In each installment of my Field Notes from the Recollection Agency, I talk to someone with an interesting backstory. Here, Scott Lunceford* talks about government cheese, how re-enacting 1855 can be a family activity and why it pays to bring your harmonica to church.
Late last year, Lisa and I migrated to a much bigger city.
My wife’s new job paid for the move. We rented a house with a backyard for the dog that is close enough to downtown that Lisa can bike to work. When I got to town, I immediately got a career-oriented job, too. This new role fit into my pattern of filling a series of interesting albeit entry level non-profit jobs. I worked my new gig for a few weeks and found the deep bureaucracy and endless driving to be distasteful. I quit effective immediately.
Lisa continued to go to her full-time job. I started volunteering. As a way to find like-minded folks, we’d go to lectures, movies and happy hours when Lisa got off work. Then, the coronavirus shut down the world.
Lisa now works from home. I work across the hall. From my home office I am developing my new business. The Recollection Agency allows me to use my listening, interview and audio production skills to help my customers preserve and share their life- and career-defining stories. Like Lisa’s job, my business can also be done remotely.
Since most social things aren’t really safe to do in-person right now, Lisa and I have both participated in catch-up calls with distant friends, talked online about recent reads with our book clubs and sang along at birthday parties on Zoom.
How we lived before the coronavirus and how we live with it and how we live after it are all different things. I acknowledge my privilege that lets me shelter-in-place. Many people now are not able to safely do so.
I sit and breathe into the emptiness that the pandemic has created. I meditate more and do less now. What I hear during our Great Pause is less traffic, fewer airplanes and the feeling of my heart still beating.
I have a hard time feeling settled however. I feel the need to go to an office that I no longer have. I have no job nor a boss or a matched 401K. I am figuring out how to be self-employed as the world resets itself for the post-coronavirus years. To ease the restlessness I garden and explore the urban grid by bicycle and ponder what my role here is now. My growing business is a grounding element.
These feelings of stillness – waiting for the new world to arrive – are familiar. When I was a kid, my mom would drive my brother and I to her parents’ house or to one of my aunt’s homes most summer weekdays. At the sitter’s, my cousins and I would watch Johnny Quest and CHiPs, hurdled shrubs in suburban yards, and swim at city pools and in repurposed stock tanks. I grew restless in the timelessness of these days. I recalled watching my cousins watching Wheel of Fortune, again, and wondering when my real life would start. I occasionally felt trapped in my childhood waiting for time to get us to the good stuff. I had my material needs met but often felt ready as a kid to skip the adolescence and get right to the glories of adulthood.
I can see my fourth grade gap-toothed self gazing out the wavy glass windows at my Catholic grade school as Sister Pat diagrams complex sentences on the chalkboard. I wondered when school and the numerous church services that accompanied it would finally be over. I counted only seven more years until high school graduation and felt demoralized at the interminable wait ahead for real life to begin. I finally arrived at real life sometime around 1994 and have not looked back much until now.
Today, I feel a similar emptiness as I wait for a future time with no announced ETA. Unlike my childhood feelings of waiting in limbo I am now an adult capable of making my own life choices. While I wait for whatever is coming, I build my business, visit in a socially distant manner with our neighbors and walk the dog. I wonder when life will be normal again or if this is what it is now. Where do I nominate Social distancing, PPE, intubated and curb-side pick-up as the buzziest words and phrases of 2020?
This waiting for a new world to arrive can be a gift especially when I use my time to reconnect with long-lost friends and family a few branches over on the family tree.
How are you spending this time? During the shelter-in-place days have you talked by phone or in person to any older relatives or colleagues who told you how it was ‘Back in the day?” If these stories of your earlier days are worth preserving, please contact me. I can help you clarify who you want to interview, about what. We’ll work out a when and where that works for everyone. It works to gather stories remotely if that’s what we need to do.
Making music and entertaining have long been part of who Stephen Easterling is. Here, the Columbia, Missouri singer-songwriter shares his recollections on what inspires his passion to play live music and how the local shelter-in-place order has him examining his purpose in the universe.
This Field Note is taken from a conversation of May 14, 2020.
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Brooklyn native Allegra Alcoff recently ended her service as a Peace Corps volunteer. When she was told she needed to gather her things from her Zambian site for a coronavirus-inspired return to the United States, Alcoff paused to think about if that was what she really wanted to do.
This is an edited conversation that happened on May 1, 2020.
