Lisa recommended Natalie to this project. Natalie laughingly told me the story of their meeting. After they ended up as next door neighbors, Natalie and her daughter used to go out of their way to walk by Lisa's house when she was out in the yard with her kids in hopes to make their acquaintance. That’s evidently a good tactic as they’ve since become dear friends. We met in Natalie's office and had a very lovely conversation. She mentioned a couple of words that tend to make me only want to ask for more clarity - contentment is one and like-mindedness is another - and I enjoyed learning from her throughout our thoughtful discussion.
ACT: Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
NM: I think about my roles in life. So, I think about being a mom. I think about being a wife and a sister and a daughter. And then I think about how I'm still getting to know myself as a person. So, when I think about answering that, I think, Okay, how would people describe me? And then I check in with myself on that. I've been described as nurturing and compassionate and when I check that with myself, I would agree with that. That's where I'd go right now with that.
ACT: As I read these questions line by line, sometimes I think this next one might come across as a pretty rough transition, but I don't intend it to be. I think it just tells me more about who you are. What concerns you, what breaks your heart, what makes you sad about life and community and how we all engage in a way that affects you personally? I'm trying to get people to avoid - and not that these aren't major issues - but some of the larger social issues and talk about what, really, on their more day-to-day, affects them. So, what is that? And then, what motivates you to do something about it?
NM: Okay. You may have to repeat that second question. When I think about day-to-day and I think about when my heart may become involved in my thought process, simple things like watching kids struggle on the playground or one kid being unkind to another - as simple as that, I'll be affected. And then, if we were to look at that in larger scale, it's basically any time there's a divide. Or, I guess when I look at it in my day-to-day with work, when I witness stigmatization. And in my work it would be stigmatization over somebody's body size. And then I wonder sometimes if the reason why that affects me is if it's traced al the way back to things that impacted me throughout my life and my childhood and my early adult years and why - you know, I look at the reasons why that happens or why I become so affected.
But I think it motivates the work that I do in seeking connection with others. And I guess one of the things that motivates me is putting people at ease - being able to bring that to others. And so, there may be a connection. If I see two people struggling or a lack of kindness, I tend to be somebody that's nurturing, so I want to bring forth that feeling of peace and ease within the body - for myself and for others. So, I think that motivates the person that I am and the work that I do - is wanting people to feel content, just the way they are. And so, when I see a divide happening when somebody's perceiving themself as different from somebody else or an us and them taking place, it's really unsettling for me. And I think my heart gets pulled into it.
ACT: The last person that I interviewed - just a few days ago - asked me about contentment and I have what seems to be a pretty unpopular view on contentment. So, can you tell me what you mean by contentment?
NM: If I were to think about my view, a lot of it involves acceptance. I guess accepting things as they are. And so if we go back to that situation we were talking about with divide, there's some lack of acceptance going on. And I guess that's how I feel like it weaves in with contentment. I've found with my own day-to-day life and my own personal existence and living in this body here, I'm able to experience more contentment when I'm not trying to change something, I guess, to avoid suffering. When I'm able to just be with what's happening, then I'm able to be more content because there's not a struggle going on or a fighting against something.
ACT: What do you think people mean to you and you mean to people as you go about your life?
NM: That's a tough question (laughs). I think that at times we can be reflections... or I find that others are a reflection of myself. So, I may see something in somebody when it's really just a part of myself that I'm witnessing. That's the simplest way for me to come to terms with that question.
What somebody means to me, though? I guess that depends day-to-day. It depends... this may not be the direction that I would expect to go with this, but how I may view somebody else or how somebody may view me, I think largely depends on how I'm caring for myself. If I'm getting my self-care needs met and I'm able to be rested and show up whole, then my view of what somebody means to me can be different. And if I'm showing up and I'm not whole myself or I'm showing up and I am whole, then the way others look to me and what they mean to me and what I may mean to them may be different. That doesn't seem very grandiose to me (laughs).
ACT: Going out from there - this individual to individual aspect - what does community, then, mean to you? And what does it mean to you to be part of a community - let's say the community of humanity - with all these different opinions, agendas, outlooks?
NM: I think historically I've been drawn to finding a community or being a part of a community that I feel like I'm with like-minded individuals. I may find myself in those communities. And I think about before becoming a parent, I identified with a running community or a cycling community and everybody has a similar view or they're doing something for a similar purpose. And then through parenting, finding myself in different communities. Or I may pick different communities that I feel like I'm surrounded by people that see things in a similar way. Different playgroups or right now I'm involved with a mother/daughter group and supporting my child and supporting me through that process of parenting.
