“Not all those who wander are lost.”— J.R.R. Tolkien
The only way I know to become acquainted with a city is to wander its streets by myself. Though I always start out with a destination in mind, I often choose to veer off course, taking detours or following alleyways that seem to beckon. Given my poor sense of direction, I do arrive in some unexpected places on occasion. But I never consider myself lost.
I don’t do as much wandering these days as I did when I was younger. However, a recent trip to Dublin gave me the nudge I needed to change that and I was reminded how priceless it is to explore a new city for the first time.
I have two pairs of pink crocs in my closet. One pair is mine. One belongs to one of my closest friends. I have my friend’s pair because I brought them home with me last year when I returned from her memorial service. She died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 48. But I still think of the shoes as hers, not mine.
A fellow walker saw our feet sticking out of our tent together and said, “I see a cute picture!” Grateful she took it for us.
I don’t know why I wanted her shoes. I just did. She’d bought us matching pairs in 2007 when we walked the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day together in Boston, her hometown. They were to be respite for our feet at the end of 20 miles walking each day. That year marked her fifth year cancer-free from when she was first diagnosed. We wanted to celebrate, but even more so we wanted to honor the occasion with an act of endurance, strength and perseverance. Walking 60 miles in three days and raising money for a cure for breast cancer seemed like just the right thing to do.
When I first got home with her shoes, I tried them on. They still had remnants of sand in them from Martha’s Vineyard, one of her happy places and where she’d been just a month before she died. I took the crocs off as soon as I’d put them on. I didn’t belong in her shoes. Yet, having them side by side with my own pink crocs has been a secret comfort in the months since she passed away.
The news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday rattled me. I guess it rattled us all, as senseless, tragic and heartbreaking acts always do. Out of longstanding habit, I had the urge all Monday afternoon to text my friend. We would have traded notes and shared our shock. I would have sought reassurance that she and her family were alright. I felt her absence even more keenly than usual, and was deeply saddened as I thought about how many families would be shaken by trauma and loss from the bombings.
I have spent a fair amount of time in Boston over the years, both before and after the 3-Day Walk, and have always been fond of the city. I’ve collected a lot of good memories there. But covering 60 miles on foot through its streets and communities put it right smack dab in the center of my heart in a way that was altogether more personal and permanent. From the police officers in every town who didn’t just provide logistical support but smiled with kind words, their own stories, funny jokes and moral support, to the throngs of cheering crowds along the route, there’s just something special about Boston. I’ve walked the 3-Day two more times since in my own hometown and I mean no offense whatsoever to the Twin Cities, but no one cheers like Bostonians. It makes me think that the hearty, New England, patriot soul of the city gives its inhabitants an especially deep reverence for acts of endurance, strength and perseverance.
In my sadness on Monday evening, I happened to see the pink crocs in my closet. Just seeing them made me feel comforted, so I decided to put them on. I grabbed what I thought were mine, yet when I tried to slip into them, I realized I’d gotten two left shoes. I pulled out the remaining two thinking I could quickly sort out which was which. I remembered my friend’s shoes as having been far less scuffed and worn than my own and, of course, there was the tell-tale sand that would be definitive proof. Yet, turning the shoes over and over, I couldn’t tell which pair was which. Both are the same size and though the particulars of the scuffs were different, the amount of wear was just the same. The Martha’s Vineyard sand must have long since migrated to my closet floor.
Interestingly, instead of feeling sad, I was actually even more comforted by the fact that our shoes were now indistinguishable. I put on a left and a right and hoped that by luck I had chosen one of each of our pairs.
At the close of each 3-Day, there is a tradition that all walkers who have not been through cancer to take off a shoe and kneel in salute as those walkers who have been through cancer march into the event’s closing ceremonies. It is a small and symbolic way to honor the endurance, strength and perseverance of those who have been through the disease. Each time I have been a part of this ceremony, I have been moved to tears. But the one I remember most and hold closest to my heart was that first time in Boston.
So, Boston, I hope you can see me. Just like in the faded clipping I saved from the font page of The Globe six years ago, I am kneeling on the ground and raising one pink croc high in air, waving it proudly for you in salute and solidarity. We’re all in this together.
