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.
sublime /səˈblīm/: tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur) or transcendent excellence. [Merriam-Webster]
There’s a video of me in 2018 walking along the edge of the Grand Canyon in Nevada and I can not stop laughing. I sound almost giddy, with uncontrollable giggles accompanied by a lot of exclamatory, somewhat coherent phrases.
I do not know if that is everyone’s reaction to seeing the glory of this natural wonder, but I can attest that at that moment, I truly understood the meaning of the sublime.
Well. My version of paradise, despite the cool torrents of rain sweeping through for the fifth day in a row, or the Virginia humidity the day after, rising up from the lush, textured, tops of trees that hid the flowing James River.
How do you tell the history of a place throughout time that seamlessly integrates other forms of expression?
We can tell the basic story of the past — the who, what, when, where, and why, but how can we account for a story where human expression and connections to those events become as important as the events being described. Equally critical — are the digital tools, and methods we can use to communicate these ideas in our work to tell the full American story.
I wish I had a great excuse. A reason why this post (that no one is really looking for but me) is only going up today.
There are a lot of good reasons to put the blame on. On being too busy. On the state of the world. On the unexpected. On letting fear of change effect the way I feel, think, act. On a surprising lack of will power. On procrastination. On having nothing to say.
Everyone had warned us. Bring a hat. Bring an umbrella. Drink water.
You will sweat.
Day two into thirty-three days of inspiration I faced dehydration and a persistent fight against bouts of jet lag induced exhaustion to fulfill a dream. On day two I visited the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii where the heat shimmered before me, an undulating, endless wave of haze. I could almost touch the air as it moved, and when the heat overwhelmed and I struggled to breathe, water always saved the day. Despite all this, where my body rebelled against exterior influences begging for the air-conditioning and fans, my mind was filled with exhilaration . Continue reading “Herculaneum & Pompeii: Fingerprints on the Earth”→
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down Brothers in the instant replay There will be no pictures of young being Run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a red, black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving For just the right occasion Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant and Women will not care if Dick finally gets down with Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day
The revolution will not be televised
—from The Revolution will not be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron
During my travels abroad this summer I tried to keep an eye out for examples of multidisciplinary storytelling. Near the end of my trip I visited the Tate Modern in London and attended an exhibition about art during the Black Power movement. A short review would simply say that Soul of a Nation is stunning, not only because of the way in which the exhibition mixes print, sculpture, and photography to show the visual culture of the movement’s history, but also how artists illustrated emotion and meaning through their work.
In my book, The Heart of the River, I wrote that “every adventure starts the same way, with one foot in front of the other.” After averaging 7 miles (14k steps) a day for the last month, I can testify that I embraced my adventure through formal/informal theatrical performances, walking tours, museum visits, historic site wanderings and so, much, more. It wasn’t merely the steps that made a leap forward, but also my mind as I started to pull on different threads of my project on storytelling, trying to find the ways in which these pieces fit and slotted together.
As a reminder here are the four research questions that I presented a few months ago:
What are the ways in which history and culture are being presented in an increasingly digital world?
In what ways do digital projects dealing with art, music, and the past connect with the public beyond a momentary impression?
What are some of the innovative ways in which the arts and history intersect to tell a narrative – both offline and online? How can we create a more fully immersive experience for the user?
How do various historical presentations and cultural mechanisms relate and effect individual and collective identity?
It’s difficult to describe the way Italy inspires. Perhaps it is the unchecked eating of pasta and gelato, or the way we learned to appreciate beautiful vistas amidst ungodly heat (heat wave code name: Lucifer).
Whatever it is, my feet hate me, but my heart is soaring. There is a lot to tell from this trip so far, but I’ll start with one pertinent to my storytelling project.
From the outset of this project my first lesson about studying the past sketched out the rough edge of my frame of reference. More specifically, that in addition to written chronicles, one of our primary sources of evidence comes from the stratigraphic layers written in the earth.
I grew up comparing the work of archaeologists to time traveling, where each layer took us further back through the ages, revealing how each era built and settled upon the times before.