Sharing our Stories in 2022 – May

SHARING OUR STORIES IN 2022 : WOMENS CONNECTIONS

May’s story writer, Cari Kelley, was our first featured writer in “Sharing our Stories”  back in February 2021.  We are delighted to share a second story from Cari.  Now in honor of NATIONAL MENTAL HEALTH MONTH, Cari encourages us all to notice what is going on with the people around us and to help them make connections to needed resources.  Her very thoughtful story describes how connections have made a difference for her as a mother of twins and how connections have helped her two wonderful now-adult children to face challenges and grow from them.

Cari Kelley

Cari Kelley is the very smart and very devoted mother of two loving and amazing children, Jacquie and Calvin.   She works full-time as the Workplace Donor Relations Manager at United Way of Northwest Vermont. Cari also runs her own travel business, www.carimeawaytravels.com and with her daughter, Jacquie, she is the co-founder of www.wheelsforjacquiefoundation.org    Cari lives in Grand Isle, Vermont with her incredibly loving and supportive partner, Greg.

CARI'S STORY

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but for me, every day is about being aware of the mental health of those I love. I am the proud parent of 24-year-old twins, Calvin and Jacquie. They might have been born 8 minutes apart, but I’m always amazed at just how different they are.

Cari, Jacquie, Calvin

Jacquie was diagnosed at the age of two with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a form of Muscular Dystrophy. What does this mean? The muscles in her body atrophy over time and she is one of the most determined people I know. When she sets her mind to accomplish something, she stays focused and sees it through. For example, she had told herself that she wanted to stay on her feet until 8th grade graduation so she could walk in and out of her ceremony, which she did. That summer, she made the decision to start using her scooter more, and today, is using her wheelchair full-time. That is one of many stories.

Calvin

Calvin was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the age of 5. It took us a very long time to figure out what the “trigger” was and what we found shows the size of his heart. In a counseling appointment in the early years he told the counselor of the pain he felt for his sister and his desire to take her disability so she could live a “normal” life. It’s what’s called Survivor Guilt and it was deep. He just could not wrap his head around why Jacquie and not him and the unfairness of it all. He still struggles with this question today.

Little did he know then, Jacquie would not trade her disability for anything. It’s what has made her the caring and determined woman she is today. But, for Calvin, he gets caught in his head and the guilt, depression and anxiety take over. We have had many doctor and counseling appointments, suicide scares, and the bullying from classmates when he was in school, starting in elementary school, was heartbreaking.

This article is not only focused on Mental Health, but also connections. For those living with Mental Health challenges, connection is everything. For me, in the school years, it was the special educator within the school that kept both of us going. She attended every meeting at the alternative school that Calvin was sent to from 1st to 5th grade and fought alongside me to get him back into our community school. She stayed as a special educator at our school until Calvin graduated from 12th grade. She felt so connected to us that she made a commitment to not leave us behind. Without her, I would have been so lost and not have had the support I so desperately needed. I am forever grateful for her.

Sping Flora

For Calvin, I am very humbled to say, that his connection to support is me. I don’t say that lightly. There are times that when he calls and I see his number pop up, I hold my breath and pray that he’s not in crisis. I just never know what I’m going to hear on the other end of the line, but I am so blessed that he reaches out to me, pretty much every day, even to just check in and tell me he loves me. He lives in Wisconsin near my family, and about a thousand miles from me, but he knows I’m always here and don’t sit in judgement. My partner, Greg, also is one of his biggest fans and always willing to help when needed.

What Calvin has been lacking since moving to Wisconsin in 2019 is a connection to medical supports. That changed on April 23rd of this year. It was a Saturday, and he called me around 7:30 pm, and was in crisis. He had a tough breakup in May of 2021 and has really struggled since. I have received a number of calls since that event, but this one was different. He was contemplating self-harm, but also, reaching out to ask about seeking help. After we talked, he agreed that he needed to go to the Emergency Room and get connected to medical services that he needed. This was not the first time that he has contemplated self-harm, and not the first time that he has been in the emergency room, but it was the first time that he decided he truly needed help and was ready to accept it. I am hopeful that he continues down this path and works with the supports that have now been put in place for him. He has the support of his employer and loves his job, so I’m feeling confident.

I am not going to lie. Being on the other end of that phone call is incredibly difficult and I rely heavily on my faith. I try to stay calm and listen, but after I hang up, the tears typically flow for a bit. I love this young man so much, and because of all he has gone through, he is only truly happy if he is helping people whether through his work or his volunteer interests. His core values are well-rounded and the love he has for his sister melts my heart.

I share my story because I want to highlight the importance of connection and help break the stigma of mental health. I am honored to work for the United Way of Northwest Vermont as the Workplace Donor Relations Manager. United Way focuses on five key strategies in our community. Meeting Basic Needs (housing, transportation, food insecurity), Advancing Employment through our Working Bridges program, Supporting Families, Reducing Substance Misuse, and Promoting Mental Health. In my conversations with CEO’s and employees, Promoting Mental Health resonates with so many. Businesses are trying to meet employees and their families where they are and trying to figure out the supports that are needed. United Way has started the Mental Health Initiative, and as stated on our website, “People experiencing mental health challenges and the systems designed to help them have been pushed to a breaking point. Already one of the hardest areas to address, mental health needs have worsened throughout COVID-19.

Emergency department beds are crowded with children and adults experiencing mental health crises who do not have timely access to treatment programs. Depression and anxiety, especially among youth, have spiked during the pandemic.

Now more than ever, we need to come together to strengthen mental health resources for ourselves and our neighbors.”  If you want to learn more about this work, visit https://unitedwaynwvt.org/mental-health-initiative.

In closing, connection is critical for every facet of our lives. If we don’t have connection, what do we have? We look for it in our life partner, we look for it in our daily lives, and when someone is in crisis, a connection can be lifesaving, literally. I just ask that people be aware of those around you. Don’t jump to conclusions because you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life. Instead, be open to being supportive and helping to connect them to what they need. You would be a hero in their eyes and possibly a life saver. Who wouldn’t want to live with that feeling.