I’ve read that the average four-year-old laughs about 300 times a day. By the time we hit 40, our daily laugh quotient goes down to four. Did you know there’s actually a science of studying laughter? It’s called Gelotology. If it were my job to study laughter, would I still find it funny? Or would I be the jolliest person around?
The other day I was testing new audio software and needed some sound files in order to experiment. Instead of pulling clips from my archives, I started surfing my favorite site for free sounds, which is appropriately called freesound. One thing led to another and pretty soon I was engrossed in listening to clips of people laughing. Why not make my software test a thoroughly happy experience, I reasoned.
As I listened to all the laughs, I found a lot of fake ones and a lot of sinister ones. “Evil laugh” is a popular theme. But when I stumbled across ones with genuine laughter, the gut-busting variety, I couldn’t help but laugh myself. I didn’t need to hear a joke or even know why these people were laughing. Authentic laughter made me laugh. We’ve all had that experience, I’m sure. The Gelotologists probably have a fancy word for it. I just call it contagious laughter.
Science tells us that laughter triggers endorphins, promotes social bonding, reduces pain, and causes us to breathe in more oxygen— all of which make us feel better. And I only scratched the surface of the laughter literature to uncover these findings. Yet, I really didn’t need any studies at all to tell me that laughter makes me feel good. In fact, of all the sounds in the world, laughter might be my favorite.
I wrote once about My Grandfather’s Laugh. I have a collection of old family recordings and could easily listen to him speak for hours on these tapes, luxuriating in the deep timbre of his voice and the cadence of his southern accent. Yet it only takes a few seconds of hearing his laughter to conjure the full essence of him. When I hear him laugh, it’s like he’s right beside me again. [If you’re curious, you can hear a clip of his voice and laugh in the post.] It seems to me, that good-spirited laughter touches the essence of us all.
At the end of my software experiment, I had a 47-second laugh track in which I’d woven together three separate recordings of women laughing real laughs. They are hearing something we cannot. We are left to wonder what is being said in their headphones to cause such riotous guffaws. Further, the three tracks were recorded independently, so the women are not actually laughing in response to one another or even to hearing the same things. I simply put together all the laughs I liked best, my own little symphony.
Of course, this leads to only one logical conclusion. You should stop whatever you are doing right this minute and laugh. Just laugh. We might not be able to match the average four-year-old in laughing 300 times a day, but we can try, can’t we?
In case the audio player embedded in the story will not play on your device, click laughter to hear it.
Photo and sound credits: Girl laughing via Flickr by tom@hk; laugh tracks from freesound.org recorded by sagetyrtle.
Every song has a story. But sometimes you don’t know the full story until the song itself shows you. Even if you wrote the song yourself.
Long plagued by stage fright when it comes to singing, I was preparing to do so for the first time in front of an audience for an evening of my own songs and stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of speaking to an audience; I love that part. It’s the singing that makes me feel vulnerable.
As I practiced and prepared, I kept picturing myself as the American Idol contestant who warbles embarrassingly off-key as the judges fidget. Every vulnerability I’d ever felt seemed to be right on the surface of my skin. Yet, as I was fending off my inner demons, I found a song forming in my mind that became a lifeline out of the turmoil. Actually, it felt more like a secret mantra; a mere five lines that gave me enormous comfort and calm.
One of my closest friends, who knew me well enough to realize how challenging this first public singing performance would feel for me, asked if she could fly out from her home in Boston to mine in Minneapolis to attend. “If it makes you more nervous, I won’t come,” she said. “Please come,” I replied.
The morning of the performance, I sang this new song for her. Simple, a capella. It was much too new to add to my set list, but I truly believed it had come to me so that I’d feel the confidence and courage I needed in order to sing for people that evening. What I didn’t know yet was that it would be several more years before I would realize the song’s true purpose: it was meant to be a lullaby for my friend.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time, we all assumed she would undergo treatment and put the disease behind her again. The day after she learned the diagnosis was terminal, she told me she’d had a sleepless night. She lay awake, she said, and envisioned every possible outcome— from the one where she would defy the odds and live to be 100 to the one where I would sing “Where the Angels Live” at her memorial service.
