Open Eyes. Open Heart. Open Hands. #NotAlone

10011940914_5e94cc9718_mLike many people, there came a moment in my life when I was not sure I really wanted to keep on living. I felt unloved despite numerous people bending over backwards to help me. I felt unwanted despite numerous people seeking me out. I felt unworthy despite numerous people trying to convince me that I was doing great. I could not see, hear, or feel these things. I was untouchable in my fortress of despair. The words of kindness I was receiving were tricks. They were efforts just to get me to shut up already. People didn’t really mean that stuff. How could they?

I have walked in the darkness and I know how it twists the world. I have gotten to the point now, thank goodness, where I can usually sense pretty easily what is true and what lies a wave of depression is telling me. It is like walking through a fun house when you are depressed. Everything becomes distorted and twisted until your life and your world become unrecognizable.

Ultimately, it is up to us to seek help when we are in those pits and ruts, but I know for a fact that my life was saved by people who against all odds stuck around. I figured if they stuck around for me when I was feeling that gross, they must really be worth keeping. And maybe if people I admired so much thought I was great, maybe I should see what they were seeing. As I have continued down the very long and winding road of healing, I have learned that much of that journey is about opening. Opening your eyes, your heart, and your hands is how you move from the darkness, ever so slowly, into the light. Let me explain what I mean.

Open Your Eyes

When you are depressed and when you are feeling alone, that darkness will tell you that you really are alone. It will tell you that you have nothing and that you are nothing. At these times, you must open your eyes. By this I mean you must force yourself to see with your real eyes, not the eyes that your dark thoughts give you. If you reach out to someone, you have them. If you go for a walk in the sun, you have that ability and that capacity to create joy for yourself. If you listen to the sound of the ocean, you have that in your life to soothe you. Seeing these things is not easy. Sometimes I would sit down and make myself list 3 things I was grateful for on any given day. Then I would try to stretch it to 5. Even if to some extent you are going through the motions, embrace what you see when you truly open your eyes.

Open Your Heart

One of the most frightening things about depression and suicidal thoughts is that love, one of the things you need most, is one of the things you cannot absorb. You do not feel worthy of it. You feel certain that the people who say they love you are just being charitable. You need to try your hardest to open your heart and let people love you. Try to push aside the train of thoughts that tells you they are lying or that they don’t mean it. Let their love move into your heart. Also open your heart to loving other people back. Do not let fear of rejection or fear of unworthiness prevent you from opening your heart to loving hands. It is hard. Very hard. But opening your heart to love will allow you to open your heart to other things, like the joy you find in a certain song or the enjoyment you gain from a certain movie.

Open Your Hands

This may be the hardest step of all. The final step to healing is to open your hands and let go of what you don’t need. That can be hurt. That can be people who are toxic for you. That can be ways of thinking about yourself and the world. Opening your hands also means reaching out. While you sift through what you don’t need, also take inventory of what you do need. You do not need a person who will abuse you, but that person who made you go out for ice cream? Keep them. Open your hands so that you can grasp new ways of thinking, new experiences, and the hands of new people.

These things seem so easy when you see them on a piece of paper or on a screen. Change your way of thinking. Sure. No problem. The fact is that none of these things are easy. I have been on my journey for about 20 years now, and still there are days that I chalk up as days the bear ate me instead of the other way around. On those days I start my process all over again, from scratch. Open my eyes to what I have. Open my heart to all I love. Open my hands to let go of what is poisoning my mind. It is hard work. Never-ending work. But it is the only way I know to remind myself, or to teach myself, that I am not alone.

Neither are you.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/80497449@N04/10011940914 via Creative Commons

The Shepherd of the Broken-Hearted Babies, Chapter 6 (#SBHB)

By the time the Shepherd was done talking and hugging everyone she wanted to, it was fairly late at night. The Shepherd looked just about as tired as I felt, but I also got this sense that now would be the perfect time to get her to talk about that day when she came to be known as “the shepherd.” I hadn’t really even tried to broach the topic yet. I mentioned it to her when we were going over my storyboards and she actually cringed a little, like she couldn’t even stand the thought of that day. Still, if this documentary was really going to be HER story, that day, those events, had to be there. She seemed, I hate to say it, kind of vulnerable after that exhausting night, so when we got back to the “dragon” house, I asked if we could sip some tea and talk about it.

At first, the Shepherd said simply, “Well, tea sounds good.” She went into the kitchen, got down two mugs, and got a kettle going. I watched her and wondered if I would remember where everything was if I had multiple houses. Wouldn’t you get the kitchens mixed up at some point? Hell, I could forget where I put stuff and I had just one kitchen. She always moved flawlessly though, it seemed to me.

After our tea was done brewing the Shepherd handed me my mug, took hers, and stepped into the handsome living room. A big clock counted the seconds on the wall with the seldom-heard but all too familiar tick-tock, tick-tock. The brick hearth had a mantlepiece over it which I thought would have made a wonderful place to display some of the Shepherd’s many awards and/or pictures, but once again, as in the “tree” house, everything was rather sparsely decorated and simple.

After settling into a dark blue rocking chair, the Shepherd said, or rather muttered, “I’m a ‘band-aid off fast’ kind of person. If we have to talk about this, let’s do it once, to your specifications, and then let that be the end of it.”

This was rather sharply worded by the Shepherd’s standards. She seemed impatient. This proved to me that my timing had been impeccable. I must admit, to my shame, that the thought crossed through my head that maybe this was a sign that I was gifted. I knew how to capture my subjects. I shudder now to think that this was how I was thinking, but there you go. We must all face our ugly parts at one time or another.

“Why don’t you just try to describe the events of that day chronologically first, and then if there is anything I think we might need to expand on I can ask you some questions,” I offered. I was really feeling like I was some hot shit at this point, but really what I was doing was art directing a person whom I was asking to discuss the most painful day of her life. One might say my asshole-self was in full bloom.

The Shepherd sighed, which also served to blow on her tea a bit to cool it off. She took a sip and then began.

“I had been planning the trip for weeks, before the school year even began. I kept telling the class that if they didn’t behave we wouldn’t go but of course we were going no matter what. You didn’t put together a trip to the World Trade Center with 36 kids and then decide you weren’t going to go because Julie talked out of turn. Still, the empty threat worked. The kids could not have been more excited. We were focusing on social studies type topics, you know. Government, finances, how countries are all linked together, that sort of thing. These kids could not have been more far away from that world. They were the forgotten kids. I got them in my class because it was the net they fell into before they hit the ground. They were in foster care, most of them. Not much chance they were going to be adopted at this point in their lives, unfortunately. People want their cute little untarnished babies. Once kids become kids, with personalities and issues and hurt that needs to be healed, people lose interest.”

The Shepherd took another sip of her tea, and the expression on her face…I can’t explain what it was, but seeing that look, I first got an inkling of how hard this was going to be for her. I felt my first tinge of remorse.

“So, the day dawned. Like everyone says, it could not have been a more beautiful day. I was feeling excited. The chance to get these kids to a place like the World Trade Center, for them to see what kind of world lay beyond their very small and hard universes, was fulfilling just to think about. Now I was going to be able to see their delighted faces, and I hoped I’d see a few sparks signaling new thinking. They’d see themselves working in one of those big important offices and they’d ask me, ‘Hey, how can I get a job in one of those huge buildings?’ I already knew what I was going to say, too. I was going to guide them towards working hard, towards staying in school and doing really really well. I had the whole day mapped out. It was going to change their lives. For the better.”

“We were just walking into the lobby when the first plane hit. We heard the noise and saw a lot of concerned faces around us. The kids and I were waiting. An eerie silence came over the kids without me telling them to be quiet. Then we heard over someone’s walky-talky that a plane had hit the other building. We thought of course that it was a horrible accident. We were told to wait there until it was clear exactly what was going on. The kids were concerned. I tried not to look at them in the eye because I was concerned too, but I didn’t want them to see that. Then our building was hit.”

The Shepherd had been holding her mug in her hand for a long while without taking a sip. She looked at it now as if she was confused about its existence. She took a sip and then put it down. She sighed deeply.

