Archive for the ‘legacy’ category

Living by the mainspring

March 8, 2008


P-38 aircraft

I had planned to finish the brainstorming series for this post. But reading the Rocky Mountain News this morning, I found two poignant stories, each about a man’s life being changed by an event whose impact could never have been predicted.

Everyone’s life story has moments of crisis, of decision, of happenstance that turn us off one path and onto another. Some of us have many of them; some only a few. But regardless of their number, they eclipse the mundane day-to-day, year-to-year unfolding of our lives. They contain the underlying energy that drives the unique quality of our lives and shapes our legacy. I call them mainspring events.

In writing personal history, these events need to be front and center, because they tell our readers so much about our character and values, and the decisions we make to live those out. They are essentially stories of the spirit, stories of big, often unexpected or unchosen things that happen to us (or that we choose) and how our core being responds to them. This is what our readers most deeply want to know about us.

Take a minute now with paper and pen and list some of these mainspring experiences in your own life.

Willam Britt

The first story concerned William Britt, a man who, when he was 25, got into a shoving match with another guy. The police were called and he was tagged for simple assault, the legal equivalent of a parking ticket in his jurisdiction. He was sentenced to an anger management class, probation and a fine. He went on to finish college and complete an advanced degree.

But when he began looking for a job, he was turned down again and again. He couldn’t understand it. It was only after several years that he learned the reason: the simple assault was being reported to employers as a misdemeanor. Now 37, he’s working as a security guard. And he’s working to change the Colorado law that’s keeping him in that position.

Fred Hargesheimer

The second story begins when Fred Hargesheimer, a native Minnesotan, was a pilot flying a P-38 over New Guinea during World War II. A Japanese fighter shot his plane down. But he escaped from the plane, his parachute opened, and he drifted down to a landing in a jungle. He wandered for a week, subsisting on the food in his survival kit. Then he survived another several weeks by cooking and eating snails.

Meanwhile, some native villagers were watching for him, having seen his plane go down. When they finally found him, they took him to their village and gave him food and a hut of his own, adopted him into their community, and hid him from Japanese soldiers. He stayed with them for 8 months until he was picked up by a U. S. submarine alerted to his presence by Australian “coastwatchers.”

He returned to Minnesota, got married, had three kids, and worked for Sperry Rand. But the people of Ea Ea, that village in New Guinea, never left his mind. In 1960, he returned to thank his benefactors. He was received with rejoicing.

Yet he still felt he needed to do more. Consulting with missionaries, he learned that the people of Ea Ea needed a school. He collected money from church and civic organizations and returned in 1963 to oversee the building of a school in a nearby central settlement. Eventually Fred and his wife moved to New Guinea for four years to work as teachers. He continued to visit every few years for the rest of his life. Recently, at the age of 90, he returned for his last visit, prompted by the villagers’ discovery of the wreckage of his P-38.

Time for reflection:

What stories in your own life are evoked by these mens’ stories? Take a few more minutes to reflect on the mainspring events that you recorded a few minutes ago. When you tell your story, these will be the wellspring, the source. Ask yourself: How would your life have been different if they had not happened? How has your life been guided and shaped by them?

Please use the comment form below to share your experience of mainspring events or anything else related to the post. Thanks!


Aunt Jim’s legacy

March 3, 2008

Love is a force that connects us to every strand of the universe,an unconditional state that characterizes human nature, a form of knowledge that is always there for us if only we can open ourselves to it.

Aunt Jim

Our lives are shaped by the people who love us. Often people write about family members in their life story books, not thinking about the others who have made a difference in their lives by loving them–perhaps a teacher, a member of the clergy, a neighbor, or someone they know only briefly . A personal history is deepened and becomes more poignant when we write about these people.

One of the people who loved me was my “Aunt”Jim. Her given name was Mary Jane; one day when she was 4 years old she declared to her family that from then on her name would be Jim. And so it was.

