Stories connect us

The first anniversary of my mother’s death is March 4. In her memory I’m launching my new business, Life Stories to Connect the Generations. You can read about it on the page tab in the tool bar.

I’ve thought about doing this for years. In 2004 I created a brochure and registered the name, “Connecting the Generations.” Now I need to do it again since I changed the name slightly. I started to launch it last year, but I wasn’t ready so soon after mom’s death. But now her taxes and the last of the bills are paid, and the only thing that remains between me and closure is the trip to California to bury her ashes.

I always loved the stories my mother told me about the family, except for the last few years when the stories became repetitive. But often new details would emerge, so I would listen and write on the back of envelopes if I was caught off-guard and hadn’t brought a notebook.

There were times I felt emotionally bludgeoned each time she told the story of my father’s death and that it happened, “Just when things were getting good.” That meant she had finally fallen in love with him after a 20-year relationship and a year after my birth, and then he died. But I was a faithful transcriber, interviewing her for the first time in the early 1980s when she lived in Oregon.

My father’s sister, Aunt Marge, was the Goudey/Porter family historian and recorded my grandfather’s life story. He was born in Port Maitland, Nova Scotia on New Year’s Day, 1881 and died in California, Memorial Day, 1982, outliving his son by 34 years. My cousin took Grandpa Goudey’s ashes up in a helicopter and scattered them over the Pacific Ocean, a fitting memorial. My grandfather’s written and recorded story are among my treasures and inspires me to help others tell their stories. My Aunt Ethel, my father’s youngest sister, still lives in Southern California and we will visit her in April to hear more of her stories. She is 96.

I feel called to do this work. It’s no accident I went back to school to get a bachelor’s degree in journalism, that I’ve been a photographer for most of my life, that I love and have experience interviewing, writing, editing, photographing and laying out a narrative and photos to tell a story.

In interviews, I will ask questions and listen, drawing out the story. I will either write the story from a journalistic perspective in third person, or in the story teller’s voice in a straight narrative, using identified photos to round out the story.

In a Webinar recently I heard the speaker say, “Get speaking engagements when you want to sell your business.” A writer friend arranged for me to meet the vice president of the local LDS genealogical society the day after I told her I was launching my business. He asked me to speak to the society members for 45 minutes in May. This is a huge first for me, since my speaking engagements usually consist of a 30-second elevator speech in front of a networking group.

But because I am inspired by past generations and connected to them by their stories, I will speak with confidence.

My mother used to say of her grandmother, Iantha Scoville Tyler, that she was a “cold woman,” and blamed her for the breakup of her parents’ marriage. But I have empathy for Iantha. Her mother, Lydia Wright Scoville, lost six children in ten years, five sons and a daughter, before the age of two, prior to Iantha’s birth on March 20, 1853. A sister was born in 1855 and also survived, Iantha’s father William Holly Scoville, died in 1858, when Iantha was five. Her mother, Lydia died in 1861, leaving Iantha and her younger sister orphans. A great-uncle raised them.

Iantha married my maternal grandfather, Isaac Tyler, in 1874. Their first child, Sarah Theodora, died when she was five. I wondered how scared Iantha was that she would repeat her mother Lydia’s tragic history. But then, like so many women of that era, there was no choice. She went on to have five more living children, including my grandfather, Alva, who I never knew. I’m sure there’s more to this story.

Thanks to my mom, Aunt Marge, my great Aunt Nola Tyler, and other story tellers in my family for inspiring me with all the stories. Although I’m not LDS, my Aunt Marge was and would be happy to know that my first speaking engagement is to an LDS genealogical society. My mother will be happy I dedicate this business to her.

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Harmony is…

I love the following paragraphs from Close to the Bone, by Jean Shinoda Bolen.

“Harmony is being on the right path, being one with it–making a living doing work that is absorbing and consistent with your personal values, doing what you have a gift for.

I am launching a new business that will combine my love of writing, photography and the power of story. It feels like a right path. Whenever I am helping someone tell their story I am absorbed. It is consistent with my personal values. And I have a gift for it.

