I recently went to a professional conference and was profoundly affected by one of the keynote presentations there that has lead me down a huge rabbit hole of thought and exploration into the concept of an “ordinary life”.
The presentation was by Lily Koppel, a writer and author of “The Red Leather Diary.” In 2003, Lily found the diary in a dumpster when the manager of her NYC apartment building cleared out one of the storage rooms. The diary was started by 14 year old Florence and written in every day for five years. It chronicles her coming of age in a time (late 1920s to early 1930s) when young women were schooled in the artistic life and allowed to pursue art, dance, writing and theater as a vocation. Ms. Koppel became entranced by the book and finally located the diarist, now in her 90s. Together, they explored the diary and this one girl’s life and the book was born, weaving the story of the diary, the story of Florence, and Lily Koppel’s own story of how finding the diary changed her own life.
What’s had me so engrossed is something that Lily said in her keynote presentation. She talked about how the young girl in the diary was so unfamiliar to Florence when she was finally reunited with the diary again. How reading about her own exploits as a young woman ‘breathed new life’ into her “old woman” and got her excited again. The secondary title is “Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal” and I think that concisely addresses the reaction of both Florence, the diarist, as well as Ms. Koppel upon finding the diary and my own fascination with this story as a discussion for the concept of an ordinary life.
We tend to become comfortable in our own skins as we go about the tasks of work, marriage, raising children, dealing with tragedy and setbacks and particularly learning to age gracefully as we face the passing years. I’ve interviewed so many people who claim their lives are not interesting, that they are in fact, ordinary. We envision giant apartment complexes with each apartment containing one or a few people going about these ordinary tasks; fixing dinner, reading the paper, washing and ironing clothes. And yet inside these ordinary lives are strings of magical moments, each as perfect and unique as a pearl but which all start to look the same when viewed on a string from afar.
Often in the course of working with a person, only when I begin to shape these moments and events into a story does the person begin to recognize the depth and breath of what they’ve done and who they’ve touched in their lives. (I wrote of this phenomenon in my article “The Three Dynamics of Personal History.”) These are the moments that are shared over holiday dinners with other family members or at reunions of any sort. “Remember the time…” is what these moments are made of. It can be a humbling experience when someone helps you to see that your life has not be insignificant and that while you are busy measuring what is next and what you haven’t accomplished, there is someone (your historian or biographer) who is there to help you remember each post in the miles of fence you’ve planted on the way.
Ms Koppel’s reuniting Florence with her diary and then helping her go through it and fill in the flesh of the stories gave her her life back. But her life was always there, it had just receded into the past, grayed and covered with dust, just like the diary was when it was found in the dumpster.