on friendship

Squam in the City 2014
photo credit: Xanthe Berkeley

Above is a photo of two friends who had not seen each other in many years but reconnected at a Squam gathering four years ago. This photo never fails to spark joy in my heart. These past weeks I have needed reminders of joy because my heart has been heavy with grief and emotional turbulence.

When I began Squam, it was with the specific intention to help another woman reconnect with herself through creativity. It was a tiny seed that came directly out of my heart as I had been lost, profoundly depressed and finding a group of mixed-media artists at ArtFest, created by Teesha Moore, saved me.

At the time blogging was in its infancy and few of us had ever met in real life. So much grew out of the gatherings that happened at Squam– things that had exactly zero to do with me, but had to do with what happens when we get offline, meet in person– when there is time and space for conversations that spill over long days and last deep into the night. True connection.

At the time, I was just all about the permission to make art. I was 45 years old and still buried under the experiences I had had as a child that made me feel I wasn’t allowed to make art as I was not an artist. My stories were not worth writing because I was female and really, who cares? That was the generation I grew up in and ArtFest set me free. I had always felt aligned with what they call Outsider Artists outside art being anything not Art with a capital A and somehow I came out of that experience with permission to create. I had met other people like me that I never met during my daily life and I felt so less alone. I felt part of a community.

However, I assure you, as an intensely introverted person, the original impetus was not to create community or foster the friendships, connections and growth that come from being part of a community and most definitively, I did not want to be at the helm of a group. I did not want any kind of leadership position and the early years where I had to get up in front of groups of 200 people were excruciating for me. But that changed. Because I had no choice, I kept showing up, I grew, I learned and now? Whatever– if need be, I can get on stage and talk. I’m over it.

That is what happens when you plant one seed. It can grow many things, in many directions.

When I look back at what happens when people come together from a place of open heart, I am in awe. Genuinely. We help each other grow. Squam has spawned lifelong friendships, connections were made that helped books get launched, support was offered so that relationships that needed to end could which allowed for new paths to be forged.

Below is a photo of two women who met years ago at Squam — one from Connecticut, one from Montreal — who are now dear friends, bonded not only by their shared love of knitting but also by music, literature, motherhood and probably a thousand other things.

Squam 2018
photo credit:  Tory Williams

By spending time together, we came away with greater appreciation for how each of us contributes directly to the health and wellness of this world. And, just as Joseph Campbell discovered that if you are going to say YES to life, you have to say yes to all of it– not just the beauty and the joyful– but the pain, the sadness, the loss, the cruel, the heartbreaking, the unjust, the horror. Which is not to condone any of the ugliest parts of humanity, but to look it square in the eye and say this is us, this has always been us. How can we evolve? How can we learn and grow and do better?

Over the years there have been many important, often challenging conversations that are the natural result when you bring people together from different countries, different states, different ages, different religious beliefs among all the many other differences between us.

What connects us and keeps us strong through those conversations was what we had in common: a passion for making and being creative; an open-hearted spirit that had the space and wisdom to hold space with kindness for one another.

To ignore the fact that we are all different (color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, culture) is an approach that lacks life experience and, it denies us the wider, wilder, more exuberant, more bounteous world that is our birthright.

When I was growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, my dad — who was born in Brazil and did not come to the US until he was 22– would lament the iceberg lettuce in our refrigerator. That is not lettuce he would say. That’s cardboard.

Most of us today are well aware of what the food industry was doing to us in the 1970s when I was growing up. Put one item into the grocery store to represent that vegetable and make sure it is something you can control, make consistent and will travel in trucks well, etc. My dad would be very happy today to see that not only does my grocery store carry a wide variety of greens– lettuces, included– but I don’t even have to shop there because there is a weekly Farmer’s market where I can purchase my endive, kale, mustard greens, spinach, butter lettuce and romaine, etc. from local farms.

I am not equating human beings with lettuce– I know that is a ridiculous thing to have to write but in this day when misunderstandings can spark, I feel it necessary to say. I am using that memory as a way of talking about life itself, the wider world that is so bright, so full of difference and that is what makes it staggering and incandescent and incomprehensible in its beauty.

Appreciate all the differences and treat people equally is the way. In my experience, humans share a desire to be loved, to be included, to be heard, to be seen and to be forgiven for all the ways that we are not perfect– that is what we all have in common.

