Alyson recommended I connect with Erin. In our first correspondence, she mentioned that we had previously met at a workshop with Mark Montgomery at Bend Community Healing. It must have been close to a year ago, but I remembered meeting her. We played the scheduling game for a few weeks, but we were finally able to meet up at her home. I am so glad we made it work because we had a wonderful conversation and I am really excited to share it with you below. I felt very peaceful chatting with her. She talks about some of the recent changes in her life and I got the sense that those changes have allowed her to become a fuller and truer version of herself. I wonder how different our conversation would have been last year. You never know how you will cross paths with someone and when you might meet again. Maybe you can go about your day with that in mind? Try it just for today and see how it feels.
Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
That's a question that is always evolving. I think I have three big hats that I wear right now: one is as a mom to my two small boys; the other one is as a teacher of yoga and meditation; and the last one is using my experience and my credentials as a hospice nurse, embarking on the roll of end-of-life doula - so, a guide in helping our community reimagine death and dying.
What matters to you?
Love. Humanity. And connecting to others. I think that that is where we can move forward. Because right now there is a lot of disconnection and a lot of divide. And so, although I don't consider myself an activist by any means, I think there's room to be active in helping people reconnect to our humanity. And that comes from projects like this. It comes from finding your passion and what you're really good at by listening to your heart. And when you listen to your heart and then live by what your heart tells you you're passionate about, then you can go out and take that into connectivity - into connecting to people based on what your passion is. Whether you find somebody who shares that passion or somebody you can serve with your passion.
What motivates you? Or where does your motivation comes from?
When somebody tells me that something I've said or some interaction we've had or something I've done for them changed them. So, that's how I got into end-of-life work. I became a nurse and I worked in oncology - so, cancer care - and I had some really profound patient interactions in my first year where people... I mean, I can remember one woman who had lymphoma and she had her first surgery of her entire life and I was her nurse for the night. She'd been through a lot, but first time she'd ever been through a surgery; and she was... wow, she was down. But whatever happened in that night, the next time that I saw her she was like, You changed the whole experience for me. Your presence changed that experience for me and made it not so scary. That was really motivating to me. That was reassuring to me that what I was doing at the time was what I was meant to be doing. And so that was inspiring and motivating to me. I've continued that work and continued to be motivated and inspired by those patient interactions, so that eventually what happened is last fall I left my job as a hospice nurse because all the management piece was getting in the way. In the way of having those motivating human interactions with people I was caring for. And so I got inspired and motivated to go out on my own and be able to provide this service or provide care, companionship, presence to people outside of that structure. Not that I'm against that structure, but it just wasn't working for me anymore and it was taking away my motivation.
What do we mean to each other, person to person?
You and me? We are what this is all about. I teach a lot about being stardust. Right? And sometimes that sounds really kind of hippy-dippy, but it's Carl Sagan's quote and if you want somebody who's not hippy-dippy, that's Carl Sagan. But, the fact is, we are made up of what the entire universe is made up of. And so I often teach this meditation where I kind of take people like way out into the universe and from out there look back at who you are. You're a tiny speck of stardust in one universe among many universes. So, if you take that perspective and then zoom back in to see all of us interacting as specks of stardust, then we are what that is all about. And so us working together, existing together, cooperating, learning about each other - we're in this together. And one of my favorite quotes by Ram Dass is, We're all just walking each other home.
What does community mean to you?
I feel like I've been leading into this a little bit, but community is the only way for us to move forward. Supporting each other, feeling safe with the people around us. Whether that means feeling safe and secure or safe to be ourselves and safe to understand that the family across the street who our kids love each other and we rely on them all the time and they rely on us, but have very different views; we share some lifestyle similarities, but a lot of lifestyle differences, as well. Their politics doesn't matter; their religious beliefs don't matter; how they recreate doesn't really matter. But that here we are - two families living across the street in our community and we totally can rely on them, regardless of what our beliefs are. That there isn't a divide down the middle of our street... They believe something completely different, so I would never talk to them. We're on this street where people have a lot of different views, but we are community. And we rely on each other and help each other out and we know that if the garage door's left open, they're gonna come over and shut it or they're gonna call me and say, Your garage door's open. If my kid gets hurt and I have to go to the hospital with my kid, they're gonna be like, Leave everybody else here; we got this. So, I think it provides us with security in who we are. And in that security in who we are, we can express our differences; we can realize that our differences aren't as important as our commonality as human beings.