LotusPad Logo Wise Women Vermont
Know someone who might benefit from this article? Help them. Share this article!

Sharing our Stories in 2022 – April

SHARING OUR STORIES IN 2022: WOMEN'S CONNECTIONS

This month’s story is written by Carol Bokan with lots of support and inspiration from Vv.  Carol’s story  describes how her relationship with her maternal grandmother helped her to see the importance of filling life with vibrant and interesting connections to other people.   She also is reminded of how much she learns regularly from her grand-daughter Vv about the value of talking and listening and writing as ways of making and deepening connections. 

Carol Bokan - WWVT
Carol Bokan

Carol Bokan is a co-creator of the WISEWOMENVT SHARING OUR STORIES PROJECT.   Carol holds a Ph.D. in Counseling and is retired from a 45-year career in counseling and higher education.  In 2016, Carol began a second career as a yoga teacher and currently teaches chair yoga on-line.  Continuously encouraged and supported by her soon-to- be- 10-year-old grand-daughter, Vv, Carol enjoys connecting with the amazing women and girls who submit stories to the SHARING OUR STORIES PROJECT.  She and Vv both love sharing stories and helping writers and readers connect with each other.

CAROL'S STORY:

When we considered a theme for our 2022 blog stories, Vv and I began with the idea of women’s friendships with each other.  As we considered what possible stories might wrap around this theme, we realized that it made sense to broaden the theme to women’s CONNECTIONS, more generally.  Doing this seemed to allow for more types of stories about the ways women connect with each other and even how they connect with men and with ideas.  Our first two stories for 2022 have shown that women’s connections mean different things to different women and here in April’s story we are happy to have this opportunity to share our own perspectives on CONNECTIONS.  We look forward to sharing more stories during 2022.

LESSONS FROM MY GRANDMOTHER EDNA: Talking, Listening, Writing and Connecting

My first real memories about how women make connections came from knowing my grandmother Edna, who we fondly called Mamaw Ed.  A smart and determined young woman from a small farm town in southern Indiana, Edna made her way to graduate from DePauw University in 1913 thanks to the help of her older brother, Harvey.  Her connection to Harvey was always present in her life as she seemed to deeply value his love and mentorship. Edna married late and became mother to Maribel (my mom) and my dear Uncle John.  Edna taught in one-room school houses in the area and lived her whole life on a farm near where she was born.  During and after college she managed to make life-long connections with people from all over the world.  As a little girl in that same farm town in southern Indiana, I was witness to Edna’s visits from all kinds of folks. These included people she had met in college,  her former students with whom she stayed in close touch throughout her life, neighbors, and both close and distant relatives with whom she maintained strong connections. Edna was a talker and a listener and her door was always open to welcome visitors at a moment’s notice.   She had a party-line phone and gabbed on it constantly, as a way of keeping up with all the local news which she happily shared widely.  I recall her regularly giving health updates and social news on a variety of neighbors.   I also recall that she got some of her information when she picked up the phone when someone else was talking, took a moment to listen in and asked questions to get more details.   She was a relentless talker and listener on the phone and in person and she connected everyone to everyone any way she could.  I recall that my dad was not always happy when we took a family vacation and  Mamaw  (his mother-in-law) provided her usual  list of people for us to connect to regardless of where we went.  My dad referred to these potential connections as “Edna’s stray cats.”   I remember thinking they were fascinating people and being amazed at how she possibly collected them all. Edna’s frequent connection to people and the frequency with which she connected her connections to each other made for few degrees of separation anywhere.  The joke in our family was that someone went to Rome and met the Pope.  When he asked where they were from and they said, Indiana, he said “Oh, do you know Edna Sinclair?”

Edna, Mom, Pat, Carol - 1956

Edna, my mother, my sister Pat (on Edna’s lap) and me
Edna’s farmhouse in Indiana, circa 1956

While Edna’s connections were often made by her talking and listening (on the phone or in person), I think most of her connections may actually have come from writing. She was a relentless writer producing regular articles for the small-town newspaper, poems, short stories, and her autobiography.  Perhaps most importantly,  she was a relentless writer of many letters to many people.  I well remember her weekly letters to me when I was in college. These were newsy updates about what was happening in the family and in Quincy, Indiana,  as well as  tidbits of grandmotherly advice.

I don’t recall all the advice but I do recall being told in more than one of her letters,   “remember who you are and where you came from” and “avoid entangling alliances.”  I thought the idea of avoiding alliances was a bit odd coming from someone whose favorite thing to collect was long-term relationships.  Years later I realized I think she was advising me to not marry young.  That advice I did not take to heart, but I think the idea of remembering where I came from has stuck with me well!

I tell the story of Edna to say that, like hers, my life has been one of collecting people.  Like Edna, my experience is always full of meeting new people and then doing my best to stay in touch with the ones I most adore.  Making connections to interesting people, keeping those connections alive and often connecting those people to each other just feels like breathing to me.  

Circles of Connections

WAYS of CONNECTING:

Connections through talking and listening:
I make lots of connections by talking, so much so that my grandfather once commented about me, “I swear that girl was vaccinated with a phonograph needle.” While this metaphor doesn’t make sense to young people today, it was a good description then of the fact that I was a non-stop talking child and I continue to be a non-stop talking adult  These days my talking is in person, and on the phone and more often than not on zoom or facetime. (I smile when I imagine what Edna could have done with a smart phone!)  The Covid pandemic provided me with much opportunity to maintain connections with friends from everywhere via the phone and the computer.  Like Edna’s relentless letters, I do relentless cyber-connections. I teach chair yoga on zoom three  times a week.  My senior zooming yogis have become a lovely group practicing together for two years now from Vermont, New York City, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, wherever. We have never met in person and yet our connections are a delight.  My sister and I talk nearly every day and do yoga on zoom twice a week from Indiana to Florida or Vermont  and I have regular phone or zoom chats with at least ten individuals or groups from around the country.  Vv and I face-timed our way together through 2020 and have continued to stay in touch that way.  While I have a long-standing reputation as a talker, I aspire always to be a better listener. My years as a counselor helped me develop some listening skills,  but it is a constant struggle to make sure I listen at least as much as I talk.  Sometimes I succeed at this balance, sometimes not.