I believe this is true for all of us.

Last week, a conversation in the knitting community fired up. It was focused on the ongoing need that non-BIPOC witness, acknowledge and understand the ways in which our words and actions can prolong racism and discrimination; and, to work together to create a better world by being persistent in identifying the insidious, systemic racism that is woven throughout our culture and work to eradicate it. I say “our” as I am white and this is part of what I saw and read in the online conversation.

With regard to BIPOC, there is no one more keenly aware of how the Squam community is lacking representation than I am. It isn’t because I haven’t always been aware and trying to do better, it is because I haven’t succeeded.

How do you attract people to come into the woods, stay in uninsulated cottages where you might see the occasional mouse or spider– where there are no ensuite bathrooms, but a communal bathroom down the hall– a cottage where you may be expected to share a room with someone you have never met before, where the majority of people come by themselves and walk into a dining hall reliving every junior high school cafeteria nightmare about where they should sit? How do you send out an invitation so that people feel safe? That they feel welcomed? Being creative is by definition putting yourself (and your work) out there which then makes it available (and you) to be judged, criticized, diminished— the vulnerability is big. How do you communicate that they can expect to join an open-minded and interesting group of creatives?

For me, it begins with the teachers. We have worked hard over the years to have teachers who are not only talented and passionate about their craft, but have true, caring hearts. And yet, if there is not abundant diversity in the teaching roster, why should I be surprised when the percentage of BIPOC attending is far below what would be an accurate representation of the artist/maker community at large? Over the past ten years, that is where I have placed my focus and that is where I have not succeeded.

However, since Meg joined Squam last year, she and I have had many conversations on how best to reach BIPOC artists/makers who might be interested in bringing their skills, passions and talent to Squam. With her help and input and by reaching out to BIPOC artists and makers directly, I am encouraged to say that we do have initiatives underway that I trust will expand the diversity of our community both online and at the in-person gatherings.

And, as much as I would not wish the pain that was felt so deeply by so many last week on anyone, I know that ripples of conversation continue to roll out from last week and, for my part, I plan to help build them into meaningful dialogue that brings with it education, change and growth.

As Tina wrote in her public IG post on Friday.

“These past couple of days has shown me hope in this community and people in general, that promoting honesty and my truth was worth something. Even though this conversation has blown up in the knitting community, I encourage you to keep talking about it outside of this small pocket. Do your research. Educate yourself. There are people hurting everywhere and they’ve had it way worse than I could ever imagine. Their voices need to be heard too. I don’t have all the answers but I’m all for a good and honest conversation.”

We talk a lot about creativity, but as any maker knows– there is much destruction that occurs in making. I am okay with painting over something I spent weeks on that is simply wrong, starting over. As a very lame knitter, I am also familiar with ripping out rows and rows of knitting when I discover I was doing it all wrong. Tearing something down to make way for the new– that is a dynamic anywhere you look in the natural world. Where I step off is when destruction is war.

I will not be at war

Not with my sister who doesn’t like the way I load the dishwasher, not with my friend who is angry that I didn’t show up for her as she expected me to, not with my neighbor who doesn’t want my “weeds” in my front garden but wants me to put down grass, and not with the stranger who hates me but has never met me. I will not be at war.

War is based in hatred and fear. Racism at its core is about the destruction, the diminishment, the dishonor, the crushing of the human spirit, to split us apart, to make us believe there is such a thing as an “other” when there is only us, human beings, in all of our very imperfect glory. So if someone comes at me with hatred and fear, I will not respond to that same cruel energy. In my daily life and in my professional endeavors, I seek to honor the human spirit, to nurture and promote our very best self which can shine, even in the worst of times.

If anyone reading this feels disappointed that I did not share my thoughts sooner, I understand. I am slow. I have always been slow. My sister teases me that I drive like an octogenarian. And I do. I am that person you zip around who is plodding along in the right hand lane doing the speed limit. But then, my sister has not been behind three fatal accidents– the first when I was seven years old and the car in front of ours was hit head on by a drunk driver. It was a family of four: father, mother, two daughters. The mother and one daughter was killed that night. We were alone. No cell phones. Just my father rushing back to the car to send my brother up the hill to a house that had a light on to call for help. My father putting his winter coat over the mother’s body. My little brother and I were told to wait in the car. So I did not see anything. I only heard the screams of the other daughter that went on and on until the sirens began wailing and help arrived.