“I’m not sure what happened next, to be honest with you. Somehow we ended up outside the building. There was chaos of course. I didn’t know where our bus driver had taken our bus or even if he was ok, wherever he was. I didn’t know if we should run away. I kept thinking that these kids had no families waiting at home for them. If something happened to them and they went missing, no one would know but me. No one would care. I saw people all starting to walk the same way away from the buildings, so I gathered the kids around me in a circle, and I told them we were all going to hold hands. Each person was responsible for the two people they were holding hands with, and if anything happened I was to be told immediately. We were going to walk, not run. This must all have happened in the span of a few minutes because we were aways away when the first tower crumbled, but it seemed both fast and slow to me.”

The Shepherd’s eyes seemed vacant. It was as if I was watching her relive all of this all over again. But she had to finish now. I knew, and she knew, that she had to get the story out into the air one more time.

“Oh Joan. The things those poor kids had to see. Dust-covered, bloody people. We turned around to look behind us every once in awhile, to check on the people behind us. We saw the people jumping. We saw people on fire. I’m fairly certain the kids saw a few people who had already died who were being tended to. I pleaded with them to just keep going. Eventually I told them not to look back. Don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the person right in front of you and also on me. Just keep walking altogether. When the dust cloud from the crumbling building started angling towards us we jumped into this little restaurant. We had gotten far enough away in time that we weren’t in any real danger, but we wanted to get out of the way of people who were running now. I gathered all of the kids into a circle in the corner of the restaurant. They were all still holding hands. I remember that. I said that we were really lucky to be together right now, and that we were really lucky, so lucky, to all be ok, but that we had to stay together. A couple of other people were in there and they asked if they could join our circle. I think they thought we were doing a prayer. And I guess I was in a way. We all held hands and stood in that circle till, well, I don’t even know. I don’t know what time it was. I didn’t know what had happened to our bus driver or our bus. Our school was an hour away. All of these thoughts were coursing through my brain while I was also wondering if we had just witnessed the start of World War Three. I wanted to cry and beat my hands against the wall, but I had to keep it together for those kids. I was their only lifeline right then.”

“Eventually a news crew from some station came in, looking for eye witnesses I guess. They saw me and the kids huddled together and asked me if I could talk about what had happened. I had no idea what I said. I babbled. I mentioned I had no idea where our bus driver was and that I needed to get these kids back to our school. It was the only home they had. I did not cry for some reason. Not then. I am not sure why. I needed to make these pleas, I felt, and I needed to be strong when I did. I don’t know why I felt that was so important. I had this feeling that if I showed weakness these news folks wouldn’t help me. The guy asked me if I had brought all of these kids away from the WTC to here and I said yeah, and when the story ran that night I guess they called me the shepherd or said I was like a shepherd or something like that. The guy got his news van and after a very long trip got us all back to our school. All of those kids stayed with me in my tiny apartment that night. I didn’t want to let go of them, and it seemed like they didn’t want to let go of me either. It was like we’d have to face the new world as soon as we parted company. We watched the news like everyone else and couldn’t grasp that we had been in there.”

“We had been watching in silence as the news started to report that all of the ambulances that had lined up weren’t really being used. We were first starting to realize the scope of what we had seen, and of course we were hearing about Pennsylvania and the Pentagon now, too. And one of my kids, a 14-year-old named Jamie, he asked why we had been allowed to live but so many other people hadn’t. And that was the point I couldn’t hold myself together anymore. We all just sat there and mourned well into the night, not knowing what else to do.”

The Shepherd did not have a tear in her eye right now, and I remembered seeing footage of that interview she did in the restaurant – the one that got her so much attention. She had had that same look in her eyes. That look of determination. It seemed to say, without a word, “I will not be weak in front of you.” I was shocked that she had that look with me, in this cozy living room. Then I realized I had forced her to tell this story. She had known, probably, that tears would be a delicious addition to my little project. And she would not give in. But right then I wished that I had not approached her at all for this project. I wished that I had approached her as a friend. I wanted more than anything to walk over to her and give her a hug. To comfort her. But she was sitting rigidly now. Unapproachable. I had crossed a line where friendship was not anything but awkward, and I’d have to work my way back into her good graces. All of this was said with her facial expression.

“As the days and weeks passed,” she continued with increasing speed, “I needed to do something with myself so I could make sense of things for the kids. I had gotten some attention for “shepherding” these kids out of danger. They got attention because of their tough circumstances. Everyone seemed to agree that for these kids to have to witness something like that was gratuitous and unfair. I decided that if I was going to get attention for this, I would try to use it for some good. I talked about how what I had done with these kids that day was what we all need to do at any time, tragedy or not, for people who have no one else in the world to turn to. I talked about how I hoped these world events would make people realize how lucky and blessed we all are on a daily basis. And for whatever reason, probably the mixture of just everything that was happening then, the attention kept coming, and I kept thinking of new ways to use this attention. I started getting asked to visit classrooms, foster homes, adoption agencies, parents looking to adopt. The media at that time was looking for something that wasn’t brutal to cover and I guess I was good fodder. So it just kept this cycle going. I’d get attention, say something, get more attention, and get inspired to do more.”

The Shepherd shrugged as if all of this was just run of the mill stuff. I could tell she was done with her narrative. There was just one question I wanted to ask, not for my project but because I really wanted to know.

“What happened to your bus driver?” I asked quietly.

The Shepherd smiled, but it was not a happy smile. It was the kind of smile an old outlaw might have given you just before you hanged him.

“I found out later, from people who made it out, that they made it out because of him. While I was shepherding the kids away from that scene, he ran into it. He had been a volunteer firefighter and thought he had as good a chance as anyone to help. He ran in there and led people out, then went back in again. He didn’t make it out himself. He by the best accounts I was able to get was in tower 2 when it fell. His son, Tony, was 17 then. So I reached out to Tony and asked what I could do for him. I felt responsible, you know? Tony said he wanted to work with me to try to help people. I asked him what he liked to do and he said he really liked driving. I’d always hated driving so I asked if among other things he’d want to help me help out others by driving me places so we could make good time. As you can see, he took that offer. And he does much more, much much more, besides.”

The Shepherd always had with her a reminder of one of her flock she had not been able to save. Somehow that seemed completely appropriate. And it broke my heart.

The Shepherd of the Broken-Hearted Babies, Chapter 5 (#SBHB)

For Chapter 4, click here.

That day I followed Tony all the way to Indianapolis, where the Shepherd was due to speak. I was told we were going to be staying at the Dragon House, another landing point of the Shepherd’s. As I drove across the very flat, field-lined interstate between Akron and Indianapolis, I found myself pondering whether this had all been a huge mistake. I even found myself thinking about how I could bow out. What excuse could I make? It’s not like the Shepherd had approached me. This whole thing had been my idea. I couldn’t suddenly say, “Oh, guess what, I’m too busy.”

I was, as I say, surprised these thoughts were running through my head. I just felt let down, I guess. I had had expectations about the Shepherd – what she’d be like, how she’d be one-on-one, and very few of those expectations turned out to be on point. I found her distant, insensitive to a certain extent, flighty, fickle…and what was this deal with having a house everywhere we went? Did she have a house in every city? She presented herself as maybe not poor, but certainly one of the people. I wonder if everyone but me knew about this driver and all of the houses.

The speech that she gave the next day in Indianapolis was more along the lines of what I had expected, I guess. It was the best speech I ever saw her give. I was allowed to record the event on video, which I did, and the Shepherd gave me a typed out transcript as well. The talk was in front of college students, hosted by their student council. She got a very warm round of applause. I was a little surprised that college-aged kids would be interested in this lady. It sort of gave me some hope for the future.

The Shepherd adjusted the microphone down so that she could talk into it. She gave an exasperated sigh as she struggled with it and finally someone had to come out and help her. “I bet you never have this problem,” she said to the very tall man. The crowd laughed.

“So hi everyone,” she began after the chuckling died down. “I’m very honored to be here today. It’s great to see so many fresh young faces in front of me. When you get to be my age all  you see in the mirror is an old and wrinkly face, and that gets tiresome.”

More chuckles.