Harmony is being with a partner or companions or alone, with animals or with nature, in a particular city or country or place, and having a sense of ‘ringing true’ there.

My husband and I ring true. He’s the one I waited for, holding on to the idea that if I was meant to be with someone after 19 years of being single (and not dating for 13 years) after my second marriage, that he would show up. He did. He moved in up the road and when walking my dog one day (as I had done for those 13 years of singleness) there he was working on his irrigation pipes in front of his rented home. He barely noticed me, I thought, but later I would learn that he used to watch me from his bay window as I walked the dog. Finally he got up the nerve to talk to me. We were married six years ago in May. He is my best friend.

My mother helped me buy our property 20 years ago, a gift beyond measure, my own piece of the earth to steward as I saw fit. It’s not a showcase, by any stretch. Half is bare, but here in the middle of the Central Washington desert our house is shaded with evergreens and deciduous trees that the previous owners planted. I have a 30 x 30 foot garden in which I turn to the four directions and feel connected. Although there are days I want to move to the coast, or to Colorado, or back to Southern California, this spot of land rings true for me.

Harmony is experiencing deep grief that corresponds to deep loss.

Oh how this validates my thoughts. I would never have called it harmony, but that’s exactly what  it has been. I experienced a deep loss, as so many others have…harmony is being able to experience the grief.

Harmony is uninhibited, unself-conscious spontaneity, the immediacy of laughter, the welling up of tears.

I often well with tears, I am quick to laugh, but uninhibited, unself-conscious spontaneity? Maybe that’s what it is after all…the ability to be in the moment, laughing when appropriate, crying when appropriate, and being able to feel both. There are times I’ll stand in the kitchen with my husband and through tears tell him about a book I’ve read or a story I’ve heard. Sometimes we fight and in the middle of the fight we’ll laugh. He’ll blame me for losing a lid (usually my fault but not always) and then sheepishly he’ll discover that it was he that put it in the dishwasher, hiding it from both of us, and then we’ll laugh. If that is unself-conscious spontaneity, then I accept.

Harmony happens when behavior and belief come together, when inner archetypal life and outer life are expressions of each other, and we are being true to who we are.

And this is how I seek to be, that inner life and outer life as expression of each other, being true to me, allowing the gifts I have to offer to unfold.

And only we can know: ‘I feel at home here,’ ‘I am totally absorbed doing this,’ ‘It gives me joy,’ ‘I love you,’ ‘This is bliss.'”

Finding ourselves in the ordinary, but recognizing the extraordinary in ourselves. That’s harmony.

Bittersweet

My cousin is world traveler, a slim, fit 73-year-old who looks 63, or younger. She exercises, she eats well, she lives a calm and comfortable life. She has four children and a number of grandchildren with whom she is close.

Our fathers were brothers, but when my father died and my mom moved us to San Diego from Los Angeles we saw their family infrequently. I grew up without knowing her as teenagers, young adults, or as middle aged women. Six years ago when our aunt turned 90, we were at her birthday party in Camarillo, California. It was the first time I had seen my cousin since I was a small child. She is seven years older than I, which may account for the earlier distance. But as adults, our lives went on completely different tracks.

Two years ago, husband and I traveled to California and back from Washington, stopping along the way to visit family and friends between here and Borrego Springs, where my nephew lives. We stopped to see Cheryl in the Bay Area. We spent the night and talked about our parents, our children, our husbands (she is a widow) and our grandfather Goudey who came to California from Nova Scotia in the early 1900s as a young man. Cheryl has a gorgeous carved wood organ that he brought across from Nova Scotia.

Our visit was sweet and we both enjoyed the reconnection. On her birthday Dec. 3 I sent her a card, which surprised her.

On my birthday, two months to the day after hers, my aunt emailed me to say Happy Birthday and oh, by the way, Cheryl has been diagnosed with lung cancer and has lesions on her brain. I sent off a card to Cheryl, telling her I was praying for her and to please keep me in the loop.