This Field Notes post looks at the personal impacts of the coronavirus. This week we hear from Dr. Carmaleta Williams, the director of the Black Archives of Mid-America. She talks about holding picture parties, interviewing the elders and being the art teacher for a pair of her instantly home-schooled grandsons.
This audio is taken from a phone conversation of April 21, 2020.
Chronic disease doesn’t take a day off. I learned that lately when I talked to Wendy McDonough. She spends time each day managing her heart condition, PTSD and multiple immune deficiencies. More of that work has fallen on her own shoulders during the coronavirus. Here is her story.
There are stories all around worthy of being preserved. In your own life there are certainly tales of family, career and community. The stories that make up a life can be recorded, edited and shared with friends now and future generations, well, in the future.
Contact me to discuss what stories you would like to capture for yourself or to share.
One must have privilege to shelter-in-place. Those with service sector, utility and health care jobs are required to be at work even if this work requires contact with the public. This is a story of one woman who is working during the virus. She is not afraid rather feels lucky.
When I gather someone’s recollections of a life or a time I do some basic planning. After a client agrees to proceed, I schedule a pre-recording planning meeting. This get-together allows me to meet with my client. Together, we identify and clarify our interview topics, and craft those questions that will elicit the stories we want to capture.
Gathering peoples’ recollections has, of necessity, changed in the coronavirus era.
Before we all sheltered in place, my recording process generally involved some travel. Most recordings I’ve done with my business are in private homes. Once arrived, I’d set-up my kit. The kit includes a portable recorder with a pair of microphones cabled to it; One mic for the clients, the other for me.
My earmuff-style headphones let me hear just the audio being captured by the microphones. We silence all phones, turn off the noise-makers in the house – fridge, furnace, ice-maker – and set to work. One by one I ask the questions that the client and I wrote together during our pre-recording meeting. I ask in advance if it is okay to go off script and probe if a certain area seems like fertile ground for good stories. Folks generally agree to that request.
BOOM! Add the coronavirus to the mix and you have a new challenge to be addressed: how to gather recollections in a socially distant manner?
Face-to-face, in-person interviews are temporarily verboten. As a work-around, I have recently done socially distant recordings using Skype and Recordator. Both provide more than adequate audio. I hear Zoom meetings are also recordable, but have not recorded via that platform. Yet.
I write about all this now because I feel some urgency to gather stories that matter. I feel urgency because people around me are dying. The world is going to come out of the other end of the coronavirus with less people. Many less people. All those people are full of stories worth being told and preserved. When we die our stories die with us and in 2020 living at the peak of civilization as we do, well, this just does not have to be so.
Maybe you have someone who has been significant in your life. (I would hope so.) Have you spoken with them lately? Have you ever thought of asking them to let you record their life story? What about a memory of a significant time? These memoirs don’t have to be lengthy discussions or require an elaborate recording set-up. The stories you want to gather can be collected in multiple sessions.
If someone you know has a story that matters to you, I encourage you to sit down and gather these recollections now while you still can. I share all this because I truly want to democratize folks collecting stories from those they love.
Earlier I noted some services that can help you record your stories that matter. There are many existing online resources that can help you collect recollections of your parents and grandparents, your siblings and cousins, your neighbors and business partners, among others. Great guidance on interview tips and sound quality come from StoryCorps. The Oral History Association has a free guide for introducing oral histories into classroom settings. Getting explicit permission to record someone is always a good practice. Here’s a sample consent from the oral history program of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
If you need some questions to use as a conversation stimulator, check out this list of 50 questions from the Dallas Jewish Historical Society.
Now, go get those stories. This day, this week, this month are great times to do so. You probably have some additional free time right now.
If I can ever help advise on a recording session, I am glad to help. Contact me at RecollectionAgency@yahoo.com or call me on my landline at (816) 514-5146 and leave a message.
Late last year, my wife and I packed up everything, said good-bye to our friends and family and moved just two hours away. Even though Kansas City is close to our beloved Columbia, it may as well be on Mars right now. Our new-found activities are on-hold due to the coronavirus. Until further notice there is no more volunteering at the bicycle collective for me, no more sewing classes down the street for Lisa nor any more eating out allowed at one of this cities’ many low- and middle-brow restaurants to which we are drawn. I feel cut-off from the world around me. You too, right?
One thing the virus can’t stop is my gardening. Spring’s here. Lisa asked recently: ‘What it is like to have the urge to garden every spring?”
“Doesn’t everyone feel that way?” I asked. “They do not,” she replied.
Comparing the dates of when I started my vegetable seeds this year and when I did that last year it was within 2 days. It’s a primal push I feel to get some plants growing about now. But where did that come from?
