Janika Dillon | Interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Janika Dillon holds a Masters degree in Organizational Behavior and International Development, and worked in Executive Education prior to staying home full-time with her four young children.  You can read her previous guest post ‘Taking a Stay-Cation' and full bio here.

One of the dreams that Janika is currently ‘dating' is pursuing a PhD in History.  This “has translated into reading many historical books, researching History PhD programs, contacting students and professors in the field, attending lectures on historical topics, and even mapping out a possible time line to completion of the degree.”

She continues, “One person that I wanted to learn from was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History and other awards for her book A Midwife's Tale, a Harvard professor of history and author of several other fascinating books about women in history, including the more recently published Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.

A few days before my September 2008 meeting (yes — asking to interview Laurel Ulrich took some daring), I mentioned the upcoming meet to a friend who promptly exclaimed, “Oh, she's my hero!”  I agreed wholeheartedly.   As you'll read below, Laurel Ulrich managed to raise a family and excel at her academic interests.  My thanks to her for sharing her time and wisdom with us.”

Janika:  Your life's work has been to study the daily lives of women in history. What do you think is the benefit to women today in looking back?  What can we learn from these women in history?

Ladies de pizanLaurel:  I think the biggest benefit is exemplified by Christine de Pizan in The Book of the City of Ladies written in 1405.  She wrote, “There is nothing in the world that women can't do.”

We have the notion sometimes that women's lives have been uniform and unchanging over time.  What's so interesting in Christine's book is the variety of things women have done.  They've invented things, been leaders, been good at gardening, religious heroines. They've been queens.  She's got something for everybody in that book!

It's a very, very simple lesson that I think has been lost.  There's a classic narrative that “Women have been confined to the home and then maybe 20 years ago there was a woman's movement and all these opportunities opened up.  Or conversely, all these terrible things started to happen”, depending on your point of view.  If you look at the long view, women have always contributed to the economy of their society — always!

Janika: What were some of the obstacles you faced in becoming the kind of writer you wanted to become?

Laurel:  Time.  Finding time to write and forcing myself to use the small amounts of time that I had.  I remember when I was doing Beginner's Boston, a guide to the Boston area.  When my kids went down for a nap, I had to choose between trying to write or taking a nap myself.  It was a hard choice.  It was so easy to let all the demands take over.  Kind of like that Steve Covey thing about the urgent and the important.  The urgent always pushes out the important.  Then I would sit down and the words would come so slowly because I was out of practice and I didn't know how to write what I wanted to say.  It was a real challenge to get one sentence written.

Midwife's taleI continue to face this same challenge every day of my life:  shall I sit down and be miserable for a little while until I
can make it work or not?  Writing is very, very hard, and it has to happen daily, inch by inch, sentence by sentence. It's hard to produce more than one paragraph a day.  Sometimes I let my students see my really rotten initial drafts.  It's comforting for them to realize, “Oh, she has trouble too!”

Janika:  Who helped you along this path and what kind of help did you need?

Laurel: The #1 help and support has been my husband.  He thought my interests were great and he often recognized better than I did what really made me happy.  He was also a great practical help through the years by doing his share with the children and being a good dad and then he had a good income.  Let's face it!  That helped.  I didn't have to work for money.  My first paying job was when I was in my 40s.

Second to my husband was my network of Latter-day Saint women.  Very important.  My good, supportive friends in the Boston area and New Hampshire.  I mean, I had friends who believed in me.

Laurel Ulrich Janika Dillon

Janika:  So, how did your kids fit into the picture?

Laurel: My kids were good.  My kids grew up with me boiling things over and destroying pots and they joke about my absentmindedness.  They were good sports.  I did my graduate degrees one course at a time.  My oldest was in elementary school when I began and he was in college when I finished.  It was a long process.  I got my bachelor's degree in 1960, my master's degree in 1971 and my PhD in 1980, when I was 42.  My oldest child was 15 years older than my youngest.

Janika:  I think it would be interesting for Whitney's readers to know, did you ever dream you'd go from a small-town Idaho upbringing to Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor at Harvard?   And what advice might you have for women pursuing their dreams?

Laurel:  Well, first, No–I never imagined that I'd be doing the kind of work that I'm doing now or be in the place that I'm now in.  So, I didn't plan my life.

Well Behaved Ulrich The advice I'd give people is that old cliche “Blossom where you're planted.”  That is, do whatever you do wholeheartedly and with joy: the joy really is in the doing.  I don't think we can expect or plan or attempt to win the prizes.  What I attempted to do was write with passion and in a way that would be accessible to other people.  I didn't ever want to just write books for other historians.   So I've worked hard to write in an accessible way.

