Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Passing Down What We Have Learned So Far

By Mary Osborne

A number of years ago, when I was writing book one of my Alchemy Series, a friend gave me an unusual gift—a decorative key.  Composed of Venetian glass spun with gold, the key is embellished with crystals and metallic floral filigree.  As my friend presented me with this magical object, he explained that it symbolized my success in having integrated writing into my busy life as a mother and nurse. My friend is an author who had provided me with valuable guidance when I was working on my book project; he knew that I was not just talking about writing, I was doing it.  I had discovered the key to following my bliss. 

Years earlier, this same key was given to my friend by a female writer, who presented it to him in recognition of his ability to do the same—to live as a productive artist and author.  After I gently returned the key to its silk-lined box, my friend told me that I could keep the gift for as long as I wanted.  But eventually, I was supposed to pass it along to someone else who was coming up the ranks and discovering the secret to living an artist’s life.

That was more than five years ago, but the key still sits in my dresser, tucked inside the black box.  Why haven’t I passed along the gift?  Every now and then I would come across the box, take out the key, admire it, and consider possible recipients.  But then I would return the box to the dresser and forget about it again.   I was caught up in my own struggles, always in the midst of a project which needed my urgent attention.  And there was no one I had really guided along the artist’s path for a length of time, as my friend had guided me.  

I confess that I am now, officially, a middle aged woman, and I have achieved some success along with the failures.  There is still much to learn, but I know a few things about writing and publishing.  Like many women my age, I am trying to juggle multiple jobs (as a nurse, author, and landlord) while raising a child.  There is never enough time, which is why I am writing this post at 11:30 pm.  The truth is that I will probably never feel “caught up” with work, at least not for a long time.  There will never be a perfect time, perhaps, to be a mentor.

But if all of us who have succeeded in our careers are too busy to teach the next generation, our life lessons will die with us.  One study showed that 77% of women felt that it was difficult to find a mentor in their workplace.  (Kelley M. Butler, Wooing women:  Today’s working women seek mentors, motherhood transition)  Men, who often have less to juggle than women, have been cultivating the art of mentorship for a long time, and this is a skill women now need to develop.  In order for younger women to move into positions of leadership and to expand their voice and influence in the world, they need the guidance of those who have come before them.  They need favors, they need questions answered.  It is our turn to pass it on.

This summer I’ve had the opportunity to work with teens at various Chicago Public Library locations.  During these events, I discuss my new novel, Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, and encourage participants to dream and explore their life goals. Each teen receives a paper scroll which she decorates with sparkles and feathers, and she writes her goal in the center of the scroll.  While we are working on these projects, one of the teens invariably ask me about the process of becoming a published author.  I’m always happy to offer some encouraging words.  At the end of the program, I often feel as though I’m the one who has received a gift.  Sharing what you know has a way of making the struggle all the more worthwhile.

All of us women over forty have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share.  I know we’re all busy and sometimes still struggling ourselves.  When someone asks us for advice, guidance, or help of some kind, it’s tempting to say we just can’t at the moment.  But if we can manage to take just a little time to pass on our hard-won wisdom, we get an amazing gift in return:  the knowledge that we have contributed to someone’s future.  And this person might continue on to accomplish something we had never foreseen.  In this way, we become part of something bigger than ourselves.

The key of Venetian glass still sits in my dresser.  Out in the world, there are young writers with strong visions and the determination to express themselves and publish books. One of them will receive the key, and I hope her success and influence far exceeds mine.  As the heroine of Nonna’s Book of Mysteries is told by her dear friend, “We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.”

Mary Osborne is the award-winning author of Nonna’s Book of Mysteries (Lake Street Press, June 2010) and the forthcoming Alchemy’s Daughter.  A registered nurse, teen advocate, and artist, she lives in Chicago.  

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