Organizing and Collecting Memories, Stories, and Mementos
To incorporate all the possibilities might mean writing a book! And you may want to write a book! But for the purposes of this program, you will need to make selections from among your memories in order to present your Odyssey within the allotted time frame, which is 45 minutes for your presentation followed by a half-hour for questions. The choices you make as you research and prioritize material can determine the structure of your Odyssey.
How can you best decide what to include? On what will you base your choices? In the retreat setting, the first High Hill group explored personal values and beliefs; that is one way to organize what is most important in your life and decide which stories to share.
There are a number of other ways to organize your thinking about your life story. Here are some suggestions:
Mining Resources and Ideas from Photos, Slides, Videos, and Scrapbooks
Life story resources and ideas may be waiting in images from your life. Begin mining your story by digging out old family photographs, slides and boxes of memorabilia. Spend time sorting through them, perhaps playing a recording of some beloved music as you explore. Do you know who everybody is? Check with siblings and relatives to identify unfamiliar people and places. Choose your favorite images, and arrange them in chronological order. Look at each one for a long time, remembering when it was taken, who was there, and why it is important to you. Did you take the picture, or did someone else? Who? What events preceded and followed the taking of each picture? How old were you? What was your life like? Use the same process with home movies and videotapes, choosing the best segments, even editing them into a single film. Remind yourself of the stories that surrounded the videotaping. You may want to invite family members over and go through pictures, slides, and video together!
Perhaps as a child, a teenager, or an adult you kept scrapbooks with important artifacts from your life: tickets, newspaper clippings, programs, and so on. Explore them with a friend or family member, and talk about the people, events, and times that were important to you.
Ask yourself what the process of looking, remembering, and sorting tells you about your growth and development as a human being. How have you changed since the earliest picture was taken? What were the critical events, or turning points in your life? What precipitated the changes? Did anyone witness these changes? Is that person (or people) still in your life? You may be surprised, or even shocked, by what you find in pictures, slides, movies, and scrapbooks. Or you may find that it is all as you remembered and expected. In either case, there is something about your life that is to be learned.
Using Job Ladders as a Resource
Job ladders are another way to look at your life's trajectory. Here's one way to do it: On separate self-adhesive notes, write every job you've ever held, from babysitting and mowing lawns to your recent and current. Also note any volunteer jobs you have taken on. Arrange the jobs in chronological order, then look them over, making corrections or additions. For each job, ask yourself:
- How did I get that job? Did I apply for it? Was it referred to me?
- Did I need references? Who were they?
- What did the job entail? What was my salary?
- Why did I choose to leave, or was I let go?
- Who was my supervisor? Was the person a good supervisor for me?
- Do I still have friends from this job? Do we still trade reminiscences about that time? What might they remember?
- If I could do it over, how might you approach this job differently?
Ask yourself some general job-related questions, perhaps answering in your journal:
- Who was the best supervisor I ever had? Why?
- What was the most difficult job I ever had? The most fun?
- Which job was my favorite? Was it a vocation?
- Did my work require me to move from one place to another? Was that hard? Why?
- Did I turn down any jobs that might have changed the direction of my life? Why? Any regrets?
Get together over a cup of coffee with people who were a part of your work life. Reminisce. What do you remember, what do they remember? How are the recollections similar? If people remember things differently, how can you follow up and try to find the answers?
Sometimes the kind of work we do, or a particular job, is central in the story of our lives. We develop skills sets that move us toward a particular line of work—or if we are lucky, a vocation—to which we are particularly suited by abilities, temperament, and values. Sometimes a job radically alters us, perhaps changing our personal life, or unexpectedly pushing us in a completely new direction. How has the path of your life been affected by your work? A little? A lot? Not at all? Was your work directly or indirectly a catalyst for change at any turning points in your life? How?
Remembering Places You Have Lived
In the song "This Ole House," vocal artist Rosemary Clooney sang these lyrics:
This ole house was home and comfort
As they fought the storms of life.