I came to see her when she returned home from the hospital for the last time and began hospice care. The time between her diagnosis and this visit was shorter than any of us would have liked. And that’s the biggest understatement I’ve ever made. But the time was also filled with heart-rending moments of grace, of touching poignancy, of riotous laughter, of honesty and, most of all, love.
She told me a few months before she died that she was “banking memories” for herself and for everyone she loved, consciously making time for moments together that would sustain her and the rest of us through her passing. She was filling the well, she said.
I did sing for her at her memorial service. And I brought my oldest child, her goddaughter, to sing with me. The song deserved harmonies. My ukulele was the simple accompaniment, though I was fairly certain that the people in the back of the church might not even hear it. The important part, I knew, was the voices.
I told the overflowing crowd of her family, friends and colleagues that we all had a job to do together. And then I shared the promise that I had made to her. The night before I left her for the last time, she had wanted to discuss her memorial service. I promised her again that I would sing, but told her that I also planned to ask everyone sing with me. In singing together, I’d said, we’d not only help ourselves begin to heal but our voices in unison would lift the song to the high heavens as a lullaby for her.
On a fall day that began with rain and ended with the sun peeking out from the clouds, in a quaint New England church, I kept my promise to my friend. And, in doing so, I realized the true purpose of my song. I felt it in my bones. I knew it in my heart. I heard it in all the voices that joined together to sing with my daughter and me. The well is deep; there is no limit to love.
∞ ∞ ∞
Where the Angels Live
Can you feel the space between heartbeat and breath?
Click this link for the audio version of the narrative, if you’d like to hear the story told, rather than read it.
Though I recorded a version of “Where the Angels Live” in studio with full piano and guitar accompaniment, I felt it was important to also create the simple, spare lullaby version that my daughter and I sang at my friend’s memorial service. Recorded at home, I paired the song with nature photographs by J. Marion Brown in a video to honor the memory of my dear friend.
The Elizabeth Alling Sewall Endowment Fund was established at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute to support research to help find a cure for breast cancer. If you’d like to learn more about this worthy cause, please visit this site, which also tells more about Elizabeth’s life.
It’s never too late to start; it’s never too early to begin.
One of my closest friends is living with terminal cancer. I selected the verb very consciously here, and “living” is exactly what I mean. As we talked the other day about the latest developments in her treatment plan, she said, “I no longer look at this as a journey or a battle. I am simply living my life.”
My friendship with Elizabeth has been a long and beautiful dance of conversation, back and forth, between the two of us. We both love words. We choose them carefully and aren’t afraid to use them to the fullest extent needed. But we don’t toss them around lightly, either. In high school, my parents used to say that we talked so fast they could hardly understand us. We’ve never been at a loss for things to say to one another. Yet, we are also very comfortable sharing silence.
Early on, we dubbed our most cherished conversations as “1:00 a.m. chats,” named after the hour at which we seemed to get to the root of whatever story, fear, hope or secret most needed sharing. Over our 31 years of friendship, I couldn’t even begin to guess how many of these chats we’ve had.
We live 1,424 miles apart now (yes, I checked on google maps), making our face to face conversations far less frequent than in our younger years when we were just down the road from one another. We do visit periodically, but in the interim we are adept at substituting phone and text messages to keep our conversation ever present. When Elizabeth learned last year that her cancer had metastasized, those texts and phone calls began to feel like a life line. We have chatted during blood transfusions and chemo. We have texted during pedicures and our kids’ sporting events.
Not too long ago, we met in Northern California for a weekend away together. The small house we rented had a lovely deck with a hot tub overlooking a beautiful olive orchard. Each night after dinner, we sat in the hot tub watching the moon rise and talking. On our last night, we turned on a digital recorder and let it run as we talked. Back and forth, with candor and laughter, we narrated the story of how we met— the history of our friendship— for our kids, we said, but in truth mostly for ourselves.
Meandering, as we always do, to wherever the conversation leads us, Elizabeth began to tell me of a recent morning when her husband was getting up before sunrise to hike a trail in the Blue Hills near their home in Massachusetts. Tired, she was just about to wish him a happy hike when she changed her mind and decided to join him. She told me the sunrise had been gorgeous that morning and the moment with her husband at the trail’s summit an irreplaceable memory now, both for her and for him. She looked at me incredulously and said, “Why did I even think twice before deciding to go? Why would I want to miss that moment?”
