I stepped out of the airport in Costa Rica and into a sea of people. From the crowd of strangers, I saw a man and a little girl, about six, walk towards me. Even though I had never met this man before I knew exactly who he was, my long lost father. We embraced for the first time, as my little sister clung to my leg, and after that, it’s all a blur. I don’t remember meeting my brother, my sister, my grandmother, or the numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins that attended the reunion. That day was so emotional and so overwhelming that mind has completely blocked it out. These photos are all I have of that incredible moment, a moment that forever changed my life.
The strange thing about a day like this is that we are so used to thinking of it as the end of the story. The grand finale of a big Hollywood production where the family reunites and life is finally restored to balance, but for me, it was just beginning. The beginning of a journey that has been more challenging than I ever could have imagined. I’ve had to wrestle with some difficult truths about myself, my family, and my country. I’ve tried to balance two lives, one taken from me as a child, and one that has given me incredible opportunities. And more often than not I’ve felt torn like I’m always having to choose between the people I love.
I don’t want to make it sound like this has been a bad experience, just the opposite. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have such wonderful family, and friends. However, as I reflect on what this day means to me, I want to be honest about what I am feeling. This is hard. Really, really, hard. Even harder has been traveling this road mostly alone, only being able to share bits and pieces of my life with the people closest to me. I hope that when I’m done my documentary film and an autobiographical novel that I will finally be able to share the whole story.
In my mind I imaged this day going very differently. I wanted to return to Costa Rica and have a big family reunion, but in for many reasons that is not possible. Like all families, we’ve had our ups and downs, but I wouldn’t trade this life for the world. I wish I could be there with all of you today. I wish that I was in a different place in my life. I wish we could go back to a simpler time. I wish, I wish, I wish, but wishing does not change our reality. So to my family, all I can say is: I love you, with all my heart, and words cannot express what you mean to me.
Isabel and Ana Williams are two friends who, like me, were adopted from El Salvador and grew up in the New England area. The sisters had only faint memories of their life in El Salvador. However, Isabel remembers the face of a woman, who she thought was her mother, lying dead next to her. Her memories drove Isabel to begin searching for her birth family in 2008.
With the help of Pro-Busqueda, the same organization that reunited me with my birth family, Isabel and Ana were able to locate their birth mother, Ester, in rural El Salvador. They also learned that they had been forcibly separated from their birth family during a massacre in 1980 when the Salvadoran military forces placed them in an orphanage to be put up for adoption. Their birth mother, who survived the attack, tried to get her daughters back but was prevented from doing so, and they were adopted to the US.
Since 2010 Isabel and Ana have been trying to meet their birth mother in person. However, due to a debilitating illness, Isabel is not able to travel, and Ana does not want to have the reunion without her sister by her side. Their only option was to bring their birth mother to the U.S.
After five years of waiting, Isabel and Ana were finally reunited with their birth mother on June 28th, 2015. I had the privilege of photographing their reunion and capturing some of the family’s first moments together in 35 years.
[dropcap]G[/dropcap]rowing up I spent my summers at Camp Frank A. Day, both as a camper and as a staff member. The 14 summers spent on the shores of Quacumquasitt were some of the best days of my life.
What I loved most about camp was the people. You really got to know people on a deeply personal level. There is something about staying up way too late and being constantly covered in dirt that allows people to truly connect. It’s like the walls we erect to keep people out slowly melt away and all that is left is the real you. Many of the people that I spent those long, beautiful summers with are my closest friends today.
By the end of the Misfit Conference memories of my days deep among the pines would return. I realized how important these experiences are and how few we have as adults.
A Leap Of Faith
The first night of the conference I found myself sitting in a pizzeria in downtown Fargo, ND. I was surprised to see that the place was packed. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. Like most people, I knew nothing about Fargo, other than it was the name of a movie where people spoke in funny accents.
