Remembering our Heroes

On Monday, communities around the country observed Memorial Day. As people paused to remember those who gave their lives while serving our country, I was reminded that it is left to us to honor their service and sacrifice, and to carry their memories forward.

“I am unable to shake the feeling about memorializing the service of an obscure sailor. Wherever (USS Enterprise [CVN 65]) goes in the next decade and a half, to the far places of the globe, this man’s attention to duty, honor, and country goes with it. Finally, his deeds will be known to the world.

“I hope he knows his work has not been forgotten. Somehow I think this is God’s way of rewarding a life given to sacrifice. I am humbled to think that we can play a part in helping the world remember a true American hero. It’s our generation’s way of saying ‘thank you’ to someone willing to give it all so we can live free.”

A shipboard historical room our exhibit design partnership created aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) sparked these thoughts from a project team member. The room was dedicated in April 2001. Just five months later, that ship would be underway after the horrific events of September 11. But those events weren’t on our minds that sunny April morning.

I don’t remember the name of the ‘obscure sailor’ mentioned above. I do remember being handed a box of medals and decorations he earned during his Navy career. At the time I was researching the ship’s history, writing timelines, documenting milestones, gathering artifacts, and summarizing biographies of  people who had served aboard her. In the middle of all that, there was this one man, and the suggestion that maybe we could use his things somewhere.

Throughout the entire project, the box sat at my left elbow. I often glanced at the faded ribbons and once-shiny medals, thinking about the sailor who had proudly worn them throughout his career. When he retired, these were arranged in a simple box and given back to him, a silent witness of his honorable service to his country. The box was old, and the mounting was not professionally done. There was nothing giving me any clues to his identity, rank, or dates of service. I only knew that he had once served aboard the Enterprise.

In the end, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to honor the service of so many sailors than to include that box in the shipboard historical room. Most of the people who man the rails and load the weapons and serve the meals and wash the uniforms and treat the injuries and go about their duties in a way that moves the ship, and the ship’s mission, forward are never acknowledged or recognized in any way. Their strength is in their vast numbers. They finish their time and move on to the next ship or shore assignment.

“I went back up (to the historical room) after everyone had left the ship and spent time thinking of the feeling you put into the room,” wrote another former Enterprise sailor. “You could not have done that without spending many hours getting involved with all of the history. Thank you for doing that.”

The “Big E” is retired from active Navy service now. The nuclear components that made her the first of her kind also made it impossible to preserve her as a floating museum. Awaiting final decommissioning, her story lives on in the lives and memories of those who served aboard her. And yes, there will be another USS Enterprise, the ninth U. S. Navy vessel to bear the name. In the meantime, one of her anchors has a new home aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72).

P.S. In my relentless housewide purge, I ran across old project notes and discovered information about the unknown sailor mentioned above. The medals belonged to Chief Bosun’s Mate Alfred “Gabby” Gabarra, a CV-6 enlisted sailor who just did his job after a Japanese kamikaze hit CV-6 in May 1945. He led rescue parties forward to retrieve dead and wounded sailors and threw ammunition overboard to prevent more damage. Long after he left the Navy, when he was in his 80s, he quietly handed his medals to the then-curator of Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, SC, and said, “Maybe you can use these somewhere.” Gabby died not long after that, and the curator gave us his medals for inclusion in the shipboard exhibit. Gabby, his medals, and his story, became part of the exhibit, and along with countless others, embodied the heart and soul of Enterprise — her people.


The Lesson of the Keepsakes

In a previous post entitled Ten Random Things About Me, I mentioned a penchant for wandering through antique shops, looking and listening for things that seem to need me. Antique shops are, by nature, needy places. They’re full of things from other peoples’ pasts auditioning to become part of someone else’s life. They’re like the animal shelters of memorabilia. Everything in there needs a new home.

This year I read a book I really enjoyed. The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to be Perfect to be Beautiful, by Myquillyn “Nester” Smith, changed the way I look at my home and how I choose my surroundings. Even after I was done reading it, I kept dipping into it. I carried it with me because I felt better when it was nearby, like it was a constant, reassuring influence. I gave copies away as gifts.