In the dance of conversation, Elizabeth had unearthed an important question, and we both knew it. Why miss the moment? We actually repeated it several times as we sat in the hot tub, as if imprinting it on our brains. After all, it’s not easy to break habits of routine or responsibility. So we said it to one another almost like a chant: “Why miss the moment? Why miss the moment?” Under the full moon and star-filled sky, everything seemed so obvious and clear.
It’s never too late to start; it’s never too early to begin. So why miss the moment?
When my mind is in tangles, I walk. Sometimes it seems that there can’t possibly be enough miles in front of me to sort through the cobwebs, the demons of doubt, the frustrations or sadness or fear that sent me to the trail in the first place. Pounding the earth with my feet, I envision myself physically hammering out the swirls and tangles and figuring out the feelings that won’t easily give themselves up for understanding.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not always a grumpy walker. Many days when I hit the trail, my feet feel like they are floating above the earth, like I am gliding effortlessly across the landscape. On these days, my heart does a happy dance with every step. Akin to a “runner’s high,” I would have never thought this state was achievable through walking. But here I am, a former runner, and an now an avowed walking addict.
I’d have to check my baby book to find out exactly when I literally started walking, but I feel like I only started truly walking in earnest– as a practice of meditation and awareness, as much as an exercise– back in 2007 when I was training for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk for the Cure for the first time. I didn’t want to be under-prepared for the 20 miles a day of walking, so I over-prepared instead. If you follow the suggested 24 week training plan, you walk 585 miles to prepare yourself. I added at least a few extra for good measure. If you then count the 60 miles you log at the actual event, you have put in 645 miles of trail time in a 6-month period.
Walking is kinder and gentler on my joints than running, but obviously, the downside is that it takes much longer to walk ten miles than to run them. Yet, as I have gotten deeper and deeper into the practice, the time seems to work in my favor, forcing me to settle and calm into a steady, intentional rhythm. I know I’ve found it when my gait begins to have the same easy feeling of comfort that I have when I’m rocking on a porch swing, as if I could go forever. And in losing myself to this rhythm, I find myself more aware of everything around me, which in turn seems to magically loosen the knots in my mind, at least to some degree.
Once I start noticing things, I can’t stop. I never know what first will catch my attention and take me away from myself. Sometimes it’s a long wait. But eventually, it happens. Sunlight, shadow, dragonflies, chirping birds, irises in bloom that remind me of my grandmother, lilypads on water, geese with their goslings, the smell of lilacs. I know I’ve achieved walking nirvana when even ordinary weeds seem to leap out at me as if an emblem of ultimate beauty.
Forgive me for possibly seeming to portray walking as a panacea for all ills. No, it can’t fix everything. And while it happens to be my passion, it may not be for the next person. But my theory is that we all have something that will have this effect on us, if we let it find us.
Sometimes it seems like there aren’t enough miles in front of me to sort out my tangles. But almost always, by the time I finish, it seems like there were just enough.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Huge thanks to Steve Kaul & The Brass Kings, for permission to use “Big Jim’s Blues” from their new CD “Machine” as the soundtrack to this story.
“Healthy people base their lives on healing, authentic stories. Empowerment comes through the process of telling those stories.” — Theologian Matthew Fox
The keepers and tellers of our stories are precious people. We all do it to some degree, I think, even if we don’t realize it. And as Matthew Fox points out, the pay off for telling stories– healing, authentic stories– is not just a brief interlude of good entertainment, but rather an experience of empowerment, if we allow it to be. I’d like to tell you a story about a storyteller who understand this idea inside and out. In fact, he lives and breathes the idea daily. His name is Charles Hale and he shares his work at Stories Connect Love Heals.
