Monthly Archives: May 2009

A Poignant Glimpse Into The Heartland of America.

then and now

Dawn - Then and Now (not from The Oxford Project)

Thanks to my colleague Larry Lehmer at Passing It On for alerting me to this wonderful story. In 1984 Peter Feldstein put up a handmade  sign saying he wanted to photograph everyone in the town of  Oxford, Iowa (pop. 673). He converted an abandoned storefront on Main Street into a makeshift studio.The project was a success. He capture 670 of the townsfolk. Twenty-one years later he returned to re-photograph the same people. Some had died and some had moved away but many were still living in Oxford. This time he brought a writer who told the participants they could talk about anything in their lives so long as they told “the truth”. The result is a poignant and spellbinding book, The Oxford Project, which the Philadelphia Inquirer described as: ... a still-life documentary, a narrative about change. This huge, handsome book, with its gatefold photographs, its maps and memories, offers a fascinating piece of contemporary history, a treasure of social and cultural commentary. You can read more about the Project by clicking here.

The Oxford Project made me think how we can be far more creative with the way in which we use family photos in our life story endeavors. Like The Oxford Project, you could try to find two photos of the same family member taken in the same location but separated by a significant span of time. You could then arrange these photos side by side to show the passage of years. Or you might create a photo block made up of all the photos of a family member arranged from the earliest baby pictures through to their adult years.

You could also show the changes in your community by finding an early archival photo of a particular location and then taking a picture of the same view today. Putting the photos side by side will provide a dramatic visual telling of the changes that have come about. You can find some wonderful examples here from the Then and Now group on Flickr.

Let me know what creative photo techniques  you’ve used in telling your family story. Leave a comment below and share your ideas with others.

Photo by Michael Summers

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How Life Stories Can Benefit The Dying.

old lady

I’ve had the opportunity over the past 15 years to be involved with people at the end of their lives, first as a documentary filmmaker and more recently as a personal historian and hospice volunteer. What I have learned from first hand experience and the growing body of academic research is that telling life stories can have a therapeutic effect on the dying. The process of recording and preserving life stories provides the terminally ill with:

  • Affirmation: I’m more than my disease. Those caring for me have acknowledged all of me.
  • Legacy: Something lasting will transcend my death. There’s hope that I will be remembered and that my story will provide some comfort to my family in their bereavement.
  • Purpose: By doing this work there is still meaning to my life. I am contributing to others.
  • Pattern: I see more clearly a purpose and meaning to experiences that often seem random and discontinuous.
  • Support: Having a care provider, friend, family member or personal historian listen to my life story bears witness to who I am and the significance of my journey.

For any of you working with palliative care patients or caring for a dying family member,  I strongly encourage you to consider introducing some life story activity into your care.

Photo by jaded one

The Life Story Quote of The Week.

memory room

So much happens to us all over the years.  So much has happened within us and through us.  We are to take time to remember what we can about it and what we dare.  That’s what taking the time to enter the room (called “Remember”) means, I think.  It means taking time to remember on purpose. It means not picking up a book for once or turning on the radio, but letting the mind journey gravely, deliberately, back through the years that have gone by but are not gone.  It means a deeper, slower kind of remembering; it means remembering as a searching and finding.  The room is there for all of us to enter if we choose.

Frederick Buechner, from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons

I like Buechner’s phrase “to remember on purpose”.  It says to me that engaging in the recording of our life story or that of another is not a frivolous undertaking. It’s serious work. It requires that we take the time to reflect on life’s journey and by so doing not only leave a legacy but a clearer understanding of self.

Will you enter the room called “Remember”?

Photo by Max R

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Manage and Share Your Family Photos with Flickr.

flickrThanks to Denise Olson at Family Matters for pointing out the value of Flickr for family history projects. If you don’t already know, Flickr is a web based application which allows you to upload, edit, archive and share your photographs  with others.  The basic account is simple to set up and free. For a modest $25 a year, you can get a Flickr Pro account with unlimited space.  I discovered Flickr when I was writing my mother’s life story. It was  perfect for uploading her photographs and organizing them into groups. I could even edit and clean up some of the more damaged pictures. To me,  Flickr’s great value  is that it provides a secure place to keep your treasured photos. You no longer have to fear that should your hard drive crash, all your photos will be wiped out.

Of value too are Flickr groups:

Groups are a way for people to come together around a common interest, be it a love of small dogs, a passion for food, a recent wedding or an interest in exploring photographic techniques. And if you can’t find a group which interests you, it’s super-easy to start your own.

Groups can either be public, public (invite only) or completely private. Every group has a pool for sharing photos and videos and a discussion board for talking.