Today she wrote to me and said that she had gone for a walk in January and was short of breath coming back up her hill, which was unusual for her. She went to the doctor and he diagnosed stage 4 lung cancer. Random. Arbitrary. Why?

There are no answers.

I wrote her back and asked if I could visit her, either in April or sooner. She wrote back and said April would be great but she wasn’t sure of her treatment schedule.

“We will keep in touch and hope I will still be feeling good in April,” she said. “The  good thing about having cancer is that  I have time to say goodbye and I can tell you how special you are to me and how happy I am that we reconnected after all of these years.”

I read this email at a women’s networking group and almost had to leave the room. And yes, if there is any good thing about cancer, that’s it. There’s time to say goodbye. But I don’t want to say goodbye, not just now, not when I was counting on her to be around. But there are no guarantees are there.

My friend’s cousin also had cancer recently. It was serious. It had spread to his lymph nodes. My friend went to Florida to help get him to his treatments. She gave him Reiki treatments as well to help him relax and focus on healing rather than fear. He ate good vegan food and now he is apparently cancer free. The family is rejoicing.

Could this happen for my cousin? I am praying it is so.

The genuine “Yes!”

A close friend’s partner was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks ago. Since then they’ve been thrown into tumult. They are reading Closer to the Bone, Life-Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning, by Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., a psychotherapist and writer. On my birthday I learned that my only female cousin has lung cancer and that doctors gave her three months to live. I decided to read the book to better understand their journey and the journey we all must make in one way or another, sooner or later.

Bolen describes life-threatening illness as a descent into the underworld, “a crisis for everyone concerned that shakes the foundations of previous assumptions.” Such a crisis is not restricted to the person with the illness, and is not just about the fate of the body, she says.

“A life-threatening condition throws all aspects of life for the patient and all significant relationships into a time of turmoil and transition. Life-threatening illness is a crisis of the soul.”

She says that “we may be accompanying someone we love through the underworld, and need all the resources we have for the both of us….We need to conserve our strength, not extend ourselves.” I wrote my friend’s name in the margin.

But it was clear that I was reading not to just understand their experience. It was to understand mine.

In caretaking my mother through more than a decade of medical crises, I traveled to the underworld with her often. She would be ill, we would be told she could die or was dying, and then she would recover. There were other crises followed by times of relative peace, and then more crisis. I wish I had this book 15 years ago.

And then, what seems like abruptly, I was thrust from one underworld experience to another, that of grief. This morning my husband said he was surprised that I didn’t feel more relief when mom died. “It was much more complicated than that, wasn’t it,” he observed.

Much, I replied.

And there is this that dovetails with my two previous posts.

Bolen recounts the myth of Psyche. Psyche’s final task was to descend to the underworld and return. “She carried a cake in each hand for Cerberus, the three-headed, terrible hound, one to give him to let her pass through the gates into the realm of Hades, the second to give him when she left.”

Psyche is warned not to succumb to pity. Along the way she is challenged three separate times by people with needs and she is required to say no and to pass on. If she tries to help she would have to give up one of the cakes, which would mean she would never return from the underworld.

“When we are going through an underworld phase, there is the possibility that we will not return if we do not hold on to what we need.”

“Like Psyche, we may be asked to do something that seems on the surface a small expenditure of time and energy, and we may be drawn to help, out of compassion and because we feel mean-spirited and selfish (guilty) if we say, ‘No.’ It is not a small thing, it is a moment of truth.” [her italics].
“To hold on to the message of the myth when we know it is true (and yet have trouble justifying it to others) may be possible if we imagine we are Psyche making a descent into the underworld and our return depends on whether we can harden our heart to pity and guilt and say ‘no’ to whatever and whoever we know will drag our spirit down and take energy and optimism from us that we cannot afford to lose.”

My recent experience of needing to say no was overrun by guilt and compassion even though I knew deep in my spirit that I must say no. I didn’t and the consequences press me forward to understand what and why it happened, determined to pay attention to this myth. I do not have the energy to squander.