“I want to talk to you today about how Jesus was an idiot. That’s right. By today’s standards, Jesus was exceedingly foolish. Now, let’s not get involved in whether he was the son of God or not. It doesn’t matter if you believe that he was divine or if he was just a man. I’m just going by the stories in the New Testament, which I’m sure many of you have at least heard of.”

She paused and looked at the crowd and pushed her glasses down to the tip of her nose to signify a disapproving look to anyone who would say they had never heard of Jesus. I think she was also looking to see if anyone was preparing to throw darts at her. The crowd was quiet. Silent, in fact. Nobody was making outcries of anger. It seemed they wanted to see if she could talk her way out of this. She started walking from the center of the stage over towards the left.

“Now, there are three main ways that Jesus was foolish. First of all, he kept running towards people who thought that he was insane, a heretic, or a criminal. He was intent on convincing non-believers that what he said was true. Why would you do that? You’ve got 12 frickin men following you around who believe everything you say and who want to learn more. But Jesus kept going to places where he would not be accepted. His home town, towards the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, and amongst the masses. We know how the masses can be, don’t we? What an idiot to keep talking to people whom he know would, quite literally, crucify him.”

The Shepherd walked back towards the center of the stage. She was wearing a sharp, black, pin-striped suit that somehow, it appeared to me, made her look taller than she really was. Or maybe it was just how she was controlling the room. She seemed far different from the woman I had eaten breakfast with that morning.

“The second stupid thing Jesus did was throw away all of his belongings. Jesus could have had an ok life. He could have been a carpenter like Joseph, or maybe he could have been a rabbi, where he could have had a congregation that he could preach to and guide. But no. Jesus became a wanderer. He had no home, no real belongings so far as the Bible is concerned. He advised other people to toss away everything they had, remember? A rich young man said, ‘Hey dude, I dig what you’re saying, how can I help?’ Jesus told him to give everything away and join the Disciples. And you know, that young man said what most of us would probably say. ‘Are you CRAZY?!?” Jesus came back and said that this was why it was easier to pull a camel through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to get to God’s kingdom. Yeah, ok Jesus. Whatever. This is stuff my family worked for, that I worked for. Give it all away so I can walk around Israel? No thanks.”

“Finally, and this is really the stupidest thing Jesus did, he decided that he would spend his life amongst the people society liked and approved of the least. Whose house did he want to eat at at the beginning of his wanderings? Not John’s. Not Simon Peter’s. No, he decided to chill at Matthew’s house, right? He hung out with Mary Magdalene, who was apparently a woman of ill repute. He wandered among the lepers, among the possessed, among the poorest of the poor. Surely this was a waste of his talents. I mean, ok, he could cure the lepers, we get that, but honestly, couldn’t he have used his time better? He could have probably visited with the Romans and told them to chill the hell out, right? He could have told his parables in the richest palaces of his time. He could have built a house, his own temple, kept his disciples around him, and he’d have been totally beloved. But this moron decided to dedicate all of his time and effort to the people the rest of society didn’t even want to think about. What an idiot, right?”

Maybe the rest of the people in the crowd were smarter than me, but I couldn’t begin to guess where this tirade was leading. I had never heard of the Shepherd talking about religion, not to mention Christianity. So far as I knew she was somewhere between agnostic and ambiguous.

“You know, there are two things that really bug me about the story of Jesus,” the Shepherd continued. “First of all, most of the people he saved – they don’t stick around. All of those people he heals pretty much jump out of the story right after that. They don’t say, ‘Can I return the favor?’ They don’t say, ‘I am going to do whatever you ask me to do.’ They just slip out of the story. You don’t see a lot of gratitude in the New Testament, it seems to me. Mary Magdalene is an exception with the whole foot-washing scene, but that is a rarity.”

“The other thing that has always driven me crazy is the story of the Garden of Gethsemane. After all of this work Jesus has done, after he has told his Disciples that he is scared and wants their company, after he has elevated their status through his own presence, they abandon him. They fail him. They all fall asleep while he is waiting for the beginning of his journey to death. It’s no doubt Jesus struggles. How would you feel if you said to a friend that you were going to die in a few hours and their response is snoring? Darned right I’d struggle.”

The Shepherd was off to the right now. I watched as the heads in the audience seemed to follow her as one unit, all of them tracking her movements. They were clearly engaged in what she was saying, but was it a positive or a negative engagement?

“I’m not a religious woman,” the Shepherd said. “I don’t know if there was a Jesus or if there was simply a man named Joshua who did some amazing things when Israel was being persecuted by the Romans. Either way, we have these stories in the Bible, and we have other figures from throughout history, all over the world, who did stupid idiotic things. Nearer to our own time we have Gandhi, who decided to starve himself as part of a protest. Who does that? What kind of idiot steps out of a comfortable life and ends up starving himself? We have Martin Luther King, Jr. He could have had a comfortable life, like his father, leading his congregation, building his family. Sure, he’d have faced racism and segregation, but he could have had an okay life. A comfortable life. But he gravitated towards the white people who were so against the existence of his people that they burned down churches and killed children. What an idiot.”

“Now let’s talk about you. You’re sitting here as part of a college event. You’re getting educated. This room is comfortable, right? Apart from the fact that you have someone gabbing at you.”

More chuckles. It was hard to smile after the serious tone the Shepherd had set, but somehow it worked.

“You probably have parents and friends and teachers who are guiding you to reach up and out. Gravitate, or I guess they would say ‘network’ with people who can help pull you up. Look for people who can be a positive influence on you. If you run into someone who’s negative, woah. Stay away from them. If you know someone who is kind of ‘messed up’ you definitely want to stay away from that shit, right? They just ruin your vibe. They distract you from what you’re all about. They could pull you in, as if they are made of magnets and you’re made of metal. I saw something online the other day that said something like, ‘You can’t lead a positive life if you’re surrounded by negative people.’”

“Guess what? I think that’s the worst advice we can give each other. That’s right. I think we’re the idiots if we believe that crap. If all of us adopt that kind of attitude, how can the people who need help ever really get it? How can the sad ever get cheered up? How can the hurt ever get healed? All I do, all I have ever done, is go out of my way to find the people we are supposed to avoid. I talk to the homeless and the crackheads. I talk to the guy who cheated on his wife and can’t live with himself. I talk to criminals who have done unspeakable, completely unspeakable things. I seek them out. Now I don’t have a mission like Jesus or MLK or Gandhi did. I’m not trying to solve a big problem or create something huge. Rather, I’m in the weeds. I’m working on the tiny details of the universe – the individuals among us who somehow have fallen through the cracks. I want to talk to them to tell them that there is at least one person in the world, me, who cares about them. No matter what. I can’t forgive their sins or cure their illnesses and addictions, but I can go to them and I can say, ‘I care what happens to you. Is there anything I can do?’”

“You might think that this makes me an idiot. And you’re probably right. And you might think that’s too much of an effort. But let me tell you something, babies. There are people in this room who could use your care.”

Now the Shepherd sat down, her legs dangling off the stage.

“I’m going to ask a few questions, and if this relates to you, I want you to stand up. Stand up if you have recently experienced the end of a relationship.”

A few people stood up.

“Stand up if you were abused as a child. It’s ok, we’re here for you.”

A few more people stood up.

“Stand up if you feel like you are unlovable.”

Remarkably, and this took my breath away, a few people stood up.

“Mmhmm,” the Shepherd nodded at them and put her hand on her heart. “Stand up if you have been bullied, made to feel small and unimportant.”

A few people stood up, and the Shepherd herself stood up.

“Stand up if you feel like you could fade away from this world and nothing would change.”

More people stood up. I stood up. Without realizing it I had started to cry. Giant tears were rolling down my cheeks. Almost everyone in the auditorium was standing at this point. Many other people had tears rolling down their faces. A few people were leaning against the person standing next to them.

“Pretty much everyone you meet is a broken-hearted baby, my darlings. Everyone has a story. Everyone has ‘that thing.’ Look around. Are you surprised at some of the people who are standing? Did you think they were fine, always happy, always content? These are the people you can start reaching out to. Your roommate, your siblings, your parents. That’s right, you can reach out to your parents. Everyone can and does have off days. Things go wrong. People feel bad or left out or sad. That’s when you can reach out to them. No expectations of gratitude. No expectations of any benefit for you. Just reach out and lift ‘em up. Be an idiot, ok?”