A voracious reader of anything New York and its history, Charlie is just as often pouring over an edition of The New York Times from the 1800’s as he is today’s news. He scours any record he can find in search of details about his ancestors, Irish immigrants who settled in New York City and worked hard to build a life there, yet left behind precious little in the way of letters, photographs and evidence of their lives. Without these kinds of personal artifacts to help him know and understand his grandparents, great grandparents and great greats, Charlie uses bits and pieces of historical records, often finding only tiny shards at a time, and weaves them together with a discerning eye and a compassionate heart in a way that brings past generations to life again.
Charlie has a name for his work. He calls it “breathing of an ancestor’s space and time.” I get goosebumps every time I hear him say it. No small feat, Charlie actually manages to put us in the shoes of his ancestors. Literally. He has been known to retrace the steps that his great grandparents must have taken in traveling from home to work. He researches what the weather was like on the day of a particular event he’s unearthed. He finds out what buildings existed at the time so that he’ll know what his ancestors would have passed by as they walked. He learns what headlines they would have read in the morning paper. By the time Charlie is finished with his story, I most certainly do feel as though I am breathing with his ancestors in their space and time. I can practically smell the coffee that was at their breakfast table.
In a recent conversation, I asked Charlie about his passion for storytelling and where it comes from. To answer my question, he told me of an exercise he’d once done to find the one word that describes him best. After a lengthy process of elimination, comparing words and honing down to the ones that felt the most true to who he is, he came at last to a single word: connection. And stories, he said, connect us. “When you tell a good story, if you tell it well, the other person can get into your space and share a moment with you. When we share a moment together, we literally breathe of each other’s space and time. And when we breathe of each other’s space and time, we create community.”
Excerpts from our conversation form the storyline of this video. At one point I thought I might provide a voice-over narrative to tell Charlie’s story. But in the editing, I found that Charlie’s voice and words tell his story best. So I offer you a moment to share from our chat– and a chance to breathe of Charlie’s space and time.
*Huge thanks to author Jean Raffa for bringing the Matthew Fox quote to my attention. I highly recommend her blog, Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom, as a thoughtful, thought-provoking place to visit.
**On a musical note, the piano composition in this video was graciously created by Barbara McAfee, http://barbaramcafee.com
When I was four years old, I asked everyone to call me “Cowboy Bob.” I can hear myself pausing indignantly and growling, “Don’t call me Lucy. Call me Cowboy Bob.” I cannot recall how long this phase lasted, what prompted it to start nor what caused it to end, but when I think of this era in my life, I smile.
About the same time, perhaps a year or so later, I received a gift from my parents– a ukulele. What I really wanted was a guitar and, in all honesty, I was offended by this toy-ish instrument. Didn’t they take me seriously? Didn’t they know I was ready for the real thing? I was almost six, and in my mind I was an adult already. I don’t know if Cowboy Bob and the ukulele are linked, but somehow I feel they are.
In the 40 or so years that have passed since then, my musical life took a lot of twists and turns but never took off. I begged for piano lessons. Got piano lessons. Begged to quit piano lessons. Quit. I got a guitar. Took lessons. Never practiced. Quit. And at some point, I put away all instruments for a long time.
Somewhere in my 30’s, the guitar called to me. I picked it up and this time I didn’t quit. I don’t have the soul of a virtuoso, nor the patience to practice enough to truly master an instrument, but I found out why I was so drawn to these instruments and to music. An unknown, untrained place deep in a corner of my heart told me I that I needed to put my stories to music to save them, to savor them, to share the beautiful truths that lived in them.
I bought a ukulele and started playing it again. It felt so at home in my hands, like it belonged there, like it was always supposed to be there. Why on earth had I ever put it down?
Recently, I was looking on ebay at vintage ukuleles– old instruments with dings and nicks and personality. I wasn’t looking for a fancy or expensive instrument, but one that had a history in it. When I came across a uke with the Harmony logo on it, I recognized it instantly and realized I already had what I was looking for. It was on a shelf at my parent’s house.
One phone call to my mother, a few days of waiting, a UPS delivery, and voila! My old ukulele was back in my hands. I put new strings on immediately and tightened the sticky tuning gears to get them hold a tune. I admired the nicks and dings in the uke’s body, history that I had put there myself.
Almost immediately, the ukulele began to show me a song. It was about coming home and about being welcomed back; about what we toss away and what we carry forward; about what makes us leave and what causes us to return. Most of all, it was about the “knowing” that is always with us but that sometimes takes a long time to learn.
