At the end of this week I will head out to Cape Cod for a week with my family. A journey of sorts. I seem to be surrounded by journeys lately, not just my own, but that of family and friends as well. It’s not a theme I mind, especially since I find just the idea of taking a journey exciting. Not all the journeys we take are by choice, but as I packed the books I want to read, my favorite t-shirts, shorts and sandals, I thought about the choices every journey, chosen or not, does give you. What do you bring with you, and what do you leave behind? Just like you choose books or clothes for each journey, you also choose the friendships, the lessons learned, the attitude and the gratitude you take with you. With every worn, comfortable t-shirt I packed I thought about the must-haves I try to bring on every journey: A positive attitude, the courage not to turn back just because I may not know where I am going (yet) or how I’m even going to get there, attentiveness to the details around me along the way, a willingness to learn and give, and an appreciation for every person along the way who imparts something valuable into my life. I thought too about the fact that journeys aren’t always about physically going somewhere, but rather experiencing a change, reacting to, or making your own shift to the norm in your life.
Eight months ago I embarked on the job search journey, as have a number of my friends and relatives, some by choice, some not. During that time, my son also graduated from high school and is readying for his journey to college, and a few of my good friends have moved away , one to pursue her dream of becoming a novelist. All journeys. In fact, I’ll bet that when you ask most people what have been the big journeys in their lives, they’ll tell you about things that don’t involve physically traveling: Getting married, raising children, trying out a new career, getting through heartbreak or falling in love. All journeys.
I think my love of journeys is why I am so drawn to writing. Stories (fiction and non-fiction) all take you on a journey, whether it be to another time, another person’s life or another place. And when you’re the writer, you get to choose the destination. I think it’s also why I am drawn to photographing paths. It looks like a journey waiting to be taken. So, as I journey out to Cape Cod and watch the sand begin to make its appearance along the side of the road as we near the shore (the sign I always excitedly watched for as a kid in the backseat of my parents’ car), I will think of journeys that are yet to be taken….the going, the coming and everywhere in between, and what I pack to accompany me – the comforting favorites with room left for exciting new things in my life!
A few nights ago, while sitting on my front porch in the early evening, I heard one of the two sounds of a summer night that I love most. It made me think of a scene (which also takes place in the evening) from one of my favorite movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, in which George Bailey asks his Uncle Billy, “You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?” Uncle Billy, a simple-minded joker, replied, “Uh-huh. Breakfast is served. Lunch is served. Dinner…” and here George cuts him off with the answer, “No, no, no, no! Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.” What I heard that night was the distant whistle of a train, and there was something about hearing it on a summer night that made it even better. I don’t live where I hear anchor chains, and although I am close enough to an airport to hear plane motors, they don’t have the same effect on me as the train whistle. Maybe it’s that summer is a season of slowing down, relaxing on a front porch with a glass of cold lemonade (hear that ice clinking in the glass?), or on vacation away from the hustle and bustle of reality. You tend to move slower when it gets hot, and when you slow down, you notice more. I hear plane motors year round, but it’s only in the quiet of a summer night that I’ll catch the sound of a train whistle. A train whistle sounds old-fashioned to me, and I tend to favor anything old-fashioned. There’s an understated grace to the sound of a train whistle, especially when it’s off in the distance. Some nights, if it’s quiet enough, I can hear the click-clack of the train traveling along the track. I’m not a big fan of flying, not because of fear, but because I like to see where I am traveling through. When I hear that train whistle on summer nights, I imagine myself on it, traveling through the countryside watching the changes in landscape and absorbing the character of all the towns, big and small, that you pass through. That summer whistle reminds me too of the letters my grandfather wrote to me years ago when he traveled across country by train. I felt like I was in the seat next to him as I read about the cast of characters he met along each leg of the journey, and the breathtaking scenery as they wove through mountain passes that only the train could travel.