The long tables were completely covered with sheets of paper. Crayons had been randomly placed all over. Clearly, this place was made for me. Across the table from me was Brett from Tennessee, who I knew from the #140conf and SXSW. To his right sat Louise from London. Although I didn’t know her at the time we had been on the same flight to Fargo. Finally to my left sat Weston my room mate for the conference who I had just learned was in the same room as me three years ago at SXSW when we attended the same session.
As we were talking we quickly realized that none of us knew anything about Fargo. We didn’t know any of the speakers and before tonight we didn’t know anyone else who was attending. Strangely, we were all OK with that.
The only person we all knew was AJ Leon, the conference organizer. We had been following him online for some time and it was because of him we were here. Besides AJ the only other thing we had in common was that we were all willing to travel to the middle of nowhere, not knowing anyone else, and take a leap of faith to attend a conference we knew nothing about…
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From the moment I walked into the Ecce Gallery I knew it. I knew AJ had spoiled us and ruined every other conference I would attend this year. The attention to detail was mind blowing.
There was one long table setup for everyone to eat breakfast together. There was french press coffee with the world’s best dark-chocolate croissants, that melted in your mouth. Homemade Greek yogurt with honey and granola. And that was just breakfast…
The other day I tried to explain it to someone. I tried to tell them about the chairs that were restored by local artists. Or how the food was locally sourced. That every bit of the conference was hand-picked and thought-out ahead of time. But I found my description fell short of what I experienced.
Some time ago I learned that the mark of a master is the level of thought and preparation that goes into their art. A level of detail that most people don’t even perceive. They don’t know why it is good, they just know that it is. I think that’s how we all felt.
We often say that the devil is in the details, but I think AJ, his wife Melissa, and their team know that the details are also where the magic happens.
[quote author=”Greg Hartle”]“Success isn’t as meaningful if you don’t give back”[/quote]
Greg’s words still haunt me. He was the last speaker of what can only be considered an all star cast of the most inspirational stories I’d ever heard. After his life had been turned upside down due to a kidney transplant Greg was determined to make a difference. In 2007 he sold everything he owned and set out with only $10 and laptop to his name. Since that time he has traveled to almost all 50 states, started a business in an area he didn’t know and helped over 500 entrepreneurs.
His mandate to give back rings in my ears still. It is burned into my brain, gnawing at my subconscious. The conference is almost over and all I can think about is how can I give back? How can I help these people who have inspired me and connected with me for two days. I am excited and humbled by what these people are doing, work that truly matters.
With the words of Brene Brown fresh on my mind, I stood up in front of the theater. We had just watched the first eight minutes of Identifying Nelson/Buscando a Roberto, a documentary film I am working on. Now it was time for questions. I told myself going into this that I would allow myself to be vulnerable.
“What is it like to be searched for 14 years?”
I struggle to answer this question. I’m overwhelmed as a wave of emotion from never being forgotten comes crashing over me. How can I possibly describe what it meant not to be forgotten? For your grandmother to dedicate her life to finding you? These are not normal questions about the process of making a film. These are deeply personal and spiritual question coming from an audience that was touched by what they just saw. This is confirmed when Tony tells me he has been to the TriBeCa Film Festival and never saw an audience so engaged.
I’m so thankful to AJ for arranging this screening. One thing I have learned over the years is that there is a difference between telling someone your story, and having them experience it. This group of Misfits now rallies to support my efforts. I am truly humbled.
I sit back down as the second film Lemonade, made by my friend and fellow misfit Erik Proulx, starts to play. Now I know what Brene meant when she said “vulnerability hangover.” I just bared my soul to a group of strangers and they received me with open arms. I need a second to compose myself…
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Maybe there was something in the water. Maybe it was an incredible array of speakers. Maybe it was the Midwestern friendliness. Whatever it was, this “conference” was unlike anything I have ever attended. Never have I been to an event that had such a profound impact on both “speaker” and “attendee.” The truth is that there was no difference. Everyone who attended was a bonafide Misfit in one way or another.
Everyone was so supportive and actually cared what you were working on. They were there and engaged, and in turn, you were engaged with them. You were inspired by them and them by you. You wanted to help them, you were compelled to help.