What concerns you? What gives you pause? What's heavy on your heart?
There's two things that come up for me. One goes along with what motivates me in reimagining death and dying. And what's heavy on my heart is hearing or reading about a story of someone dying in a hallway in a hospital because they were trying so hard or somebody was giving them false hope or they were't able to acknowledge death as a part of the life cycle. That level of suffering at the end of life gives me pause. And that's what motivates me to try and change that; starting in our community and then broadening from there. The other thing that gives me great pause is atrocious treatment of humans by other humans. And I don't listen to the news a lot because I hear those stories and it can be paralyzing and I don't want to be paralyzed. So, I allow myself the opportunity to know what's going on and figure out how to do something about it. Maybe not as an activist - as I mentioned, I don't consider myself an activist. Especially children, you know? What just came up at the border. And it's like I just can't imagine a human looking another human in the eye and treating them so evil.
On that topic, it doesn't surprise me that one person at the top made a ridiculous decision. What does and will always surprise me is that so many people below him agreed to follow it. From law makers all the way down to a guard, thousands of people broke a moral code. You mentioned this before that in your work the environment wasn't allowing you to thrive. And that's what we're looking at here. Maybe there were people who wanted to refuse to do that, but they also needed a paycheck and they had to decide between moral and survival. Maybe this makes me peculiar, but I don't want to survive without my moral. The fact that so many people are willing to do that gives me pause. So, the question is, how do we promote social justice?
I think a lot of it starts really early. And it starts in how we teach our kids. Not just in the schools, but how we teach 'em in our homes. And I think teaching the children that we are human and that we all deserve basic rights and beyond basic rights. Building community, building connection, so that kids at school see each other as each other. Not us and them. Not, Well, they live across the tracks. Kindness - teaching kids kindness and acceptance and supporting each other. So that as we move forward... because there's a lot of people where this is happening, who are a lot older, and some of them will change, but a great majority will not change the way it's always been done, the way they've always believed, or whatever trauma came to them way back when that caused them to believe what they believe now. But, in the words of the wonderful Whitney Houston (laughs), I believe the children are our future. That is where we start to build this groundwork. And that is how we contribute to what's gonna come down the road: creating and building and making these children and young adults accepting. And I'm not saying that we all have to have the same beliefs; that we all have to be liberal, progressive, democratic, all love people. But that we can listen to the other side and we could be open to the possibility that somebody might have a good point; even if it's different than what my opinion is. So, it starts low and it evolves into leading by example.
And I think sharing interactions with other people that are positive. And even if it's not positive; if you have a conflict... there's peaceful conflict. There's a way to hear somebody out that doesn't get elevated. And in my work what I do is teach people how to breathe; how to pause; how to respond instead of reacting. So, whether it's with their child, with their partner, with their boss, with a car accident - that you can pause and handle it without elevating it. We can do this. We can interact. We had an accident. Let's take a minute. Okay, what happened here? You know? Instead of immediately going into blame. What do you think just happened? Okay, well what I think just happened was this. And try to find that common ground and deal with conflict peacefully. And then take it from there. From day-to-day interactions, day-to-day responding instead of reacting, day-to-day pausing. And then seeing like what you said about where does your heart feel heavy? What lands heavily on your heart? And then what level do you take that to as far as injustice goes? If something is heavy on your heart, are you an activist? One of my yoga philosophy teachers is a man named Ravi Ravindra and he lives in Nova Scotia and he teaches at the university and whatnot. And he tells this great story about his daughter who was so outraged about what was going on in Halifax and so upset and gets in this fight with him and she's just like, How can you not be outraged?! Why are you not down there marching right now?! And he just paused and he smiled and he said, Because, my dear, if we were all out pounding the pavement, there would be nobody to get us out of jail. So, some of us, our activism will be being present and ready when we have to bail somebody out of jail for doing that work. So we all fit together. And there's a role for all of us to contribute to bettering our community, bettering our society, and working out these injustices, but on different levels.