Listen to this song as you begin your exploration of places you have lived. Find it online if you do not own it.
Some of us have lived most of our lives in just one house or apartment. Others have moved a few times; some much more often, including this program's author, who has lived in 43 places! Some of us grew up in an ancestral family home and may still live in the same community where we grew up. Some of us have always lived in cities, or rural places; some have always lived in the United States, or always in the same geographical region; others have lived in diverse kinds of places. List, in chronological order, every place you have ever lived. For each place, ask yourself:
- What do I remember about this place?
- Did I like or love living here? Why or why not?
- Who did I live with?
- Did I sleep in my own bedroom, or with whom did I share? What was my bedroom like? How was it furnished?
- What was my favorite place to retreat to, to sit, to read, or to daydream? Draw a picture or floor plan of your favorite room.
- Who were my friends in the neighborhood? What kinds of things did we do together? With whom am I still in touch?
Ask yourself some general questions, perhaps answering in your journal:
- If I lived away from home for a time, perhaps in a dorm, with relatives, or at a summer camp, what was that like?
- What was my first "adult" living place?
- In what homes did I raise children? If there has been more than one place, which is their favorite? (Ask them!)
- Am I now in a "rest of my life" home? How did I come to choose it?
- Would I rather be somewhere else?
- Which three places have been my favorite homes? What qualities did they have in common?
- If I could combine the best qualities of those three, how would it be?
- What do all these places, or most of them, share?
- Do I have a preferred "scale"—town, city, country?
- Do I have a preferred environment—mountains, desert, forest, ocean?
Ask yourself: What is my sense of place? Where do I feel most at home? How do these places' commonalities or differences inform me as I write about my life? Have they influenced my life? To what degree?
Remembering People Who Were/Are Important in Your Life
More list-making! List the people who were or are an important part of your life other than your immediate family. Your list might include friends, teachers, role models, colleagues, mentors, and people you have mentored. Noting that length of association and age are not the only indicators of importance in your life, write in your journal something about the three people in your life who had the greatest influence on you. Describe how they influenced or changed you. How would your life have been different if you had not known them? Are they still living? Are you still in touch with any of them? Do you know where they are? Seneca said, "Thank someone for being that someone." Take the opportunity to reconnect and express gratitude. If possible, connect with the three by phone, email, letter, or even in person. Tell them how they influenced your life and thank them. Invite them for a cup of coffee or a meal if they live nearby. Catch up on each other's lives. Ask them what they remember about you, who you were when they first met you, and any changes they have noticed in you. You may want to record the conversation (with their permission) or takes notes you can review later.
Interviewing Your Family and Oldest Friends
Involving your extended family and long-time friends in (re)collecting your history can be a wonderful experience, full of reminiscence and revelation!
You might start with one person at a time. Or, you might invite all your children or siblings to a gathering. With permission, record the conversations for yourself or as part of a collective family history to leave to your children and grandchildren. Ask people to talk about the most enjoyable, the most difficult or challenging, and the most moving times you have shared as a family or as friends. Ask them:
- What is your favorite family/friendship memory?
- What is your favorite family/friendship tradition?
- What do you think was the hardest time for our family/our friendship?
- What was the happiest time?
- Who would you like to thank, and for what?
Particularly for family members, you might ask:
- Who was your favorite relative, perhaps now deceased? Why?
- Are there any unsolved mysteries in our family story? What are they?
You'll find that one memory may trigger another, and another, and another, all woven together like threads in a family or friendship tapestry. Stories may move or surprise you. If you have chosen to explore memories in a group, you might follow up by interviewing one person at a time, especially if there were, or are, unresolved difficulties among the group or very personal experiences that the two of you have shared. One-to-one sessions will be more intimate.
