In April, I stepped into a theater transformed. Gone were the tiers of formal seats dividing the stage from the audience. Instead, I was ushered into a tent holding a ticket marked Kurdistan and led through two countries to a seat on the floor of a raised platform. This was The Jungle, a refugee camp that existed from January 2015-October 2016, in Calais, France.
In May, the seats were back in their seemingly rightful place for a different, yet equally powerful immersive experience. Centered around a photo album featuring Nazi perpetrators vacationing at the concentration and death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau, the audience was pulled into a detective story, one where we glimpsed the practice of a curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), and the search for meaning within this unexpected object. This was Here There Are Blueberries.
As theatrical performances, both shows were examples of effective stagecraft. Each production connected audience members to complex stories, and each actor’s performance was designed to ask a series of questions about the broader scope of humanity.
In late September 2022, I followed my best friend and her two children through the streets of Möhringen in Stuttgart on a bicycle. As I struggled to stay straight and round corners, I was cognizant of the two children before me weaving in and out of those same street with an adeptness I did not feel.
You see, memory is an interesting thing. Sometimes you know exactly where you first learned a lesson, and it feels like it should be settled in your mind, something that you retain forever. After all, something that is easy to remember is “just like riding a bike.”
They neglect to say that even though you remember the lesson, there remains a level of vulnerability, where the fear of falling that first held you back returns to trip you up.
This vacation was a year in the making. Preceded by a week in Greece with one of my oldest friends, I decided to take an additional seven days to explore Germany, visit her family, attend an Ed Sheeran concert, and close it out by experiencing Oktoberfest.
From the start of the trip, however, things did not go as planned. I had hoped for some serendipity along with some solo traveling, but unexpected news on my second day from home left me uncertain. By the time I reached Germany (with its fall-like temperatures so very different from the warmth of Greece) I resisted all adventure and chose to stay close, attending soccer practice for the kids, and watching Ted Lasso as a distraction.
However, even with all the changes, there was one thing I wanted to make sure to do. Something that I considered foundational to my work as a public historian and how I first began thinking about how we memorialize the past.
Last year I made a clear choice about how I wanted to approach 2022. I wanted to live. Live without overthinking, live without feeling scared, live without taking a (reasonable) risk. And so I traveled, I celebrated turning forty, I made some big decisions about what I wanted out of my life going forward. I had some unexpected experiences that forced me to adapt, change, and approach relationships and the status quo in a different way. I wrote 50,000 words for a novel I continue to dream about. And while I wasn’t always successful I realized that it was all right to take the unexpected path to reach my destination.
However, within all that self-reflection and acceptance, there was one thing missing. When I started working with a coach in January 2022 we talked about what I wanted next for my life. Some of it was talking about what I didnot want, while other goals were more specific.
But what was a clear through line on the other side of the equation was a desire to be of service to others. And while I know that as a volunteer board member for the National Council on Public History I serve our members and the field, that work is still, in essence, tied to the way I have shaped my life around my profession.
Over the course of a writing retreat this past November I was listening to a MasterClass with the author Amy Tan. While sections of the course were directed to writers that were just getting started, I paid close attention to the lesson focused on writer’s block.
While 2021 was so much better than 2020—and 2022 even better so far—I still found myself choosing to spend what spare time I had sitting on the couch watching television instead. I know we are not supposed to be hard on ourselves, to be thinking about missed opportunities from this ongoing pandemic— after all, we can’t all be Brandon Sanderson—but I can’t help but consider how much of my real blocks are about more than just the state of the world.
During this lesson Tan talks about writing rituals, about methods to block out distractions, and then she looks straight at the camera and says: “Ask yourself: Why did you decide to become a writer in the first place?”
Her purpose, of course, was to encourage us to move past the imposter syndrome that leads into a cycle of NOT writing. To remind you about what the initial impetus was for first putting pen to paper.
Over the last ten years I have shared—on or around January 1st—a vision for my future. These have never been ordinary resolutions. Instead I wrote mantras, hopes, and wishes for what I want my life to stand for, what I want it to mean. More often than not I talked about taking risks and leaps, harnessing optimism, searching for kindness, and in some of our tougher years, encouraged myself to dig deep for a well of defiance.
