When the phone rang on Tuesday morning, May 9, I was at my desk, warming up to the day’s work.
The caller was a member of the board of the Association of Personal Historians. I had joined this group in 2002 and served on the board in various roles for more than a decade. I had been president from 2012 to 2015.
She began, “You are one of a handful of people getting calls from the board this morning. Is this a good time to talk?”
I noticed a higher pitch, a shortness of breath, that wasn’t normal for her. “What’s up?”
“You’ll be getting an email this afternoon. It’s going out to all members. God, I’m shaking. Just a minute.”
“Now you’ve got me shaking too,” I said. “What is it?”
I could hear her take a deep gulp of air. Then: “The board of the APH has voted to dissolve the organization.”
The body and mind will disassociate in a moment of shock. Sometimes it feels like floating above the body below. Sometimes it feels like a fog leaching all color from the world. This was like that, and more.
We shared a moment in that limbo where you know something has changed but you don’t know yet how, or who will be affected. Then she went on at a breakneck pace.
After 22 years, financial constraints and membership trends had made dissolution unavoidable. The website would close down soon. Our social media channels were already shuttered. The fall conference would be canceled. Some portion of my registration money would be refunded. All creditors would be treated equally. To compensate members for their lost dues, the marketing and professional development materials APH had created over the years were being moved to a Dropbox—an archive worth much more than our $200 annual dues.
What was due me hadn’t crossed my mind. I was thinking about the people. APH has always and only been about the people—the remarkable collegiality of a group of individuals who care about other people so much they make a profession of helping them preserve and share their life stories.
I looked at the phone in my hand: 18 minutes call duration. She was starting to repeat herself. There was nothing more to say. “Thank you for letting me know. I’m sure this has been difficult. Wow. Take care,” I said, and hung up.
Shaking still, I grabbed the dog’s leash and left the house. How was it possible the sky still arced overhead? How was it possible that leaves were still unfurling so fast you could practically see them grow?
The rest of that Tuesday ticked by as minutes and hours must. At 3pm, the official email appeared in my in-box. “Dissolution of APH, Inc. – PLEASE READ.” Then the reaction began—calls, texts, emails. A former board member set up a Facebook page and began inviting us to it, a space to grieve.
As the next days passed as inexorably as those first minutes and hours, I wobbled between trying to do my work and seeking solace in the company of my fellow members. There are scores of people with whom I’ve worked on a committee, or shared a conference, or passionately argued one side or the other of a proposed course of action. In those first few days, we drew close to each other, and in doing so, we made each other more aware of all that we were losing.
I started out feeling like a friend had died, but the death count quickly expanded. I began to say, “I feel like a plane went down with 600 of my closest friends on it.” I knew that was grandiose, but I wanted more. I wanted to say, “For me, this is bigger than 9-11.” This event, unlike that tragedy, affected everyone I knew and called into question the very meaning of the last 15 years of my life. If I wasn’t part of a movement to raise awareness of the importance of life story work, what was I all about? Who were my people?
In terms of my day-to-day life, the board’s decision hadn’t really changed anything all that much. And yet, it changed everything. Almost every time I’ve traveled in the last 15 years, it has been to an APH conference. I’ve couch-surfed with APH members across the USA and England. Almost every person I call a friend is someone I met through APH. Every professional dilemma I faced, I ran to the APH Listserv to ask my colleagues, “What would you do?” All that, gone. I suddenly felt exposed, like those dreams where you are naked in public.
Then came Friday night with its standing traditions. I knocked off work and had a quick, stiff martini with a friend. My husband and I headed out to a fish fry at a neighborhood pub. The noise of the patrons, the flashing TV screens, were distracting in a way that felt like relief.
But as we waited for our check—what was that song playing on the jukebox? “Raspberry Beret” by Prince? In a sports bar? The bartender explained, “The Revolution is playing at the Barrymore Theatre.” As in, the band that was going to reunite with Prince just over a year ago, if Prince had not died.
We left the bar. “Wait just a minute, “ I said. I ran down the block to the box office: “Are there any tickets left for The Revolution?” Yes. “One, please.” I would have paid anything for it. I’d found where I needed to be, to move my grief forward. We drove home, I traded car for bicycle, and pedaled back to the theater. I took a seat and began adjusting to the wall of Prince sounds thundering from the speakers.
Losing APH was the second business death I’ve experienced. Hearing “Raspberry Beret” in the bar had triggered memories of Karin, the business partner I lost in 1987. She and I had taken over Abraxas Studio in 1984. Both in our mid-20s, we were closer than spouses for three intense years. Karin’s DJ boyfriend kept us supplied with music, and Prince was one of our favorites. When Karin told me she wanted to leave our partnership, doves cried. When I visited her in Minneapolis, she took me to dance at 1st Avenue, Prince’s nightclub.
Ruminating in that amniotic sac of thumping sound, an umbilical cord appeared and connected my two losses separated by 30 years. The band stepped onto the stage. Guitar and piano chords crashed over us and lifted us on that wave.
No one used an inch of seat for the next two hours—not until Wendy Malvoin sat on a stool to play the ballad, “Sometimes It Snows in April,” and we all sat too.
“Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war”…
Like APH. Then the tears came, and I was not the only one crying in that hall, we were all crying, all purging our grief for whatever we’d lost. The last chord of Tracy’s song was still reverberating when Doctor Fink began to intone:
“Dearly beloved / We are gathered here today /
To get through this thing called life”…
As one we grievers rose from our seats, and joined the chorus—
“Are we gonna let the elevator / Bring us down / Oh, no let’s go! / Let’s go crazy / Let’s get nuts!”
The house lights came up. Crowded together, we pushed through the narrow lobby out into our lives. I bicycled home as a moon just past full rose, golden and huge on the horizon. I felt different—connected. As if in the dream I was clothed again. In purple.
There are signs of APH members keeping our community alive, without the umbrella of a formal nonprofit association. People have been tapping me, as a past president, to lead the formation of something. For now I am declining—out of respect for the recently dissolved, and for my own rebirth.
It’s a different world, without the trade association formerly known as APH. But the sky still arcs overhead. People still connect. And the soundtrack still tells the stories.
© 2017 Sarah White