The Shepherd asked everyone who was standing to remain standing, right where they were. She went down the stage stairs and row by row made her way to each person. Some gave her a handshake. Some, as soon as she stepped in front of them, burst into tears. Some gave her a hug, and some of those hugs lasted a long while. But she got to everyone, and everyone waited for her. Some people who were sitting stood up when she went by and whispered something to her, probably confessing they should have stood up but didn’t want to draw attention to themselves.

Be an idiot. You wouldn’t think that would be a great message for college kids. Somehow, though, it made all of the sense in the world.

 

 

The Shepherd of the Broken-Hearted Babies, Chapter 4 (#SBHB)

For chapter 3 click here

The next morning I met the Shepherd at another of her favorite breakfast places. “I’m big into breakfast,” she said. “Not for any health reasons but just…I don’t know. It’s bacon!”

I must have furrowed my brow or curled my lip or something, because the Shepherd turned around and looked me square in the face while we waited to be seated. “What’s the matter?” she asked.

The matter was that the previous day’s experiences had completely wrecked me. I couldn’t get the kids out of my head. I couldn’t get the parents out of my head. We had gone in and left all in a day’s time. We were healthy and didn’t have any of that kind of worry or grief hanging over our heads. Those folks were living under that same grief and sadness today. Our visit had not changed their lives, but it had made a huge impact on me. I was puzzled…no, that’s not the right word. I was shocked and a little insulted that the Shepherd was here talking jovially about bacon. How did I express this without coming off as a total bitch? Then again, maybe she needed to hear it.

“You think I was not impacted by our visit yesterday,” she said, looking still into my face. I had not said a word. “You think it’s disgraceful that I am standing here being happy about breakfast after what we saw yesterday.”

I was about to confirm her belief when the hostess came over to seat us. As fate would have it, we once again got a table by a window. After we ordered our coffees, the Shepherd cleared her throat. “Well,” she started. “Was I right? I was, wasn’t I? You think I’m some kind of callous asshole right now, don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” I tried to stay as calmly as possible. “I just, I don’t know. I feel like 500 people have died, and you seem to be your normal self. I guess I wonder who is the real you, the person who was so compassionate yesterday or this person I’m sitting with now.”

“Ah,” the Shepherd said, making a steeple out of her fingers. “Let me tell you a story, if I may.”

I nodded. What was I going to say, no?

“Hang on, let’s order first,” she said, as she nodded in the direction of the waitress. I had no idea what I wanted.

“I’ll have one of my specials, and get her the same thing, please,” the Shepherd said. The waitress nodded, wrote down some notes, and left.

“Just what am I going to be eating?” I asked.

“Oh, you’ll love it. It’s an omelette with spinach, tomato, mushrooms, and bacon. It’s divine. Anyway, now to my story.”

I took a sip of coffee. This woman had a lot of audacity. Ordering for me now was she? Interesting. Very interesting.

“When I was 14, I was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure. I had started having periods, then they stopped, and after much testing, that was the decision. Even though I was only 14, I was crushed completely. I had already assumed I would be having kids. I had my first boy name and my first girl name picked out. Obviously I had no husband or serious plans at the time, but I had just taken it for granted that this would occur.”

I put my coffee cup down very carefully to make sure my hand wouldn’t shake. I had been diagnosed with the same thing, but I had had a husband at the time, and I was 25. How could she talk about this diagnosis in such a nonchalant way?

“For many years I simply ran away from this reality, and I had the luxury to. I was just a kid. But when I was in my twenties I had to finally face my demons. I went to a new doctor and the first thing she said to me was, ‘You will never have children that are genetically yours.’ It seemed so easy for her to say. I thought maybe I had heard wrong, but of course I knew I had heard just fine. She gave me a recommendation – an online forum I could visit and at least read. I did start reading, and then I felt compelled to talk to one of the women on there. I don’t know why I reached out to her specifically. I just had a feeling that we would mesh well, I guess.”

I nodded. I had been on similar forums and knew how that went. Did she know that?

“After talking to this woman for a few months, I saw a post from her in the public forum. I’d been talking to her in private only, via emails. She and her husband had gotten their adoption to go through and they had a 2-year-old now. She started posting pictures of the new addition to her life, and started emailing me pictures as well.”

“I hate when people do things like that,” I interrupted. “They can be so insensitive.” I was of course also still referring to her.

The Shepherd, acknowledging my attempt at an insult, carried on.

“For a long time I felt, as you do, that she was being callous and insensitive. But I no longer think that was the case. I think she knew that I would understand, and that the community would understand, her height of happiness. We had all suffered the same thing. She had found a way out. Who would not rejoice for her more?”

I wriggled uncomfortably in my seat. I was not convinced and I did not see how this was an explanation of her very recent insensitive (to me) behavior.

“The thing is,” said the Shepherd, “when I see these parents and these children I feel their pain. I feel their worry and their grief. They give all of that to me when I see them. In order to survive, in order to do what I do, I need to be able to come away from those meetings and offer out into the universe the following thoughts: Please please please help these people, and my GOD I am so LUCKY not to be in that situation right now.

Instead of letting the pain of these people envelope me, I look around at my life. I look in the mirror and see a healthy woman’s face unmarked by tears of grief and worry for a child. That is a reason to celebrate. My celebration does not mean I do not still feel empathy for those people, just as the woman I met in the forum still had plenty of sympathy for me even as her situation improved. She wanted me to see, I think, that hope is worthwhile, that happiness is possible. I want to show these people that there is still light even though they are living under clouds. If I become embroiled in the sadness I won’t be able to help anyone. So yes, yesterday I was with those parents and those children. I was able to leave and I am here at one of my favorite places getting ready to eat one of my favorite things. Hot damn, my life is great. I’d be a fool not to appreciate it after a day like yesterday.”

“But how do you get those stories out of your head?” I stammered. “These people poured their hearts out to you and you what, you just move on?”

The waitress brought out our food. The Shepherd smiled at me and then at the waitress and assured her we didn’t need anything else right now. Exit waitress, stage left.

“If I was expecting something from the people I help, it would be much more difficult to move on. I’d be waiting for the transaction to be completed. I gave them something, now what do I get? So I need to keep in touch. I need to keep wondering about them. The fact is that I do not need anything from them. I gave them, I hope, a small gift. I told them it was alright to be sad, scared, upset, anxious, worried, and everything else they are, and I told them to truly enjoy every good moment they have. If they need me, they will contact me, but most of the time people just need that little boost every once in awhile, and then they can cope again. That little spark can keep them warm for a long time, honey.”

“So you’re saying I can’t get them out of my head because I’m wanting something from them? No offense but that’s total bullshit. First of all I didn’t do anything for them, and second of all I do not in fact want a damned thing from them. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

That came out more harshly than I had actually intended as the echo of my voice reverberated in my head, but at the time I actually didn’t regret it. The Shepherd took a couple of bites of her omelette. She had a troubled look on her face now and I wondered if I had offended her.

“You do want something,” she said. “Whenever we see someone in pain, we want something. We want to fix what is ailing them so we don’t have to think about them being upset anymore. If we help them we want their gratitude. If we witness, we want to know that we are also witnessed. You have to dig deep into your heart and soul to find those wants, because they lurk in the depths. And then just like pearls you need to dig those wants out and give to people with nothing but your love in that moment. Imagine a cup filled with coffee, and it’s overflowing. You don’t put the spilled coffee back into your cup. You put it somewhere else. Our hearts are like that, and with the love that overflows we can reach out to others. We can disperse that overflow to people who are running low. Once they are filled up a bit our job is done. That’s it. Time to move on to the next person who needs a little fill-up.”

I still was not convinced. “These people confided in you as if you were a long lost friend or family member,” I pressed. “And you are just pushing them out of your head.”

