This post is an entry in the 2nd Stratejoy Essay Contest. Throughout the next month, we will be featuring each finalist writing their answer to the question: What would your TED Talk Be? On September 13th, we will open the voting to YOU, our community, to select the winner of the $500 prize.”
*CONNECT WITH YOUR PAST TO FIND YOUR FUTURE*
It’s a cliché that we hear time and time again- we can’t move ahead without knowing where we’ve come from. It’s a cliché because it’s true. But true as it may be, how many actually know what their past is?
I’m not referring to your childhood or even knowing what your parents did on their first date. I’m talking about connecting your history to your life and what you want out of the future. As I’ve struggled to figure out what I want for my life- who I am now and who I want to be in the future, I think a lot about the various paths my parents and grandparents took. I can look within my own extended family and community to see the alternatives that could have just as easily been mine.
When people think about history, their mind often conjures up images of a cranky school teacher drilling them on dates and wars. The way many topics are taught in school is often dry, based only in facts and figures, stories of great men and wars. It lacks excitement but most importantly- it lacks connection.
Finding a way to bond with long gone ancestors is something that people have been doing for generations through genealogy; the popularity of celebrity family history shows like NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are have increased the number of ancestry.com memberships and visits to libraries and archives for people to learn about where they have come from. And I think that’s amazing and has the ability to be something really powerful. But it’s also time consuming, detail oriented, and just plain hard work. It’s not for everyone- heck, it’s not even for me and I’m a trained historian!
Thankfully, that’s not the only way. The history of your family lies within you and your loved ones, in the place where you live, on the roads you drive on every day. It’s all around and you probably don’t even realize it. Great history does not have to come from an ancestor being present at a great battle or participating in a historic movement. It comes from the everyday moments of life that your family cherished and passed down. The same everyday moments of life that you cherish are the ones they held dear too. Most often, the history of you is as close as a visit with your grandmother.
A few years ago I worked on a community exhibition about a group of Portuguese immigrants in a town known as a rich “Yankee” summer colony. The descendants of the original immigrants were very excited to contribute, but many of them felt they had nothing to add to the exhibit or oral history project that was of “real historical value.” I heard time and time again that their parents or grandparents did not do anything grand or have any antiques or things of value. One of the interviews that changed the entire scope of the project was with Mrs. Raposa, an octogenarian who made traditional Portuguese sweetbread while I interviewed her. I asked where she bought the large seasoned ceramic bowl she was using. She replied, “Oh this was my mother’s- she probably brought it from the Azores.” It was a light bulb moment for me not only with this project, but with the community members as well. “Mrs. Raposa- I would love to use that bowl in our exhibit.” She shockingly replied, “Why would you use this old thing?”
And of course, the reason to use an old ceramic bowl in the exhibit was not because it was an extraordinary example of a bowl, but because that bowl has a magic value to it- it is living proof of a family- of a tradition. The bowl probably has more stories and value than some random military uniform worn by an unnamed soldier in the Civil War. But most importantly, that bowl has the power for Mrs. Raposa to realize that even in her solitary life in a small coastal town in Rhode Island, that she has an important connection to the past. History is not what the books say it is- it is what is all around us. That moment changed how I looked at my career and how I looked at myself.
The past is a point of pride, of discovery and learning. Personally, each new family story makes me into a more full and dynamic person, rooted in something much bigger than I am. I have yet to truly learn about the struggles and experiences my mother’s parents went through in World War II Holland or how my grandmother’s father came here from Portugal. I love that I have stories like my great grandfather was on the 1928 Dutch Olympic cycling team, but that cool fact doesn’t take precedence over the more routine tales my paternal grandmother may tell me about her father’s grocery store.
Even discovering difficult or unsavory aspects of family history allows us in the present to really think about the journey of our ancestors and shed light on where we are today. Learning about personal history is powerful just to feel aware of another dynamic aspect of your current being. And if you don’t have the ability to discover family, discovering the history of a place or something dear to your heart brings new appreciation in the same kind of ways as well. We too often take for granted having certain privileges, but being aware of a time when they did not exist makes a person far less cynical and questioning in present day. I strongly believe everyone should undertake this form of self-discovery as a way to propel them forward as a fuller person who succeeds on the shoulders of those who came before. Awareness of how the world came to be can only bring us to a greater state of understanding and inspire a sense of peace and gratitude that will push us forward into our best possible future.
Kristen is a 29 year old gal who lives in Massachusetts and works in Rhode Island. She is a museum curator and writer, blogging at Life By Kristen (lifebykristen.wordpress.com). She is slowly working towards her goal of being a full time writer. Kristen loves spending time with her family and friends, reading, and cooking. Currently obsessed with decorating her house which she owns by herself, Kristen is also in love with Pinterest, shoes, and trying to find more outlets for her creativity.
*This post is an entry in the 2nd Stratejoy Essay Contest. Throughout the next month, we will be featuring each finalist writing their answer to the question: What would your TED Talk Be? On September 13th, we will open the voting to YOU, our community, to select the winner of the $500 prize.*