Do you have a sense of purpose?
Yeah (laughs). There's my short answer. Good enough? Let's move on. Yeah, I think my sense of purpose really, really bright to me right now is helping people recognize the cycle of life and recognize death as a part of life. And recognizing that all of this is temporary. The trees are temporary. Our conversation is pretty temporary. So, when you start to take that perspective, it can change a lot of those interactions, those conflict interactions, as well. Right? Starting to recognize that I don't have to get elevated and get completely wrapped up in this conflict. This conflict is temporary. It will fade. It will [subside]. So that temporary nature of things, and embracing that fact, I think can change a lot of the way that people interact with each other even. 'Cause it changes the way they interact with their own life and the way they view their own life and the stages of life that they're in. So, that, I feel like, is my big purpose right now. Embracing aging, doing it well - whatever well means to you - so that you can approach the end of this life without fear.
What do you want more of in your life?
I want more vacation (laughs). You know, I don't want for a lot right now. I feel really, really fulfilled. I think a lot of that came from getting motivated to do something on my own and to stop fighting against a structure that wasn't working. And when I did that it freed up a lot of joy in my life. And it gave me the freedom to live each day how I want to live each day. Whether I have responsibilities - responsibilities for my children or to teach a class or to be with someone - I am making that choice. Or whether it's I have a whole day open and I can choose to do whatever I want with it. I have a healthy family. You know, I don't really want for anything; I feel really satisfied with each day as it comes.
Do you have anything else that you want to put out there?
Well, I'll put out there that this is an awesome project and I think that these kind of interactions, like you said, getting to know somebody who why would you ever know them any other time, you know... it's really cool to get to know somebody. So whether you are introducing yourself to a stranger or you're meeting somebody at a party who you've never talked to or you're going to an event that you never think you would go to and putting yourself out there, I think it's important to continue this - this thread of community, as you call it. That we need to get to know each other. And respect each other. And live together. And walk each other home.
Do you want to ask me anything that I will answer online later?
Yeah. What do we mean individual to individual?
The first word that comes to my mind is lessons. We serve, if we allow it, as teachers to one another on a nearly constant basis. I don’t know if it’s due to my tendency for introspection or because I am not as evolved as others or what the reason may be, but I feel that I often come up short in my interactions with people. I have to be at my best to react kindly to the lifted-diesel-truck driver who cuts me off and then spews black exhaust into my face as he noisily accelerates away. And I have to be at my best to handle my neighbor who strikes the wrong chord in me with seemingly every new conversation. There are many examples I could use here, but, in short, I recognize that I often don’t do as well as I could.
I also recognize that we mean the difference between a great or a tragic day. I am never happier than when someone responds to my kindness with kindness. I feel joy and light and a big smile comes over my face. And, in contrast, I rarely feel worse than when that kindness is responded to with apathy or rudeness. That disconnection really stumps me and I let that negative energy creep in. And then, my own feelings of failure at letting that not affect me stay with me for a long time.
Each one of us can - and I suppose I feel like ‘should’ is a more appropriate word - help every other person we come into contact with. Holding the door, alerting someone of a dropped item, picking up the discarded paper towels collected at the base of the trash can in the bathroom, getting off the phone while in line at our coffee shop, donating a few extra bucks to a good cause, etc. - there are so many little ways we can show up for somebody else. And I believe that showing up in the small ways is really good practice for when we encounter a bigger opportunity.