I never thought I’d find myself inside of a prison, yet there I was for the second time in my life. The somber sight of those seemingly endless coils of barbed wire that surround drab clusters of old brick and cement block buildings always seemed to imply that I was to stay out as much as the inmates were supposed to stay inside.Read More
If there’s ever a time of reflection and sense of community, Christmas is it – it’s when people gather together, memories flow and traditions are created or upheld. Yet despite the true meaning of the season and the romanticism of traditions, our preparations leading up to Christmas Day can be a lot of work and the results aren’t always what we envision, especially when it comes to the Christmas tree. Interestingly, the same can be said about writing life story.
Lesson #1: Don’t Compare
The first box of Christmas decorations that I open contains our artificial tree. We acquired the nine-foot-tall tree from my mother-in-law who had twelve-foot-high ceilings. It always looked so regal in the sitting room of her Victorian home, framed by the bay windows that mirrored the white lights on the tree.
Fast forward a few years and it now stands in our modest living room. Despite the treetop scraping our ceiling (thereby eliminating the opportunity to place a star or angel on its peak) and the removal of several rear branches so it can be backed up against the wall to allow pedestrian traffic, it nevertheless proudly serves as the focal point of our living room.
It is similar to the proverbial elephant in the room. You cannot avoid staring at it not only due to its immense proportions, but also because it is garishly decorated by two creative young kids.
The first year that it stood in our home I remember being disappointed. It looked nothing at all like the grand, beautiful tree that my mother-in-law decorated with color-coordinating ornaments. But since then I have come to love that tree, understanding that it’s not about perfection or even replicating others’ work; instead, it’s all about making it our own and serving a meaningful purpose.
It recently struck me that decorating our tree parallels with writing life story. All too often people think that their experiences – their stories – pale in comparison to those of others. Such thoughts can prevent them from writing, making them feel that their experiences are insignificant.
Yet look at the tree example. Even though the current location isn’t optimal for our fake spruce, it still serves a pivotal role in our Christmas celebrations. Similarly, your unique stories – no matter how seemingly mundane – serve an important role in your family’s history.
Lesson #2: Don’t Give Up
Decorating our tree is an all-day affair. The lights are a critical component of the overall desired effect and because the tree was manufactured before the advent of the pre-lit varieties, I spend a couple of hours painstakingly wrapping the light strands in and among each branch so that the cords don’t show. Part of it is a perfectionist streak in me and part of it is to carry on my mother-in-law’s tradition of how the tree should be decorated.
The time and frustration I undertake when hanging the lights can easily equate to writing life story. I anxiously stare at the tree as I flip the extension cord’s power switch, waiting to see if any loose light bulbs refuse to work now that they are intertwined in branches. There is nothing more tedious and time consuming than attempting to locate and replace recalcitrant bulbs.
Similarly, writing life story is not always a simple task and we may feel like giving up halfway through the job. But when we persevere, the end result is something beautiful to behold.
Lesson #3: Don’t Hold Back
As my children and I drape the ribbons and hang the ornaments, I share the memories associated with each decoration and of my childhood Christmases in general. They typically grunt or distractedly say, “Uh-huh” as I reminisce, but at least they let me happily prattle on as Christmas music plays in the background.
Even though my children don’t currently place great emphasis on my annual trip down memory lane, I believe that one day they will appreciate the stories. And even if they never do, the simple act of telling family stories brings me satisfaction and joy.
The same holds true for your life story. Even if you don’t think anyone will be interested in what you have to say, you should write your life story because it’s important to you and brings you joy. As added benefits, you will also document history and create an enduring legacy.
So don’t hold back. Tell your story and allow the meaningful glow of your words to emanate to others for generations to come.
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Maybe your dad already has enough ties, grilling utensils, and sports paraphernalia. Maybe you’re tired of giving a standard Father’s Day card with money. Or perhaps you just want to give him something unique and meaningful this year. If any of these scenarios resonate with you, then consider giving dad something new: a tribute letter. Simply put, it’s a written document that relates your memories of him and why he’s important to you.
It doesn’t have to be sappy and sentimental (although it can be, if that’s what you desire). It can be humorous or matter-of-fact; let your personality shine through. It can span your entire lifetime and be chronological, or it can relate a select few memories in random order. And it doesn’t have to be professionally printed and framed. Just the fact that you’ve taken the time to record some of your favorite memories will mean a lot to your father.
Begin by jotting down some of your favorite memories of your time together, whether as a child or an adult – or both.
- What has he done that has meant the most to you?
- How has he supported you?
- What has he taught you?
- What’s something that perhaps he’s forgotten all about, or some small gesture that he might have considered insignificant but which had a lasting impact on you?
Don’t worry about length; just write what’s on your mind.