The Shepherd sighed. “It doesn’t matter who I am, honey. It’s about what I bring. What I bring is a little light to dark places, love where it’s needed, and hope where it is sparse. I could be anyone. It doesn’t matter who I am. What I bring is what makes people connect with me, and it is only as we exchange what I bring between us that I matter to them.”

“I just don’t buy it,” I said, again a bit more harshly than I probably should have.

The Shepherd smiled. “I know, she said. “But I have every confidence that you will, hook, line and sinker.”

The Shepherd of the Broken-Hearted Babies, Chapter 3 (#SBHB)

If you missed the first two chapters click here.

I sat there in stunned silence pondering this question that the Shepherd had posed. How could I know who died happier? I knew that she was waiting for a certain answer to see if I was jiving with her ways or not. I most assuredly felt I was not.

“I guess the woman who had a harder time felt more content at the end of her days,” I offered.

The Shepherd squeezed my hands, which she was still grasping. Oddly, I found this public display of affection a little awkward and embarrassing, but I didn’t know how to broach that topic with her without seeming like a complete and total jerk.

“You said what you thought I wanted you to say,” said the Shepherd. “That’s interesting. But the truth is that your gut instinct was probably right. Your first thought was probably, ‘How the hell should I know?’ Wasn’t that it?”

I just sat there. I had no idea what my face was doing, which was probably a bad thing.

The Shepherd laughed again. Guffawed, more accurately. “Go on, just say it. That was your thought. You were wondering how in the hell this old biddy expected you to know who died happier, right?”

I cracked a smile. “Yeah, ok. That’s kind of what crossed my mind.”

“THAT is the exact 100% correct response when anyone asks you a question about who is happier or more fulfilled or more contented. How in the heck do we know? Maybe the woman who had a harder time finally got the child she had always wanted but the kid was a total twirp. Maybe her husband cheated on her at the end so she had a kid but no man. Maybe the woman for whom everything seemed to come easy was plagued by mental illness and self doubt. Who knows? We can’t know unless we are in that person’s head, which is of course impossible. For now.”

I couldn’t help but smile. I felt a little sheepish I must admit. I had been busted for trying to answer just to please the Shepherd. But I liked this no BS response.

“Now,” she said, “You’re probably wondering what this has to do with my life.”

To be honest, I had forgotten that I had asked that first embarrassing question. I nodded with some uncertainty.

“The thing is, people have all kinds of ideas about why I do what I do,” said the Shepherd. “Some people have made up stories about how my father was abusive and I have been widowed 17 times so I threw my hands open and just decided to be a hobo. Other people think I must have been born like Buddha, rich and pampered, and then one day I realized I was spoiled and decided to pay everything back. None of this is 100% true, but aspects of all of it are true. I guess my point is I don’t understand why it matters. I am doing what I am doing. If it benefits some people, who cares why I am doing it?”

“I think people just want to feel more connected to you,” I offered. “You are this warm persona, this helpful being, and yet most people don’t even know your real name at this point. They want to be able to be thankful to a person and not a symbol.”

“Hm,” the Shepherd was pondering what I had said, much to my amazement. I admit, I felt a little proud of myself. Oh hubris. “I guess that could be so. Is that why you want to know about my past?”

For reasons I couldn’t pinpoint this question startled me a little. Why? I had no idea. But I pulled myself together quickly. “I want to know so I can tell your story to other people who want to know. That’s my mission as a documentarian. To document what people want to know, maybe even before they realize they want to know it.”

“Well, we will get to it. Right now though we need to go to the Children’s Hospital. There are going to be some celebrities there visiting the oncology ward. I don’t want you to film anything but I want you to watch what I do. It might give you some of this insight you are looking for.”

We put our dishes back onto our tray and put the tray on the counter. The Shepherd had a little minivan and a driver that was waiting for her. I thought that was weird. First a giant “tree house,” now a private chaperone. These things seemed to clash with her persona as a sort of Mother Theresa. I made a note to myself to keep an eye on this dichotomy.

“Follow us,” the Shepherd said. “Tony will give you directions just in case we get separated.

I got the directions from Tony the driver. He was a giant of a man with a black goatee and a black ponytail. Rather intimidating, really, at least from where I was standing by the driver-side door. His directions seemed clear enough though.

“I drive fast,” he warned.

“Duly noted,” I called over my shoulder.

After about a 15-minute drive we arrived at the hospital. I parked fairly near where Tony did so I could follow him out easily. The Shepherd confidently made her way to the oncology ward. Everyone we encountered, from the nurses to the doctors to the surgeons, all recognized her. Some nodded and smiled, some took her hands and squeezed them, and others gave her hugs. They all seemed to know why she was here. I did not. If celebrities were going to be in the ward, why did she also need to be there? It seemed to me almost like she wanted some of the attention for herself.

After making sure I didn’t have any video recording equipment running, the Shepherd had me follow her to the first room, which had three beds divided by curtains for privacy. Two adults, a man and a woman, were standing outside the first curtain, which was closed. At first I thought the child was having a procedure done, but quickly that notion fell off as I heard a child excitedly talking. It became clear that one of the celebrities, a local athlete I think, was talking to the kid inside. The Shepherd didn’t go inside the curtain though. She beelined right for the two adults, who I now presumed were that child’s parents. I stood at a respectful distance inside the doorway, watching, as the Shepherd had directed me to.

The parents, when we first peeked into the room, had been wearing strange expressions on their face that I couldn’t really read. It was not a look of happiness or excitement, but it wasn’t a look of sadness either. A nurse passed by and I asked about the three children in this room. The child in the first bed, who was getting his own celebrity one-on-one, had a brain tumor. He wasn’t expected to live out the month. “He’s such a sweetheart,” the nurse said. Her eyes instantly filled with tears. I wondered how people like her managed to handle their jobs day in and day out.

The Shepherd had been talking to the parents while I was getting debriefed by the nurse. Suddenly I saw her take the mother’s left hand in hers. She said something I could not hear, and all of a sudden the mother, the father, and the Shepherd rushed past me out the door into the waiting area down the hall. The mother barely made it out of the room before she started sobbing deep, wracking sobs. The Shepherd guided her, with the father’s help, to a chair, and then the Shepherd, standing in front of the woman, pulled her close. The woman grabbed the Shepherd’s shirt as if she was clinging for dear life, or perhaps as if she would fall through the floor if she didn’t hang on tight enough. The father was rubbing his wife’s back, but giant tears were falling out of his eyes as well. The sobbing went on for a painful long time, what seemed to me like hours. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Just watching a scene like this made me feel like a voyeur. As a documentarian I should have been used to this feeling, but watching without a camera in my hands, I felt naked and awkward.

“Go to the bathroom, wash your face, and take some deep big breaths, honey,” the Shepherd said as she brushed a few last tears from the aggrieved woman’s face. “It’ll be alright, honey. I promise.” She gave the man a giant hug and it looked almost as if he was about to sink into sobs himself, but at the last minute he thought against it. The Shepherd wiped the tears from his eyes as well. “It’ll be ok, sweetheart. Hang in there.”

Holding hands, the couple walked away from the Shepherd and towards the bathrooms around the corner. As soon as they were out of earshot, I asked her what had happened.

“Whenever celebrities come to visit people who are sick in the hospital, I try to come visit the caregivers – the parents, the family members who have been tirelessly standing watch. It’s a mixed bag for them, these events. They see their loved one happier and more excited than they have been for quite some time, but they can’t help but wonder if this is sort of the last hurrah. Will their loved one ever get the chance to be this happy again? Will they ever get to be this engaged and excited? No one ever cares for the caregivers in hospitals. Not really. They pour all of their time and energy into wishing their loved ones would get well. It’s especially hard for parents of little kids I think, because they feel pressured not to show any fear or sadness. They don’t want to upset their kids or make their kids feel scared.”

“What did you say to them?” I asked. I have to admit, my eyes were welling up. I had never thought about any of this before. It had never occurred to me.

“I told the mother that she should enjoy this moment. Savor it. Do not think about everything the child has been through or what might be coming down the way. Just really enjoy this moment, when your son is babbling away and talking about his favorite moments in sports history.”

“And that made her break down?” I asked.