More in my adult life, I'm able to be more brave and be more vulnerable and immerse in communities where I might not see things eye to eye with everybody. And, in those situations, I guess, trying to look for ways that I may connect with others. I need more help here (laughs)...
ACT: Just to use one of the examples that you mentioned - let's take the running community, for example. I'm not a runner; I despise every aspect of it. But when I look out at runners, I can imagine that there's a group of people - let's say there's 12 people - you share a common interest in running, but you may not share much else. But that may not be important because you share this interest in running. But, in society, it seems to me, we get in these situations often where the common point is the last thing we're concerned with. It's the difference. It could be a difference of politics; it could be a difference of income; it could be a difference of awareness; it could be a difference of gender identity; of skin color; of size; body type. Why do you suppose it is - now we're getting into a pretty loaded question - that some things we're willing to overlook because of this camaraderie or like-mindedness and others we have absolutely no room for whatsoever?
NM: This is totally personal opinion, but I look at it and I feel like it comes back to that part of the differences that we notice are things about ourselves that are being reflected back and it hooks us. And then we get stuck there. When you were describing the running group, I jumped to thinking that my sense of community with that ended when I was no longer able to run. And so, I wasn't able to necessarily connect on other levels. And so, I guess, that's where in my adult life - or my later adult life - able to be more brave and be able to say you can be a part of a community even if you don't see eye to eye with people on everything. This has been one of my personal journeys, which kind of started with having it happen in my marriage - where differences were dividing us. We were still connected because being married, but we were able to see more of the differences when we were in certain times - struggling times and rough times - individually. Our differences seemed to be so much more poignant. And when we're able to see that we don't have to agree on things all the time. Or we may never agree on certain things, but we can disagree in a way where we can coexist and still love each other and be connected. And so, I guess, that experience in my married life... I've been looking for ways to have that happen in my day to day life. It's like, I don't have to see eye to eye with the person to be connected with them. And be okay with people different from me and my view.
ACT: Do you have or feel a sense of purpose or a compulsion to live with intention or a responsibility to affect positive change?
NM: When you ask that question I get kinda giddy (laughs). That's such a beautiful question. I feel like all of those elements are things that are really fueling the work that I'm doing right now. And I feel like almost as if certain things have lied dormant within me and in the past year, being a part of a new practice in my work life, all of those questions have been asked of me by the person that I work with. And just by asking those questions sometimes, in my life, has brought me to the greater good and wanting to self-reflect and say, What is my purpose? and How do I want to show up each day? So maybe that's why I get giddy when you (laughs) do that.
I think, in this past year, I've been able to come to fruition and be comfortable with what parts of people I want to support. I have the desire to be able to bring tools and, I guess, perspective to people no matter what body that they're living in that they can lead full lives and be accepting of what they are, who they are, right here as they are in this moment, without having to change. And when that change happens, then they can start living their life. And so I guess that's one of the things right now - just being able to help individuals access contentment from the seat they're in right now would be something that I feel like is purpose - and my purpose - and bringing more ease to people no matter what they're experiencing, not matter what they're trauma background is, no matter what kind of day they're having. In this moment, how can we feel ease in our body? Or, I guess, be at peace with it. It might not feel easy or comfortable, but being okay with that. Being okay with not being okay, I think, is one way of saying it.
ACT: Do you spend time thinking about or energy on wondering about people putting quite a lot of energy, time, and resources into things that are pretty negative as a purpose - accumulation of personal wealth or self-advancement at all cost?
NM: Yeah. I think, in some sense, the folks that I work with day to day - a lot of them may be putting a lot of focus on external orientation. So, how they are viewed by others and, unfortunately, in the society that we're in, there can often just be one definition of an ideal - of how somebody should be living their life or how they may look. And, I guess, very specific to my work, it's the thin privilege and the cost that people may go through to modify their bodies to meet our society's view of what we should be is what I see a big part of my day. And what somebody will go through to meet that that isn't in line with their values. When you sit down and look at what their values are, the actions that they're doing and what they're putting their body through doesn't match their values. So, there's a discrepancy there and so that may be what I work with.
(Laughs) It's hard to stay on track with the questions... there can be such an intermingling.
ACT: Do you have anything that'd you like to ask me? We'll trade places for a minute.
NM: Yeah, so, we talked a little bit about this, but I was curious how many people you've interviewed on this project. So, that's one question. And then another question is what impact has this project had on you and how you relate with people in the world?
ACT: This is, I'm fairly certain - I just did another count - interview 125.
NM: Okay. That's a lot of people.
ACT: It's a lot of people, yeah. I did a project many years ago where I interviewed someone every single day and I did it for a year and a half, so I did it for less time but more people. And this one is much more in depth. But, for some reason, I have a hard time keeping them separate and so I'm wondering if I'll make it to 625 interviews with A Community Thread. And I wonder if I'll feel much different if do than I do now. And how I feel about this project changes pretty frequently. How did you word the second part of the question?