Those memories of my grandfather bring me to my other favorite summer night sound: A baseball game on a transistor radio. Talk about old-fashioned! When I was a kid, I used to spend a week every summer at my grandparents’ house in a rural area. The only sound at night, aside from the crickets, was my grandfather’s transistor radio propped up on the headboard of his bed as he fell asleep to the sounds of a baseball game. My grandfather, being from Rhode Island, was a die-hard Red Sox fan, but I don’t think it really mattered who was playing. He loved baseball and I think he just loved the sounds of the game. Not seeing the game, but relying instead on the sounds of the crowd, the inflections in the announcers’ voices when a play excited them, and sometimes even hearing the bat hit the ball made it all more vivid to me. Sometimes I would lie and say a nightmare had scared me, just so I could lay in my grandfather’s bed and listen to the game with him. “Alright, Marie (his nickname for me), c’mon.” was all he would say. I would lie there with my hands behind my head, just like him, and listen in the dark. When I would hear the soft sounds of his snoring a while later, that was my cue to head back downstairs. Years later, when my grandfather had long since passed away and my husband and I moved into the house we live in now, I was reminded of that sweet summer sound when through our bedroom window drifted the sounds of a baseball game being broadcast on the radio. It seems that we had a neighbor who was a baseball referee and would listen to the games in his backyard at night. When one of my other neighbors complained to me about it the next day, my response was “Oh, I hope there’s a game tonight because I love that sound!”
There are many other summer sounds that I like, but these two are the ones that gently usher in the summer night in a way that leaves a smile on my face, ignites excitement for travels yet to be had, and stirs up comforting childhood memories. I hope you enjoy whatever sounds this summer that do the same for you!
It was a journal entry in a rant of frustration over my job search that lead me to write this particular blog . By the end of the entry, I had written my way out of frustration and into encouragement. I find that happens a lot when you journal. My thought was, if I can keep writing myself out of frustration, maybe I can write postcards of encouragement to help someone else.
Originally the title of this article was “Postcards From the Edge of Unemployment“. Then it struck me – it feels far more encouraging to think of it as being on the edge of employment. It makes me feel like I’m almost there. For me, the job search has a different spin on it than many of my fellow job searchers because I left my previous job by choice. No downsizing, just me deciding that what had become a very unbalanced lifestyle needed to change. Fortunately, I accomplished it on very good terms with my employer (and you know what they say….you’re always remembered most by your last act). Unfortunately, I also accomplished it when the job market was the worst in my lifetime. It’s tough to feel justified bemoaning the job search challenge when you put yourself there. I couldn’t control the factors that lead to my decision, but I absolutely could control what I did to address it. Ultimately that decision was mine. That realization is my first postcard of encouragement: Owning the after effects of a decision is the really important part. And by owning I don’t mean just making, but owning its consequences. Making a decision is not the hard part. It’s owning what the decision brings that takes the real work. The episode of Seinfeld when Jerry explained to the car rental agent that “See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.” comes to mind! All joking aside, he’s right. Even if you didn’t make the decision to be unemployed, you can own what you do with the after effects of the decision. And like holding the reservation, that’s the really important part.
If you’re in the job search, then you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say what gets tested most in this process is anything attached to the word “self”. Worth, confidence, direction…you name it, if you can attach it to “self”, it gets tested. You don’t always know (and most times you never do) why you didn’t get an interview, a call back after an interview, or a job offer after multiple interviews. So you wonder. And you start going back through everything connected to “self”. Sometimes, I think it’s the constant putting yourself out there for approval, that exposed feeling, that tests “self” most. Other times, it’s the lack of professional courtesy when you are at your most vulnerable that brings the test. There’s a special place in my customer loyalty and future recommendations for those companies that let me know they appreciate my time and interest in applying for a position with them, and who follow up with me after an interview, regardless of whether I’m the candidate of their choice or not. For those that don’t, I’ll offer up some free PR advice (and this goes for both the interviewer and interviewee) : In business, treat everyone like the customer you don’t have, but would like to. I know from first-hand experience, and experiences related to me by fellow job-seekers, how rejected that can make you feel. Here’s another postcard of encouragement: It’s not rejection when you’re not offered the job, it’s redirection. There is a better way for you to go. It’s not going the wrong direction that keeps anyone from reaching their destination. It’s not being willing to redirect themselves. The redirection that tests all things “self” can be a strengthening tool, for as a Native American quote states, “The only way to pass the test is to take the test.” Encouragement postcard number three: Be kind. Offer every ounce of help you can to anyone else in the same boat. The best thing you can do when the job search has you down is to do something to help someone else. Write a recommendation, pass along a job notice, or just offer words of support. Whoever you do it for is someone who is enduring the same “self” testing circumstances as you, and offering a leg up puts someone in a position to then turn around and offer you a hand . And it just plain feels good.
