Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Student of Communities and Santa's Celiac Baker

Forgive the cliches, but sometimes I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb. Other times, I feel like a square peg who fits comfortably in a much larger round hole. Please bear with me while I explain.

I have never been a "traditional" archivist. At various times in my life I have worked as an assistant curator, a reference librarian, an "Internet Coordinator," as well as an archivist. I've worked in historical homes, city archives, museums, a science institute, public fact, probably a wider variety of places than I can count on two hands. So, rather than self-identifying with any one type of place or profession, I  lately have been calling myself a cultural heritage professional with a specialty in archives. I spend my life exploring all of these institutions -- examining archives as a common thread among them. Today, while taking a long walk, I realized that I should also consider myself a student of communities because what really interests me about all these institutions is their community connection.

Outside of my consulting work, one of the largest projects on my plate is my Life in Context Project in collaboration with Sue West of Space4U Consulting. I will not rehash what I've written before about "Life in Context," but a meeting with Sue yesterday got me thinking about this subject. We are currently working on an aspect of "Life in Context" called "Food Memories." I am not a foodie by any means. I eat what I can on a restricted Celiac diet. I usually only cook big meals at Thanksgiving and other special occasions. I like to go out to eat, but I'm not a connoisseur. However, food is a good launching point for self-exploration and for exploring how one fits into a larger society. We all eat! And once I start thinking about a particular subject, my mind jumps to connections. Sometimes, serendipitously the connections present themselves.

As a case in point: This week, my daughter and I are preparing for our baking weekend. We bake cookies for our friends and for Santa. I only bake gluten free, since I have Celiac Disease. One year, we were concerned that my daughter might have Celiac Disease too, so gluten free baking was particularly meaningful. That year, we discovered that each December Santa sets up a fabulous little shed-like house at the end of a cul-de-sac in a neighboring town. We were told that the lighted houses along the street were a sight to see and Santa would be waiting for us at the end of the road to listen to what we want for Christmas. We drove up in our car. My daughter hopped onto Santa's lap and he offered her a candy cane. I told him, "I'm sorry Santa, but my daughter needs to eat gluten free and we are not sure if the candy cane is okay for her." Maybe I shouldn't have said anything, but I'm glad I  did. Mrs. Claus started practically jumping up and down. "Santa has to eat gluten free too!" Who knew? So I drove home and grabbed a tin of my special gf cookies. I drove back with my family and gave Santa the tin. "Merry Christmas Santa! You can have these cookies. They are gluten free." I thought Mrs. Claus was going to cry. We visit Santa's special shack every year and bring him his cookies. Mrs. Claus gives my daughter a special ornament instead of a candy cane. (I don't have the heart to tell her that after receiving medical test results we learned my daughter can eat normally now!) We also leave gluten free cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve. I tell my daughter to not divulge to her friends that Santa is a Celiac because they would feel badly about leaving him gluten cookies all of these years!

Why am I telling you this? Besides being timely, this food story reveals my interest in communities. First of all, and perhaps most obviously, this annual December "event" is special to my whole geographic community. Cars line up down the street to see Santa in his shack. Secondly, I feel like I have a special connection to Santa since we are both members of the Celiac community. Third, I find it funny that I tell my little girl to not divulge Santa's food secret. When I was young, I didn't celebrate Christmas and my mother used to tell me to not tell other kids that Santa isn't real! My daughter is a member of a community in which I was not and it's interesting to see how some aspects of her childhood differ from mine because of it.

So, as a student of communities and a cultural heritage professional with my feet in many different camps, I sometimes see things in unique ways. I suspect that is the case with us all. While we may identify firmly with certain communities to which we belong, we may just have a bit of a toe dipped in others. To me, cultural heritage and "memory" institutions are fascinating for this very reason. They stand as their own communities, they can be vibrant parts of a larger community or communities, AND their holdings include the resources that shed light on societal groups - how they overlap and differ.

So perhaps my world-view and my professional view is a little different. (In fact, I was even the girl in high school who floated from one group to another group. I was a jock, an artist, and a school newspaper editor - taking it all in and examining my place.) I have always explored the idea that no matter what you believe, where you live, or what you do, you can find some community connection to anyone else on earth. I find this fascinating. I'm looking forward to continuing my exploration of documents as a "lens" into communities and to exploring communities more fully through my work with our collaborative "Life in Context" project.

If you are interested in learning more about our soon to be launched "Food Memories", See "Life in Context" on Facebook or follow URlifeincontext on Twitter.

For more about my work with communities see

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