“No. That question didn’t make her break down, honey,” the Shepherd said sadly and softly. The fact that someone cared, took her hand, and let her cry made her break down.

Just as the Shepherd finished talking the father showed up in the waiting room again. His lip was trembling, and it was clear he was trying with all of his might not to collapse into his own stress and grief. He looked around the corner, and assured that his wife was calm and back at their son’s side, he sat down on the ground in front of the Shepherd and put his head in her lap. He did not say anything, nor did she. She simply stroked his hair as a mother would. Mostly he cried in silence, but sometimes a groan or an exhalation would reveal the pain he was in. The Shepherd just kept stroking his hair for what seemed like a very long time.

Finally she lifted up his head with her hands. Looking into his eyes she said, “You know honey, you are being so strong for your wife and your son, but you have to make sure you take care of yourself too. Don’t hold all of this in, honey, ok?”

The man just nodded. She gave him a big hug, patted him on the back, and said, “Now you go enjoy your son’s enjoyment of this moment. This is a precious time to hold on to, no matter what happens.

The man gave her one more squeeze and headed back towards his child’s room. I looked at the Shepherd and she seemed exhausted. Tear stains marked her shirt. Tear stains marked her own face. It occurred to me that even though she had been doing this for years, these people who let all of their grief go with her, it hurt her as much as it hurt me. That’s why I was taken aback when she said, “Well, let’s see who needs us next.”

That whole afternoon that scene repeated itself. The details were different but the results were almost always the same. While the parents’ children were being entertained by famous athletes, the parents were getting their moment to give voice to all of their anger and fear and sadness. The Shepherd took care of them. Each of them. And her message was always the same. “This right now is a good moment. Hold on to this. This is all that matters right in this instant. Your child is happy and excited and flushed with being starstruck. This is special.”

When I got back to my hotel room that night, I stepped into the shower and cried harder than I have cried in quite some time. I found myself wondering if the Shepherd did the same thing.

The Shepherd of the Broken-Hearted Babies, Chapter 2 (#SBHB)

If you missed Chapter 1 click here.

My alarm clock went off at 6 AM. I kept my phone as my alarm clock even when I stayed at hotels. There was something about the familiarity of that least favorite of sounds that made waking up familiarly miserable. As was my custom those days, the first thing I did was check all of the places where he could write to me. Email. Text. Different social media platforms where we were connected. I had sent him a message a few days before that I was going to be starting my adventure with the Shepherd. This was the culmination of a lot of planning and hoping on my part. It was a dream come true. A lot of people had sent me congratulatory notes. Very kind ones. But he had said nothing. I kept trying to make excuses. Maybe he hadn’t been online. He was busy too, after all. Sometimes my thoughts got a little darker. Maybe he was jealous of my progress. Maybe he felt inferior now. Whatever the reason, I had no response from him again that morning. “I need to stop checking first thing in the morning,” I told myself, rolling out of bed. “I need to just stop thinking about it. If he was going to say anything he’d have done it by now, surely.”

This little pep talk never worked, as often as I tried it out on myself.

When I had presented my story boards to the Shepherd I had told her I wanted to start with her talking about her life. My plan was to overlay different parts of her autobiography over footage of each of the places she was talking about. Brief montages of important landmarks and the like. This was nothing revolutionary but then I figured her early life was probably pretty run of the mill. Nobody knew much about her life before she became the Shepherd. A lot of people didn’t even know her real name. She said that while she wished people did know her real name she was ok with them just guessing about her past life. It enabled her to connect with everyone because they could write her book themselves. I told her that didn’t make for a great documentary, and she smilingly agreed, at least at the time.

We were in Akron, Ohio, where the Shepherd was born. We met up at a small coffee shop/bakery for breakfast, as per her plan. She advised that anything I got would be divine, but the chocolate croissants were especially disgusting, “by which I mean decadent and delicious,” she said. Though she had not resided in her hometown for quite some time, the owners of the bakery and many of the patrons still recognized her and welcomed her as she came around rather frequently. It was a mini-homecoming, right there in the coffee shop.

We sat down at a table that was just wide enough to carry the tray on which rested our respective breakfasts and cups of coffee. A window was to my left and her right and you could see the expanse of the parking lot and the road that led up a big hill across the street. It was a beautiful day and I had thought we might sit outside, but the Shepherd said she hated to shoo away bees from her hot coffee, so inside we stayed. The Shepherd had her chocolate croissant. I had convinced myself that a cranberry orange scone was a slightly healthier way to go.

After a brief period of silent chewing I decided I had best break the ice and get this project started. “So,” I said, self-consciously wiping my mouth with my napkin even though there was probably nothing there, “how does your story begin?”

The Shepherd laughed. There was no quiet chuckling with her. If something tickled her she guffawed. “Wow, you know how to start a conversation!” she laughed.

I felt a hot flush come to my face. Had I made yet another faux pas so soon into our work together? I I would swear I had beads of sweat lining my forehead like half of a tiara.

“Oh honey, I didn’t mean to offend you,” the Shepherd said, suddenly quite serious. “It’s just such a big question for such a small little table. I’m sorry.”

“No no, it’s fine. I guess I could have offered a bit of a segue,” I returned, trying to smile. Damn, was my acting that bad?

“I’m going to turn the tables on you a bit, honey,” the Shepherd said, taking one last bite of her croissant. “How do you think my story begins?”

I paused for a moment but I had sort of already mapped this out in my head when I was planning my film, so the words came a little easier than I thought they would.

“I would guess you had a pretty quiet childhood,” I offered. The Shepherd made no reaction. I imagined she was a killer at the poker table. “I’d guess your childhood was happy, filled with love, and just…good.”

“Huh. And why do you think that?” she asked.

I was beginning to feel a little bit like I was playing Trivial Pursuit, only there were no correct answers on the other side of the card. You could even say I was getting a little frustrated.

“I think that because you have so much love to give now, and you seem so content. I’d have to believe that comes from a place of love and a life happily lived.” I felt pretty proud of that answer, as obvious as it seemed as soon as I said it.

The Shepherd smiled broadly. “You know, I bet most people think like you do. That’s very interesting. Very interesting.” The Shepherd took a big sip of her coffee and smiled contently, seeming to prove my point. In fact, I decided to take advantage of the moment.

“See, right there,” I exclaimed. “Who else would take such joy in just a sip of coffee? Your reaction to just that bespeaks a lifetime of good living. You’re content and you know how to enjoy life.”

The Shepherd put her cup down carefully, matching the bottom of the mug up with the bullseye circle of the saucer. She had a strange look on her face that I couldn’t read at the time. I know now it was just her serious face, her pensive face.

“What if I told you that while overall my life has been good like you said, my ability to love and laugh was born out of immense pain and sorrow?”

I felt like I was in over my head. I felt like she was talking in riddles, and not just that, but riddles in a foreign language. I was out of my league, and I knew it.

“Let me tell you a short story if I can, honey,” the Shepherd reached her hand out and patted my left hand, which was resting on the table. It was in the form of a fist, I happened to notice to my embarrassment and shame. I nodded and tried to relax my hand under her warm grasp.

“Once upon a time,” she began, “there were two women. One was named Stella and the other was named Jewel. Everything seemed to come easy to Jewel. Her life followed the path society most preferred. She graduated from college, married her college sweetheart, had three kids, and lived in a gorgeous house. Everyone said she carried her babies perfectly during her three pregnancies, and no one could believe what a good mother she was.

Now, Stella, on the other hand, nothing came easy to her it seemed. While she did better in school than Jewel, she never had a boyfriend all through high school and college. When she finally met someone in grad school and they got married, she discovered she was infertile – she couldn’t have children. She and her husband spent months and then years trying to have just one child together. Time after time they failed. They lost pregnancies or had false positives. Finally they decided that they would stop trying, and when the time was right they would adopt. In the meantime they would enjoy just being together.

At the ends of their lives, Stella and Jewel took account of their lives. Jewel looked back on a life lived pretty much as her mother had lived hers. Everything had followed the formula society ordained as “correct.” Stella looked back on a lot of tough times, but she also had her child, whom she and her husband had adopted, by her side at the end.