Of course, not everyone has a close relationship with their father for a variety of reasons. Maybe your dad wasn’t an active part of your childhood or maybe he was actually a negative influence. Regardless, you still have memories and you still learned things from him – whether or not he was intentional in teaching them to you. Maybe he wasn’t an ideal role model; maybe his actions actually taught you what not to do in life. Nevertheless, he is a part of your DNA and has impacted your beliefs and values. He helped to shape you into the person you are today. Maybe this Father’s Day is the time to share some of your most meaningful and positive thoughts with him.
One thing is certain: no one lives forever. Time is short and we should take advantage of the opportunities we have to let our loved ones know what they mean to us. My dad was not an emotional guy; he wasn’t someone who liked to share his feelings, and he certainly wasn’t prone to sentimentality. Yet a few days before he passed away, I sent him a letter in which I shared what I loved most about him and some of my favorite memories. When I called to ask him if he received it, I could tell that he was struggling to hold back tears as he simply said, “Yep.” Even though we didn’t talk any more about it, I know that he treasured that letter.
Ultimately, your life story is not about you alone; it also includes those individuals closest to you and your interactions with them. This Father’s Day, let your dad know what he means to you.
Have you ever written a tribute letter? Share your experience in the comments section.
If you have ever owned a camera, then you most likely possess numerous boxes and drawers filled with family photographs and original negatives. Despite your good intentions, they continue to languish in disorganized heaps rather than being artfully displayed in picture frames or creatively designed in scrapbooks.
Digital photos, too, can be reduced to mere clutter – they fill memory cards, slow down hard drives and get dumped into unnamed desktop folders.
What is the solution? How can you move from simply being the caretaker of those buried photos to being the curator of a display that can be enjoyed by all of your family and friends?
- Start Small
Even though this may seem obvious, tackle one stack at a time to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Recognize that looking at photos is an inherently slow process because memories are associated with each one. It is natural to stop and reflect for several moments before moving on to the next photo. Thus, you might consider videotaping the process so you can verbally and visually document the entire memory, rather than just labeling a name, place and date. This will make it much easier to expand on that particular memory and group of photos should you later decide to write your personal history or memoir.
- Gather Appropriate Supplies
When working with actual prints, always be sure to use archival, acid-free supplies such as pens, pencils (preferably no.4 or no.6), papers, photo albums and storage boxes. Not so long ago, it was common practice to simply write information on the back of a picture with whatever writing utensil happened to be within reach. However, the pressure of writing with the pen often causes an embossed version of the lettering on the front of the photo. Most people have also seen the detrimental affects of placing photos in old-fashioned cellophane-and-glue photo albums; the glue dries out, causing photos to fall out of the album (the glue itself sometimes damages the pictures) and the pages become brittle and yellowed. Archival supplies can be purchased at most craft and hobby stores, as well as online at specialty sites such as www.archivalmethods.com and www.gaylord.com.
If at all possible, take the time to scan each page of the old album before gently removing the pictures. This will not only safeguard the actual photos, but also preserve an image of the original handwriting and honor the time and effort it took a loved one to create the finished, albeit now defunct, heirloom. It’s also important to scan each of your loose photos from that heap in your drawer. This will digitize the images so that you can easily (and safely) store, share, and create prints from them. If you don’t own a flatbed scanner, a great alternative is a small mobile scanner (check out those offered at www.flip-pal.com).
- Photo Restoration
What can you do if a photo is cracked, the corner torn, or the color has faded? Thanks to today’s technology, you can try your hand at photo restoration with your own photo editing software. Most photo processing locations (including your local pharmacy chains and big box stores) also offer these types of minor restoration services. But what happens if your photos have experienced water damage? Contrary to popular belief, many of these photos can be salvaged. If you want to tackle the process on your own, check out the tips at http://www.scanmyphotos.com/blog/water-damage-dont-panic. You can also hire a qualified photo conservation professional.
Once your photos have been scanned, label them with as much detail as possible, and group all photos of a particular event in one folder (also appropriately labeled by event and date, if known). This should be done with both the physical pictures (placing them in acid-free albums or photo storage boxes) and the digitized versions on your computer’s desktop. Don’t forget to back up your pictures by saving them onto flash/thumb drives and/or uploading the photos to online photo storage sites such as www.smugmug.com or www.flickr.com.
- Create and Share
This is the fun part! After all of your hard work sorting, scanning, labeling, and preserving your photos, now you can get creative and produce tangible and/or virtual albums to share with family and friends. Online photo sites such as www.snapfish.com enable users to create customized photo books, calendars, gift cards and more. If you would like to create a photo book that includes large amounts of accompanying text, consider using a print-on-demand company such as www.blurb.com. Or, for those who embrace the Internet, www.pinterest.com can serve as a portal for family members to store and exchange photos, stories, and genealogical research.
Now that you have a plan of attack in place, go grab a handful of photos. Don’t expect to get through your entire collection in one day, but if you pace yourself and whittle away at it a little bit each week, you will soon have an empty drawer. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the memories!
Have additional photo preservation tips to share? Please share them in the comments section.
