The Torch

I’ve written about my family more than once, but I rarely write about my mother for fear of not accurately illustrating the impact her life had on mine.  I hold her in reverence, as any child might to their creator and to their first and best love.  Writing anything about her seems like a futile exercise as words always seem a poor palette with which to paint anything resembling what I can remember of her life. But during a recent trip to Greece I experienced an unusal connection to the lands I was visiting.  Walking through hallowed, ancient ground reminded me of my mother, and of another Olympia on another continent. 

Once every couple of years I am able to fly back home to Olympia, Washington, where she resides.  I make the journey to converse, to regain some necessary perspective on how and why the events of my life have unfolded the way they have.  Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a one-sided conversation as these days visiting my mother entails a folding chair and an occasional umbrella as I sit straddling a tiny patch of earth with a fading brown marble headstone. As such I have not been afforded the luxury of having her around to serve as a sounding board since I was twelve years old. So I grapple at memories, at photos and heirlooms, at the stone memorial I stand over; anything I can use to remember the dream of Christine Fomin.  I try to imagine conversations I might have had and memories that might have been made, invoking what I can of her words and my own fading recollections of who she was.  And much like that small cemetary, as I strolled through the ancient Acropolis of Athens, around the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and reading other timeless words inscribed in everlasting stones, my thoughts sharpened into a focus on a resonant, lasting power that the past holds up to the present.

Obviously, her death had a played a big part on my developing sense of self and identity.  But far greater impact was what remained after that loss; a legacy. Looking down at that headstone are the words that I travel thousands of mile to see and see again, year after year.  To me, they are less words etched in marble, and more of an incantation that reawakens the ambitions of a slumbering heart; Eternal Love to all My Progeny, the Torch is passed.  These are the words that have ignited my heart in the past and are pushing the blood to my fingertips as I pound the keys on my keyboard to the rhythm of renewal.  Today, my keyboard is an anvil, and I’m hammering away at a refined edge with the white-hot blood of past purpose and future dreams. These words are the common, fiery-golden thread.  They carry a weight coming from my mother beyond the grave and into my living, breathing world. Not just because I loved my mother, as any child does, but because I know the heights to which she climbed in her own time were so great.  The Torch she carried now lies at the top of a formidable mountain of achievement she ascended during her career, waiting for her progeny to pick up from admidst ruins and carry on into the future.

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The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

It’s plain to see that I hold my mother in high esteem, but what is not so readily seen are those lives changed in her wake, or the light she brought to those around her. She attended the University of Washington in her undergrad, in the process meeting my father, a german-born russian immigrant.  They got married, much to the chagrin of her more conservative family, when she was 21. She punched a police officer once during a planned protest. She went to some length to befriend members of the Black Panthers in a largely homogenous and white Washington state. These of course are just stories, but the facts remain that by 1982, she was 31 years old and had earned an MBA, Juris Doctorate, and given birth to two boys. She died a little over 25 years ago and even now people come to me with stories about how she made an impact on their lives. She was the first female graduate of her MBA program. She started an independent attorney practice and represented local firemen. She worked in service of others, and the Torch she carried was bright and filled rooms full of people with a quiet optimism.  So perhaps you can see now anyone growing up in the shadow of that metaphorical mountain might be more than a little humbled to hazard a trek up the slopes. At best, I could hope to gain some elevation by fumbling in her footsteps. At worst, I could live in a shadow.

My career, in constrast to hers, has been a story of safe choices and risky ventures with a recent skew towards taking ever-increasing leaps into the unknown, hoping to grab onto a higher perch.  But my attempt to clamber up the rocky path has been clumsy and haphazard. My college education was as one professor put it “as if [I was] simply grazing through courses like cattle eating grass. You can do better.  I know you can, and so do you.” And to be honest at the time it was true. I was shot into the college campus environment with the force of an emotional cannonball after my mother imparted that her last wish was for her boys to go to college.  My time there was spent less in service of my education and more to my identity formation as a survivor. I never asked any tough questions of myself, what I wanted to do with my life or what my mother’s final epitaph really meant. I simply endeavored every day to exist.  To abide the inevitable and proverbial next shoe being dropped into my life after the searing memory of how your life can be crushed in a few agonizing moments. For years, it was easier to persist under an overcast sky and pass along a forgiving flat plain, rather than look up to the peaks of achievements occupied by others.  Let alone to that Torch set on high. For a long time, it was even easier to believe that perhaps those places where simply out of my reach.

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The Acropolis of Athens

Since scraping by on credits to graduate, it’s probably no accident that I’ve worked at three institutions of higher education; a relatively small regional public college, a major flagship research institution, and a burgeoning urban university with a surging national profile.  In retrospect my undergraduate induction into the higher education community, although unexceptional (and towards the end abysmal), had a profound impact on the trajectory of my career long after I received my diploma. By working side by side with people who held purposeful goals, I became infected with some of that quiet optimism my mother had shown so many others years earlier.  It’s even easy to think of our universities and colleges as the modern day stand in for the ancient Acropolis, populated with great thinkers and people seeking knowledge in their propspective passions. It’s only natural while sharing the same ground with so many motivated people I would begin to reflect on that idea of personal growth, of striving towards bettering oneself. That is when I started seeing the Torch for what it really was. It was knowledge of self. It was improving life for yourself, your community and your world. It was Knowledge with a capital ‘K’ that you could spread like a sticky Greek Fire, from person to person.  It was human achievement, not just for the individual, but for the public. For everyone. My mother’s flame was a light to show others the way through darkness. A personal Prometheus I could summon at will from memory. The flame wasn’t on a mountaintop. It was in me.

Every job I’ve held has been in service of other people, although it’s only recently that I’ve realized that the people I work for have been giving back to me in ways I hadn’t noticed.  They have given me their stories to listen to, their personalities to work with, their skills and talents to emulate and observe, and their ambitions for making this world a little better for everyone.  I have tried to do my part in every conscious aspect of my work to bring these ideals to light and to work in service of others by making more efficient systems, more effective policies and procedures, and always assuming that everything can always be better.  Now, at the age of 38, I’m reawakening to that call from my mother once more, by continuing my education and finally getting a Masters degree.  It’s high time I tried to climb further up the mountain.  It’s time I held the Torch a little higher and walk a little further up the path. Maybe one day my fire will help you on yours.

Keep climbing.

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