Now, honey,” the Shepherd took my other hand and grasped both of them, forcing me to look her in the face. “Who do you think died the most content with her life?”

 

The Shepherd of the Broken-Hearted Babies, Chapter One

Everyone told me that if I contacted her she would respond. Most people said that if I asked my question, she would not just respond, but she would say yes. Still, it took me about six months to send that email to the Shepherd. I wrote it several times, but it never seemed right to me. Sometimes, just as I was ready to hit “send,” I felt that my email was too needy. Sometimes it had ended up feeling creepy. How do you ask someone if you can create a documentary about them without sounding creepy though? That was my problem. Everyone knew and knows who the Shepherd is and what she does. Asking to create something about her, with her, seemed out of place. When it came right down to it, I was not sure I was worthy of the honor. I felt like I was asking for her most valuable, precious commodity – time.

Still, I finally got my courage up. It was 12:30 AM and I was dog tired. That’s always the best time for me to send out messages I’ve been pondering for a long time. It’s like drunk texting only with a lot more thought behind it. I sent the email, this time barely spending a minute on it.

Hi, my name is Joan Kelly. I am a documentarian and I would really like to create a documentary all about you. Would you be interested in working with me?

I look forward to hearing from you!

~Joan.

 

I went straight to bed as soon as I hit “send.” I told myself I would not ever expect a response, but at least I had put the question out there. That was enough for me, I promised myself. I’d move on to some other projects that had been rattling around inside my brain.

You can hardly imagine my shock when I discovered a response in my inbox when I awakened at 8. She wrote,

Joan, how very sweet of you. I can’t believe you would want to make a documentary about me! Using your art to highlight me? Seems like it should be the other way around.

Let’s meet in my “tree house” to hammer out how this will go. I can plan ahead and create blocks of time once I understand what you’ll need/want from me.

Thanks again. I look forward to meeting you!

~Cassie Laine Hemmings

She was honored by me? She didn’t think anyone would want to focus on her? Was she kidding? If you didn’t know about the Shepherd you might well think this pseudo-humility, but it was authentic. Had it not been, she’d have surely signed her name as we know her, The Shepherd of the Broken-Hearted Babies. But she did not. She signed it simply with her name. With how she thought of herself.

As it turned out, the Shepherd’s “tree house” was not TRULY a tree house. Rather it was a house with many windows, and out of each window you saw little else but trees of all kinds. I met with her on the third floor, which was monastically sparse. The floor was made of yellow pine. The walls were painted a sort of institutional ecru. Two rocking chairs sat in the middle of the floor on top of a braided rag rug which I suspected the Shepherd had made herself. The reds, blues, and greens in the rug were an unexpected pop of color which the brown chairs kept under control. Despite the sparseness, the room was filled with warmth. Perhaps it was the light from the windows, or perhaps it was seeing the Shepherd in person, sitting in one of those chairs, her feet dangling about a foot above the ground while she knitted what looked like a scarf.

“Wait justttttt a second,” she said as she smiled at me. “I need to finish this row or I’ll never remember where I am.”

I watched as she tried to speed up her knitting. I already felt like I was intruding.

“Ah, there we go!” the Shepherd rolled up her knitting and put it in a small basket beside her chair. Then she got up, walked over to me, and gave me a giant hug as if we had been friends for 20 years, long parted and finally reunited.

“Joan, I am so excited to see you in person finally! I admire the efficiency of modern communication but nothing for me beats seeing a person’s mouth actually moving while they’re sitting across from you! Sit down, sit down. Can I get you anything?”

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” I managed to stammer as I was gently guided towards one of the brown chairs. In truth, my throat was feeling rather parched, but I simply could not make myself ask for anything.

I would swear I heard a small sigh as the Shepherd sat back in her chair. She pulled her legs up into the seat and sat “indian style.”

“Joan, I feel like you are afraid to treat me like a regular person. Is that true?”

I was a bit aghast. Had I been that awkward? I thought I was a better actor.

“No, no,” I returned immediately and with a bit more emotion than I had intended. “I’m not star-struck or anything (stupid, Joan, stupid). It’s just, I feel like I’m already asking a lot of you by suggesting we work together. I don’t want to intrude or bug you in any other way.”

“I see,” the Shepherd said. She scratched her head and put on a sort of perplexed look with furrowed brow. “Joan, I see we are going to have to lay some ground rules down right away if this is going to work. First of all, I learned AGES ago that if I don’t want to do something, I need to just say no. By the same token, people around me need to know that if I answer in the affirmative to a favor or a request or a suggestion, I really really mean it. You need not doubt it when I say I am interested in doing something. Also, you need to consider me and treat me as just another person or this will never work because I will be uncomfortable. I never wanted all of this attention. I just wanted to help people, and that’s all I still want to do. I want to share my story with you and potentially others in case there are young people out there who are where I was 75 years ago. So, do you think you can work with me as if we have been friends for a long time?”

I felt stupid. I also felt like an asshole. I was sure my cheeks were as red as the red in the rug that I wanted to melt into just then. In fact, I felt like tears were about to fill my eyes, which I absolutely could not let happen. Suddenly the Shepherd was standing in front of me and put her hands on my shoulders.

“Joan,” she said, smiling. “Stop beating yourself up. We haven’t even gotten started. I’m not trying to be hard on you, I’m trying to open all of the doors and windows that you think are locked up.”

That did it. I felt a stupid tear roll down my cheek. That wrecked me. Now I was hosting Niagara Falls on my face and I didn’t even know why. It only hit me later that it had been a long time since anyone had lovingly put their hands on my shoulders and told me to stop beating myself up. That’s how the Shepherd works though. She gets you before you get yourself.

“I bet you’re doubting your choice now,” I managed to stutter through deep intakes of breath covered with sobs. “This is not how I usually start projects.”

The Shepherd laughed. “Some of the best things in my life started with tears, my dear. And ended in tears too. I think this is a good omen. Now let’s get us some tea and chocolate and get to work.”

For the rest of that day we hashed out a schedule with desired topics and locations. The Shepherd told me she did not want me to record any of her sessions with her “babies.” I said that was fine and understandable, but wondered if she could talk in the abstract about them after they happened. No names or anything, just what the person was struggling with and how she helped them.

“Tried to help,” she corrected me. “Only the individual can truly help him or herself. I point the way and offer a hand to hold.”

She agreed with that recommendation as well as most others. When I told her I wanted to refer to her as the Shepherd throughout she cringed. “I am just me,” she sighed. I don’t like these labels and titles that make me seem like something I’m not.”

“But that’s how people know you, really,” I returned. “You have become this entity that people know and need.”

“Ugh,” she frowned. “If you can mention my real name for every time you use that title, I guess I’ll go along with it.”

As we worked the Shepherd wrote dates and details down on a calendar. Not digital, mind you, but a regular old 12-month calendar. This one had puppies as the picture for every month. Almost every day had 3-4 items on it, each in different colors.

“What color do you want to be in my brain?” she asked, smiling.

I was a little confused so she pointed to her calendar and told me each color represented a different strand of things she had to do, and her calendar, because it held all of these details, was her brain.

“Oh, I like blue,” I said.

“So do I,” she said, grabbing out a blue marker.

And there we had it. Her calendar filled with blue. With me. I felt like I was dreaming. We had a schedule. I was in her brain, in blue. We were really going to work together. It seemed stupidly impossible.

Fortunately I didn’t have much time to be in a stupor. We were due to meet in just 4 days for our first location shoot. I had a lot of work to do.

 

A Celebration of American History this July 4th

34439_444456166277_6184119_nAh, July 4th. What a great time it is in the US. I can’t remember exactly what it is we are celebrating but I love how we use fireworks, which were created in America. It’s also great because we get to eat sweet corn perhaps for the first time all summer. Thank God our ancestors brought corn over from England and Ireland. Can you imagine a summer without corn?

I think, as a fan of history, that this is the perfect time to reflect on the great history of our country. We are certainly going through some interesting times these days and I think it’s important to trace the roots of where we are and see how we got here. Will you travel back in time with me to honor July 4th?