From a young age, I gardened. As a kid, my single mom would shuttle my brother and I to our grandparents’ house when she went to work. While mom brought home the bacon Heath and I played, roamed and helped Grandpa garden. Lambert Burkemper had a garden in his yard that was I’d guess 40 feet wide by 80 feet long. Each spring, he staked off rows and tilled dirt piles high again for the planting of tomatoes, potatoes and beans. He had limited variety in what he grew. Growing up in a family of 12 kids he aimed for maximum annual harvest. I helped him plant seeds, hoe weeds and gather the harvest.
My grandparents died too young and their garden along with their house was eventually sold to a U-Haul rental office that also has storage lockers. Alas, my grandfathers garden site now grows storage spaces as small at 5x5x8 feet that rent for $64.95 monthly.
As a young man, my interests turned to cars, girls and college. Gardening fell off my radar. I didn’t garden for years after leaving home. After college I bought a house with some friends. It wasn’t a question of to-garden-or-not-to-garden rather what space to allocate to what plantings. Our raised beds of corn and garlic and squash upended my notion of long rows featuring one plant, a model I learned as a kid watching Grandpa religiously tend his plants.
Years later my wife and I lived adjacent to her parents’ property. They have several acres in the middle of town and the back corner of their lot is wooded. An old garden space required clearing invasive bush honeysuckle and fence re-construction. Though the years, I grew annuals there and eventually fruits.
The fruit focus came from my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. From 2008 to 2010, Lisa and I served alongside folks in the southern African nation of Zambia. As an agriculture volunteer I saw what farmers grew and how the smart ones also grew woody plants near their homes. Fruits and medicinal trees are no strangers to Zambian hut-holds. These plants found a home in my garden landscape after we moved home post-service.
Over time my garden interests grew. My gardens included the basics (tomatoes and beans), the climate change winners (tomatillos and okra) and perennials (blackberries, elderberries and asparagus). The urge to grow plants sprouts forth in me each spring like a seed bursting forth into a plant. Home gardening requires some degree of faith in the future.
A few years ago, I found myself struggling to keep up with my large garden. My desire to garden had eclipsed my ability to weed, water and monitor each plants’ unique pests. How had my garden grown so far beyond my ability to maintain it? Perhaps it was the grand scale of Grandpa Burkemper’s garden. But where he had simplicity – one variety of tomatoes, one of potatoes and so on – I had complexity. Multiple varieties of numerous species were the norm for me in my large garden site. Empowered with this realization I shrunk the garden fence by 20 feet last year reducing myself to just 12 raised beds. These beds are a hybrid of my lifelong experiences with gardening.
My neighbor back in Columbia is now care-taking my former (and hopefully future) garden site. For this year I will garden in the yard of the 1905 house Lisa and I share in KC. The house has hosted many lives including the owner of a long-gone taxi service. To host his cab fleet the owner paved most of the backyard and built a garage now gone. Over time, a slow creep of grass has covered some of the asphalt. This aggregate-filled Earth seems no place to raise my prized cucumbers, lettuce and dill, so this year, I will garden in a pair of raised beds and assorted large pots. I built raised bed frames from cedar planks that should be slow to rot and support the soil resting above the asphalt coating our piece of Kansas City, Missouri 64108. Soon, I will bring in garden soil.
Between now and mid-fall will continue my long-time love affair with gardening. My wife is not jealous since my affair will produces the large tomatoes and basil she craves. My annual garden goal: grow vegetables as consistently formed and as large as Grandpa Burkemper did and on a manageable scale.
The story you just heard is a memoir. That is a story about one part of a life. In this case, you heard the tale of my gardening history. The past few minutes didn’t cover my entire life rather focused tightly on one topic. Other possible memoir topics for this blog could include a history of my relationship with my wife, or my mixed history with being an alter-boy in Catholic school, or my history with bike-riding. There are many choices of what we can focus on when writing or telling a memoir.
What are your memoir topics? What stories would you tell to create a full memoir of that topic?
I’d love to plan a recording with you (or a loved one) where you (or they) talk about the history of your family, marriage, business, activism or the art collection that you will someday pass on to your kids and grand-kids. Reach out to me and we can explore the scope of the recording, when and where to record and how your memoir or life story would best be shared.
Thanks for listening today. I’m Trevor Harris. Learn more about my work preserving life stories and audio memoirs by visiting me RecollectionAgency.com, check out RecollectionAgency on Facebook or e-mail me at RecollectionAgency@yahoo.com.