Friday, May 1, 2020

A Journal, a Timeline, and Family Connections

As a genealogist, you might expect that I'd always be excited about family history, genealogy, and family. That maybe I come from a perfect family or that my research turns up nothing but cheery stories.

But as with any vocation, profession, or hobby, the passion may wane at times. And I am passionate about family history not because I come from a perfect family, but because I believe that family history can be healing and transformative for imperfect families like my own. At certain times, it may be harder to want to dive deep into one's family history though. In times of grief, or in particularly busy times, or perhaps during a pandemic, we might find ourselves in a bit of a lull.

Like exercising or studying, sometimes we need accountability and community to get us moving!

So I'm happy to let you all in on the Family Connections Experiment! This 21 day experiment aims to help us all explore "the psychological benefits of daily connections with family, past and present." It begins today - 1 May - and lasts for three weeks. After taking a quick survey, you pick a plan from the Family Connections Experiment website, and each day you'll participate through the daily prompts given from your plan.

The goal is that through these simple and engaging daily activities, you will invest more time in creating family connections and will notice a positive improvement to your mood and mental health.

Today, I'd like to reflect on what I've been up to with Day 1 of my Family Connections plan.

After checking out the many awesome plans available - including a choose-your-own-adventure type build your own plan - I chose "The About Me Plan." 

I decided to go with this plan because I'm already a daily genealogy researcher. I'm on track working on DNA matches, adding new cousins to my tree, and researching brick wall ancestors. 

But do you know what gets left behind when you're always digging so far back in your tree? You forget to tend to the branches a bit closer to home. I'm guilty of not engaging enough in my own story, connecting with my living close family, and strengthening these connections more regularly. This plan provides simple prompts that will help me put words to memories, to tell the story of my life in a way I might not have thought about before. And, it will help me connect with my family in the process.

Each day, there's a different topic to engage, a new aspect of self or family that I can write about.


The Connections Experiment website provides the following as today's prompt:
Timeline: Vertically down the page (paper or electronic) write each year you have been alive on each line. Then go back and add important events that happened in your life those years. You aren’t writing the story but writing a phrase to capture the memory.
As you can tell, this is at once very simple and complex. It's a timeline of one's life - so the older you are, the more years you'll need to write about.

There are all sorts of ways that you can engage with this experiment - you can journal, blog, type everything up on your computer, post on social media, discuss your responses with family and friends. I decided to journal - and then to let y'all know how everything's going here!

The Journal

I love to journal. I've kept journals since college, and even during middle and high school I would write free verse, spoken word type poetry as a means of self-reflection and healing in times of stress and anxiety. So I truly believe in the power of catharsis, of speaking truth to feelings and watching as the jumble of thoughts take form and unravel into some semblance of sense. It was a natural decision, then, to want to write my daily reflections in a journal.

In 2013, my aunt Judy - my JuJu - gave me a bound journal with the Footprints poem on the front. Her gift was in honor of my graduation from seminary at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. On the first page, she wrote me the sweetest note:
Dear Sam,
Congratulations! You're just too smart!
This journal is for you to put your special thoughts and prayers in. I personally write prayer letters to God, as so not to forget all the points I want to bring up to him. That way I don't leave anyone or thing unspoken.
I pray here:
Dear God, Continue to guide and bless my Sam. In your blessing I pray, AMEN.
God, be with you Sam!
I Love You!
My beloved aunt Judy passed from this life on 31 August 2016 after years of illnesses - from lupus, to kidney and hip transplants, to cancers too numerous to count. After her passing, I have struggled to grieve her loss. I have in many ways ignored grief as if through ignoring her loss I might not have to feel her absence. But each time I read her words, or see a photo, I remember her laugh, her smile, her love.

So each time I remembered the journal Judy gave me, I would balk at using it. How could I risk messing it up? What prayers or special thoughts were worthy of her journal?

When I was reflecting on where I would add my memories and thoughts in this experiment, I came to a sense of peace that this journal that my JuJu gave me...this was precisely the journal I needed to use. She would want me to use the journal to connect with family, to reflect on my own life, and to stop holding on to something without using it!

My reflections from Day 1

I'm only 32, so a yearly run-down of my life shouldn't take so long right? HA!

It took me a few hours - not going to lie. I wanted to recall the various important moments of my life: when close family members died, when others were born, when I was in which grade at which school. I wanted to remember when I moved where, and some of the major world events in my life.

So what have I learned from writing my timeline?

  • I was in speech therapy much longer than I remembered - from 3-5 years old. After struggling with consonants and needing my parents to interpret my speech, it's all rather ironic today that I had a problem speaking! 
  • I divide my life into sections: 0-9 years old, 10-13, 14-17, 18-21, 22-26, 27-32.
  • I too often allow myself to define my life by one or another period...but I have progressed so much beyond a turbulent childhood. Sometimes, you need to see yourself in a timeline to see that you're no longer an 8 year old. I mean, I can know something intellectually - but seeing it is another thing.
This is only Day 1, y'all! There are 20 more days of simple reflections that I really hope will build upon this great foundation of writing out my life in a timeline.


I'm already glad that I signed up for this Family Connections Experiment. I want to encourage you to sign up too! In the challenging times we find ourselves in, it can be difficult to want to do anything. You might not want to sign yourself up for "one more thing" to do, another thing to put on your to-do list only to feel guilty if you don't keep up with it.

But I don't want y'all to approach this experiment this way! See this as an adventure, as an opportunity to make connections, to get out of your own head and to reach out. If you - like I did today - find things in your reflections which bring up painful memories or trauma, reach out to someone. Speak to someone in your family, a friend, a therapist or counselor, a faith leader, connect to the Family Connections Experiment page on Facebook, or contact me! We want to create community, and to support one another in building connections.

How has your first day of this Family Connections Experiment gone? What have you learned?

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

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