The first people

America can trace our history all the way back to um…when did the Mayflower land? Well, at least 500 years ago. People came over to America because it was the land of the free and the home of the brave and that is what they were. They wanted to be able to use their guns and practice their religion, so they came to this empty land and decided to build their empire here. Now, they did encounter some Indians when they got here, and they did their best to get along with those people at first. They even let the Indians teach them how to farm and stuff. But you know, this really needed to be a white man’s land and these Indians just didn’t seem to get that, so they had to go. If the Indians had just tried to assimilate maybe things would have been smoother. I think you can talk to the Cherokee about that, but I’m not sure.

Anyway, living in this new country was really hard. There were a lot of trees and rivers and stuff and there were not any Starbucks or Target stores, and there were several other changes as well. Our ancestors tried to get the Indians to help with farm work and stuff but the Indians just fell over and died. Now, luckily the fates were with us from the start. There was a whole continent where the weather was always gross and there was just no civilization – Africa. So our ancestors started bringing those folks over so they could be productive and help out with planting fields and other stuff. In return, these African people got homes, food, and lots of other stuff. Now it’s true that sometimes bad things had to be done to the African helpers if they weren’t really getting how lucky they were. Much like the Indians, if they had just understood how privileged they were things would have gone better.

Why we are celebrating

So the years went on and our ancestors were still having to deal with the Indians and the Africans who were all like, “This sucks” for some reason. But we had our own problems. England was making us talk British and drink tea, so we threw tea in the water somewhere (California?) and that started a war. The English really like their tea When the war did break out the English tried to steal our guns, so we wrote up the Declaration of Independence that said that everyone except the Africans, the Indians, women, and people from other countries who were trying to live here could pursue happiness via Christianity and gun possession. Thomas Jefferson really wanted to drive the point about the guns home, so he not only signed his name really big but he also created fireworks to mimic the sound of American guns.

At some point between that and now some of our ancestors wrote up the Constitution. The guys who wrote that up were very conscious of the fact that the whole world was watching them, including us in the future, so they decided to give freedom to everyone just like they had. That meant that people who had come from Africa could continue to help out our ancestors, Indians could try to assimilate into white culture, and women could continue to make food and babies just like they always want to do. Some cynical people have said it’s crappy that only white guys wrote up this document, but I mean, they had settled the country and like, the whole continent by then, so I think everyone at the time was ok with this and we’d be ok with it now.

From the start, America has been about and for people who were born here and who have white skin and also who are men, and that’s really the way it should be. Like I said, they did all the work. With guns. That is the ancestry we are celebrating tomorrow, going back to when our forefathers declared that no British person would take our guns or make us drink tea.

Happy July Fourth!

The End of Women’s Rights As We (Briefly) Knew Them

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 1.59.56 PMToday is a horrifying day in the history of the United States of America. Today, our Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby that a privately held company can avoid covering women’s contraception if doing so collides with the company’s religious beliefs.

Let’s think about this in an over-arching way first. We are saying that companies, corporations, have religious beliefs AND rights. We are saying that a company can distinguish between what it will cover and what it will not cover, but only where women are concerned.

This is disturbing enough.

What I wonder about are the implications for women like me who use “birth control” as a form of hormone replacement therapy. Companies can proclaim in grandiose statements that they will not cover contraception for a woman, but in doing so they are also preventing women from getting the hormonal support they need in the wake of problems like infertility. A woman who cannot access HRT is more prone to organ failure, and that is just the tip of the iceburg. Of course, it would be difficult for a woman to stand up and explain this today, in an era when candidates for the Presidency advise women to just hold an aspirin between their legs to avoid pregnancy. With an audience like that, how can you explain the endocrine system and why some women need to take pills to help their systems work properly?

I wonder about where we go from here. If it is ok for companies to refuse to cover this part of a woman’s health, what could they refuse to cover next? Maybe they will proclaim that they shouldn’t have to pay for a woman’s annual PAP test or breast exam because, I dunno, that’s just all yucky womanly stuff, and hey, if a woman gets cancer it’s probably because she did something to anger God, right? Maybe maternity leave will be the next to go. I mean, it’s not the company’s fault that a woman decided to get pregnant. Besides, isn’t the next logical step to remind women that we should be staying home minding the kids anyway? If you want to have kids stay home all the time, not just the first few months.

I wonder what will be deemed permissible by our ruling body next. Maybe women shouldn’t be allowed to run for office anymore. That 5-4 decision would have probably been less close if those pesky women hadn’t been around, right? And women politicians? We all know everything went downhill politically when women like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren started popping up. Maybe women shouldn’t vote anymore, because they tend to vote for those women politicians.

I’d love to say this is all just hyperbole, but you know, I am really starting to wonder. Who would have thought that less than 100 years after women finally got the right to vote we would have to be clawing our way to have rights in the face of companies that now claim religious beliefs. It sounds like something out of The Onion. Maybe we have all entered into an Onion Universe. That would at least explain a day like today. Nothing else seems to be doing the trick.

When will it be time to be mindful of our Native American population?

Side view of the Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee.

Side view of the Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee.

This past weekend I spent some time in Nashville, Tennessee, for a trade show. On the first day, before the show began, my parents and I decided to venture out to The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson. The museum and the tour paid careful attention to the legacy of slavery on the planation, which I thought was encouraging. As you are walking up the path to the mansion, for example, the audio tour notes that back in 1837 the whole area would have been a cotton field and you would definitely have seen slaves working in those fields. These are no-brainer facts, but it’s important that Americans incorporate these ugly truths into the romanticized stories of past heroes.

That being said, another key aspect of Jackson’s life and career went unmentioned and unnoticed. No where did I see any mention of the fact that part of Jackson’s legacy is that he helped to completely crippled the “5 civilized tribes” of Native Americans who up until his Presidency had mostly lived peacefully in the Southeast. Those five tribes were the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Creek, the Choctaw, and the Seminoles. Jackson was a notorious proponent of Indian removal, and while the Cherokee marched on the Trail of Tears under Martin van Buren’s Presidency, the foundation of that trail was set during Jackson’s term as President. This entire aspect of Jackson’s Presidency lies untouched at his home. Why?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about sports teams who use names like “Indians” or “Redskins.” That’s great, but are you aware of some of these statistics?

“American Indians and Native Alaskans number 4.5 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, these Americans earn a median annual income of $33,627. One in every four (25.3 percent) lives in poverty and nearly a third (29.9 percent) are without health insurance coverage.”  via http://www.spotlightonpoverty.org/

“A recent class action suit alleged that the government mismanaged billions of dollars in Indian assets. The case settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion—far less than what was lost by the feds.” via Forbes

“One-quarter of Indian children live in poverty, versus 13 percent in the United States. They graduate high school at a rate 17 percent lower than the national average. Their substance-abuse rates are higher. They’re twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24. They have a 2.3 percent higher rate of exposure to trauma. They have two times the rate of abuse and neglect. Their experience with post-traumatic stress disorder rivals the rates of returning veterans from Afghanistan.” via Washington Post

What it seems like to me is that we are not just brushing American history under the rug where whites and Native Americans are concerned – we are simply brushing all Native Americans under the rug. If we don’t see them and we don’t witness their difficulties, then fighting to get a logo changed can certainly seem like ample effort. Right?

There are Native Americans alive today whose great-grandparents fought Custer. The massacre at Wounded Knee, the massacre of Black Kettle and his tribe, the abuse of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, all happened towards the end of the 19th century. That’s not that long ago, but the sands of time are threatening to bury it all, and we are letting it happen.

When will we be able to face the fact that Andrew Jackson was not just a slave-owner but also an Indian killer? When will we recognize that many Civil War heroes, including Sheridan and Sherman, went out West and declared that the only good Indian was a dead Indian? There are people alive today who were sent to schools in the East to get rid of their Native American culture. They were prohibited from speaking their native language. They were not allowed to keep their sacred possessions. Are we going to continue to sweep them under the rug too?

I am deeply concerned that we are going to simply turn a blind eye to our history and to our present where Native Americans are concerned. When will the battle end? When will we come to terms with what has happened on this “land of the free?” Huge portions of our population are still waiting.