The fourth postcard of encouragement I’m sending you is this: Keep your oars in the water. You don’t have to always be rowing, but you’re much more likely to row if your oars are in the water. In other words, keep showing up. Keep doing the work, even if you don’t know if it’s the right work. Do something. I believe that just the act of doing the work makes you more of a magnet to opportunity, even if it’s not the work itself that brings it. One of my favorite quotes is by Andre Gide, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” One doesn’t discover them without keeping the oars in the water either. So whether you were pushed off shore or launched the boat yourself, I hope you take comfort in the thought that there is a new land out there for you to discover. Just keep rowing. Invite others into the boat to help you, and be willing to help others row theirs. And you will get to where you can send postcards from the land of opportunity!
I played softball as a kid, and quite frankly, I was awful. Every time up to bat I froze at the thought of striking out and as a result, did just that. I was a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. So it surprised me just how much I enjoyed watching both my daughters play the same game. Then again, they are both a whole lot better than I ever was. I will say though, that since those panic-stricken days at the plate, my self-redemption efforts succeeded, and I am now killer in the batting cage! It’s not my daughters’ level of play that hooked me. It was while I was watching one of my favorite movies, “A League of Their Own” that I really got it… it’s watching the dynamics of two sisters (what I call sister physics)and their personalities play out on the field. In the movie it’s sisters Dottie and Kit. In real life it’s my daughters Aine and Bridget. I have one younger brother and no sisters, so everything I did, I did without sister physics. I didn’t share a room, let alone a team.
My older daughter, Aine, is a perfectionist. She’s the serious one whose words are usually measured and powerful. She has no tolerance for substandard performance in her life, and her sense of justice never wavers. If she doesn’t think she can absolutely nail something, she beats herself up about it. Because she is such a perfectionist, she is often, in my opinion, unfairly hard on herself. She worries about how she is going to do right up until the moment the ball lands in her glove or meets her bat. She told me that even as she watches the ball head straight for her glove, she panics for a second at the thought of missing it. But she rarely does. When I watch her from the sidelines, she looks so confident to me, right down to the ninja-like look her black face guard and black softball pants give her. This is a kid who, at 15, got a brush cut and didn’t worry one bit about what anyone would say. “It’s just hair, mom. It’ll grow back. It’s not like I’m asking for a tattoo,” was her sound reasoning. The kind of moxie that takes at that age is impressive to me, yet she steps on that ball field and worries. My husband jokes that she is the Babe Ruth of her team because like The Colossus of Clout, “clean, healthy” living is not her ticket to success. She can throw down a greasy fast- food meal on the bench, then get up to bat and knock one out into the field or take the outfield and make a great catch. Post-game, she adds a bag of white cheddar popcorn and half a dozen Oreo cookies. Softball may not showcase her healthy lifestyle, but it does show her healthy work ethic. Whether she sees much playing time or not, she always shows up, does the work, doesn’t complain and does whatever she can to help her team. To me, she’s not the player you expect to hit the home run, but she’s that player you quietly pull for the most to do it.
My younger daughter, Bridget, is fearless. She’s the comedian who loves attention. She will go anywhere and try anything. She just wants to be a part of the action. She’s a small kid, barely tipping the scales at 80 pounds soaking wet. Her size made it difficult to get a good strike zone on her and that frustrated her more than the pitchers. She didn’t want to get walked. She wanted to hit, to hear the roar of the crowd as she blasted a homer over center field, and she never stopped believing she could do it. She gave catching a try, but when the smallest chest pad came up over her face mask when she squatted because she was so small, she moved on! She just seemed impossible to intimidate on the field. Unlike her sister, who would worry about how good the pitcher was and whether or not her own timing was right, Bridget would just step up to the plate assuming she was going to hit the ball. Who was pitching was irrelevant. She would face down pitchers twice her size, never afraid to take a swing, and when she did strike out, she always went down swinging. Her sister once told me “I wish I were as brave as Bridget. She’s not afraid of anything.” And much like Kit in “A League of Their Own”, I think Bridget liked the idea of trying to match her big sister’s skill on the field. She could associate with all that was admirable about her sister while making a name for herself too.
But it was the years they ended up on the same team due to division age thresholds that were my favorites. “It’s bad enough we have to share a room, but the same TEAM?” was the sisterly lament. Yet, as the season started, the shared allegiance became tolerable. This was about the game, the team. They would endure. There was sisterly advice doled out by Aine that made me think of the scenes in “A League of Their Own” in which Dottie doles out advice to her little sister Kit:
Dottie: “Lay off the high ones!”
Kit: “I like the high ones!”
The times when my daughters would be back-to-back in the batting order were ripe with sister physics too. Aine would get a base hit, and from first base, this kid who was never vocal on the field would yell, “C’mon Bridget!” as her sister stepped up to bat. It was delivered in the manner that “…or else” was clearly implied.