Bolen says that once we have clarity to know what is right for us and what is wrong for us, we are invariably tested to see if we really got the lesson.  That’s for damn sure.

“Circumstances and individuals present themselves: Will we recognize that this is another version of the same pattern or person that has been destructive to us before? Will we stand tall and say “No!” this time around?”

I hope so.

“Once we pass by the temptation as many times as we seem to need to in order to be out of danger of succumbing, the psychological terrain and the emotional weather change. We find ourselves in a new phase of our lives and are able to say “Yes!” wholeheartedly, often for the very first time, because we have come to know what we feel, trust our perceptions, and can count on ourselves. There is a need to be able to say “No” that precedes a genuine “Yes,” when our actions have previously been determined by complacence, conformity, or fear of the reactions of others.”

I am looking forward to the genuine “Yes!”

[Warning: I’m only on page 45 of a 210 page book.]

The art of voice

Obviously finding voice is the flip side to being a listener; speaking the truth the flip side of lying, hedging, fabricating, or avoiding. Yelling, manipulating, coercing, and abusing, the flip side to encouraging, building up, supporting–and listening. We can kill each with our words, or build a castle in our minds.

In the previous post, I was speaking to one aspect of the listening/hearing equation: finding our voice but recognizing that no matter who you are, how much you know, how many words you use, sometimes it’s not enough. There’s always perspective. Often, there’s also what’s right.

I think of finding voice as a positive. It’s not about stepping on toes or telling someone off or arguing a position. It’s not a statement born of a dysfunctional need to be right, but saying no in the face of abuse or declaring an intention or changing the course of history because you are willing to put voice to what you are thinking or feeling–or knowing.

What might have happened if someone–or many someones–had found their voice in Nazi Germany? Sometimes we are mute in the face of evil. Finding voice is overcoming that muteness.

Even though I see giving voice as a positive, that doesn’t mean it will always feel that way to the receiver. Hearing someone tell you something you don’t want to hear isn’t always comfortable. It was a threat to Roger Boisjoly’s managers (previous post) when he said their rocket was going to blow up. When women tell their doctors they want another birth experience, it’s not, “Oh, Martha wants a different experience than we are willing to offer. Now isn’t that nice.”

That’s where, as one reader remarked, “the art” comes in.

I started to say that giving voice is not about winning, but if your life or someone else’s life is at stake as it was in Nazi Germany or when the Challenger blew up, it is about winning. On a more subtle level, giving voice to what we are feeling is often about saving our lives and living in integrity.

 

 

Speak up, dammit.

The story of Roger Boisjoly and his role in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster has had me thinking about “finding our voice,” an oft overused phrase that carries with it much angst and truth.

Boisjoly, an aerospace engineer with Morton-Thiokol, Inc., warned his managers that the O-rings on the Challenger could fail if the shuttle was launched in cold temperatures. It was 30 degrees that Florida morning in 1986. His warnings, and the warnings of other engineers, went unheeded and Thiokol managers buckled under NASA pressure, asking its engineers to “think like managers, not like engineers.”  When the shuttle didn’t blow up on launch, Boisjoly thought he had been wrong. And then the unthinkable–except he had thought it. It was said to be among the “biggest engineering miscalculations in history,” costing the lives of seven astronauts including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian to attempt space travel.

Boisjoly later said about NASA, “These guys have a way of numbing their brains. They have destroyed $5 billion worth of hardware and 14 lives [including seven lives lost in the Columbia shuttle disaster] because of their nonsense.” I don’t know what he said about his bosses.

After Boisjoly spoke to the investigating commission he was excoriated by Thiokol and resigned in disgrace. A reporter found him months later huddled on his sofa at home, grieving the loss of life he tried to prevent. The story could have ended there. A man disgraced. A career in shambles. That’s it.

Boisjoly did not give up on life, however. For the next 30 years he worked as a forensics engineer (failure analysis) and spoke to engineering students across the country about engineering ethics. He died February 6 at the age of 73. His wife said he died at peace.