One of my first favorite childhood games was “connect the dots.”  I loved those coloring books that allowed me to draw lines from number to number to make a picture.  As an adult I love connecting the dots between people.   Like Edna, I often find myself asking a few questions and discovering that the new person I just met is connected to someone I met somewhere else sometime in the past. I love it when those small world dots connect and when that happens I smile and I feel like I’m channeling Edna, wishing she were here to get a kick out of this connection.

Connections through writing:
Like Edna, I like to make connections in writing. I think her influence drew me to develop the idea of the stories on the blog at wisewomenvt.   The first year of writing the blog I did a monthly  share about yoga and I loved the opportunity to make connections in this way.  After a year of a monthly blog posts,  I realized it would be fun (and easier) to find some guest writers for the blog.  Together Vv and I hatched the idea of “Sharing Our Stories” in 2021.  It was really fun to reach out to our friends and invite them to write their stories.  Their creative and interesting stories were a delight to read and to share. Toward the end of 2021, I was ready to let go of the blog and Vv was determined we should try it another year. By that time, she was much more of an equal partner in the project and connecting with her on it was the very best part of it all. I have loved watching the way she develops ideas and makes connections as we work our way through this project. 

Spring Daffodils

LESSONS ABOUT CONNECTING FROM MY GRAND-DAUGHTER, Vv

While my grandmother Edna was my first teacher about connections, my current teacher is soon-to-be-ten-year-old Vv.   A fellow talker for sure, Vv and I love chatting about all kinds of topics.   Her mom between us is a talker as well, but truth be told, when the three of us are together, Vv and I compete for most words per minute and my daughter provides most of the deep listening.   I often think that I’m a cross-generation bridge from Edna to Vv,  who is my co-teacher in  a face-time one-room school class for the 18-inch dolls in her playroom. Like Edna and me, Vv is a talker and a writer.  She is also a drawer and designer and a singer and an actress. She loves connecting people in the stories she writes and in all her experiences in and out of school.   Vv has I am sure her own story about how she makes connections and perhaps she will share that on the blog at some point.  She offers some thoughts in her poem at the end of this post.  For now, I can say that she closely studies the connections between the characters in The Baby-Sitters’ Club, Dr. Who, and High School Musical the Musical the Series, and she knows exactly how those complicated interpersonal relationships work.   She effectively used technology to make it through a year of remote school for third grade and this year happily moved to connecting back at school now in person through book club, theater, and the school newspaper.  She has stayed connected from New England to her BFF who moved to the west coast, and she regularly teaches me something new about how to maintain connections through technology in ways her great-great grandmother Edna could never imagined and would have absolutely loved!

CONNECTIONS by Vv Welsh
 Age 9.9 years

Close
One of a kind
Not the same
Not perfect
Experience makes them better
Closeness means everything
Talking
Inspiring
On the inter-net or in person
Neither good nor bad
Staying side Bye-Side

As I think about the importance of connections with other people in my life, I sometimes wonder what drives me to stay connected.  I don’t have a perfect answer for this question, but  I am ever so grateful for every connection and look forward to finding new ways to stay in touch with the dear people in my life who help me understand what is important and what is real.  Connecting to dear ones simply seems to be what makes life sweet.

Vv Welsh, age  9.9 years

Know someone who might benefit from this article? Help them. Share this article!

Sharing our Stories in 2022 – March

SHARING OUR STORIES IN 2022: WOMEN'S CONNECTIONS

We are very happy to share our March CONNECTIONS story where Gina Catanzarita describes the ways in which her ability to make connections to other people has made a difference in her life. Her ability to reach out and connect so well has helped her develop a successful career in corporate Human Relations while making her lifelong friendships and widening her world in ways she could never have imagined forty years ago. Gina is a woman who brings both her very good mind and her very good heart to every interaction she has with others. We really appreciate her sharing her very positive and encouraging story. We hope that you, too, will enjoy this opportunity to learn about her experience and to benefit from her wisdom.

Gina Catanzarita
Gina Catanzarita

Gina Catanzarita grew up in Witherbee, NY, a small, once booming mining town.  She was the eldest of 6 brothers and sisters.  Not really into athletics, she had a passion for their school’s skits and songs program.  Each year, students from various grades would get together and put together skits and sing songs for their annual show.  In her senior year, she participated in Junior Miss, a pageant for young women in their Senior year.  Gina received the “Spirit of Junior Miss” award – an award voted on by her peers for an individual who was a team player, helped others, and represented a caring, kind attitude towards others.  She also received an award in the Creative and Performing Arts category for singing a song in sign language that she learned while working 3 years at a summer camp for intellectually/physically disabled campers of all ages. In 1980, she continued her education at Hudson Valley Community College, Troy NY and received an associate degree in Marketing.  She worked a short time in Albany as a receptionist but wanted to be closer to home.  She then moved to VT and spent the next 39 years working for Engelberth Construction, most of those years in Human Resources.  Her husband, Tom, joined her a year later to work for the same company as a craftsperson/Foreman.  In 1988, President election day, her daughter Chelsea was born.  Chelsea married her college sweetheart Josh and now Gina and Tom are the proud grandparents of 3 grandchildren, 4-year-old twins Jack and Willa and 5-month-old Wren.  Since taking a break from the working world, they have been helping with their care with the many challenges of daycare and covid shutdowns.  In her spare time, Gina likes to just hang by her pool, read/surf the internet, collect inspirational and funny quotes and save lots of Pinterest items to make some day.  She’s pondering what’s next, enjoys being creative and hopes to put all of her purchased and collected craft items to some use. 