Unlike Christmas – when people generally focus on others – New Year’s tends to cause people to focus on themselves, particularly how they can improve their lives. Almost everyone, at some point, has attempted to accomplish at least one resolution: Lose weight. Stop smoking. Spend more time with family. The list is endless.
The finality of a year ending also tends to make people introspective. Year in and year out we reflect on our successes and accomplishments as well as our losses and failures, yet often we do not take cumulative stock of those experiences. This is the crux of personal history – the ability to dig below the surface of events in order to provide treasured insight. It’s an incredibly poignant way to ensure that your life lessons, belief systems, and values are passed on to future generations. All too frequently people say to me, “My life hasn’t been very interesting; there’s nothing to tell” or “I’m too young to write about my life” or “I’m not famous; no one would be interested in reading my story.” Nothing could be farther from the truth! “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside the dullest exterior, there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” Mark Twain Regardless of how old you are, how mundane your life may seem, or whether or not you feel worthy of such an endeavor, future generations will treasure your life story. Think back to your own ancestors. Wouldn’t you love to know what great-great-grandpa was thinking during his ocean voyage to Ellis Island? The secrets to your grandparents’ fifty-year marriage? The emotional, social and financial struggles your mom overcame as a single parent? What compelled your dad to adhere to his work ethic? The same types of questions will be asked about you by your future descendants unless you become proactive and document your experiences for them. So how do you start a personal history?
- Determine the method that suits you best. Do you prefer to write in journals? Type your thoughts in a word-processing software program? Record yourself speaking?
- Select a topic. Even if your goal is to create an all-encompassing life story, you have to narrow your focus in order to start. Is there a life-changing experience you can share? A historically significant event in which you participated? Values you wish to impart?
- Designate time. Carve out a block of time (whether it’s fifteen minutes, a half hour or two hours) and a frequency (once a day, twice a week, etc.). Actually add it to your calendar and try to stick to the schedule.
- Choose a location. Do you think better in a noisy, crowded place like a coffee shop? Or do you prefer to work in quiet isolation at home?
- Write or record. Take a deep breath and begin. Don’t worry about spelling and run-on sentences at this point; the important thing is to simply start writing (or typing or recording) about the topic you selected.
Want to learn more? Sign up to follow my blog for additional personal history tips, resources, and discussions of life experiences. I welcome your comments, and if there’s a particular aspect of personal history that you would like me to address, let me know!
Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and many families are looking forward to sharing a gastronomical smorgasbord with extended family members. Last year, AAA estimated that 43.6 million Americans journeyed 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. In addition to keeping our U.S. travel industry in business, these individuals place a priority on – and understand the value of – family.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone gets along. Far from it; many of us have bribed a spouse or sibling into traversing across the country to see that one individual who, years ago, we were so glad to move away from. Yet as extended families (both functional and dysfunctional) reunite around the food-laden table, a phenomenon takes place as differences are briefly set aside and reminiscences take center stage. What better time to preserve those family memories?
One of the best ways to capitalize on this gathering is to record the conversations. After all, who is going to take the initiative to handwrite a summary of the day’s conversations on a full stomach while trying to watch the football game or snag a Black Friday deal? Although it may initially seem unnatural to many family members to have a digital recorder placed in front of them on the dinner table or a camcorder set up in the corner aimed at them, you will find that after about 10-15 minutes of talking about a favorite family memory, they will begin to relax and become less self-conscious. Tip: Be sure to have on hand extra charged batteries and memory cards.
Don’t underestimate the memory-jogging power of family photos. If you possess some old, unlabeled pictures and you can’t identify all of the people in the images, bring them with you to the gathering and ask older family members to help solve the mystery. Even if they can’t recall the names, they may recognize the background and share some additional interesting stories. Tip: In addition to taking the traditional group family photos at your gathering, take random pictures throughout the day, including the family members looking at the old photos.
Because Thanksgiving is synonymous with turkey and all of the trimmings, why not commemorate your relatives’ famous side dishes and desserts? Notify them beforehand that you would like to obtain their recipes and ask them to bring copies to the gathering. If they’re tech savvy, you can set up an account with an online print-on-demand cookbook site and invite your relatives to enter the recipes there. Once all of you have entered the desired amount of recipes, you can create and order your own family cookbook.
Regardless of whether you do all of the above or just one aspect, don’t keep the information to yourself. Obtain everyone’s current snail mail, email and social media contact information before the gathering disperses. When you return home, make copies of the recordings, videos, photos, and/or recipes and send them to your extended family. Who knows? That might be the peace offering to remove that old family grudge.
The most important thing is for you to enjoy your holiday. Don’t become overzealous in your attempts to document family history; it will only cause you stress and annoy your family. Make it casual and fun, and even if you don’t solve the mystery of a photo or you forget to press “Record” on your camcorder, the important thing is that you get everyone talking about your family’s history, which can open the door for a new tradition at future family gatherings.
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Dalene Bickel is an author, book coach and speaker who helps aspiring authors successfully write, develop and self-publish their books.
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