Sunday, April 29, 2012

Your Life Is a Treasure

It smelled like old books, furniture polish, and just a hint of motor oil. 

When I was a child, I loved to go exploring in my father’s mahogany secretary desk — the kind with a fold-down tray supported by two sliders, and lots of little cubbyholes and drawers that collectively held The Most Fascinating Stuff in the Universe.

Leather key holders from Columbia Oldsmobile, where he worked as a mechanic. Church bulletins from Norwood Baptist on Courtland Avenue. Electric bills. Rubber bands. Receipts for car parts and house paint. Ball point pens and mechanical pencils. Photographs. Letters written with fountain pens in feathery script. Old report cards. Tools and gizmos that did who-knows-what. All mysterious and intriguing. You would have thought I was Howard Carter, breaking the seal on King Tut’s Tomb and taking that first jaw-dropping look inside.

Why? Maybe because these artifacts belonged to the strange world of grown-ups.  Or because they were Daddy’s things. Or just because they were um, sort of, technically-- that is to say--off limits. This desk exploring could only happen, you understand, on those rare occasions when I was home alone--but you are hereby sworn to secrecy!

Our memories are like that old desk. We keep poking pieces of our experience into cubbyholes, and who knows when or if we’ll find them again. The Pythagorean Theorem? Can't quite remember it, but the cute math teacher who first taught it to you? Him you remember. Seems like you can never find what you’re looking for, but whenever you look, you’ll probably find something interesting.

And not only interesting, but precious, like buried treasure. Our memories hold clues to our essence, our identity, our purpose, our destiny. A burglar rummaging through my father's old desk would have been deeply disappointed, but as I look through it now in memory, I summon up my dad and my childhood.

Last week, I gave an assignment—to list five memories for each decade of your life and to gather a few photos from different times in your life. Here's one of my photos. It's me on a really big bunny. (I'm the one with the balloon.)  :-)

Your list represents (on a very small scale) your life. You could list many more memories in each column. But this is enough for a start.

Once you have your list of memories, now you can make choices. You can choose which ones you want to write down, which ones to pass on, which ones to keep private, which ones to carry to your grave! (Of course, those are the ones inquiring minds want to know.)

Choose two items from your memory list and one of the photos to write about. Maybe just a few sentences, maybe a whole page.

You don't have to be a fancy-pants writer!

There’s something amazing about writing down your memories. One memory triggers another and another. Here are some things to keep in mind as you write. 

  • You don’t have to be a fancy-pants writer to do this. If you can write cursive, or print, or use a computer, you can do this. Or you can tell your stories to someone else to write down for you.
  • You can be totally honest because you don’t ever have to show your story to anybody unless you want to.
  • You don’t have to write with perfect grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. Just get it down. You can edit it later. 

  • Don't feel bad about not starting this sooner. With age, we gain perspective and understanding. Think how much more you now understand the events of your childhood. 
  • The most important thing about any memory is the way this experience made you feel at the time—or how you feel about it now. The emotions are more important than the exact details. 
  • You are free to tell the story your way. If somebody else tells the same story, it will be different. That's okay. Let them write their own version. 

If you do this, you will have made an all-important first step in recording the stories of your life. If you write even one story down, it can be a way for your children (and future generations) to get to know you. You will be more than a name on a chart or a tombstone. 

I hope you will choose to keep writing the stories, collecting them over time.

And then what?

You may decide to write your memoir as a book and try to get it published by a big name publisher. Go for it.

You may make a memory book to give to your children and grandchildren as a Christmas present. 

You may pass on your stories in other forms—as a memory box or a memory quilt, a scrapbook or a photo album. You may choose to record your own voice telling the stories or to make a movie. Technology has blessed us with so many options. But even if you do these things, there’s still something about writing down the stories that helps us make sense of the puzzle pieces of our lives--and to insure that they will be passed down to generations to come. 

The Persistence of Memory, Salvadore Dali
Einstein said that time slows down as we approach the speed of light. Big deal. My "vintage" Beretta will barely get up to 80 mph--downhill, with a tailwind. But we can make time go backwards and even stand still when we write down the stories of our lives.

ASSIGNMENT: 1.) Start writing the stories! Choose three memories--from your list or not--and start getting them down on paper.
2.) Just for fun, can you think of a theme-song for each decade of your life? Be silly or serious.

To read Part III, The Extraordinary Ordinary, click here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Your Life Is a Story

The sun sets over a farmhouse in Kentucky. Paint peeling, white gauzy curtains hanging in the frosty windows. A little boxer dog is yapping. It’s a Sunday night in November, just four days until Thanksgiving.

In this house live a man and his wife, both forty years old, and their two teenage sons. The wife—everybody calls her Chick—is eight months pregnant with one of life’s little surprises.