I really didn't think I had achieved that with A Midwife's Tale so it was a surprise to me that it had the kind of success it did.  But, it was a joy to do.  I loved working on that book.  It was a transforming experience, really.  This may be a conventional insight, but it really is the doing that's fun!  The fifteen minutes of fame are exciting, but that's not what sustains any of us.

It's kind of like my husband, who likes to build things and I always want to see it get finished.  But I am gradually starting to realize that what he enjoys is the doing.  That's a really good lesson because if you don't enjoy the small pieces of whatever it is that your job is, you're probably not going to enjoy the end product when you get there.  I've heard that the best predictor of happiness in the future is enjoying what you are doing right now.


First off, ‘Atta Girl' Janika for reaching out to Laurel (that really did take some daring, as it always does with someone that we admire) — and for spending the time to transcribe the interview!

What have you learned from this interview?

Were you surprised to read about Christine de Pizan's findings?

As I read Laurel's remark that it's important to enjoy the small pieces of a job, I couldn't help but think of Bonnie White's Delight in the Doing, Christine Vick's Simply Living and Lisle Hendrickson's What Makes Me Happy.

Who would you like to learn about and from?  What if you were to contact and ask for the interview?  Even if they say ‘no' — what a victory it will be to ask for what you want.  (I did that this week.  No response, but I asked).  If she says yes, and you would like to publish excerpts from the interview here, we'd love to learn!

For a transcript of Janika's conversation with Laurel Ulrich, click here.

Lisle Hendrickson | What Makes Me Happy

For this post, I asked Lisle what makes her happy and to then collect images that visually capture the why of her happiness.  Make sure you read all the way to #14 – her discussion of Wyoming is quite lovely — 

I was born on my mother's bed in Santa Ana, CA, the third of eight children.  It had the potential to be an embarrassing situation, but thankfully I was busy enough that I didn't care.  I went to Ricks College, then to Weber State University, where I met my husband and then finished my degree (BA in English).  I have four children, no marketable skills, and I spend all my “free” time driving, planning youth activities for church, and pretending I can manage my time well enough to have a creative hobby.

Without further ado, here's what makes me happy:


1.  My Family — I suppose it's obvious, because everyone loves my family (and their own!).  I like being with people who have the same sense of humor that I do, and that think I'm funny.   I also take enormous pride in the fact that my kids can do a lot of things on their own, and I marvel at all the traits that didn't come from me.  They're really good at lots of stuff!  And Husband?  He can do all sorts of stuff I can't, like car fixing and computer stuff, and wiring the house…

Hendrickson Nauvoo

2.  Good hair days — Silly as it is, a good hair day makes me feel special, like receiving a little gift “just because.”

3.  My bluetooth headset — I love being able to have a conversation without my arm getting tired!  Plus, I talk to my sister all the time, and it's fun to test the limits of the batteries.  I'm on my 5th headset…

4.  Reading a really good story — I grew up with my head in a book, and only pulled it out for special occasions, reading all the Nancy Drew books, then the Hardy Boys series, and then the Bobbsey Twins.   The result of this was that my childhood memories are a little out of sync with the rest of my siblings (“I don't remember that…  Are you sure it happened that way?  Where was I when that happened?)

I have this brilliant ability (disability?) where I can turn off all of the anticipatory senses in my brain.  I love to just let the story unfold without making any guesses as to what's going to happen.  A story that unfolds quickly is the best, since I have a ridiculously short attention span, and the unexpected twist at the end usually turns out to be just that–unexpected.  It's a joy!


Source:  istockphoto

5.  Service — I know it's a little cliche, but when I'm worried about doing for someone else, I don't worry about me.  And that's the best thing I can do some days.

6.  The smell and feel of a really good wool or fabric — I'd probably have to lump them in with office supplies, for the reason that they are the things I use to create stuff.  I don't make things that are grand, or professional, or even always good, but it pleases me to no end to be able to have the goods to make “anything” and “something.”  I guess I smell potential!


Source:  istockphoto

7.  Church — I like the frequent reinforcement of the knowledge deep in my soul that my Heavenly Father loves me.

8.  Playing in the dirt — It's a plus if things actually grow well – this makes me feel like I can do something productive and profitable for my family.  It's a long process, but harvesting vegetables grown in my garden at the end of the summer isa treat!