Flickr has 36 million users and an assortment of  groups of particular interest to personal historians.  Here’s a sample:

  • Old Photos has more than 4,600 members and over 47,000 photos in the collection.
  • 100 Years Old has more than 4,000 members and over 9,000 photos – each more than 100 years old.
  • Scrapbook has 1,754 members and close to 17,000 photos.

If you want to organize and manage your family, check out Flickr. You won’t be disappointed.

Photo by Mohammad Tajer

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How to Interview A “Challenging” Subject.

withdrawn old manI’ve always found it relatively easy to interview someone who is outgoing and an extrovert. The challenge is  interviewing someone who is more withdrawn and tends to respond with one word or one sentence answers. It’s like pulling teeth to get their story. If it’s  an older person who is also hard of hearing and has poor vision, it can make the interview that much more difficult.

So how do you interview a challenging subject? Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.

  • Select a favorite spot. Make certain that your interview takes place in a room where your subject is comfortable. If she has a favorite chair or spot in the house, use that location for the interview.
  • Engage in some idle “chit-chat”. Before sitting down to the interview, talk about the weather, sports, their art work  – anything that allows your subject to feel more relaxed with you.
  • Remain calm. If your subject senses you’re anxious about not getting much from the interview, she’s  likely to become even less responsive.
  • Leave some space. After your subject has responded to your question with a brief word or two, don’t leap in with another probing question in an attempt to get more out of him. Count to ten. Sometimes just leaving space makes people want to fill it in. If you’re lucky, your subject will start to add some more detail.
  • Create a picture for your subject. Don’t ask, “What was your childhood home like?” Start by saying something like, “I want you to paint a picture of your childhood home for me. So we’re standing outside the front of your home and walking up to the front door. We open it and go inside. Tell me, what do we see as we go inside?” After some description of the entrance go on with, “That’s wonderful. Now let’s  explore further. As we’re going down the hall what do we see?”
  • Be specific. Avoid very general questions like, “What was your childhood like?” Chances are the response will be, “Oh, it was okay.” You want to get details. Ask something like, “I want you to think back to those memories of childhood when you were with your father. It might have been at play or at the supper table. Think back and select a moment that is vivid for you.[pause] Okay? Now describe for me where you were and what was happening.”
  • Use open-ended questions.  Open questions begin with who, what, where and when. For example, let’s say your subject replies, “It was a good marriage.” to your question of,  “What was your married life like?” You can go further by asking, “How was it good?” This requires your subject to provide some specifics.
  • For those who are hard of hearing, speak clearly and slowly. You need to make sure your questions are actually being heard. It seems obvious to say “speak loudly” but I find interviewers tend to go quiet on questions that are of an intimate or sensitive nature. You don’t need to shout but you do need to project your voice – like a  stage actor.

I hope these tips will be of help with your next challenging interview subject. If you have some additional tips that work for you, please let me know by dropping a note in my comment box below. I always welcome comments.

Photo by Andy Hurvitz

The Life Story Quote of The Week.

tree canopy jpg

If you don’t know your history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.

Michael Crichton - (1942 – 2008) American author, producer, director, screenwriter and physician

We live in a world that prizes speed, innovation, newness and youth. We’re constantly looking forward. And in the process we’ve become strangers to our past. We’ve either never heard our family stories or forgotten many of them. We pay a price for this. We feel rootless, unconnected and at our deepest core anxious and unhappy.

Recording  and preserving our stories is not some flight of nostalgia. It is in fact a determined  act to reclaim our history.

Photo by justneal

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Musical Memories Are The Last to Fade.

musical notesAccording to a recent study at the University of California, listening to music can be of benefit to Alzheimer’s patients. I became aware of this several years ago when I directed a series of documentary films for the National Film Board of Canada entitled Caregivers. In my research I talked to a number of  people  caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s. What was remarkable were the number of stories of people who had all but forgotten who they were but who could still sit down at a piano and play or sing songs from long ago.

The poet William Cowper in his  poem Music and Recollection captures the  power of music to unlock memories:

With easy force it opens all the cells
Where Memory slept. Wherever I have heard
A kindred melody, the scene recurs,
And with it all its pleasures and its pains.
Such comprehensive views the spirit takes,
That in a few short moments I retrace
(As in a map the voyager his course)
The windings of my way through many years.

The other day, I was again reminded of this phenomenon. I was responding to a colleague’s request on the Association of Personal Historian’s Listserv. She was asking for help on how to gather information for a life story from an individual whose memory was fading. I mentioned the possibility of using music to aid in memory recall. This sparked recollections from other Listserv members who reminisced about touching moments when  music helped an aging parent . They have generously allowed me to share these stories with you here.

