Archive for the ‘personal history writing’ category

Living by the mainspring

March 8, 2008

P-38

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

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/mar/08/johnson-stupid-mistake-at-heart-of-sealing-minor/

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

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/mar/08/lucky-shot-for-pilot-islanders/

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!

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Child’s play

February 20, 2008

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Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness
of a child at play. Heraclitus

One evening recently I had been engrossed in a book. When it was time to go to bed, I turned on the yard lights and let the dogs out, and was surprised to see that snow was falling, filling the air with large, fluffy flakes and coating the ground with glistening crystals. I stood quietly for a few minutes in wonder at the silence and beauty.

The next day I found myself remembering how I loved snow when I was a kid. We kids were experts at observing and discussing snow. If the snow was wet, we knew it would be good for snowball fights or snowmen (as we called them in those days). But was it going to warm up? Would our creations last?

The energy we threw into building a snowman or a fort, rolling up those heavy balls and lifting them up! But we thought nothing of it; we were strong. And we were full of pride when we were finished.

If the snow was dry and fluffy like it was the other night, we knew it was no good for snowballs. If a few inches accumulated, my brothers and I and other kids from the neighborhood would go to the Highline Canal, a large irrigation ditch a half-block from our house. (It’s empty in the winter.) We knew every spot where the bank had a slope rather than a drop-off, and we hauled our snow saucers to those spots. We would push and spin each other down the slope, trying to throw others off their saucers or get enough momentum to go part-way up the other side.

Writing about play adds a whole new energy to personal history–the energy of joy, freedom, and creativity. It can be a great topic to explore if you feel bogged down in “grown-up” memories.

I hope you will comment on this post and and your own stories to this discussion.

Reflections for stimulating memories:
What are your memories of playing in snow? Of playing in general? Who did you play with? Where did you go to play? Did you play games like dolls, baseball, or basketball, and/or did you just make up the games as you went along? What did you learn from play when you were a child?

Push off from shore

February 11, 2008

Do not fear to step into the unknown. For where there is risk, there is also reward.

Lori Ward

Last night we attended a retirement party for a much-loved minister and his wife of many years. There were many touching tributes and lots of humor, but my favorite part was his brothers (and others) telling in outline form the stories of his life. And there was one story that touched me deeply.

At the time of Bill’s graduation United Theological Seminary in Minnesota, he received a gift from his wife. It was a cross, on the back of which she had had inscribed the words “Push off from shore.” I was captured by this story. It told me a lot about her, and about their relationship.

Later I found myself wondering how I would tell my own life story if I chose the organizing theme: “push off from shore.”

I have pushed off from shore at what turned out to be critical moments–to name a few, leaving home and starting a new life a thousand miles away, changing careers a couple of times (depending on how you count it), moving my practice from Minneapolis to St. Paul (which was regarded as professional suicide at the time), taking on the role of whisteblower in my church, and most recently moving back to Denver at the age of 62. Some of these decisions seemed inevitable; others came in a flash of inspiration; and still others took place only after long, thoughtful reflection and conversation.

But there have also been times I mistakenly stayed ashore when it was time to push off–once in a work partnership, and once in a church. Those were times when I was was badly hurt and seriously disillusioned, but in time I learned some things about my tendency to overdo trust and loyalty that have served me well in the years since.

And there was one time when I had a very lucrative chance to go out on the water and I decided not to, without really knowing why–just because every time I thought about the offer I got a stomach ache.

Exploring themes like this can’t help but take your story deeper, and it may also give you a sense of what leads you’re following, what prompts you’re responding to, what inner currents carry you.

Reflection suggstion:Take a little time to look back over your life with the phrase “push back from shore” in mind. What shores have you left? How did you make those choices? How did they shape the rest of your life? What inner and outer places have you stayed with for a long time? What difference have they made in your life?