If you have unresolved difficulties with a friend or family member who is important in your life, consider trying to reconcile. A wise Unitarian minister, Rev. Ted Tollefson, said, "In every relationship worth having, there is always a way back. There is no such thing as an unforgivable act, there are only unforgiving people." Plan to have a reconciliation conversation. Ask yourself: "Do I need help with this conversation? Who would be a good person to ask for help?" You may wish to include a third person, such as your minister, your therapist, or a skilled friend. Ask your friend or family member if they would meet you for such a conversation. Explain that you are writing your Odyssey and that you want to understand what happened and your part in it, and that you will be there to listen and not to argue or blame. Then, do what you have promised to do—listen! If the person declines your offer of conversation, be gracious and loving. Express your regrets and get on with your journey!
Who were your best friends at earlier periods in your life? Are you still in touch with them? Can you get in touch with any you haven't seen or talked to in a long time? Prepare questions for them as well:
- How did we meet and become friends?
- What was life like then?
- What memories and stories do you have of enjoyable, challenging, or important moments in our friendship?
Write them a letter after your conversation, telling them what you particularly appreciated about the friendship and the experiences you shared together. Save plenty of time for those you love and are in right relationship with! What a time you'll have!
Mining Your Past
The more you can discover about your past and the people and influences in it, the more interesting your research will be, the more useful to you, and the more fascinating to others. After you have spent time looking through scrapbooks and photo albums, remembering jobs, friends, and homes, and talking with people close to you, ask yourself, "What do I want to know that I still don't know? What do I want to know more about? Who could help me find out? "Using a self-adhesive note pad, write down topics you want to explore and how you intend to find out more about that event, location, or person. Use a single note for each topic. Decide in which order you will investigate the topics and arrange the notes on a wall, window, or bulletin board. At the conclusion of the writing interlude, give yourself a gold star, real or virtual, for any questions for which you have uncovered answers.
Remembering What I Have Received and Given
Use a piece of lined paper or a page in your journal and divide it into two columns. Head one column "What I have received" and the other "What I have given." Ask yourself:
- Who are the people who gave to me during my life? What were their gifts?
- How was my life affected by their gifts?
- Have I ever told them, or thanked them?
- To whom have I given? What did I give?
- How did the giving affect me?
List what you have given and received as ideas come to you. Keep your lists as free-flowing and open as you can. A sense of completion often follows thanking people for what they have given you. You may wish to write a letter, telephone, or have a personal conversation, perhaps over a meal, with those people who have been important to you. You may decide later to send them a copy of your Odyssey, or selected pages from it, with an accompanying note thanking them for their part in your life.
Learning to Use Journals and Mining Existing Journals
Your old and current journals are great sources for Odyssey writing. If you have kept journals, by all means reread them! Remember where you were and how you were as you wrote different entries. Do you remember where you were sitting? Were you happy, or angry, or joyful, or sad? Introspective? Longing? Revisiting your life is a powerful experience. You may wish to have someone in mind to talk with, if you need them. You may want to transcribe hand-written journals as a way of re-entering your life!
If you have never kept a journal and wish to begin, go for it! Writing an Odyssey may be the beginning of a journaling life! You must decide if your journal will be electronic or hand-written. Both have virtues, and it doesn't have to be an either-or-decision. You might try doing both for a while and then choose how to continue.
Using Your Favorite Books, Movies, and Music as Resources
In your journal, make a list of five favorite books and five favorite movies. Ask yourself: How recently have I read these books? Watched these movies? If it has been a long time, go back and read parts of a book or watch a well loved movie again. It has been said that the books you love to read or the movies you like to see over and over describe a world you would like to enter. What kind of a world do your favorite books and/or movies describe? What do they have in common? Take some time to think it over. Then write about it in your journal.
Favorite music can evoke similar responses. There's a line from the song "Today," by Randy Sparks: "You'll know who I am by the song that I sing." What is the song you sing that tells who you are? When did you first hear it? Do you remember who sang it? Why is it important to you? What do you think it tells us about you? Just for fun, ask your family members, or best friends what their song is, and why. Would you have guessed? What surprises you, if anything? Play or sing your song for them, and ask whether they are surprised or think the song fits you perfectly!