Gina’s Story

About 40 years ago and right out of college, I moved to VT to start a work career.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my marketing degree.  I didn’t have any real great aspirations other than I wanted to be a secretary.  I went to college because my friends were, and my dad insisted.  I would see my dad a few times a year as he was a mine inspector and worked out of state.  My mom remarried when I was about 5 and I would come to have 5 other siblings in the house, with me being the oldest.  I didn’t have a lot of consistent encouragement growing up, or someone helping me to see the bigger picture.  It didn’t come easy with so many kids running around and trying to raise a family during some tough times.  I was a country bumpkin (verified a few years later when I went to Texas for training and was called that by a very tall Texan while looking lost at the airport).  Fortunately, through a very supportive family connection, I was offered a job at a VT construction company in an admin role at one of their jobsites.  Shortly thereafter, I was promoted to the main office receptionist position, then into HR – which became a career I really loved.  I still remember what the owner (another great mentor of mine) said jokingly when he asked me about the HR position.  He said, “You use to bartend right?”, “Yes”, I replied.  “So do you want to do HR?”.  Yes, yes, I do.  

It’s been a whirlwind and life-long learning journey and I just recently “retired” after 39 years with them.   When I first arrived, I was the youngest in the company and upon leaving last year – I think I was considered “Mom” to most.  I was shy but had to learn right away how to build trust and relationships as I was working mostly with men.  To my benefit, I grew up with a neighborhood mostly of boys, so I did have a little experience with that. It was also a huge help that I started in the field and had already formed those connections when I was eventually promoted into the office.  They were some of my biggest supporters (there always seems to be a “we” vs “they” mindset in a white/blue collar environment) and I think they appreciated the fact I would always tell them like it is and make sure their concerns/suggestions were brought back to management. My husband Tom also worked in the field and he, by association, became the go to person for inquiries, etc. that he would pass on.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention he was my greatest supporter.  We didn’t always agree on work issues, but he always had my back and cheered me through the many years there.  My friendship with our crews continues to be strong even after some moved on.  No one can put a price on the value of having friendships in the construction industry!  It’s like a huge extended family with priceless talent and expertise.  In the picture below, Tom is standing right behind me (to the left).  Thank you, Tom Cat! 

Engleberth Team
Gina, Tom, and the Engleberth Team

I was fortunate to work for a company that didn’t micro-manage.  When I moved into the HR role, I was hungry to learn more and thrilled I was offered this opportunity!  I was passionate about bringing in programs and benefits that would make us the best, both personally and professionally.  Given that, I was able to venture outside the 4 corners of my office and get involved in other organizations including tech programs, high school advisory boards, chamber committees, corporate wellness, business associations and the United Way just to name a few.   

About 13 years ago, I was at a regional HR convention.  I was feeling a bit unchallenged at work (hey, it had been about 27 years of HR!) and was looking for a new challenge.  I had the opportunity to talk with someone that I considered a HR Mentor.  She was very involved in the National HR Association (SHRM) and on a local and state level too.  She connected me to our local Burlington, VT chapter, Vermont Human Resource Association (VTHRA) and I was soon appointed Secretary of the Board!  It was the beginning of a sweet relationship that I still cherish and stay connected to despite “taking a break from the working world”.  After being in that role for a few years, I moved onto VP and then eventually President for 4 years.   I’m currently Editor of their bi-monthly newsletter. (photo below: Me and Past/Future VTHRA Presidents)

VTHRA Presidents

When asked if I was interested in being VTHRA President – I thought – I can’t do that!  I’m not qualified, I can’t oversee and be responsible for such a multi-faced organization consisting of only volunteers.  However, as the time approached somewhere inside, I heard “Step Up!  You can do this” and I also received encouragement from my HR friends.  In this role, I was able to travel to conferences all over the US, update and enhance our organization (both VTHRA and my employer) in various ways and met many new friends, some now HR celebrities from all over.  

These experiences opened my world!  

My experience in all these areas not only helped me make our workplace a better place, but I learned so much about apprenticeships, the education system, how to keep our employees happy and healthy, the lifelong implications of someone/families in poverty, crimes in relationship to mental illness, corporate wellness and just how valuable and challenging a career in HR can be.  The icing on that cake was the people I met and the connections I made.   It didn’t matter if it was the governor (I’ve met at least 4 in person), business owner or someone sharing their personal story of poverty, they each broadened my perception of local and national issues.  They offered perspectives I couldn’t otherwise get from sitting in my office, hanging with the same old pals, or watching a webcast.  Living in a small but connected state like Vermont has given me opportunities I am quite sure I wouldn’t have had if I stayed in New York.  

Given the world we are in right now, I feel so much compassion and understanding for the various challenges we face as a state, nation, and world.  This has given me more insight and the ability to possibly enlighten others from the various personal stories and experiences I’ve been privy to.  I’m proud to say I don’t get all my perspective from Fox news, CNN or Facebook!

In 2018, I received the HR Professional of the Year.  It was the most heartfelt recognition and honor for my many years and accomplishments in HR and having been involved with SHRM, and our state and local chapter.   I mention this not to brag, but what it really means.  I NEVER would have this if I hadn’t ventured out, contributed to our profession, and made new connections. 