Chick doesn’t eat dinner that night because she isn’t feeling well. The man asks the boys to clean up.  As the hours pass, Chick feels worse and worse. Finally, her husband throws a coat around her shoulders and drives her to the hospital twenty miles away. They admit her right away. She has a bad case of toxemia and she is in labor.

This is an era of big cars and ladies wearing big hats to church, an era when nurses are all women in white dresses and fathers-to-be are shuffled off to the waiting room.

He waits. Someone hands him a cup of coffee. Then another. A big wall clock  marks the passing time while he counts the squares in the beige and brown linoleum. This is taking too long. Why don’t they tell him something? Finally a nurse comes out and taps him on the shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” she says. And the word seems to echo down the corridors. Sorry, sorry, sorry “I’m sorry, but the baby is dead, and we don’t expect your wife to make it through the night.”

The words hang in the air like thick black smoke, awful and unreal. His heart is in his throat. What will he tell his sons? How will he get through this?

“Can I see my wife?

"I'm sorry.” There’s that word again. “The doctor is with her.”

Sorry. He paces and prays, paces and prays. The baby is dead. He is no longer conscious of the floor tiles or the nurses whispering or the clock hands spinning or the people passing in the halls.  We don’t expect your wife to make it…

Sunlight comes through the windows. Outside, a half moon still lingers as commuters make their Monday morning trek back to work. But for this man, none of that matters. Somehow the night has passed, and the nurse comes out again. She looks tired. 

God, please. No more bad news. No more sorry.

The nurse brushes her damp hair from her face. “It’s a girl,” she says. “And she’s alive. Would you like to see your wife now?”

I know this story well, because the man told it to me many times. I am that baby girl, and my mother lived to watch me grow up.

Our lives are made up of little stories like this one—some touching, some funny, some seemingly insignificant. Together they form a mosaic that tells a bigger story, the story of our life as a whole. Put many lives together and they tell a greater story of a nation or an era. Put all the little stories together and they tell the story of mankind.  

When we think about “stories,” we think about the stories in books and legends and myths and movies. Or the stories our mother read to us when we were young. Or perhaps the stories of celebrities or historical figures or politicians.  It’s easy to forget about the story nearest to our hearts—the story of our own lives. So many of these precious stories are never told, never written down for our great great grandchildren to know about us and the life we lived. 

How sad to be just another name on a genealogical chart. 

      Born April 14, 1926. 
      Died January 6, 2007. 

I’d much rather leave a story or two to go with the name. That day in childhood when I mixed random household chemicals together and invented rubber. (My mom never knew.) My fifteenth birthday, when Kennedy was assassinated. The winter night of the big meteor shower when our family stayed outdoors all night, freezing our tail feathers off. And I still had to go to church the next morning and lead worship. 

These aren't great historical happenings. They are significant only to me, but they say a lot about who I am and what I treasure.

But how to begin?

Here's something you can do this week.

The Girl Who Lived
(Take that, Harry Potter!)
Make a table or spreadsheet with a column for each decade of your life. In each column list five memories associated with each decade. Just five. It's easy. One memory will trigger another. You don't have to "write them up." Just a simple list of memories and stories others have told you about yourself--like the story about my birth recounted above. And gather a few photos of yourself from different ages too. The photos may help you with your list.

That's all. Just a list and a few photos. And next week, we'll talk more about ways to move from the list to a story--the story of your life.

To read Part Two of this series, "Your Life Is a Treasure," click here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


A teacup. A pocketwatch. A five dollar bill. A deck of cards. . . . Nearly 5,000 objects have been recovered from the wreckage of the great British steamship, the RMS Titanic.  You have to wonder. Did an elegant lady in evening attire sip tea that night as the ship sped toward disaster? Was a man losing badly at poker when someone noticed their feet were getting wet? Did an officer check his watch to guage how fast the ship was sinking? Each person on-board was lost in his own story, her own problems, until they were suddenly thrown together into one story, the story of the Titanic.

The Titanic

A crowd gathered to watch the Titanic depart from Southampton, England, just after noon on April 10, 1912. There had never been a ship like this — nearly as long as three football fields and as tall as an 11-story building. It was bound for New York City. 

Titanic was fully loaded —  stained-glass windows, carved paneling, fancy chandeliers. It had an elegant dining room where food prepared by French chefs was served on fine china. It had a beauty salon, a barber shop, a library, a Turkish bath, a squash court, a gymnasium and a swimming pool. It had everything — or so it seemed

Grand staircase of Titanic's sister ship, The RMS Olympic
Fast forward to April 14th. It was a calm, starry night, as Titanic plowed through the icy waters of the north Atlantic.  Frederick Fleet kept watch in the crow’s nest. With all the incredible luxuries of Titanic, someone had misplaced the one thing they really needed that night — binoculars for the look-out. Shortly before midnight, Fleet picked up his phone and called the First Officer, William Murdoch: “Iceberg ahead!”

Immediately, Murdock ordered the ship to turn sharply and put the engines in reverse.

Too late. 