NM: The other one is how you've been impacted by this work. And with relating with so many people, how has that affected you?
ACT: So, that's ongoing, of course. (Sighs) I hold myself and others to a pretty high, rigorous standard. And that's the person in line at the coffee shop or sitting in traffic or a business partner or a photo client - I kind of hold everybody to this basic, human decency level. And I tend to think that's known - I tend to think this standard is generally accepted and is a given and people are choosing not to act to it. Which, over time and the amount of disappointment I've gone through, I guess is just not the case. But I seem to be a slow learner in that realm, but I'm also not entirely sure that's a bad thing. I'd rather, I guess, continue to be disappointed than to begin jaded - to approach it as if people aren't gonna live up to it versus to approach it as if they are and then be disappointed. But that carries through to me, too. And so, on one hand, I sit here and do these interviews and try to build this thread or web - grow community in the sense that we mean something to each other- and on the other hand, I find myself kind of slipping up daily, too. And then I feel a great sense of accountability because of this project and because of this role that I've put myself in.
I started the project out of curiosity, but also a necessity to find good and grow good, perpetuate good, and show that to others because I'm getting quite worn out with the bad. And I just know what I'm capable of and there's a fair amount of bad in that. And it's kind of just this quest to figure out what that is. I don't know that I'll ever sit down with the one person who enlightens me and answers all of these questions that I have, but I might ask enough of enough people that I start to get some more clarity. And as much as I struggle with the word contentment, I think I'm probably seeking it in some way. I often place contentment and complacency as very near partners, so I don't know that I'm seeking contentment in a way that I'm just wanting to be at ease. But I wouldn't mind experiencing some peace every once in a while. So, if that's contentment then I think I'm seeking it. And I might be seeking it through this, as well.
I'm learning quite a lot. And I think sometimes the things I'm learning become apparent much later. Who knows, it might be months or years or decades from now or in another life. But I can't be doing this and not taking in something.
NM: I hear you talk about the impact that this work has on you and I hear you share that you have mess-ups and I think to myself, Nobody is immune to mess-ups. And sometimes that can be a perception thing, too. Right? Like, what's deemed as a mess-up? And also that piece of contentment where everything doesn't necessarily have to be in order or the way we imagined or meeting some ideal in order for contentment to take place. It can be in this moment or it can be in a really adverse situation or a really painful situation or a really difficult situation. That's what I mean about contentment. No matter what is happening that you can experience that sensation in the body of, This is right where I need to be. And not having a fight to be somewhere else or experiencing something else. You said something about complacency and I'm like, Hmmm. I can see where that would have a crossover, too.
ACT: This doesn't tie in, but I really want to mention it, so I guess I'm just going to do it.
NM: Do it.
ACT: Sometimes when people get referred to the project, their response is that they're not worthy - that they haven't done enough in their life or they don't have something to offer. And I can answer that pretty easily. But the other day I was listening to this piece - and it's probably something I've heard in the past - about raccoons. So, when raccoons are out in their troop - or whatever a group of raccoons is called - they leave a lookout behind and then there are the raiders. But whatever the raiders collect, they always save the first bit or the best bit for the lookout.
And I don't know why today - you didn't mention raccoons and this hasn't been part of our thread - but it's been coming up since you started talking. I, through this project, am constantly reminded of how much we all matter and how little sometimes we take care of one another. You know? And I try really hard, actively, to take care of the people in my life. And I think this exercise of being the interviewer holds me accountable to a standard of trying to keep my own shit together in a way that's kind to others. So, yeah, I don't know if that was for me or you or somebody else that might listen to this, but I just think we need to be better to one another all the time.
NM: Yeah. And I'm thinking about just what happens when you do show up as a human and that you actually put yourself in a vulnerable state, then... well, I guess this is my experience, when I'm working with somebody and I put myself out there in a vulnerable state, in that moment we're able to connect. And there's some sense of we're more like each other than not like each other. And in the work that I do and in my day to day life, I see that as the healing and that it doesn't have to look comfortable or lovely. Yeah, I'm thinking about that with conversations with my husband and not trying to avoid the discomfort or not trying to avoid the argument. It's like, well, the repair is where the healing is happening. And it's not always lovely or polished on the outside. It's rough and winds and weaves.
ACT: Do you have anything that you'd like to say in closing?
NM: I feel really grateful to be able to have been invited to be a part of this. I don't have anything monumental except that. Just feeling excitement and gratitude in closing.
ACT: Gratitude's a good place to stop.