My relationship with the past has always been a bit shaky. I remember the times I’ve fallen more clearly than the times I’ve flown. My ability to recall awful days with stunning clarity is really useful when I have to write a scene filled with emotional torment. In everyday living? Not so much.
Our past, our memories, can be a profound source of inspiration — depending on how we shape them. Now, I may not excel in remembering my brightest days, but I know enough to surround myself with people who possess that talent. In this next installation of my Be Inspired Series, I am honored to introduce you to Michelle Salvucci, my much-loved sister-by-choice.
Michelle is a dedicated and innovative high school teacher, an environmental advocate, and a rock-star mom. She juggles family and work with stunning grace. And she can make me laugh until I pee my pants. What’s more, Michelle is skilled at shaping memories into beacons. Into inspiration. Welcome, Michelle!
LA: I’ve written before about my doomsday imagination and your particular gift for looking on the bright side. Is there a secret to your optimism, a trick you’ve mastered, or have you always been a glass-half-full kind of gal?
MS: I am most definitely one of those annoying optimistic gals. I think it’s my basic nature, but I also think this characteristic was developed as a response to a lot of the negativity in the world. I was raised Catholic and thought I wanted to be a nun for most of my early elementary school years, so I was trained early to look for the good in people and in situations.
I can honestly say that I haven’t thought much about this idea until now, but my Monty Python-esque proclivity to “always look on the bright side of life” may also stem from trying to make the best of my parents’ failing marriage, which languished for many years before they finally split when I was in high school. They stayed together for a long time, trying to find the best in the situation and in each other for the sake of my sister and me –a pretty powerful example of optimism, if you ask me.
LA: I’ve always admired your sense of humor, your ability to turn an embarrassing event into a funny story, taken lightly. Tell me, who makes you laugh out loud, and why?
MS: My mom, for sure, is the font from which my humor springs. She is such a vivacious lady and a wonderful story teller and I see so much of her in my parenting and in who I’ve become as a person. The way I can spin a tale, my ability to make up songs on the spot, and my habit of singing my speech all come from Mom.
It has been an interesting evolution for me — when I was an elementary school kid, I was convinced that my friends liked her better than they liked me because I was pretty quiet and shy. I still am at the most fundamental level, but when I know people well, I can share those embarrassing moments in a way that allows someone else to share my experience without becoming embarrassed themselves.
I am also in debt to writers like Laurie Notaro and David Sedaris for shaping my ability to write in a funny way. Laurie is a bit of an Everywoman, laughing at her own misadventures as a college student and as an adult who maybe wishes she were younger/skinnier/smarter (the same fears and hopes most women have) and David has made his way through extraordinary obstacles using his humor sometimes as a shield. I guess that’s how I approach it, too. Humor can protect me because if I laugh at myself first, no one else can, and humor is also a balm and a uniter that helps me connect to others with similar experiences.
LA: You have a lot of challenging roles — as a teacher, an advocate for colleagues and students, a mom, wife, sister, friend. Can you speak a little bit about how those roles “inspire” each other? How do you gather strength from one area of your life and apply it to the others?
MS: I actually don’t think I’m all that good at balancing things, but I’ve become much better at shaving life down to what feels essential.
I think surrounding myself with really great people has been key because when I do have a bad day and things feel like they are rapidly spinning out of control, I have a bunch of really great friends who remind me of all the good. My husband is totally my head cheerleader and I know that I could not be a parent without him. We have a wonderful balance in that area. He picks up the slack and maintains a sense of normalcy for our daughter when my professional schedule gets crazy.
LA: Ecology and the environment have played a central role in your life and in your sense of who you are. For example, in the spring of 2011, you brought a group of students to Louisiana to help with the Deepwater Horizon clean-up. How does this connection with nature (global and local) fuel you?
MS: The irony of my love of the natural world is that I didn’t really recognize it for a long time. My parents always let me watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on TV when I was kid and my personal hero at age 4 or 5 was Jacques Cousteau (my mom does a kicking French accent, by the way, and used to imitate his voice a lot).
I also grew up going to the beach every summer to stay at my grandparents beach house. When I was about 9 years old or so, lots of dolphins were washing up on the shores of Block Island and a sea turtle washed up on the beach where we summered. I just remember thinking that it was so big and that it was so sad that it was dead and I just felt in my soul that something was wrong with the planet and that we had to figure it out. That sea turtle looked to be about the size of a Volkswagen to me and it has left an indelible mark.
Today my inspiration comes from my kids — my own daughter and my “big kids” at school — and seeing how much they care about what’s going on in the world. The other day my daughter said to me, “Momma, you know that I feel strongly about the planet and I think people should stop cutting down trees and they should stop putting pollution into the air. I want to protect the forest. It’s kind of like I’m the Queen of the Forest.” It was like I’d died and gone to Heaven.
Every year when I start school, I promise myself that if I just reach one kid, then the planet will be in a better place. It’s a slow process, but that’s where I live. I also take great inspiration from the words of Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” That is what drives me to be in the classroom. I want my kids to know more than I did so that they can be better consumers of goods and information. If they don’t know, they can’t make good choices and nothing will get better.
LA: Imagine yourself traveling forward to your eighty-year old self. What would you like to learn from her? What do you think she’ll tell you?
I hope my 80-year-old self knows how to relax and more consistently live in the moment. I hope that she’ll tell me that I did a good job and that I have a daughter who is productive and maybe that my grandchild is also a really cool kid.
Thank you so much Chelle, for being a part of Be Inspired. It’s been a treat to learn more about the roots of your environmentalism, your optimism, and your delicious humor. I’m always impressed by the strength of your relationships — and grateful to be inside that circle. I hope our 80-year-old selves will still be laughing till we pee our pants.
You can follow Chelle on Twitter, here.
And you, dear readers? Does the past help or hinder? And how about the people in your lives, your net of relationships — who lifts you back up when the day comes pressing?