When I lived in the wilds of New Hampshire, animals would come onto the road, if I were driving fast, I might hit them. People did. All the time.

So, I drive slow. I live slow. Just so you know.

My mom died on January 2. In the days that followed her death, my brothers and sisters and I sat and shared stories about who she was, how she showed up in the world. One that surfaced was when my parents were moving to Pennsylvania in 1967 and sold their house in Newton, MA to a young black couple with children– I don’t remember how many, but I remember their daughter who was my age. One of the neighbors told my mother to her face that she did not like this and was angry at the actions of my parents. My mom did not shame the neighbor for her racism. Instead, she organized a cocktail party for everyone on the street to meet their new neighbors and, the woman said to my mom after, “what lovely people. I can’t believe how wrong I was.” That might not be verbatim– I wasn’t there. This was over fifty years ago– but what I do know is that the woman changed when she actually met the people she thought she did not want as a neighbor.

Because I had just been reminded of that story so recently, when things heated up on IG last week, it became a touchstone for me as I reflected on how we can address the racism that continues to poison our lives, our country, the world.

Leadership can come in many forms. I have always learned best from people right in front of me in the hard moments that are the daily, small, quotidian times when it is imperative we speak up, behave with dignity and keep our word impeccable. I am thinking specifically of events when I worked at a boarding school and at an Engineering/Manufacturing company when I witnessed first hand the abuse of power and what true power looks like. For me, true power is always kind. Always. It does not seek to shame or diminish anyone, ever. I have seen it in action and that is the person I wish to be. Although I don’t profess to always live up to my highest ideals, I know that I am committed to always trying to reach them as best I can.

Years ago, before he had won his first election, I remember so clearly the speech Obama gave in Philadelphia. I had been a long time supporter of his and always admired him deeply, but on that day, in that speech– he blew me away. His grace, his leadership, his brilliance steeped in kindness when faced with a wrenching situation. He blew me away.

I went back to it this weekend as I was sitting and reflecting on the exchanges I read last week. It was every bit good as I remembered. If you haven’t read it in a while, I highly recommend checking it out again. Here is one passage that I am connecting to in particular as I think about the need to meet one another, know one another, to see one another in the fullness of our complex human selves.

“But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

“The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.”
Barack Obama, March 18, 2008

I am part of a union that has yet to become whole.

I am here to do my best and to know that each of us is showing up as best we can in the ways that feel most true to us.

I am here to encourage creative self-expression in whatever medium calls to you and offer all the support I can so that each of us knows we are enough and our voice deserves to be heard in the way we are most comfortable expressing it.

And, I am here to hold space in my heart for each of us to know peace and ease in this lifetime.

bisous, Elizabeth

4 thoughts on “on friendship”

  1. Elizabeth:
    Your thoughts are always worth waiting for. I am sitting here with tears running down my face, because of the beauty of what you have written, and because of how much work there is still to be done.

    Thank you. Thank you for addressing my unease about the privilege I felt at Squam, and how very much I noticed our whiteness, and wondered how we could make that space more diverse, because that magic should not have a colour line.

    My word for 2019 is connect. Your post confirmed that choice deeply, in my soul.

    Reply
    • oh Lisa, your presence in my life is uplifting! I am grateful to your kindness and LOVE your word for 2019! Connect. Beautiful. May it bring you many good things. XO

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth, I am so grateful for your thoughts on this topic which has exploded over the last week, especially considering that you’re in the midst of moving through the passing of your sweet mother. The anger, the vitriol (and I am not discounting their reasons to feel anger) sent me reeling last week.
    Your gentleness, along with your unique way of seeing, lifted my heart. I agree it’s possible that if we try to connect through our commonalities, through our lense of love and kindness, we can find a pathway to be united. I am ever grateful for your thoughtful, peaceful kindness. Bless you.

    Reply
    • oh Kathy, you are such a light in my life. Over the years, your comments and notes have always found a way to remind me of how important friends are as we navigate our way through the world. Thank you for letting me know my words helped you. I am so grateful that you are in my life. Peace to you always, Elizabeth

      Reply

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