Our Stories, Our Rainbows

At my current workplace, I offer a weekly inspirational email each Wednesday. Words & Wisdom Wednesday offers a bit of push toward the end of the work week, a much-needed “we’re halfway there” in the form of prose, quotes, poetry or insightful thought.

I’ve found it has accomplished what I’d hoped in that a few co-workers felt inspired, took pause or saw a reflection of themselves, if even for a moment. Plus, I confess it helps me tremendously to think about what to write and while I write it forces me to reflect on where I am, not necessarily during this particular week, but where I am in my journey.

A few weeks ago, I shared my thoughts, as well an excerpt from a book I’d read recently, Story Driven by Bernadette Jiwa. The book is about the difference between being a competitive-driven company and a story-driven company. The following is the opening paragraph of the preface:

 Every one of us—regardless of where we were born, how we were brought up,               how many setbacks we’ve endured or privileges we’ve been afforded—has been           conditioned to compete to win. Ironically, the people who create fulfilling lives and           careers—the ones we respect, admire and try to emulate—choose an alternative           path to success.They have a powerful sense of identity. They don’t worry about               differentiating themselves from the competition or obsess about telling the right               story. They tell the real story instead (Jiwa, 17).

A powerful sense of identity. Knowing who you are is key in finding success, but more importantly, in being proud of who you are and to stop comparing and competing with others.

Personally, it has always been my thought that we are all a collection of short stories. Each one of us made up of vignettes from our lives—stories of where we started, what molded us, and the stories we share with others. My collection is filled with stories of family, women who inspired, mentors, friendships, unconditional love, and the treading of dark waters to get where I am. Our collections are infinite because even after we are long gone others whom we touched continue the story, adding to the epilogue. In knowing our stories, we know ourselves and our own story.

On April 4, the birthday of Maya Angelou, I shared her intention about being the rainbow in somebody else’s cloud. Many responded, touched by her powerful words. What they took from and what they chose to do with those words adds to the story of this fierce, yet gentle lady. Maya Angelou’s story is infinite because we continue to share her collection while adding to our own and others. Maya might say we share our rainbows.

Maya Angelou knew her story. Most of the time, I know mine. There are days I need to remind myself by rereading these stories, but I also know my story is only in its earliest drafts.  Knowing who you are and embracing your identity is truly the key. Knowing your story determines the life you lead, the successes you obtain, the legacy you leave. Everyone of us has a story. For some it is the simplest of stories, yet the most impactful. Some are stories of service or stories of the nurturer and the provider. There are stories about a life of action and a life of humility, while still others are of sharing the word and stories of faith. There are even the stories of the storyteller. And yes, there are the dark stories of the wanton, the lost, the empty and the forgotten.

Maybe I am so fond of stories because of the books I clutched against the beatings of my chest as a child. I was captivated by books and the worlds and characters within them. As I grew older, I became captivated by the stories and characters around me, especially my family. Or, maybe it’s because I found my sense of identity when I opened my eyes and heart to those stories—the stories that made me who I am. The real story.

While Story Driven focuses on those entrepreneurs and companies whose stories drive the narratives and successes of their business, many aspects of Jiwa’s book pertain to our personal stories. If these individuals did not have a strong grasp of their personal identity, they would not have the ability to know the identity of their companies nor lead by their company story. Something to think about.

As I am in the middle of a rewrite of an early draft of my life, I found two sentences from her book to be especially profound. In Part One, she references our “narrative compass” and states, “Our story illuminates the dark corners where only we can go. It’s our story that guides us.”

Which leaves me to ask of others what I often ask of myself. What is your story and where is it guiding you?

*If you would like to be added to my Words & Wisdom Wednesday email, please provide your email in the comments or email me at natolmsted@gmail.com














The Mourning of Strangers

People tell me they couldn’t do my job. What is my day job? I help families during one of the hardest moments of their lives. I help them establish memorials at WSU. While it is difficult, it is the most humbling, yet gratifying job I’ve ever had. I have the opportunity to be with people, complete strangers, when they are vulnerable and heartbroken. And I consider it a privilege. I stay with them, a constant, as they grieve, and help them to obtain one aspect of closure, move through one stage of grief,  as they see their memorial come to fruition. It is remarkable.

I have cried with many of them. Over the phone as I open the memorial and let them pour out their anguish to a stranger’s voice. In my car following a funeral service, a service for someone I never knew and knowing that my tears are not only for the loss of the family, but for my own loss at never having known this special person. At their kitchen tables, as we finalize the memorial, our tears mingled in the joy of the outcome, that a legacy, a memory will continue through the lives of students.

But what touches me most are the stories. And I find myself wanting to capture each one. To write a book about all the people we should have taken the time to know, the people we should have sought out, the people we should mourn fully. If only we’d known them. What an incredible book humankind would make if we were able to share our stories. All of us. Each one.

Part of my job is to check the obituaries each morning. What I love most is when families take the time to tell a story. Rather than give obvious information, such as date of birth and death, town where they were born, those who survived, and if a memorial was established, my heart skips a beat when I read a story. That Herman loved to fish, always wearing his beloved Detroit Tigers ball cap. That Roy will be missed greatly by his longtime companion and best friend, his beagle, Oscar. And that Lewis built B-29s during WWII, as well as race cars and Victorian-style dollhouses for his grandchildren. That Katharine loved books by Russian authors and Esther helped her neighbors plant tulips each fall. Those few sentences open up a life.

And I ponder the smaller details, like Wilma who was predeceased by three sons. Three sons. What pain Wilma lived with, a mother without her children, and yet she lived to be 92. Or when a young person dies, someone in their 50s, 40s, 30s, and I try to understand why certain lives are so short. And I can feel my heart break all over again when I read the story of a young woman who died suddenly, and I say a silent prayer for the family who is feeling her loss throughout their entire beings, and will for as long as they continue to walk this earth.

I think of the children who have lost a parent, the spouse losing a spouse, and the person who leaves this world all alone, no family listed. I always want to attend the services of those with the tiny announcements. Surely they had a story. Maybe there was just no one to tell it.

I’ve discovered in a recent strength finder assessment that one of my greatest strengths is empathy, the ability to put myself in the place of others. To understand their feelings. I’m sure I’ve always had this trait. I’ve been accused of having a warm heart, which is maybe why I cry at commercials, sporting events, concerts, performances, listening to music, reading a book, or while reading an obituary of someone I don’t know.

I didn’t choose my job. It chose me. As if it knew this person with the warm heart who always thought of others needed to be here in this position. This place. Five months after I took this responsibility, I lost my niece. She died on Christmas Eve 2007. And what I’ve learned is the saying “time heals all wounds” is incorrect. Those wounds never heal. We just learn to live with them. And what I’ve learned is while I can never know someones personal grief, I can understand. And the final thing I’ve learned is that while I am acknowledged for my efforts with these families, my sensitivity to the situation, my ability to support them, what people fail to realize is that these families are helping me. In our combined grief we are helping each other. Each time I take a phone call, each time I cry with strangers, attend a funeral, or read an obituary, I am caring for my own personal wound.

More importantly, I am keeping Andrea’s story. Her book is not closed so long as someone continues to share her story, and this is what I do with the families at some point in our relationship. I tell Andrea’s story. And what I see in their eyes is what I felt in my heart when I learned the story of their loved one. It isn’t just the loss we share. It’s the need to keep the story alive. So long as we continue to share the story, our father, our mother, sister, grandmother, brother, uncle, niece, or child, will always be near to us, always with us. Like a book we keep in the pocket of our heart.