SHRM / VTHRA
SHRM / VTHRA

I’m humbled that my daughter has also followed in my footpath and has been involved with SHRM/VTHRA since she started in HR.  Being in her early 30’s she’s already accomplished what has taken me many years and she’s a full-time mom to 4-year-old twins and a 5-month-old baby!  I know she’s going to hit her career right out of the park. I’m so proud of her.  Our love for HR, and passion to get creative teamed us together as Chairpersons of the VT SHRM annual conference with about 300 attendees consisting of HR professionals and business vendors.  We oversaw recruiting vendors to vendor placement and set up from start to finish.  What great friendships we made.  Everyone was always surprised it was a mother/daughter team.  I had this position on my own for a few years (thanks to another great mentor who was looking to pass the reigns), then pulled Chelsea in.  She now runs the show and has brought a whole new energy to the process.  The best team example was about 4 years ago when she was pregnant with the twins.  We headed off to Rutland, VT to the conference (about 1.5 hours from home), late because after a preventative checkup they wanted a further exam at the hospital.  All was well and we were on our way.  Not long after reaching Rutland, the doctor called to check on her and told her to return home immediately, she was two weeks away from the due date and needed to be closer to home!  Luckily, because I was well versed in the process and the people, I was able to take over for the 2 days there.  The understanding, compassion and concern the vendors had for her well-being, just helped validate the care and friendship we had built over the years. 

Mom Gina and daughter Chelsea
Gina & Chelsea

As I reflect, my college degree was helpful but didn’t exactly get me to where I’m at.  My ambition and passion to learn, the many mentors and getting out of my comfort zone prevailed.  All have allowed me to grow personally and professionally.  

I encourage you to put yourself out there…. get out of your comfort zone.  First, find an organization that values you!  Volunteer and get involved with whatever floats your boat.  It’s amazing how one thing leads to another and before you know it – you’ve learned more, had more opportunities, contributed more, and made more friends!  It’s all a win-win in my book and the best advice I can give for someone that has stepped back from the working world with gratitude and is ready for the next chapter. (Hey, I have lots of connections to reach out to if I get bored)! 

I currently have the greatest gift of spending time with my grandchildren, Willa, Jack and Wren.  Daycare has been a challenge these last few years so Tom and I stepped up and have been pitching in.  What a joy! 

Willa, Jack, and Wren
Willa, Jack, and Wren

In closing, I was always under the notion that it’s all about who you know.  While that’s true, it’s also just as important as who knows you.

Thank you to my dear friend Carol Bokan for encouraging me to write this for her and her granddaughter’s blog. I met and worked with Carol on the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce Workforce Development Committee.  She’s also retired and is now my chair yoga teacher.  Thank you for being part of my journey Carol. Namaste.  

WiseWomenVT Lotus Logo
Know someone who might benefit from this article? Help them. Share this article!

Sharing our Stories in 2022 – February

SHARING OUR STORIES IN 2022: WOMEN'S CONNECTIONS

We are very pleased to  introduce “SHARING OUR STORIES: Women’s Connections”  by sharing our first story for 2022. Dilys Dana Pierson’s thoughtfully and beautifully written story describes the importance of sacred circle dance in her life.  Beginning in 1985 with her return to the United States after several years living and working in Asia, Dilys shares the many ways in which she has made connections through sacred circle dance. She describes the ways in which the delicately woven connections from circle dance to feminist psychology, goddess religions and Greek mythology have helped her understand herself and her own development. She invites us to think really deeply about ourselves and our connections to women who came before and to cultures not our own as a way of better understanding ourselves and where we are right now.

Dilys (Dana) Pierson, M.Ed., grew up outside of Philadelphia with a strong Quaker background. For almost 30 years, she has served as managing editor for various education-based organizations and has taught circle dance and led rituals in nature/Goddess worship throughout New England. In July 1997, she was the keynote speaker at the Southern Connecticut State University’s conference on women’s spirituality, addressing service to and worship of the Goddess through the forms of sacred circle dance. A 1978 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Connecticut College in Asian studies and Chinese language, she returned to the States in the 1980s after pursuing her graduate degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and teaching in a Chinese high school during most of her 20s, while traveling extensively throughout Asia.

Dilys (Dana) Pierson, M.Ed

Connecting to the Sacred

A  stranger in my own house

After living and working in Asia, in 1985 I landed in New Haven, CT, and a country I didn’t recognize. When I’d left in the ’70s, Jimmy Carter was president and solar panels were on the White House roof. Eight years later when I returned for the final time, it was apparent that the country had turned sharply in a different direction. I was overwhelmed by the public’s appetite for things, acquisitions, and social advancement. An insatiable unfocused energy seemed to drive these pursuits, behind which was an incoherence and haste, lack of proportion, abuse of energy, and a brutal competitiveness. During the zeitgeist of the ’80s, I felt as if I were a stranger in my own house, and I then understood Emily Dickinson’s “Returning.”

I years had been from home,
And now, before the door
I dared not open, lest a face
I never saw before

Stare vacant into mine,
And ask my business there.
My business—just a life I left,
Was such still dwelling there?

Thus began a search for a reason to stay in my own country and a way to try to build a new life in a place that felt more foreign to me than Asia had been when I first arrived there at the age of 22.

The Way opens There is a centuries-old Quaker saying—“Proceed as Way opens”—and it was the single consoling admonition on which I relied during this transition. One night while attending a lecture at the Temenos Institute in Westport, CT, I purchased a book that would determine the course of my life, my spirituality and religion, and my beliefs. It was In Her Image: The Unhealed Daughters Search for Her Mother by Kathie Carlson, a Jungian psychotherapist and teacher of feminine psychology in the ancient religion of the Goddess. As a feminist psychologist, Kathie—like Jean Shinoda Bolen and many others—built on the work of Jung, using mythic archetypes of the ancient goddesses to support women in developing a deeper sense of self. Reading the book, I knew that something was gestating in me, though I hadn’t the faintest idea how best to explore it or even define it. I had to rely on my belief that Way would open.

One night at a sacred circle dance that a friend had persuaded me to attend with her, I spoke briefly with the evening’s facilitator during a break and mentioned Kathie’s book. She told me that Kathie was a friend of hers who lived in New Haven—only 7 blocks from my own apartment, it turned out—having recently moved from the Midwest. This was simply too synchronistic for words (before I even understood the Jungian import of synchronicity). I contacted Kathie, and during the next few years of therapy with her, she encouraged me in the pursuit and participation in women’s mysteries that enabled me to create an entirely different concept of myself and my direction in life.

