unlocking business growth opportunities

You are currently browsing the The WhiteBoard blog archives for July, 2011.

Thought Spot: Time and Treasure

July 11th, 2011

 “Every generation needs regeneration.”

    –  Charles H. Spurgeon

“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

              –   Ralph Waldo Emerson 

What is treasure?

When I was growing up, treasure meant everything exotic on exhibit at the local museum. Founded as the East India Marine Society in 1799, the bylaws required member sea captains to collect and bring back “curiosities” from their trading voyages beyond the Cape of Good Hope. These included Ku, the enormous, frightening Hawaiian god of war, and an oddly long-necked penguin from the Falkland Islands. I couldn’t figure out why the penguins at the aquarium had short necks, while this museum bird’s extended like a crane’s. Years later I found out that that when the penguin was stuffed in 1820, the local taxidermist had never seen a penguin before and elongated its neck.

My favorite spot in the museum was and still is East India Hall, a second floor room with glossy oak floors and high windows and pale walls lined with the portraits of the sea captains who founded the Society. Their commercial success in trade with Asia prompted my hometown’s motto, “to the farthest ports of the rich East.”

In middle school I visited East India Hall regularly with my friend Cathy. Cathy’s mother worked at the museum, which was located midway between school and Cathy’s house. We usually had an hour or so after school to browse tribal masks and war clubs from places like Oceania and breathe in the scent of ancient and current dust before catching a ride home with Cathy’s mother at the end of her work day.  

We’d inevitably wander into East India Hall, circling the showy figureheads that once adorned trading ships. Ornately carved women with flowing hair and vivid dresses. Scotsmen in kilts.  Black and gold dragons, tigers and sea demons, lips drawn back in fierce snarls. Under the disapproving stare of a museum guard, we’d peruse the gallery of ship captain portraits and launch our lively debate about which was most handsome, according to our ‘tweenaged standards. None of them, I would argue, were as handsome as Great Uncle Stanley.

Uncle Stanley hung reverently on the wall in my grandmother’s parlor. He needed no elaborate officer’s uniform to enhance his looks;  the stark green issue of a Lithuanian army recruit was more than enough to offset his blue eyes, fair hair and moustache. He was in his early twenties when he sat for the portrait.  This convex image of her younger, favorite brother in the oval oak frame was one of the few possessions my grandmother had managed to preserve and treasure through her migration to a new country, the lockdown of the Iron Curtain and the ultimate disconnection from family in Eastern Europe. 

With my grandmother’s passing Uncle Stanley moved to an attic bedroom in my family’s house. In my

 college and early career years, I would occasionally visit him on my searches through the boxes my siblings and I had deposited in the attic.  Largely forgotten, his old-fashioned portrait had a hard time blending with late twentieth-century decorative aesthetics.  Uncle Stanley was left to stand watch over the toys and sports trophies and yearbooks of our American childhood.

When my parents downsized to a condominium and I collected my store of stuff from the attic, it became obvious. Uncle Stanley needed a caretaker. I found myself leaving the house one night with my mother’s honeymoon luggage under one arm and Uncle Stanley under the other, now two generations removed from the sister who had held him in such affection.

Uncle Stanley took yet another migration to the American Midwest and was living an anonymous life among the excess wall art in my office closet, in the no-man’s land between trash and treasure. Things changed after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the re-established independence of Lithuania and the reconnection of our family ties there. 

A few days ago, I emailed a photo of Uncle Stanley’s portrait to a cousin in Lithuania, who shared it on Facebook with other family members on two continents. Until then, Uncle Stanley’s youngest son, now in his eighties, had never seen an image of his father as a young man, the father who had made him promise to find and reconnect with his family in America.  Uncle Stanley went digital, and went home. 

Family portrait and Rotary alike, changing with the times is what keeps us relevant.

The real value of my great uncle’s portrait is not in the past. What makes him a treasure for my family is the genuine connection he creates between us, here and now. The same is true in Rotary.  When we appreciate our past and also adapt to present times, we increase our capacity to share our core values and our humanitarian service across generations, in our communities and across the world.

Changing with the times, to be sure, can be a challenge. It is also a golden opportunity, if we know what to do with it.  And if one old family portrait can go digital, change lives and connect people across continents, how much more can 1.2 million of us accomplish, here and now?