“Look everywhere for stories of where ordinary people are making a positive difference in others’ lives”

A Canadian friend turning 70 later this month asked this gift of her friends: “look everywhere for stories of where ordinary people are making a positive difference in others’ lives, and capture them. Tell the stories in your own words, and write them down.” Here is what I sent her.

I am grateful for the influence of ICA Toronto(*). ICA has informed and inspired my running of events that affirm Ordinary-People-Making-a-Difference principles, especially: “There is insight in every response. We know more than we are, at first, prepared or able to acknowledge. When we are heard, we can better hear others and hear ourselves.” Here are two relevant stories; both about processes that followed the death of a family member.
[* I met this friend through her work at Institute of Cultural Affairs—ICA—in Toronto.]

Twenty years ago, at a wake for a relative who suicided, I took the opportunity to lead a go-around in which everyone said one thing they appreciated about the person and one thing they had difficulty with. Even the youngest relative there, a 9-year old, had clear things to say on both counts. Speaking and listening allowed us to acknowledge the ambiguity of losing someone whose mental health issues had challenged each of us: when and how do we stay involved and when do we step back and care for ourselves?

Three years ago, after my wife, Ann, died from ovarian cancer, we had a pot-luck party, which is what she had requested instead of a funeral. I asked guests to “introduce yourself to someone you don’t know and share what it meant to have Ann in your lives.” Each hour, starting at 11 in the morning and going into the evening, I rang a bell and for ten minutes people took a turn to reflect or share a simple story “that captures how having Ann in your life has influenced you.” I had actually started this process nine months earlier so friends and family members could write when visits weren’t possible. But Ann thought the notes sounded like eulogies—“I am not dead yet!” was her retort—so I archived them on a private blog. After her death, I asked for permission to make the blog contributions public then added condolence notes and audio recordings from the party and two memorial events. At some point I wondered if blogs could be downloaded into a word file—yes. I realized the steady assembling of small contributions was adding up to material for a book. A few months later, audio recordings transcribed, cover and interior style designed by a former student, photos selected, and copies scanned of 14 years of letters Ann had written to a friend as young adults while they both worked to become writers (and etc.) became Ann(ie) Blum in Our Lives.

At first, I called it a “memorial book” for Ann, but then I saw that the blog from which the book emerged was my way of allowing many people to have their voice. And for that voice to be one heard by a community, not only by the immediate family receiving the condolence notes. But why do people need to have their voice heard in a community? At first I thought I was giving recognition to the fact that many people were grieving Ann, not just me, her partner of 30 years. But then I saw that the value of people having their voice heard in a community is that we—this includes me—have very partial narratives about what the loss of someone means for their lives. We say something—such as “I so miss her” or “Cancer sucks” or “I’m doing as well as can be expected”—but we know there’s more to what we are feeling. Things that are hard to articulate, things that are hard to know whether this is the person and the time to explore it with. So those things often get left un(der) explored; we just carry on. The book allowed, however, readers to bring their own thoughts to the surface through hearing the partial things others were able to say, to give voice to. And also to learn more, which adds to those thoughts. In that way, there is more play, more processing of what each reader wants to carry forward as part of their own lives.

Although these two stories revolve around deaths, they are also stories in which allowing everyone’s voices to be raised contributes to people making a difference to the life-direction-making of themselves and others.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

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