  Source:  istockphoto

9.  Not having to be the driver of the car — It feels so unproductive to me, and my frustration increases with the number of people paying attention to my driving.  I'm not a bad driver, but I don't like being under the microscope when husband is sitting next to me.

10.  Snoring babies – There isn't anything sweeter!  They smell good, and it's probably the most relaxing white noise ever created.


Source: istockphoto

11.  Having my own ideas work out – Some things I'm really good at–spatial relationships are easy.  I can pack more stuff into a moving van or car trunk or suitcase than you'd think would fit.  Unfortunately, I have a tendency to fill all of those things right to the brim.  It's like a big puzzle; fun to do because there's a solution.  I don't always think through to the end, though, so I often find myself off on an adventure that can't end well, because I missed a crucial step in the planning process.

12.  Yoga – Makes me feel strong, and limber, so that I can do anything, and do it without ever losing my center.


Source:  istockphoto

13.  Jack Black movies — I never wanted to be a fan of Jack Black, because current comedians have a real tendency to be “funny” about things that aren't, like sex.  Jack Black's films have spots that tend toward the vulgar, and sometimes the language isn't lovely, but by the end of the movie, you just love his character.

He's always some slightly goofy guy who's not quite in the same place as everyone else, and through all his silliness and perseverance, he brings everyone else in the movie around to his way of thinking and they all join in to help him achieve his goal.  His goal, of course, is usually something that helps people, something lofty and community-based.  So, in the end, you see that his disconnectedness and his unrealistic view of his place in the world work to his advantage, and that in turn changes the world around him.

Could we all be Nacho Libre and save an orphanage?  Would you want to remake a whole video store full of movies to save your neighborhood?  Can I be that positive all the time, even when my friends are telling me that I'm wrong and that I'll never make it? Maybe.  Maybe not.  But, wouldn't we all love someone to rally around, even if they're a little goofy?


Source:  People Magazine

14. Wyoming — It's difficult to articulate my love of Wyoming.  Wyoming seems overlooked somehow.  Oh sure, everyone knows there's Jackson Hole: Classic pretty with trees and mountains and celebrities, but that's not where I spend my time.

The big part of Wyoming is everything else, and that's what I love.  It's a great big desert state with hardly any people.  There are antelope, rodeos, windmills and high winds, horrible winter storms, hot dry summers, and big long stretches of freeway so straight and monotonous that you could just fall right asleep at any moment.

I still love it.  It's all brown and green with blue skies and clouds.  There's Farson, a town that is literally just an intersection, only a dot on the map.  They have a real soda fountain in the general store.  And Rip Griffin's Texaco, which is big and has I-don't-know-how-many gas pumps and a huge gift shop inside and showers for truckers!  Little America, home of the best serve-your-own ice cream cone in the state and really nice bathrooms.  Good fireworks aren't illegal there.  None of this is travel literature that makes you itch to see it.  But if you take a few minutes off the side of the freeway and really look, you see this whole other world.


Source:  istockphoto

Wyoming has people, but not too many.  It's stark, but It's not pristine; you can take a side road and see where people have been, but the people who came didn't change it.  There are ruts made from wagon wheels 150+ years ago, that nobody ever filled in or made into something else.  There are windbreaks, and snow fences, and wire fencing to keep cattle from wandering too far.  There aren't obvious signs of huge irrigation projects.

There is just space, and the face of things as they are now.  Like wrinkles, maybe: laugh lines and crow's feet upon the land.  Wyoming is aging gracefully.   Wyoming didn't spend its youth trying to convince you it was cool, it just did what it needed to do.  It took a different path than the surrounding states, did what it was designed to do,  and it's proud of that.  It doesn't care if you don't love it; it only changes when it wants to.  You don't have to want to be there, you don't have to stay.

If you want to visit, Wyoming welcomes you.  Hmmm…Maybe I do know why I love Wyoming.  I think it's my idol.  I want to be Wyoming when I grow up.


The foolish

[woman] seeks happiness in the distance, the wise just under [her feet].  James Oppenheim (via Melanie Mauer)

If we spend time each day doing things we love to do (noting what we have loved in the moment), we will have likely assembled the key ingredients of our dream a la Christine Vick's approach.  And thanks to Emily Anthon for the ‘Here's to Happiness' idea.

If we list competencies, instead of kitchen contents, can we in a SuperCook-like way determine yummy life recipes? You may also want to take a look at Pam Slim's post Are you Ingredients Looking for a Recipe.

What makes you happy?

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