I think Srini said it best:
[quote author=”Srinivas Roa”]“Most conferences I leave with business cards, this conference I left with friends.”[/quote]
Perhaps this all sounds too “touchy feely”, too therapeutic. Maybe it was, but I think we need more events like this in our lives. It’s been 10 years since I spent a summer at camp and until Fargo, I had not experienced anything that could compare.
My time as an “adult” has been filled with meeting people, but rarely connecting like I did at camp. As adults we are scared. Scared to open up. Scared of what the other person might say or think of us. We need places like Fargo, and Camp Day to allow us to connect, grow, and to be… ourselves.
Thank you AJ, Melissa, and to rest of the team for throwing such an amazing event. Thank you to all the speakers for sharing your insights and pushing us to live life with intention. And to all of my new friends, I will miss you and the time we spent together. Please keep in touch. I look forward to all the amazing things this group will do.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] noticed something recently. People, for the most part, don’t share their friends’ “work.” By work I don’t mean 9-to-5 day job type stuff, I mean their passion projects. I feel like most people only share articles, pictures, and videos from well-established websites. I guess these are “safe to share” because they are popular and are coming from trusted sources. But why don’t we promote our friends more?
I’ve launched quite a few projects and the lack of reaction can be incredibly difficult to deal with emotionally. You spend months pouring your heart and soul into a project. Then you launch it to the world and nothing really happens… Maybe a few people like it, and you might get a comment but that’s about it.
I’m not expecting my friends will like everything I do. My ideas might not even be that good. What I find interesting is this:
Friends will tell me offline how much something I did meant to them, but online I get little or no reaction.
Why is that?
I’ve never directly asked my friends about this, but I find it strange. To me, talking in person about a project is similar to commenting on it online. The only real difference I can see is that talking offline can be little more private.
Perhaps it has to do with culture. In the tech, geek, and social media, circles it is common to promote other people’s work. I always see people posting something like “check out this amazing project my friend is doing!” People are constantly sharing projects, posts or ideas that move them. But outside these groups, I don’t see much of that going on.
Maybe it’s because people outside of the tech space don’t understand the importance of a share or like. It acts as a form of promotion. Every time you share or comment on a friend’s work, you are letting other people know this is something worth paying attention to.
Sharing and commenting also validates the creator and their work. When you launch something into the world you can feel incredibly vulnerable and knowing that someone, anyone, cares is comforting.
Yes, you can always support your friend in person (and you should), but this doesn’t spread their idea to other people. We live in an attention economy where ideas that spread win. So if you want your friend to succeed, you should support them, and share their work.
In the spirit of this post here is some cool stuff my friends are doing:
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hroughout my life, I have failed. I have failed so many times, in so many different ways. Often, it seemed like the things that I struggled with came so easily to others.
There can be immense pressure to succeed. To live up to the expectations of others and ourselves. Whenever something doesn’t work, or we think it might not work, we create anxiety and stress about being labeled as a failure.
For most of my life, I lived with that label. Dwelling on my failures and replaying every mistake in agonizing detail. What a fool I had been. How stupid was I. The fear of failure was so great that I hid, scared to take risks because that might lead to yet another disappointment. Despite all the heartache and self-doubt I never gave up. Not because I was brave or fearless, but because doing so meant giving up on life.Eventually, I began to realize that my failures do not define me, they make me stronger. That our failures do not make us a failure. That to fail is to be human and to feel the pain of failure is to be alive. Only by letting go of the pain are we able to take pride in our efforts, even if they do not result in the outcome we are hoping for.
Eventually, I began to realize that my failures do not define me, they make me stronger. That our failures do not make us a failure. That to fail is to be human and to feel the pain of failure is to be alive. Only by letting go of the pain are we able to take pride in our efforts, even if they do not result in the outcome we are hoping for.
I’m sharing this because I want you to know that we all struggle, that this is part of life, and to say… you are not a failure.