On Sunday afternoon I had the privilege of attending a performance of the play Mary Page Marlowe. Playwright Tracy Letts has done a remarkable job telling the story of one woman at eleven different critical moments in her life. There are six actresses (and one baby doll) who fulfill these roles and the story is not told in chronological order, rather it is as if you are living in Mary Page’s memory, understanding moments and then, as an outsider, putting the pieces together to understand the whole.
I’ve been thinking about this play, thinking about the key moments that define each of our lives. When we do leadership education, we are often asked about “crucible moments,” those moments that you realize, in retrospect, have shaped or changed the course of your professional life. I think the same applies to each of our personal lives—that there are moments that impact us forever, moments that we don’t recognize as that important until we stand back much later and see where they led.
In the play, Mary Page Marlowe’s moments were all moments of sadness and misfortune. We learn, in bits and pieces, about her parents, her childhood, her father’s alcoholism followed by Mary’s own issues with alcohol and other addictive and self-destructive behaviors. We learn, through the portrayal of these varied moments, the impact all of this had on both Mary’s life and the lives of her children.
In our own lives, trauma and loss certainly define many of those critical moments. I also believe that life changing moments can be moments of joy, like the birth of a child which redefines your life in so many ways from that moment forward.
Working with older adults, and being blessed with having my almost 96-year-old mother-in-law living nearby, it seemed to me that this might be a wonderful way to start a conversation and, perhaps, to learn things we might not otherwise know. What if you said to the loved ones in your life, tell me about those moments that shaped your life. What experiences do you now see as key to defining your direction and shaping what followed? I’d like to pose questions that go beyond the standard “where did you grow up” and “what did you do” and ask what was the most difficult thing you ever did and what you learned from it. I’d like to hear about happiest moments and how those, too, defined their path.
Much like Mary Page Marlowe, our lives are complex puzzles with pieces that may look unrelated but later sort themselves into a picture of the whole. Understanding our older adults, learning new pieces of their unique individual puzzles, gives us a view of history, and even wisdom, that may both inform our lives and those of future generations.