Goddess religions are based upon a reverential approach to the divine female energies within the universe; and a belief system built on the divine feminine provided, for me, a means to mitigate both the toxic masculinity and fundamentalism I found so prevalent in the States upon my return, and the stresses and devastations from overly acquisitive and aggressive ways of life. As Kathie wrote in her second book, Life’s Daughter/Death’s Bride (on the Demeter/Persephone myth), “… this Goddess … could hold my midlife with far more meaning than I had been able to do myself. I just had to welcome, to care for … the child who is the literal child of my past girlhood, and the inner child born from my adulthood into the present and future.”

I was familiar with dance as an art, as my mother had been a dancer with the company that was precursor to the Pennsylvania Ballet. I’d grown up dancing first in her school as a child and then at the Chester County Ballet School in my teens. The concept of dance as a spiritual/religious practice, however, was new to me; yet through a confluence of my work with Kathie, my discovery of sacred circle dance, and my
own studies in goddess mythologies, I understood that Way had opened into a new religion and practice through circle dance, which I ended up teaching for many years and which I still do either privately or with close friends.

Connecting to ancient rhythms

In 1926, P.A. Talbot observed that “dancing takes to a large extent the place that prayer occupies in [modern western] religions, representing the power of the supernatural influences, the ecstasy of joy in life, and all the deeper feelings so far beyond mere words.”

It is these supernatural influences that work through many of the traditional dances in the circle dance repertoire and my spiritual practice. The simple rhythms of these dances evoke the universality of human experience. Many of the dances belong to a single family and derive from the same root pattern. The ancient Faroe Island family of three-measure dances is so widespread that it is believed to be the oldest existing dance pattern in the western tradition, having emerged in different styles known from the North Atlantic Faroe Islands to western Asia and India.

In so many of the three-measures dances that comprise traditional circle dances, the first two measures travel forward and the third measure mirrors the second in the other direction. In other words, we take three steps forward and after a pause, one step back. Well-known circle dance teacher Laura Shannon describes this pattern as a “metaphor for the year’s season cycle that requires us to rest in order to grow. We experience the sensation of moving ahead, yet savor where we are. As with the year’s cycle, we need to go through this over and over again in order to remain aware of the truth in this rhythm, the rhythm of life. … This succumbing and prevailing is an eternal cycle that plays itself out in the steps as we dance to the endless recreation of life.”

Shannon notes that these three-measure dances are coded with such simplicity and antiquity that it might be easy to miss the extent to which they mirror so many patterns in our natural world—lightning and water to name but a couple—patterns that also appear in neolithic art, cave paintings, pottery, and later embroidery. She explains also that in its simplest form, this pattern was a kind of early Christian prayer performed in cathedral labyrinths as a symbolic transformation because it represents the path of human frailty: “I go forward, yet I falter.”

Dances that pay homage to this path and symbolic journey include the obviously named Pilgrim’s Dance, performed to one of the songs from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, a collection of medieval musical compositions from the 14th century. The pieces within the Llibre Vermell were composed to entertain and educate pilgrims who had come to pray to the Black Virgin. Some of the Black Madonnas of Italy and Sicily occupy churches upon the sites of notable temples to Ceres and Cybele, goddesses of fertility, and many noted historians suggest that the color of these Madonnas may be intended to increase their identification with the soil, obviously connecting them to earlier earth-based female deities. It’s interesting to note that the Llibre Vermell includes two other circle dances—“Danse en rond,” obvious in its title, and Los set goyts, which contains a reference to a ball redon (a round dance)—and both are related to the tradition of sacred dancing then very popular at the Montserrat Abbey, despite the wishes of local councilmen who condemned it.

Page from Lilbre-Vermell

Coincidentally from the same region, the traditional pilgrimage dance “Sol Ele Encina” describes a woman from southern France who goes on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago. In fact, the entire route of the Camino is dotted with shrines that were once centers of pagan rituals, and many still are. Every year at Vall de Boi and more than 60 other villages in the Spanish Pyrenees, residents hold an ancient fire ritual, the Falles, which culminates in the throwing of huge burning torches onto a bonfire as participants discard their cares and hope for a clean slate until the next summer solstice. These echoes of pagan belief systems still prevail throughout the region of the Camino and much of the region from which our three-measure dances emerged.

Connecting to Terra Mater During the Neolithic era, people across Europe worshipped the Earth as a divine female entity. In The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade explains that the cults of Mother Earth “ could not develop … a complex religious system except through the discovery of agriculture … It was woman who first cultivated food plants. Hence, it is she who becomes owner of the soil and crops … It is the Terra Mater [Earth Mother] so familiar to Mediterranean religions who gives birth to all beings. It isn’t surprising therefore that so many of the dances in our repertoire celebrate the agricultural cycle of the year in a type of sympathetic magic with the earth’s seasonal regeneration. Two such dances come to us from the Brittany. The development of dance in France grows out of an agricultural economy, so Breton dances such as “An Dro” (in a circle) and “Hanter Dro” (in a half circle) have a very earthy quality, a vertical motion with which to beat the ground to flatten floors in primitive houses, build furrows for seed sowing, or prepare threshing grounds.

From Israel, we dance “Al Sadenu” (Into the Fields) in the spring and fall through planting and harvesting; and in the lively Russian “Paseyala Baba,” several lines of dancers weave in and out of each other, proudly sharing their harvest. These and similar dances become rather like a repetition of the primordial act of creation by symbolically tilling, planting, and harvesting.

In addition to dances that celebrate the agricultural cycle, innumerable dances in the repertoire enable us to connect with the seasons and celestial cycles. Candle dances are popular at the winter solstice as we become part of life’s rising energy and light. At the autumn equinox, I enjoy dancing “Aleneulu” (little hazelnut)—an exuberant Romanian dance with perfectly balanced steps in both directions—to celebrate the last fruit of the harvest. Another perfectly balanced dance is the Macedonian gypsy dance “Ramno Velesko” that—like other dances at the equinox—provides a ritual structure to encourage us to create balance within ourselves and with the world around us.