And then…Nester herself invited me to participate in an online course that would help me put into practice what she’d written! I jumped on that immediately, along with about 200 of my (not-yet-met) newest friends. We mingled and chatted, introducing ourselves, and waited anxiously for our first assignment. (Yes! Homework! For our homes!) We got to interact personally with Nester! The glorious wonder of the digital age!

The course wasn’t exactly what any of us might have expected. If the book was enjoyable, the course took everything I thought I’d learned from the book and from life, put it in a box, shook it up, and dumped it out…in front of 200 complete strangers, no less. It was enlightening. It was revealing. It gently nudged us all to new places of accountability, but among friends who were also going through similar struggles, frustrations, and discoveries. (Most, if not all, of our husbands have giant recliners and even more giant big screen TVs. And they like them. A lot. Exactly where they are.) We listened to each other. We encouraged each other. We teased each other. We saw things outside the course and thought of each other. We studied each other’s Pinterest boards and saw things in our new friends they couldn’t see in themselves. (Pinterest! I showed up late to the party! But wow!)

The course lasted a very short four weeks. Those of us who participated have maintained a very strong connection. Some of us haven’t finished our first assignments. Some have and are moving on with new assignments. We all seem to thrive on the organic, reassuring dynamic that has become the group. We have invested in each other in ways that transcend our project rooms.

I’m not a “groupie.” I don’t like small groups, though I’ve seen them work well. I generally loathe group projects because (come on let’s be honest) there is always someone who overcommits and underdelivers. There are personality conflicts. There are topics that don’t inspire. There are bossy take-charge people who intimidate others that also have good ideas worth sharing. There are people with agendas, people with histories, people with no interest in doing more than the absolute minimum, people who just don’t get it and show up week after week and bring nothing and expect everything and eat all the good finger foods. First.

But this group! We put in our best effort, shared candidly from our hearts, and an amazing thing happened. We began overcoming obstacles (“lovely limitations”) and tackling things we’d been postponing or avoiding for, in some cases, years. Even decades. People began unpacking not just stuff, but ideas and convictions, and giving themselves permission to use stuff in new ways. Or get rid of stuff altogether. We rearranged. We painted. OH MY SOUL did we paint! If it didn’t move, chances are it got painted! I myself, solidly in the non-painter camp, painted walls and bookshelves and furniture! We hung our drapes correctly! We learned about lighting, and gallery walls, and shopping the house, and footballs! We spent a lot of time on pillows. A lot! We laughed about “boob lights,” wrestled with how best to hide the 1,000 cords and wires extending from our televisions, and began to grasp the concept of how the things with which we surround ourselves should relate to each other. And how we should feel when surrounded by them, which is how they should relate to us.

We probably single-handedly influenced the all-time high usage numbers on sites like Pinterest, Ikea, and Rugs USA. (No. I’m not advertising for any of them. I’m just saying.) We became our own trusted resource — everybody had experience with something, or at least an opinion, and just throwing out a question, or a photo, or both, was enough to get a lively conversation started.

In the very first week of the course, there was this simple question: “How much of your house and your life is dictated by other people’s expectations?”

I grew up in a parsonage. That means I spent most of my formative years in houses that didn’t belong to us. We could make them our own…to a point. Everything we did, or didn’t do, in our home was subject to someone else’s expectations, whether real or perceived. And if my dad changed churches, we changed homes. This was a possibility on a yearly basis.

I don’t remember being terribly upset by all this. I do remember loving visits to my grandparents’ homes, places where the people and things that mattered most to me stayed put and formed a rich, memorable, rock-solid backdrop for my favorite memories. When I haunt antiqueries (you knew I would eventually get back to my original point, right? If I even had an original point to start with?), it is almost as if I am looking for things that connect me to those memories. Or if not those specifically, to things that evoke a certain sense or feeling about a time or place.

What does all this mean? I hold on to a lot of memories. Which means, a lot of stuff has accumulated around the edges of my home and life, stuff from people I like and love, stuff that reminds me of times or places, stuff that looks like it relates or belongs together even if all it has in common is that it is not actually related but instead just showed up, grabbed a plate, and fell in line.