There was one game in particular though, when the sister physics played out like a movie on the field. Bridget was playing shortstop, and the batter hit a hard grounder right at her. The closest play was to throw the runner out at third. As if written in a script, it was her sister who was the third baseman. If Bridget missed the ball or didn’t get it to Aine fast enough, it was not going to be a good ride home. I’m not a vocal cheerer at games. It’s just not my style. So I stood there, watching the scene play out, quietly chanting under my breath, like a meditative mantra, “Get it to her. Get it to her. Get it to her.” In what seemed like slow motion, Bridget scooped it up, turned and threw it to Aine, who in turn tagged the runner out. It was a great play, but an even greater moment happened a minute or two after the play. I watched Aine stare at Bridget, seemingly willing her to look at her. When Bridget finally turned and caught her eye, Aine simply nodded slowly once at her sister. Nothing spoken, just simple, powerful acknowledgement from big sis that little sis had met the standard (and therefore would not have to sleep in the room they share with one eye open that night). A slow, wide smile spread across Bridget’s face, and I knew I’d witnessed a priceless sister physics moment. “Beautiful” I said out loud. “Yeah, it was,” the parent next to me said. I don’t think he knew it wasn’t the play I was talking about.
My daughter Aine still plays the game, but Bridget has found a new love in track, so the days of sharing a team are over. But the teams they did share really are an analogy of their life as sisters. They don’t always like each other. Sometimes they can barely tolerate each other. But they are on the same team. They can insult each other in a way that is cringe-worthy, but God help the reckless soul who thinks they can throw a barb at one of them without fear of incurring the wrath of the other. You don’t have to always like your teammates, but you always have their backs. You can tease your own teammates, but someone from another team had better not do it. My daughters may be done sharing the same uniform, but they will always occupy the same home team bench. There’s a scene in “A League of Their Own” where Dottie decides to leave the team because she says it has gotten too hard to continue. Tom Hanks’ character tells her that “It’s the hard that makes it great.” In baseball, in softball, in sisterhood…it absolutely is the hard that makes it great.
Thanks to NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are” and PBS’s “Finding Your Roots”, I find myself rooted (pun absolutely intended) to the television screen on Friday and Sunday evenings to watch in fascination (and a bit of jealously) well-known figures have their family histories discovered. I have been a long-time lover of genealogy and am fortunate to have relatives that have traced our ancestry on my mother’s side to William Brewster, a Mayflower passenger and author of the Mayflower Compact. I think what fascinates me most is that as you watch family histories unfold, you watch the fame of those on these shows fade away, and in its place you see pure wonder at what they find out. Blood is apparently thicker than fame as well as water. We all come from somewhere, and we are all somehow woven into the history pages. I actually find that as I watch these shows and they delve deeper into the stars’ genealogy, I forget that it’s someone famous who we’re following because the history lessons and stories of their not-so-famous ancestors are so compelling. So….since I don’t have NBC footing the bill for me to travel to the shores of Scotland, Ireland, England and wherever else my ancestry may be uncovered, and I don’t have Henry Louis Gates, Jr. telling me “Would you turn the page please and meet your 5th Great Grandfather So-and-So”, I will have to settle for my own research. I do have one “assistant” in my search: An old steamer trunk I found in my grandmother’s attic. I was so thrilled with this find that I wrote an essay about it that was published in “Cape Cod View” magazine. I’ve included it in the hope that it may inspire you to find the history that made you possible!
Paint-splattered, tarnished brass, frayed leather handles, worn wooden trim, and a travel companion to my ancestors – this describes the item I most cherish. The steamer trunk I found in my grandmother’s attic is still stamped with my great-great grandmother’s name, J.M. (Jane Margeretta) Ely. It sits in my home where I write. In my imagination, it’s the perfect accomplice in uncovering ancestral secrets. It gets me closer to my Pilgrim ancestors, especially my great-great grandmother’s husband, William Brewster, who was a direct descendant of the Mayflower’s William Brewster. I imagine its travels and what it has carried – a family bible, clothing inextricably woven with memories, and the uncertainty and hope that accompanied these items. It speaks to me each morning when I sit down to write: Pack your own life’s journey with hope, wonder and gratitude for the chance to travel it.
Hopefully my children develop the same appreciation for family history, as long as mom going a little crazy with the “I’m a 13th Generation Pilgrim” family trees for the Kindergarten family tree projects didn’t traumatize them!