The next sound Murdock heard was a soft thud of the ship hitting the iceberg. Such a soft sound — barely audible. Surely whatever caused it couldn’t have done much damage. But Captain Smith soon discovered that the iceberg had made a 200-foot gash along one side, and water was rushing in to 5 compartments. 

Only 20 minutes after impact, the captain knew the worst. He commanded the lifeboats to be filled with “women and children first.” But there weren’t enough lifeboats, and in all the uproar, some boats were launched half full. 

By the time the crew decided to call for help, the California, 10 miles away, had shut down their radio for the night. Another ship, the Carpathia, heard the distress call and came to the rescue — but they were 58 miles away. By the time they arrived, the ship had already disappeared into the ocean. The Carpathia could only rescue the survivors from their lifeboats. 

Titanic survivors in a lifeboat

It took only three  hours for the ship to sink. One survivor described how at the end, the lights went out, and then “slowly and almost majestically” the ship rose straight up in the water. And then, “She slid beneath the water of the cold Atlantic.”

More than 1500 people perished that night. After this disaster, new laws were passed. All ships were required to have enough life boats for everyone on board, and to have radio service around the clock.

April 15, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The wreckage — discovered in 1985—is slowly dissolving into the ocean where it came to rest. Soon, nothing will remain but a teacup, a pocketwatch and the other objects that were recovered. 

But the legend — and hopefully, the lessons learned — will last for a very long time.

Memorial to the Titanic Engineers - Southampton

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Buried Alive!

Hel-l-l-l-l-lp! Somebody. Anybody?

He’s trying to kill me — the mean monster with the big stick. Please. You gotta get me out of here. Gasp! I’m running out of air. I’m – hack, coughwaaaaaaah! I’m dying!

You know, I had a pretty good life once. I was just too dumb to know it. I got to hang around the pack with my friends — Daisy, Bud, Clem, the whole gang. It was clean and dry and comfie. 

Oh sure, sometimes Bud rubbed me the wrong way, and Clem could be Mr. Crankypants first thing in the morning. But Daisy was always cheerful, and all in all, it was a great life.

That is, until the day the monster came.

First, he tore the roof right off our pack. We thought it was a tornado. Or zombies coming to suck out our brains
 though Clem said I needn't worry about that.

Then the two-legged leviathan took his pointy thing and dug a grave. Just my size. And then he buried me alive! No, really! It was so Stephen King. I tried to scream. I tried to run. But it was like a dream when you yell but nobody can hear you.

Bl-yeck! Dirt in my ears, dirt in my eyes. I’ve even got dirt in my no-no-nose. A-choo! Not to mention. . .pee-yu! Can you smell that fertilizer!  Grr-oss! What did I ever do to deserve this torture? Nothing—that’s what! Eeeew! Was that a worm?

I think I'm starting to crack. Just this morning, I was stretching my legs — when suddenly I remembered —what the heck! I'm a seed — I don’t have legs. So what are these long, spindly things growing from my south-side? This is re-e-eally creepy. I just don’t know who I am anymore.

So, get this, Mr. Cruel and Unusual.  I’m not gonna take this lyin' down. No sirree. I’m breakin' outta this joint. I'm pushing up with this sort-of-horn-thingie growing out of my top. Yeah, I know. Weird, huh? That’s okay. Once I break through, I’ll hitch a ride back to my old life, back to the pack. I’ll show you! Any minute now. . .push, push, harder, harder, pant, pant, ughhhhhh. . . .

LIGHT! Beautiful, warm, delicious light! Do I hear an angel choir? I’m free, I’m free!

Daisy! Is that you, old friend? I thought I’d never see you again! Hey — you look different! I always thought you were cute, but Girl — you are drop-dead gorgeous! What happened?

No, don’t joke with me. I’ve had a rough couple of weeks. You don’t know what he did to me.

No way! No. Freakin'. Way. That’s the craziest thing I ever heard. You mean. . .I’m a flower? Wow. Who knew? Beautiful? — me? Shut up! You're making me blush!

Daisy, look out! The monster's back! Um, gardener guy — whatever. What’s that big bucket with the spout? Is this more torture?

Ahhhhhhh. That feels so-o-o-o good. Didn’t know I was so thirsty. This is like champagne and a shower all in one. So, he takes care of us? How cool is that!

Hey, Bud! You're here too? Sch-weet! Nah, I wasn’t scared. I had it figured out all along.

Woo-hoo! I can’t believe the view from up here on this stalk. Clouds and sky. I can see the whole garden. Hi, Clem! I see you made it. This is freakin’ amazing.

Um. . .Daisy? Daisy! He's back. But what’s he got this time? This doesn't look good.

Clippers? What do you mean — pruningEeeeks. Those things look dangerous. 

Hel-l-l-l-l-lp! Somebody. . . .Anybody?

 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat 
is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. 
But its death will produce many new kernels
—a plentiful harvest of new lives. 
John 12:24 NLT