Looking back, I realize that Cowboy Bob had an important piece of wisdom for me that I knew all along and yet had missed at the same time. The cowboy in me was saying loud and clear: “Take me seriously. Listen to me. I have something to say!”
I had tossed aside the ukulele because I misjudged it, underestimated it, didn’t think it was big enough or serious enough to hold all my intentions, my ambitions. And yet, many years later, I found it was the only instrument I ever needed.
I am a pack-rat of the highest order. I save everything. Well, not everything. I save memories. Photographs, letters, old cassette tapes with recordings of friends and family, and ancient family movies. But the problem is that if you save everything, you sometimes can’t find what you need when you need it.
For months I had been thinking about an old cassette tape that my father recorded for me on the weekend of my graduation from high school. While I was out at parties with my friends, my father recorded messages from family members visiting for my graduation. What I remember most from that tape is my grandfather’s laugh. I kept replaying the tape in my mind, but I desperately wanted to find the real thing.
My grandfather, Forrest Lee Mathews, was a booming presence, someone who was prone to taking people by surprise when he spoke. He said exactly what he thought—no mincing words. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a down-to-earth eye on the world. Every time I listened to the tape, I could feel the delicious tension in the room when my father asked his father to record a message for me. My grandmothers had just delivered their messages, short and sweet, and while I cherish the sound of their voices on that tape, I can hear their discomfort at being recorded. “Lucy, we are so proud of you,” said one. “We are so happy to be here, Lucy,” said the other.
When the microphone got to my grandfather, I could practically hear the collective holding of breath as everyone waited in anticipation of what he might say. He began to speak slowly, with all the natural warmth and charm that was his essence. I have always wondered if he thought in advance about what he would say, or if he simply made it up as each word rolled off his tongue. In his gentle southern accent, he proceeded to deliver a message that surprised everyone and resulted in laughter around the room. I think even he was surprised at how funny everyone found his comment. He, too, began to laugh, and got so “tickled” (as we say in the south) he barely got his closing sentences out. The moment is so candid and real, the laughter so unplanned and so true, that I feel lighter when I listen to it. And I feel closer to my grandfather. It’s as if he’s in the room with me.
The good news is that I did find the tape. The clip here is for anyone who is curious to know exactly what my grandfather said that day. And I’m now taking more seriously the chore of cataloging and organizing all my pack-rat treasures because they hold so many important memories for me.
But the bigger question that has arisen for me from all of this is: how do we “archive” the ones we love? What bits and pieces, handwritten notes, recorded audio do we select to create a full picture of someone? Bigger yet, perhaps, how do we archive ourselves? What is the essence of me that I will want my granddaughter to search for one day?
Of course, there is no simple checklist. The answer is personal to each one of us. In thinking of my grandfather, I wanted most to hear his laughter. In fact, that’s a sound I cherish about everyone dear to me. But there’s so much more that can help create a full picture of someone– hearing a narration of a familiar story; reading a handwritten letter that captures a moment just after it unfolded; hearing someone speak about what matters most to them; and, of course, looking at photographs or watching a home movie. We can capture so much in this digital era, but how do we make sure we capture the most important things?
So I am posing the question rather than answering it– what relics or treasures are most important to you about the ones you love or about yourself? Is anyone else a pack-rat like me, squirreling away treasures of memory? (I know you’re out there!) What do you keep and why?
Have you ever noticed how your mood is lifted when you spontaneously catch the eye of a stranger and share a smile in passing? So often, we stay in our own private worlds, our defined spaces of friends and family, of familiar routines. But once in a while– sometimes on purpose, sometimes by serendipity– we connect to someone we don’t know and it lifts us up. To me, those moments are the small reminders of a big idea– that we are all connected and that behind the face of every smiling stranger, there’s a story.
A couple of years ago, in a Tai Chi class I was taking, my curiosity was piqued by a woman I hardly knew who had a hobby I never imagined I would find fascinating. She was a quiet presence in the far corner of the room, taking the same spot each week, as we all seemed to do. Tall and slim, with her long gray hair pulled back in a pony-tail, she moved gracefully, purposefully, silently.
