“Write the word transitions,” editor Marc Jaffe said, “and put it on a wall somewhere.”
Years spent learning about the Italian Holocaust and running an oral history center were not in my plans when I was working as director of Career Education at Columbia University, and studying ethnography there, at Teachers College. But, one thing led to another. It started one day, when I saw a flyer, Photographer Wanted. I tore off a paper tooth with a phone number printed on it.
With one phone call, I joined a small group of volunteers who would start up a neighborhood newspaper, the West Side Eye. I wrote my first article and submitted it with a photo. Interviewing people, writing the article (about co-housing), and seeing it in print hooked me on the idea of the story: where it lives, how to find it.
After returning to the Berkshires to live, I found a job with the Advocate newsweekly. It started with editing the calendar, then writing articles and taking pictures. Eventually I worked as reporter and associate editor there.
I had a beat but I also had freedom. I began to go to talks given by Holocaust survivors. They were writing books and giving talks, and I interviewed one man who had lived during Fascism in Italy. I followed leads. This was the project I had been waiting for, and I knew it. After several trips to Rome and other places to meet with survivors and memory keepers, in 2007, I was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study in the primary Holocaust archive in Italy: the Center for the Documentation of Contemporary Jewish History, in Milan.
In Milan, the memory keepers – the archivists, historians, filmmakers, and even a Holocaust memorial architect – showed me memory keeping and the fragility of memory, especially in our digital age. What happens when stories disappear? What do we do with memory? It is not enough to remember, the architect said: We must also think.
I began to tiptoe into oral history. And eventually, it was back to classes and workshops, Columbia and other places, including an intensive Summer Oral History Institute. New mentors, a new way of seeing stories. A focus on keeping them safe, archived, and available.
I still wrote as a freelancer, for the Berkshire Eagle, and the Boston Globe (about food), and I will always find a way to write.
But so much happens at once. What could I do when I learned about the imminent closing of the paper mills in my hometown, a town built on 200 years of paper making? I knew that very few people had seen the inside of a paper mill. I had. Videographer Erica Spizz and I documented a paper mill in action. Two hundred years of paper making technology and know-how. What about the people who would lose their jobs, the town that would lose an economic base? 32 interviews later, thanks to support from Mass Humanities, Housatonic Heritage, the High Meadow Foundation, and individuals, we are about to embark on another phase of the Paper Town Documentary Project. We will finish in 2022.
And by now, I have found my place in the world of the story. I run the Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College (www.theoralhistorycenter.org). No more day job and night work. Just working.
Transitions happened. I am learning to be more graceful in navigating them.
(Portrait photo by Julie McCarthy)