Winter Solstice Circle Dance

Connecting to the Goddess

One of the most profound and deeply held beliefs of the matrifocal Old Religion is that life is an endlessly repeating cycle. The Goddess creates life, sustains it, destroys it, and takes it back into Herself in death, only to resurrect what she has killed and restore it to life once more. Nature eternally weaves life out of the strands of death, and nothing is lost that yields itself to Her handling. The widespread vision of the Goddess as a triple goddess expresses this cycle of birth–death–rebirth as manifested in the aspects of the Maiden, Mother, and Crone.

 

As Maiden, she is exuberant and joyful girlhood, and circle dances commonly done in the springtime and summer celebrate this aspect of the Triple Goddess. These may include the Armenian “Sweet Girl” and the flirtatious “Pustano Ludo” from Yugoslavia, in which the female singer talks of a young man she’s met: “What shall I give him? Shall I give him my white face? No, my mother is watching. Shall I give him my dark eyes? No, my father is watching. Shall I give him my slim waist? No, my mother and father are both watching.”

 

The Triple Goddess in her Mother aspect expresses the fertile maturity of life, the nurturing aspect of the feminine archetype, and it is with this archetype that most current dancers feel the strongest identification: For if it is a universally disseminated belief that we are born of the earth (as Eliade further states in The Sacred and the Profane), then every mother in our circle is connected to the Great Genetrix. This is likely why pieces such as the “Midwives Dance,” to a traditional Romanian lullaby, and “Sou Gan,” to a Welsh lullaby, are so popular.

 

Additional dances that speak to the Mother aspect of the Triple Goddess include the many variations of the chochek, the queen of dances in Bulgaria, Albania, and Macedonia. Numerous variations of the chochek can be found throughout the region, and this particular version, led by veteran circle dance teacher Laura Shannon, may appear simple and repetitive, but therein lies its power. Once the steps are in the muscle memory, each dancer can move to a place of complete connection, reaching (in the words of one dancer) “a point of no mind” when she becomes one with the music, the present and the past, and the other dancers in the circle. The circle thus becomes a time out of ordinary time, a space apart from ordinary space.

 

This muscle memory translates to variations of the chochek because what they all have in common is that their steps make a faint triangular pattern, which symbolizes the female pelvis in prehistoric art found in the region of the chochek. Chochek variations such as “Rumelaj” activate the hips and pelvis, making it a vivacious and vibrant way to celebrate women’s center of power and gravity. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the chochek in all its variations is danced in celebration of the Mother.

 

Among the three aspects of the Triple Goddess, however, it is the Crone who is most powerful in both of her archetypes, Wise Woman and Destroyer, who initiates us into the deepest mystery of death.

 

The Crone’s aspect as the Destroyer has always been the most savage and frightening, but Carlson explains in In Her Image, “as Receiver of Death, she appears again as the loving and tender Mother, cradling death as she cradled life.” Two pieces in the circle dance repertoire perfectly illustrate these seemingly conflicting roles of the Crone. The first is “Dimna Juda” from Macedonia. The lyric describes the old witch Dimna Juda, who “built a castle on the mountain in Vlaina, the posts of which were made of sturdy young men; the crossbeams were maidens waiting for the caress.”

 

To a sensitive 21st century mindset, this may sound goulish; yet Dimna Juda is a vision of deep spiritual truth. Yes, the Crone leads us into the primeval forest, into the fearsome; yet in this initiation, deep rents of the heart transform our innocence into experience, and if we pass the initiation, transform our pain into tenderness that springs from understanding and temperance. The dance is actually quite lively, as if to dance upon the disasters of life in celebration of the full and joyful catastrophe of living.

This same spiritual truth is the foundation of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone—an allegory of life and death as symbolized by the seasons. Hades abducts the young girl, the Kore, and drives her to his underworld to be his queen. After persuading her to eat six seeds of the pomegranate, she is destined to live with him for six months of the year, during which her mother, Demeter, strikes the earth barren of crops and grain. For the remaining six months, however, Kore—who has been transformed by her own experience with death into Persephone—can be reunited with her mother in the upper world as the earth’s fertility is restored. Thus has Persephone become, in a way, her own mother, giving birth to herself not as an innocent girl but as a powerful restorer of life. Kore, one of the most profound dances in the repertoire, celebrates this myth and the Eleusinian Mysteries that were practiced in Greece for almost 2,000 years in homage to Demeter and Persephone. The dance, choreographed as a women’s initiation dance based on figures depicted on Greek pottery, symbolizes the story of Demeter and Persephone, regeneration, and the cycles of life.

Demeter

Another popular dance for the crone is “Old Woman,” the lyric of which emerges from Native American creation myths told in Daughters of Copperwoman. In the music, the old woman presides over the cycles of life. She watches over us as she gathers, mends, and weaves anew the fragments of our lives into a meaningful whole until, in the end, we find the old woman in ourselves.

 

In these dances and others, we acknowledge the healing powers of the Triple Goddess, each aspect participating in the balance between Creatrix and Destroyer. The ritual dances we do throughout the year can support us as we move through similar transitions in our lives—in essence, helping us to ignite creative forces within ourselves after shedding that which is no longer productive in our lives.

 

This letting go can often require that we take time to work through feelings of loss, and several dances help us move through this process on a physical level in support of our emotional process. One of my favorites is “Oi Dai,” an old rune piece from Ingria, Finland, about a young married woman who has moved from her homeland into the household of her husband, in unfamiliar surroundings away from all she has known and loved. According to Libana, who found this song among the Finish women of Karelia, Russia, it was sung as a lamentation for their homeland after the borders between the two countries had closed.