My mother met Jim in Denver while their husbands served in World War II, and they became friends. We had no relatives within a thousand miles, so “Aunt Jim and Uncle Ray,” and Jim’s sister “Aunt Dorothea” and her husband “Uncle Chuck,” and their kids were our extended family in Denver.

We Thompsons lived in a new housing development at what was near the outer edge of Denver at that time, and Jim and Ray and their kids lived in a Victorian-era house in the old part of town. I was fascinated by their house—its dark red brick, two stories, tall staircase, and cast-iron clawfoot bathtub and pedestal sink in the bathroom on the second floor. I loved the kitchen in the back with a heavy black stove that had been converted from a woodburner, and the screened porch. It was a different world for me.

My folks played poker (and later bridge) with Jim and Ray and Chuck and Dorothea every Saturday night for many years. They rotated among the three houses, and we kids were put to bed wherever they were playing. Of course we didn’t go to sleep right away, and one of the things that kept us awake was Jim’s laugh—which at the time we referred to as a cackle. Really it was more of a cackle combined with a hoot. It was completely uninhibited and whole-hearted. We would wait for her to laugh, and then we in turn would laugh. We couldn’t help it.

Jim was a visiting nurse most of her life, and she walked to work no matter what the weather. When she retired, she race-walked into her 70’s. She learned massage and became a yoga teacher. In these, she found new ways of sharing her healing gifts.

Love and acceptance were there for the taking with Jim. As an introverted child growing up in a rather reserved family, I always felt amazed when I was with her. I knew she was warm and loving, of course; yet the exuberance of it was always a wonderful new surprise. She was always transparently delighted to see me and would declared a loud and smiling welcome: Well, Peeeeeeg! How are you?

How would I be different today if my mother hadn’t met Jim? Unconditional love might be an abstraction. Welcome might be a conventional exercise in manners. Being truly oneself might feel impossible. Alternative healing might seem just too weird.

What I learned from Jim was only a minute fraction of her legacy. She gave her gifts of love and healing (which of course were intertwined) to everyone she met, and in her case that added up to thousands of people.

Reflections for stimulating memories:
Who outside your family chose to love you in a way that changed your life?

Who are the people you have chosen to love in a way that changed their lives?

Make a list, and write a little about each person.

Use the comment section to share your memories of people whose legacy enriched you…or anything else.


Millions leave a legacy

February 6, 2008




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No one can predict the future. All we can do is choose our contribution

to the circumstances which help shape the future.

Don Michael

Last night I attended a precinct caucus. It was complete chaos at first because there were at least two thousand people at a function that’s normally lucky to attract two hundred. The line outside the school reminded me of the serpentine lines at Denver International Airport. When we finally got in, the halls were gridlocked. Some people where looking at maps on the walls to figure out what precinct they were in, and what room their precinct would be meeting in. Others (like me) knew their precinct, but didn’t know the school–so directions to the lunchroom or the mini-theater weren’t at all helpful.

When I finally found the lunchroom, it too was packed. But slowly groups organized by precincts and precinct residents began to sign in. And at last the business began.

We all spent a lot of time standing around. At one point I looked out over those hundreds of people and thought, “I wonder if any of them are thinking right now about what a difference they are making? Do they realize they are part of a dramatic revitalization of our political system? When they think about “making a difference” will they count this night?”

Most of us won’t make a difference in any dramatic way. We won’t spend our lives living with the poor, or teaching inner-city children, or adopting special needs children, for example. Yet we will have a legacy of small choices, built up through every day of our lives. Going to a primary caucus on a winter night in 2008 is one of them.

Reflection starter:

At the end of the day sometime this week, review your day. Look for the tiny ways you received from others–a smile, help with a work project, a listening ear, for example. Then look for the tiny ways others received from you. Did your life shift at all from these encounters? Did your mood change? Did you learn something? Did you understand someone (or feel understood by someone) in some small way? Did you get a new idea? Did you find some new compassion for yourself or others? This is how legacy happens–moment by moment, choice by choice.