My mom, Marie, died from Alzheimer’s. She had always loved music and played the piano by ear. Shortly before she died, long after she really knew who we were, long after she could walk or take care of her basic needs or read or even carry on much of a conversation, my sister wheeled her over to the grand piano in the facility where she lived.  And she played a tune. I had forgotten all about this until I read Dan’s post. As they say, “thanks for the memories.”

Susan Owens –

I worked briefly on a project a few summers ago with a neighbor whose mother no longer remembered anyone in the family or her group of long-time friends (I was actually helping him wrap up her story because he had given up on getting more information).

While he was visiting her one day in a facility where she was staying after a fall, he watched as his mother drifted  toward a member of another family. They had walked into the community room carrying a violin case for one of the other residents. Without hesitation, his mother rolled her wheelchair up to the stranger and asked if she could “see” the violin. And, to his amazement, moments later, she was playing it!

My neighbor, her son, knew that she had played in her younger years, before marrying , and that she had always said she was quite good.  In talking with her after the impromptu concert, she suddenly asked if he would like to take lessons from her.  He had no desire to learn but accepted her offer so that they would have a mutual activity.

Weeks later, she bragged about him as “her star pupil” and, during their breaks, she ended up telling him stories from a part of her life that he’d never known. The “lessons” lasted nearly a year before her mind and her physical control began fading rapidly. Interestingly, during those months, she became very introspective about her parents and the impact they had on her life and very philosophical about her aspirations and dreams – but, the observations and assumptions she made were based on the period of her life as a concert violinist!!

Stephen Evans –

As we were moving my parents out of their home into an assisted living facility (because my dad needed that kind of care), one of the last things to leave the house was the old family piano. It had been in Dad’s childhood home and he had played most evenings after supper for more than eighty years. The evening before the piano movers arrived, my partner Kathy and I went over to have dinner with my parents. Kathy, who is a very talented musician, went to the piano and began to play. Knowing that Dad loved Jerome Kern’s melodies, she started out with some tunes from “Showboat.” Dad had been sitting in his armchair, staring blankly at the wall. When the music began he suddenly focused on Kathy and started to sing along, perfectly on pitch, with every word of the lyrics intact. They played and sang together for almost two hours while Mom and I smiled at each other and wept silently in the other room. It was the first time that Dad had perked up like that in months, and it was a wonderful gift to us all. Dad wasn’t able to play a single note by himself anymore, but with Kathy’s help the music came back to him.

Linda Coffin –

Photo by Desirae

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International Day for Sharing Life Stories – May 16th.

people collageThe Second International Day for Sharing Life Stories is Saturday, May 16th. It is organized by The Museum of the Person International Network (Brazil, Portugal, USA and Canada) and the Center for Digital Storytelling (USA, Canada, Denmark, Czech Republic, Ireland and Portugal).

The organizers describe this year’s theme as:

…the Journey for Justice – Migration and Refugees. The Human Rights Commission of U.N. estimates that there are currently 21 million refugees in the world. According to the International Organization for Migration, there are 200 million international immigrants all over the world. We want to hear the stories of people who have experienced migration in order to develop dialogue about this important matter in our societies and promote social change.

Already over 150 organizations and individuals from 33 countries have endorsed the campaign. Think about how you can use Saturday, May 16th as a time for listening to or telling one’s own stories at work, at play, or around the dinner table.

If you want to find out more about the International Day for Sharing Life Stories,  click here.

Photo by Kymberly Janisch

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The Life Story Quote of The Week.

looking back

If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.

Pearl S. Buck – (1892-1973) American writer

Preparing our personal history offers us the opportunity to look back on all our yesterdays. By doing so, we come to see more clearly how we got to where we are, the values that have inspired us along the way and what wisdom we’ve accumulated.  A clearer understanding of our past helps us better navigate our future course.

Photo by Markus M.

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I Need Your Help.

pull-for-helpSince beginning this blog in July 2008, I’ve written 128 articles and reached 8,000 viewers. I’m really pleased with how far I’ve come.  If you’re a regular visitor thank you for dropping by and taking the time to read my articles. If you’re new to the site, welcome and I hope you’ll find enough here to make you return for more. And for those who’ve left comments, bless you. Comments are the juice that makes  a blog come alive.

It’s time now to ask for your help. This blog will only continue to be of value if the material I write  addresses the questions you want answered about personal histories. Sorry, can’t help with your  relationship issues ;-)   So now’s your chance. Please take a moment to  send me your questions by dropping me a line in the comment box below. If you’re shy, you can e-mail me directly. I promise that every question will in time be  answered.

Thank you for your help.

Photo by Alex Carmichal

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