I work with museum exhibits, too, and there is that niggling occupational hazard of constantly curating my surroundings. A little tweak here, a door-size section of leaded glass from a long-forgotten English church there…it creeps in.

Then I read another book. In fact I’m still reading the book, because I get a few pages in and realize I have to stop, to think about this, to let the thought absorb or digest so I can fully appreciate it. Today’s nugget (excerpted) was this: “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past. To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too. It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure. This is the lesson these keepsakes teach us when we sort them. The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” That’s Marie Kondo, in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

A gifted writer friend, Jonalyn Fincher, said this so beautifully in her thoughtful book/grief guide, Invitation to Tears: “We will feel a tension between honoring the world as our loved one made it and changing the world in honor of who we lost.” She’s so very right. So this year I’m learning the lesson of the keepsakes. Subtitle: It’s Not About The Stuff. And one of the most important things I’m learning: it’s not about the project. I thought I was just working on one not-very-large, not-very-inviting room. Instead, what I’m learning is working on ME. The most enduring changes don’t start on the outside and work their way in. They start inside and work their way out. I can shuffle my keepsakes around all I want and accomplish nothing. In the end, it’s not about enshrining things that represent who we used to be. It’s about embracing who we are, and who we’re becoming.

What’s an Inky Pinky?

What’s the story behind the inky pinky? Ask any left hander. We tend to be very, very particular about our writing instruments, and our paper. Either our penmanship or our hand position tends to be awkward. In my case, both would be true.

When I was younger, I wrote so much by hand that my left pinky bore a semi-permanent ink tattoo, and I developed a callous on my finger from the way I held my pen. I never remember writer’s cramp, or writer’s block. I have stashes of favorite pens, and a lifelong love affair with notebooks. A recent decluttering effort at home revealed fourteen (14?!) notebooks in a precarious pile near my nightstand. I must really worry that words are going to leak out of my brain at night and find themselves adrift without a notebook to cling to like some sort of literary life ring.

A while ago I realized that while I’ve been writing since I was about eight years old, and have never imagined a life in which I didn’t write, I needed a nudge. I took on a challenge recently of writing something — anything — every single day. It was about as appealing as going to the gym — you know, actually going there. It’s a great idea, and you know you should, and you get the really neat workout clothes, which in my case involved a great book of writing prompts, a pencil (a pen required too much commitment, to me, for this) and a cheap composition notebook, because I could get that one messy or dirty and it wouldn’t pain me to do it, and you get right up to the time you’ve set aside, and then…the excuses rolled in. There was never any “alone time.” Someone always needed something. I was working late. It was sunny. It was raining. It was sunny AND raining. (Hey, I live in Florida. It happens.) I was hungry. I was tired. I was busy. I needed to call my parents. I needed to work on paying work. I didn’t have anything to say about anything. I hated the daily prompt. I got lost in researching the origins of some obscure word or thought or quote in the daily prompt.

And the biggest excuse of all…who cared if I didn’t write that day, or any day? What difference did my voice make to anyone, anywhere? What did I really have to say, anyway? Those paralyzing whispers began to overtake my own voice.

I remembered a birthday gift we gave my oldest daughter when she was very young. It was a marvelous thing, a big box full of colorful plastic shapes and angles that could be assembled to make a marble maze. It delighted her for hours, and that night, after she went to bed, I could still hear marbles clicking and falling. Peeking around the corner into another room, I saw my husband engrossed in the marble game, assembling it any number of different ways and setting the marbles loose on their journey from top to bottom.

“Where are the instructions?” I asked when we opened the box. I couldn’t imagine a game so wonderful coming without directions on how to put it together. My husband laughed. “You don’t need instructions,” he said. “It’s a different game every time you put it together. There’s lots of ways to do it.”

It’s taken me a long time to begin to grasp this very basic concept: writing, and life, is a different game every time, and that is perfectly okay. There is no wrong way to tell your story. So I’m picking up the pencil, and the notebook, and rediscovering the amazing potential of the blank page all over again.