Earlier this week, as I continued to think about how to approach this piece, I saw a suggestion (by an old high school friend) to not look to resolutions, but rather to make a list of things you were proud of in 2021. So here’s my list:
We all know it wasn’t an easy year, but unlike 2020 it had moments of brightness made possible by the COVID-19 vaccine. I know taking a vaccine is an odd thing to list as an accomplishment, but when belief in our ability as humans to take care of each other feels like a challenge, taking the three shots in 2021 felt like something I could do not only for myself, but for others. More selfishly, taking the vaccine allowed me to hug family, and friends, and to fly across the country to meet my new nephew just days after he was born.
On August 14, I am marking not only 15 years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but also 15 years as a public historian. In the intervening years, a lot has changed—teams, expectations, job roles, and the organization itself—and I find myself reflecting on how those changes have changed me.
Consider the words at the start of this piece: Thankful. Grateful. Two words that I have been hearing a lot about, at a time when the intersecting and overlapping nature of work has shifted due to a virus that fundamentally altered how we see our lives. For many, this past year revealed that organizations and companies do not owe their employees anything. Whatever loyalty and commitment we have, it may not be reciprocated—an attitude I commiserate with—particularly in light of the series of layoffs within the museum and history field due to the pandemic.
Five years ago, I wrote about how important it was for me to be working in a field that I love—that if most of my life was spent at an office, I would rather work with passion, than with indifference.
When I started this piece many months ago I intended to write about the ways in which technology and multi-disciplinary storytelling has changed the way we engage with our senses. The plan was to look at two, equally compelling, modes of storytelling about a single event in history, and tease apart the ways in which each were constructed to build meaning and connection.
Update 8/2/2017: Do you consider yourself a storyteller (a dancer, a musician, an artist, a writer)? Make sure to fill out my survey!
Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here. —Sue Monk Kidd in the Secret Life of Bees
As a public historian and preservationist, I have always seen our work as inherently interdisciplinary, recognizing that in the increasingly digital world we live in, the need to use audio, video, and text to communicate our mission has become paramount.
Now, nearly, eleven years into my career at the National Trust for Historic Preservation I plan on jumping in feet first into the world of storytelling and engage with digital (and in person) storytellers across a variety of disciplines and fields. In doing so I hope to gain a sense of best practices and tools that can help connect the public to the histories of all Americans.
This project is part of a two month sabbatical from the National Trust that will take place this coming August and September (see timeline below). The hope is to not just look at storytelling in the history field – but also the wider field of humanities and beyond. At the end I hope to have gained a sense of how to construct a story that is richer, broader, and meaningful – without creating a cacophony that overwhelms the senses. Continue reading “Beyond the Written Word: Historical Storytelling in an Interdisciplinary World”→
Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. – Excerpt from Executive Order 9066. Signed February 19, 1942 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When I was in graduate school I was assigned Only What We Could Carry for a course on visual and material culture. This text used objects, poetry, photography, and art to reveal the wide ranging experiences of Japanese Americans (and permanent residents) that were forced, seventy-five years ago, from their homes into internment camps.
One of the first artifacts photographed is an evacuation tag. At first glance looks like a label you would place on an inanimate object with basic reference information. For the evacuees forced to leave their homes, this tag removed identities paring individuals down to a name, family number, and a time and a place to report. Continue reading “75 Years Later: Allegiance and Executive Order 9066”→
Who says you can’t write about summer vacations in October? At the end of July I traveled to Colorado Springs for an epic family reunion. Naturally I couldn’t make a trip to a different state and not play tourist for a little while. I wrote about one part of my trip, a visit to Hotel de Paris in Georgetown for Saving Places. The piece, which I had a lot of fun writing, is about the hotel’s proprietor, Louis Dupuy, a man who was a fugitive, journalist, and an infamous chef.
In addition to Georgetown I also spent a few hours in Denver, checking out the state capitol, the Emerson School (home of the National Trust Denver Field Office), and the Molly Brown House. The latter site is pretty great, mostly because it does what most historic houses do, but flips the perspective, telling us about Molly Brown’s legacy rather than just the male inhabitants. Continue reading “Summer in October: Photos from Colorado”→