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January, 2014

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Show and Tell For Grownups

January 30, 2014

A new trend has developed in personal history/life story circles. It is actually an idea that has been around for many years, but the place you typically encounter it is in elementary classrooms.

What is this new (old) trend? It is “Show and Tell”, an activity that allows the presenter to present to the audience something special from their lives. I teach 5th grade and I let the students do “Show and Tell” just about every Friday afternoon. Typically they share toys and collectibles. It is interesting and fun to hear the students share about their legos, American Girl dolls, Furbies, duct tape creations and other items that are part of their “story”.

The idea of adults gathering for a “Show and Tell” event has gained traction in a number of locales, spurred on by members of the Association of Personal Historians. A Wall Street Journal article recently highlighted the gatherings in Brooklyn, New York: A Show-and-Tell for Adults in Brooklyn.

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Pete Seeger, Folk Singer-Songwriter, Activist and Human Rights Supporter

Pete Seeger, folk singer hero diesToday we got the news that at the age of 94, Pete Seeger, something of an American icon, has passed away. He was a folk singer-songwriter, activist and human rights supporter. In his long life he constantly seemed to be assessing how these United States were doing in honoring the pledge of "self-evident truths of freedom and justice for all". It seems fitting somehow that we are remembering Pete Seeger on the day that President Obama delivers his State of the Union Address.

Seeger was prominent in the folk music world. He sang with Woody Guthrie (they hopped trains and traveled together around the country) and co-founded the popular folk group, The Weavers. He was a huge influence on Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen (We Shall Overcome:The Seeger Sessions). In later years he toured frequently with Arlo Guthrie (Woody's son). He could poke fun at our suburban lifestyle (Little Boxes), bemoan the spoiling of the ecology (Where Have All The Flowers Gone), popularized a song that became a civil rights anthem (We Shall Overcome), and truly believed in justice (If I Had A Hammer). He even pulled from scripture for a song about a time for everything (Turn, Turn, Turn). has a nice recap of his life and music, including songs we should all sing together

He was a big believer in preserving musical roots and teaching it to children. Through the years he was controversial with his politics, but he wasn't afraid to stand up for what he believed in. When we speak of social change, activism, and protest by music and musicians we might as well hold up a picture of Pete Seeger.

I like that he never seemed to be bitter, angry and certainly not violent. He was a good soul and we need more people like him. Certainly his legacy should be shared with young people and future generations. The New York Times article on Pete Seeger has a great wealth of information on his life.

National Reading Day

January 23, 2014

Today is National Reading Day. Let's give a salute to reading! I love to read. In fact, I am often reading multiple books at one time. Not at one sitting, mind you, but I work my way through novels, memoirs, non-fiction and other books in an overlapping manner. It drives some people crazy (my wife), because they don't understand how I can do that. But to me it is fine to have a stack of books from which I can choose at any given time. I reach over and grab whatever strikes my mood or meets my purpose.

Encouraging reading is essential. The more you read the greater your knowledge, awareness, imagination and (in my opinion) success in life. Reading is good stuff!

Personal Historians obviously want people to read. We are in the business of saving the life stories of people and it is often done in a written format. These extraordinary stories of "ordinary" people can teach us a great deal about our fellow travelers on the road of life. If you haven't read any books like this, I highly encourage you to do so. Read a memoir, biography, autobiography or family history. The well written ones are full of humor, intrigue, struggles, triumphs and plenty of pathos. I've had the privilege of writing a few life stories for others and it is always a pleasure to discover more about them and their life adventures.

Ode to the Obituary

January 21, 2014

Some might say the life of an obituary writer is dying on the vine. And they may well say it with a deadpan expression.

But the truth is obituaries are as popular as ever and many of the best can now be found in cyberspace. Facebook and are fertile ground for the life stories of the deceased.

It takes a certain talent to craft a good obit. It is the announcement of someone's demise, but that often serves as the entree to the interesting bits about a person's life. Humor and the unusual details of their life liven up  the obituary and it is a wonderful way to discover more about a person than you might have known when they were alive. Sure, it is important to include their passions, hobbies, values and accomplishments.  But I love it when a good obituary makes me laugh...or pause in admiration and reflection.

This CNN piece, Funny obits bring new life to a dying art, allows you to dig deeper into the history of obituaries as well as find out more about the people who write them. It's a long-ish article, but a good read.

Personal Historians are advocates of good obituaries. In fact, APH members Sarah White and Sue Hessel have conducted workshops on the The Art - and Yes, the Joy - of the Obituary in which they encouraged participants to write their own obituary. That's a good excercise is looking at your life story from a different perspective.

