Sunday, August 27, 2023

Roadmap to My Evolution

As I approach a milestone birthday, I realize that one of the advantages of getting older is that you have a roadmap to your own evolution. You have enough history to understand who you are and the confluence of events that has led to the you of today. Often you find there are major themes that consistently drove your decisions, be it in careers, partners, or interests.  You may have had a glimmer of that earlier in your life, but hindsight has a way of underlining it with a head slapping Duh! I think this is what they mean when they say older and wiser. 

As I revisit my history, I recognize my parents within me and how fundamental their influence was. I also am surprised by my younger self. How did she know that I wonder as I view my former self at arm’s length. I’m a bit awed at this somewhat foreign creature I see in the rear-view mirror. I think more and more that we start out with a package of skills that we hone over time, but it is all there earlier than we realize. We really don't change much; we just get more comfortable in our own skin.

Usually, we are relying on memory as we assess our past. Of course, memory can polish up many a failing, but sometimes we have the benefit of documented memory.  Recently I had the opportunity to revisit former self at less than half my age. It came about in a rather unexpected way.

A local history museum recently promoted their Memory Lab. The lab allows you to digitize media that is now obsolete, such as VHS tapes. I knew I had a drawer full of videos that had been languishing for many years and there was one that I had always wanted to digitize. This tape was of my mother with my aunts. It was at a time, when my parents used to travel down to Florida to visit my mother's sisters. I had prepared a list of questions about family history and asked my mother to pose those questions to her siblings. My father was enlisted to video the discussion. My mother diligently posed her questions as the conversation rapidly spun out of control. She fruitlessly tried to coax her unruly sisters back to their assignment.

I took the VHS tape into the lab and was surprised to see that the date on it was 1992, ten years before I really did a deep dive into family history. It was a time when I was doing oral histories, which sparked my interest in this effort. I also realized that 1992 was ten years past the maximum period (10-20 years) before a tape starts to degrade. While not in perfect condition, it was usable, and there was my mother a few years younger than I am today. I felt a yearning to leap into that video and ask her thoughts on getting older, a topic that I often discuss with contemporaries, one of which she suddenly appeared to be.


I was delighted to have that tape and began to gather other tapes to digitize. Next on my list was a tape that dated back to the 1980s when I had made a career change from running nonprofits to banking. I had finished an MBA in finance, and by then had spent a few years as a lender at a large bank. The bank was known for a controversial contemporary art collection that was unusual in the corporate world of that time. I had been interviewed in 1987 about my perception of that project and its impact on employees, but also my view of the workplace and my place within it. I set the tape aside with the intention to digitize it when time allowed. 


The Universe soon kicked into gear in a surprising way, one that makes you wonder who’s pulling the strings. Two weeks after I located that tape, I received an email from the co-founder of a nonprofit working with exhibitions of contemporary public art in Los Angeles. His email harkened back to the visual arts program at the bank where I had worked so long ago. He had received a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation to explore that project and learned that I had been interviewed by a videographer as part of a series of interviews. He expressed interest in my recollections of the program and that video project from thirty-six years earlier. That old video had been elevated to archival status. Should I agree to share it, it would be the first one to which he had access. 


“You’re a good researcher to track me down,” I replied. I went on to explain the unusual fact that I had that tape, newly unearthed, sitting on my table to digitize. I agreed to consider sharing it after I viewed it.


It was a shock to see my younger self, complete with those 1980's shoulder pads, emerge from that video. My first thought was that I hoped I didn't embarrass myself saying anything stupid now that I had an interested audience. I was relieved to find that former self passed my scrutiny. I liked that she considered each question carefully and pushed back on conclusions with which she didn't agree. I regarded her with almost a maternal eye, as if she were a unique being with a connection to me, and yet, not me. 


On the tape I spoke of my decision to go into finance a few years prior, when I had been approaching the much earlier milestone birthday of thirty. After a degree in social work and experience running nonprofit organizations, I had been weighing my next step. I explained that I had chosen finance because I had encountered a financial person who I felt was skewing the facts, manipulating the numbers to their benefit. Ultimately, I went into finance to protect myself, to be able to challenge with knowledge and authority. And I wanted credibility in the world, that for women often comes with degrees in “hard” subjects–– all uniquely female motivations. 


Both my choice of finance and my later choice of banking were driven by the same desire for options, both were broad areas that would offer a range of future paths. Control and choice, big themes that repeat in my decisions. Once I arrived in banking, I found I was rather ambivalent about being a banker. It was a very different world than what I had done previously and the culture that surrounded me seemed quite foreign to me. I spoke to the interviewer of a duality in me, what I would today call my analytic and creative sides, both well developed and sometimes competing for my time and attention. My friendships and interests outside of banking fed my more creative side. I knew clearly even then that I would never fit well into a narrow track.


I went on to explain the bargain that I felt I had struck with the bank. “It’s like I don't buy wall to wall carpeting in my home, I have rugs, I'm coming to the bank, I give the bank certain things, certain skills that I have to offer. And I hope that when I leave the bank, I can roll up the rugs and take them with me. I'm developing certain skills that I will carry away with me. But I'm not setting up residency here.”


Thirty-six years later I look back at a time when I didn't know what would come next but was carefully charting my path. Something that resonated with me was a comment I made about banking being a job which didn't absorb all my energies. I went on to reflect on an early job running a nonprofit which I had created that did absorb all my energies. I noted that I liked that in many ways. . . And missed that. . . And I wouldn't mind being in that again, I added, but I wasn’t sure about the stress that accompanied it.  Today I seem to have come full circle, working with several organizations and projects that do absorb my energies, embracing the stress and finding the engagement of that effort satisfying once again. 

Of course, former self knew that long ago.

And by request, here is a brief excerpt from the interview.

1 comment:

  1. So interesting, Susan. Thank you for this. I love viewing our history as the roadmap to our own evolution. You also speak to the issue of the day thirty plus years ago, having agency as a woman.