 

“Göç” is a women’s dance from Erzeroum, which used to be in Armenia. Erzeroum was an important city for Armenians before the diaspora during the Turkish genocide in 1915. In this dance, the soles of our feet slowly caress the ground, bidding farewell to a place we must leave. The tender, quiet steps allow us to experience our sorrow, but they also serve as a ritual act, moving us toward a new place, both literal and figurative.

Even dances that celebrate life transitions help us work through mixed emotions around change. The music that accompanies the Russian bride’s dance “Kaku Kluchika” is, as one dancer in my Connecticut circle once observed, “full of anticipation, but not going anywhere.” 

 

These dances and others enable us to appeal to every aspect of the Triple Goddess as we move through the stages and changes of our lives, seeking guidance and support through ancient steps and music. We do these and many other dances over and over again because they provide a gentle and fluid place through which to reconcile divided emotions, wishes, and goals as we prepare to move from one place to another on a symbolic level before it happens on a material level.

Scottish Circle Dance

Closing the circle

At a deeper level, the stories, the music, and the steps behind these and other dances provide us with metaphors of seasonal renewal and our own life cycles. The dances thus become ritual acts that enable us to bring our inner experience into harmony with the outer natural world, so inexorably are these two things linked in my own worldview. The powerful combination of traditional steps and stories creates a bridge between the cyclicity of Nature and the human experience that has been at the core of ritual dance throughout the generations. As ritual acts, they enable us to experience the profound mutability of Nature and the adaptability of human response in the face of Her vicissitudes.
As each of us delves into the dance, we cannot know what significance the movements or music will take on, nor what we will learn from them as we dance the wheel of the year; yet we do know that in an age in which many kinds of community have been atomized by government and the media, in an age which has lost much of the pastoral context for old practices, sacred circle dance can serve the same eternal purpose that dance has done throughout history—to assuage the human desire to participate in and identify with the natural world. In this way, sacred circle dance enables us to integrate healing, faith, and power into the ways we live our lives and understand ourselves.

Among all of the dances I’ve known or danced, there are two that exquisitely express the deep connection to the ancient feminine divine and the living descendants of primitive dance. One is Tulum Havasi, a womens harvest dance from Turkey. Though the video linked here is a bit poorly filmed and danced, close your eyes and take in the music, which communicates something that words cannot. The other isErzeroum Bar,” a lyrical Armenian piece, the steps of which in some cases can be traced back 1,000 years. While this particular version is more formal and more stylized than the dance we in do in the circles I facilitate, the music resounds with echoes of the past. Pieces like these, similar in depth to the “Midwives Dance” and “Kore,” help us to hold a collective memory, to understand anew and reconnect with that which is ages old.

Know someone who might benefit from this article? Help them. Share this article!

Sharing our Stories in 2022 – January

INTRODUCING OUR 2022 STORIES: WOMEN’S CONNECTIONS

Winter Owl

“Year’s end is neither an end or a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.”   Hal Borland

Vv and I are excited to introduce our new stories for 2022 about ways in which women make CONNECTIONS.  As we keep going on together into 2022,  we are inviting our women friends and girl-friends (and all their friends!) to share stories about what it means for them to make connections.  This can include connections developed in any kind of relationships that matter. Examples might include but are not limited to:

  • connection to a friend (a brand-new one or a life-long one)
  • connection to a family member (i.e., sister, mother, daughter, aunt, niece, grandmother, cousin)
  • connection to professional colleague(s)
  • connection to a group or organization
  • connection to someone you don’t know

“The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic and the most potentially transformative force on the planet.”     Adrienne Rich

Understanding how and why women make connections has been an important part of the continuing evolution of my personal feminism over the past fifty-plus years.  Vv’s thinking about connections between women and girls has been growing through her first nine and a half years and perhaps she will share about this sometime in the future.  My thinking has been shaped by reading  feminist authors and by relationships with so many very smart and collaborative feminist friends.  Somewhere in the 1970’s, I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Her idea that connections that isolated housewives made through “consciousness-raising” groups could be both life-changing and culture-changing hit my isolated twenty-five-year-old woman self like a ton of bricks and made me think.  Later, reading Carol Gilligan’s 1982 ground-breaking work,  In A Different Voice , made me reconsider what I thought I knew about women’s moral development and development of sense of self. I began to wonder about the concept that women might make connections in ways different from men.  Over the years, these writers  along with such others as Adrienne Rich,  Maya Angelou,  Margaret Atwood, Ellen Bass, Miriam Greenspan, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, and Rupi Kaur have shaped the ideas about women’s connections that I hold today. Perhaps even more importantly, personal connections to women and girls have helped me (through short chats, long intense discussions, personal challenges, and my work as a feminist therapist)  to come to a place where I ever more deeply value the power of connections women and girls can make.

In the last few years, I have read and studied less about feminism and have been feeling a bit discouraged about what feminism might mean to today’s younger women.  Most recently,  inspired by the lives of my daughter and grand-daughter and by my contact with other wise young women and  girls,  I’m feeling optimistic about feminism in 2022 and beyond.  If you’d like to ignite  your optimism on this subject, check out the link below to the Ms. Top Feminists of 2021.  

https://msmagazine.com/2021/12/23/ms-magazine-top-feminists-2021/

Snowy path through the woods

To further fuel your optimism and curiosity about the power of women and girls and their  connections this year and in years to come,  I hope you will consider sharing your own story about CONNECTIONS.   As we begin to share connection stories on www.wisewomenvt.com/blog we are hoping yours will be one of them. If you are interested in sharing your story or if you have a friend who might like to share her story, please contact us at:  carol@wisewomenvt.com

The stories do not need to be written in any particular style.  The only guideline is that written stories be between 1,500 and 4,000 words. They can be as unique as each writer and we welcome poetry and art as well.   We will  share  our first story in February 2022 and will continue to solicit and welcome stories through December this year.   We hope you will consider submitting a story and that you will enjoy reading the stories as they get posted throughout the year.

Thanks and Happy New Year 2022

Love,
Carol and Vv

Know someone who might benefit from this article? Help them. Share this article!