Preserving Peace and Justice Honors Memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr. and March on WashingtonToday in the United States a national holiday commemorates civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King, Jr. A man who gave his life (literally) for equal rights and freedom from oppression for all peoples regardless of skin color would surely want each of us to continue to do what we can to preserve peace and justice. We can do this wherever we are at, be it home, school, work, community or traveling.

Martin Luther King, Jr. appears bigger than life to most people. But each of us, in our own way, can live a life of service that helps others. We can build each other up through our words and actions. When you share your life story think of how you can include this message. It may be through lessons learned or in projects you've participated in. My hope is that we are each day doing something to preserve peace and justice. This is a day where we can bring that into greater focus.

Behind the Blue Bottles

January 15, 2014

I just read the story of Aunt Em's Blue Bottles by APH member Marjorie Turner Hollman. It's posted here on the Association of Personal Historians blog.

Aunt Em was somewhat eccentric. I think many of us have some oddities and quirks, so no judgment here, just curiosity. A couple of things the blog post reveals about her include a choice to live in her barn instead of her house and her planting blue Milk of Magnesia bottles all around her property. She made paths with these blue bottles buried upside down. Their must be some great stories behind the blue bottles. She apparently collected many of them from the dump, reinforcing the truth that "one person's junk is another's treasure".

What are the things that matter? What are the things that symbolize what really matters to a person? Life story work has many intriguing aspects. My Aunt Liz passed away last year. She had traveled a great deal in her 88 years and collected lots of items, big and small, from around the world. So many of them must have held memories, or keys to memories. I only got to find out about a few, but they certainly were fascinating.

Take a good look at the things your family members have collected. Coins, jewelry, art and maybe the more sublime, like old blue bottles, may contain "story gold".

Life Lessons Through Music - The Lady in Number 6

January 12, 2014

Living beyond one hundred years is something most human beings will never do. Living a life worthy of more than a hundred years, indeed a life filled with lessons of love, music, and even joy amidst great suffering, is timeless.

The Lady in Number 6, story of Alice Herz-SommerAlice Herrz-Sommer is 109 years old. She is the world's oldest survivor of Hitler's holocaust. She was imprisoned, along with her six year old son, Raphael, in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. A renowned concert pianist, she performed the classical masterpieces of Bach, Beethoven, Shubert and others to enthusiastic audiences across central Europe. While a prisoner she performed more than 100 concerts for the imprisoned audience and her captors. "Music saved my life and Music saves me still," she said then and now.

Her remarkable story has been preserved by Academy-Award winning filmmaker Malcolm Clarke. You can view excerpts of The Lady in Number 6 and discover more of her amazing story online here. It's powerful and uplifting. I marvel at her strength and positive outlook on life. Once again, we have a great example of the power of a life story.

Journal Writing Reflection Revisted

January 6, 2014

One of the comments I often hear from others who want to write about their life is that it is hard to keep it up. And they are correct! Life writing is not easy. But there are simple things we can do on a regular basis.

One of the ways to continue to track your progress with your own life story is by keeping a journal. | continue reading |

Big Plays Mean Taking Risks

January 3, 2014

Welcome to the New Year. If you have been making plans, that's good. But remember that not all plans will unfold the way you want. Things happen in life for various reasons. There are lots of "movable parts". You can plan all you want, but you need to be prepared to adjust when necessary.

I can draw analogies from football. Last night I was watching the Sugar Bowl. Two college foootball powerhouses were going at it and lighting up the scoreboard. Heavily favored Alabama was having a tough time with Oklahoma. I went to the University of Oklahoma in the 1970's, so naturally I was rooting for my alma mater.

Both teams had some spectacular big plays. But they also had trouble, sometimes turning the ball over to the other team or not gaining the needed yards to eventually score. Although Oklahoma eventually prevailed in the game, 45-31, I could see how much my life was like this wild game. Lots of ups and downs, highs and lows.

This analogy hits particularly close to home today. I've been planning and promoting teaching a writing program in Italy this summer at The Watermill. It was going to be a fantastic opportunity for me and for attendees as we enjoyed the beautiful Tuscany area as well as intensive and intimate workshops on how to write your life story. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond my control have required the canceling of this program. Naturally, I am disappointed, but I'm hopeful we might be able to reschedule in the future.

I do encourage you to investigate the other creative writing programs at The Watermill. Bill and Lois Breckon host many of these with some topnotch tutors leading the classes.

Remember to dream big and make ambitious plans in your life. But live each day as it comes and be flexible. You may have to take some risks, but if you don't you will never know what it means to step out in faith and try new things. Everyone has a story to tell; that story is your life lived to the fullest.

Everybody has a story to tell!
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