From world leaders to housewives at home, we yearn to be heard, to share our knowledge and intuition. We want to be trusted and listened to, to prevent a disaster, restore a marriage, birth a baby, express an idea, or stop a war.

But because of a multitude of competing perceptions and agendas, we are not heard–and maybe we don’t listen.

When I was a midwife, women shared stories with me about their prior birthing experiences. They were told, Oh honey, your pelvis is too small. Your baby is too big. Your baby is late. You need this shot. It’s dangerous. What is something happens. Oh, when I had my baby, it was awful.

Women would come to me, or to a sister midwife, and we would listen, something no one had done before. They would go on to have the birth they had imagined, or in some cases didn’t even know was possible. Some women came to us before their first baby was born knowing ahead of time they needed to be heard.

Before being heard, however, you have to first know what to say, trust what you are going to say, and then speak. (Boisjoly did.) But when you grow up with a parent who tells you, “Don’t feel that way,” or “Shhhh, someone will hear,” or with a parent who creates an alternate reality to what is true, and then does their best to convince you it’s true even though in your child’s brain you know it isn’t, it takes longer to develop intuition and the ability to even know what you’re supposed to say. Even though I write a blog and consider myself a fair communicator, I’m still learning to speak to the truth of my life when things are awry.

As it was in a friendship this past year. They had not asked me what was bothering me, and I hadn’t figured out how or what to say. Then there was a query to my husband, “What’s wrong with Martha?” (I wished I had said, “Nothing, dammit.”)

People like me and Boisjoly and the pregnant woman who sees a vision of how her birth should go are identified as the problem, or the trouble maker/whistle-blower, or pain in the ass if we speak to what is bothering us, or, even if we don’t speak but begin to act out our dissatisfaction about how we think things should go, or if we set a boundary, or if we disagree. Finding voice means speaking in the face of all of that, in spite of all of that.

I won’t speak to what happened after I didn’t speak, tried to speak, and then said too much. It was too late…but not to late to learn a lesson.

And not too late to be reminded by Boisjoly’s story that it’s not always possible to be heard, no matter what we say, how loud we say it, how many words we use, or how much training or knowledge we have. What is important is to show up–speaking without fear of criticism, rejection, or disagreement. And then, sometimes, as in his case, it’s still too late.

Boisjoly didn’t have the power to change the course of history in 1986. But who knows how he influenced those engineering students with his talks on ethics. Perhaps a decision by just one of those students has (or will) change the course of history because they spoke up–and were heard.

Boisjoly reminds me to keep trying. RIP Roger.

The gift

In writing yesterday about my mother’s love for me in all its forms, I received a gift. It was the love of the spirit, that pure love, unadulterated by our humanness, who we really are all along, but what got lost along the way.

The journey with my mom was all about rediscovering that love. And that’s what the grieving has been about, following the path where it took me, not turning my back on the process, facing it–until the gift.

It’s not as if I had some profound, light-flashing in the heavens, kind of experience. It was a gentle shift, as if a light breeze blew through an open window reminding me of something I couldn’t quite remember. But I did remember. The love.

And then my husband planned a surprise party with a friend that I almost succeeding in sabotaging. They pulled it off in spite of my resistance. It was innocent, I wasn’t deliberately being contrary, just not understanding until I was face to face with friends singing happy birthday.

As we prepared to come home later, my friend pulled a pie out of the refrigerator that husband had purchased but we didn’t eat because he had also bought an apple pie, my favorite.

I opened the box to find a lemon meringue pie. This is odd, I thought. I don’t eat lemon meringue pie, hardly ever, but when I was a new bride my grandmother sent me a letter with a recipe for lemon meringue. In all my life I’ve never made lemon meringue, and all my life I’ve regretted not seeing my grandmother before she died.

Then, I looked at the pie in the box and said, “We are taking this home. It reminds me of my grandmother.”

So, just maybe, Grannyma sent me a gift, too.

Let it go. Feel the love. Enjoy the pie.