One day, I happened to overhear her describing her needlepoint projects and was captivated. I edged to the outskirts of the group that had gathered around her as she showed her work and described it. Listening to her speak, it was almost as though her philosophy of life unfolded in every stitch of her work.
A few weeks later I gathered the courage to approach her and ask a favor. I wanted to tell her story, to record her voice, to photograph her work, to let her wisdom unfold through her description of her hobby. At that point, I was only just beginning to explore the realm of mixed media storytelling. I had barely any samples of my work to show her to give myself some credibility in asking. I asked anyway. And she said yes. I was stunned that she would trust me with something so personal as her own story when I could only give her a vague notion of what I wanted to create.
I had envisioned a story based on audio and images featuring her face, her gentle countenance, her words, and the colors and textures of her needlepoint projects. In my original plan, her voice and face would be at the forefront and I would be invisible– an unseen editor creating a vehicle for her story to tell itself. Yet the day I interviewed her, I learned that she did not like being in the spotlight and would prefer that her face and name not be featured in the story I would create.
So I did the only thing I could think to do– I became her narrator. While those who know me best will tell you that I am not shy about hamming it up and being the center of attention in small gatherings of close friends, when it came to this realm of sharing stories of heart and substance, I felt shy and was more comfortable being an invisible hand behind the story. But the thought of letting a good story go untold was too much for me and nudged me forward.
I first mixed this story in 2009 and shared it with family and friends. The anonymous subject of my story became known as “The Threads Woman” amongst my friends. Several said they wished they could meet her, have coffee with her, learn more about her, be her friend. They, too, had been captivated by what I saw and heard.
Remixing the original materials with the newer software and techniques I now use, I was pleased that the heart of this story is as compelling to me now as it was when I first heard it. And just as “The Threads Woman” said yes to the story idea originally, she has graciously allowed me to share her story more widely, reminding us that we are all connected and that we all have a story to share.
A lucky moment, I caught Wangari’s smile while photographing a meeting at UNEP in 1987.
Environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai is being eulogized by presidents and prime ministers. She died in Nairobi on Sunday at the age of 71. Yet, to me, the most impressive testament to her legacy is the list of condolences from names you wouldn’t recognize. In a multitude of languages, these condolences are being posted in record numbers to her Greenbelt Movement website by regular folks around the world whose lives she touched with her warmth and genuine kindness as much as with her brilliance and her passionate dedication to protecting the environment and human rights. I am one of the many “regular folks” who share a fond remembrance of Wangari Maathai and mourn her loss.
Fresh out of college, I landed in Nairobi, Kenya in 1987 to work for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). I staffed a committee of women who were advising UNEP’s Executive Director. Professor Maathai was one of those women and a mentor to me in those months I spent in Kenya. In my journal, I marveled at her ability to translate her wisdom into messages that compelled people to action. Her ideas, I wrote then, “come through in her writing very clearly–down to earth and to the point, yet reflecting the depth and breadth of her training as a biologist. She captures thoughts and creates solutions that are often downright brilliant in their simplicity.”
Beyond what I learned from her writing, I received the enormous gift of her friendship during my stay in Kenya. She always greeted me with a smile. Her joyful laughter infused our work with the best of energy. She gave me rides in her big Greenbelt Movement van, amused, I’m sure, by a wide-eyed, young American woman off on a Kenyan adventure. She also gave me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received. At my going away dinner, she said, “I like Lucy because she has such an innocent face– a face that wishes all the good things in the world, and to which all the good things come.” I can still hear the cadence of her voice as she said it. The thought brings warmth to my heart and a smile to my face even now. I have been trying to live up to that compliment ever since.
My life intersected with Wangari Maathai’s for only a short blip in time. I never saw her again in person after my stint in Kenya more than two decades ago. And yet I have carried her presence with me for all these years because of the depth of her kindness. The wealth of condolence notes on her website from “regular folks” like me lets me know that I am not alone in this experience of her. Surely there should be some kind of prize– even bigger than the Nobel, I think– for people like her who can touch, move and inspire us in the short time our lives intersect and change us for the better for the rest of our lives.