gave a talk this week about the Identity and Legacy Project, a rather involved interview and art creation project that I embarked on despite my inner novice.  I convinced sponsors, got grants, did interviews, learned video editing - all sorts of new endeavors of which I knew little.  When I spoke about it I shared my sense of being overwhelmed and intimidated as I took them through my process. I realized it took a certain confidence to share that.  Of course by now I had figured out a path through those uncertainties.  I let my novice speak and found that people responded with interest because we all can identify with those feelings.  So often we talk of our successes, but seldom the struggles.  Often those struggles are within ourselves as we embark on a new path without the expertise we imagine it requires, expertise that we assume others possess along with that poise and confidence we so envy.

If we live our lives with curiosity we are novices over and over again, always learning new things. It is only people who do the same old, same old that don’t experience both the fear and adrenaline rush that comes from facing something new. And if we succeed we are left with a deep sense of accomplishment and mastery.   

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Traces We Leave Behind

 I come from a well documented family and one that keeps things.  As I sort through my parents' papers, I find that  I am on the other side of keeping, evaluating what to discard, what to pass on and what to hold close. As a family historian I bring a unique sensibility to this endeavor. My dad was a bit like me in this regard as he kept material dating back to high school and his early career his entire life.   It had historic value to him, reminding him of the path he wove through life.  I am sure he hoped it would have historic value to his children.

When I ran across my dad's high school transcript, I thought about how thrilled I would be to discover that in a genealogical search. Then there are those things that hint at the person within. Let me give you a flavor... I've found his original letter from 1956 to the university where he subsequently worked for over 30 years. In it he laid out his vision of what he hoped to accomplish in starting a new department. He was 30 years old at the time with a touch of arrogance, at least so it may have appeared then as one considered this yet unproven young man.   In his letter he laid out his philosophy and noted that he’d like to attempt to implement it at a school not inhibited by traditional lethargy. He hastened to add that he did not wish to imply that hair-brained ideas and actions were his specialty, always a little tempering with humor. The school wisely saw past the rhetoric of this rather cocky young man and hired him to accomplish great things which indeed he did, quite beyond what they may have imagined.

Much of his paper trail relates to his career. Like many men of that era, his work was his focus and he found his engaging and rewarding. My dad started a public television station in Central Illinois, but before he got to that stage he introduced educational television. I read through a report in 1964 to the board proposing the development of a professional quality educational television studio. Now to put this in perspective, TV first was introduced in that community just about ten years earlier. I remember watching Captain Kangaroo in black and white on an old mahogany Magnovox with doors that clicked into place. In this proposal my father was recommending the purchase of a broadcast quality VCR, then around $35,000.

I laughed out loud when I read this. My father loved technology, but had a special fondness for video equipment. He recorded everything he considered worthwhile and one of our biggest projects in disposing of the contents of the house are video tapes, about 2500 of them. We also disposed of 20 VCRs. Old habits die hard. I’m sure he thought they were a deal after that quite costly initial investment.

As I go through my mother’s material I find different things that speak to me. Our connection was often through books so I felt as if I hit the mother lode when I discovered a file titled Notes on Books Read. The sheer variety of what she read and responded to was amazing. In addition to literature, there were notes on finance, history, medicine and the Talmud.  My mother was a curious person with wide ranging interests.  It is in this territory that we converged, finding our common ground. Many of the quotes she recorded related to dealing with fear, finding meaning in life and ultimately confronting death.  She took her lessons from books and she learned well, recognizing and valuing insights.  Her path through life was paved with books.   I consider how fortunate I was to have her as my guide in life.

The other thing my parents considered worth keeping were my words. I think they kept every email I ever sent them, emails for which I no longer have an electronic copy. A large file titled "Susan's Emails on Family Ancestry" held the first email I sent them asking for information as I began my journey into family history. Hmm, I think I'll read that at a genealogy talk I give this month. A good illustration of where to start.  We so often forget our baby steps once launched.  It is fitting that I should be reminded of mine by my parents.

It is a strange exercise going through this material. I feel as if it is an honoring of my parents. I turn the pages with their familiar handwriting, my mother’s perfectly formed first grade teacher letters, my father’s minute script. I would recognize their writing anywhere and feel their presence in it.  As I turn those pages I am taking pleasure in who they were at their core, their lives as thoughtful, contemplative beings. And I am grateful.