Hello, world. It's been a bit (years actually) since I posted on my blog. It doesn't mean I have not been writing, just not updating my blog as frequently due to the demands of parenthood and managing my practice. I'll try to put up some of the things I think might be most helpful and useful to you as you are on your journey for health and wellness. For now, this is my story of my friend, Donna Red Wing.
My first lunch with Donna was at a local sushi restaurant in July 2012. It was a dreadfully hot day and I remember a large part of me feeling nervous because I knew the person walking in had a lifetime of achievement and I wasn’t sure if I was smart or worthy enough to have been asked to meet with such a person. This leader wanted to have lunch with “ME” and asked to hear my ideas and visions for a more inclusive and sustainable sociological world from a therapist paradigm. I didn’t want to disappoint her. Looking back, there was no way I could have done so because she led with her real self and all the parts that made her whole were in that room with me that day. She was present. I wasn’t totally present because I’m still on a journey of what it means to be fully present and noticing my own “parts.” I also had no idea she was about to teach me about life lessons through what she said but more about how she was able to “show up”. Donna taught me about “showing up” even during the celebration of her life just a few years later.
Donna walked into the quiet restaurant for lunch and she knew exactly what to order. She had commented that she had intentionally eaten a light breakfast so she could fill up on her favorite menu items during lunch that day. I nervously ordered the same because I didn’t care what I was going to eat and had an agenda I wanted to cover with an unsaid purpose of trying to understand her voice, courage, and bravery. I wanted what she had. I just didn’t know how to get “that.” I didn’t know how to experience fear and stand up anyway. Looking back, I didn’t know what or who the “enemy” was in that time of my life as well.
I was surprised she recognized me upon entering. We had talked through e-mails prior to physically meeting and I knew she had only seen my headshot. We were to discuss my new role on the One Iowa Board that day and how she thought I could help enhance their mission. Of course, my experience with the LGBTQI population was of interest to her and I was filled with ideas and ways we could move forward. I was ready to fill her up with some of my ideas and my fast brain and cart before the horse was ready to run. I suppose the “other side” would call our meeting the “gay agenda” and we would laugh about that idea during our subsequent interactions. Donna noticed me right away I noticed the unique sparkle and life in her eyes and energy that seemed to fill the room. She was engaging and loveable. This human hugged me even though she didn’t yet really know me. She told me she was excited about our conversation and for our time together. I believed her. I also believed I mattered to her.
The early stages of civil discourse and an unlikely friendship between Donna and Bob Vander Plaats (historically an anti-LGBTQ affirming politician and director of the Family Leader) were forming at that time and Donna proceeded to share with me what she was learning. I remember her words, “I didn’t want to like him but I did. I really do.” My angry and confused parts were in the mix during that conversation but my real self and curiosity were still intact enough to recall the thought “what a courageous soul but how can she possibly sit with someone and not believe he hates her to the core? Isn’t she skeptical of his agenda?” I was curious and open enough to let my real self be part of this conversation that day. Interestingly, I wasn’t initially at her memorial. During our lunch, I didn’t know the future path of a new therapy I would learn and resonate with would be personally put into action. The model I’ve embraced over the last year is called “Internal Family Systems.” I certainly didn’t realize these concepts would come up during her celebration of life just a few years later. The constant irony of the therapist at play: teach these wonderful concepts and have no idea when they are smacking us right in the face in the moments we need them most.
The powerful and fearless leader I sat across from that day had no signs of slowing down. It seemed (and still seems) confusing and devastating that this powerful enigma who encompassed peace and a greater level of understanding is no longer with us in her earthly form. When she discussed her goal of eventually retiring in the next few years and enjoying her years with her wife I questioned her and it took the breath out of my spirit. How could we possibly carry on her leadership and legacy without her in the mix? That was the selfish and fear parts talking to me. My real self knew she deserved to feel the ocean breeze and enjoy the simple moments of the light she fought so bravely for. I didn’t realize at that time these would be limited in number for her. My angry red man tells me she deserved more of those days.
During the course of that lunch, we did talk about some concerns in the system from a mental health standpoint but we also talked more broadly about life. She wanted to know me. Of all the things she could be spending her time doing that day she chose to explore my life. Donna wanted to talk more with me about my wife, dogs, and photography. She wanted to share the joy she had in her marriage to Sumitra, and the pride she carried in her smile when discussing her son, Julian. Donna remarked, “you have to meet Julian sometime. He’s a photographer too. He shoots various political campaigns and he has asked I no longer call his images ‘pics’. He says they deserve the respect of the word photographs instead.”
Noted. Since that day I have never used the word “pic” on any image that tells a story. I tried my best to soak in what she taught me that day.
I found my place in her celebration of life in the middle to back of the room. My wife was at one side and my friends at my other. I felt my wife’s arm bump me to quietly grab my attention and she whispered in my ear, “do you see who that is in the front row?” I couldn’t. She quietly whispered, “Bob V.”
Have you seen the movie “Inside out?” The little red angry character that comes on stage and the real-self tries to soothe, understand, and validate but keep at bay? The little red angry man has reason to be on stage and is doing our best to protect us and actually links our reptilian brains to our foundational neural networks that have experienced pain, sadness, or discrimination from our experienced years. Mine wasn’t and isn’t any different than others even if I happen to be a clinical therapist. Most of us have one of those little guys inside of us and they can come out unexpectedly, especially when the world as we know it seems unfair, unreasonable, and tragic.
My little red man came on stage after that nudge from my wife and the angry part said, “How dare he sit so close at the front of the service?” I remembered the past open dialogue I witnessed just a couple of years ago between Donna and Bob each discussing how they would attend the funeral of the other but Bob’s comment related to rejecting and attending her wedding (should they have known each other at that time at which they did not) because it would have been disingenuous. My little red man was fuming about that and the part was furious it was Bob talking at Donna’s because it wasn’t her time yet. I didn’t mean that it should have been Bob’s time but it wasn’t right, fair, or reasonable that he was there, in one of the front rows, and in Sumitra’s line of sight.
Yet, Donna was in the room, still teaching us.
I heard the drums. The systematic rhythms beat into my chest. I felt the energy and the vibrations and saw the little boy in front of me who covered his ears because the energy inside the walls linking all of us flooded our senses. That was Donna. It was her energy. I looked around at the diversity of the room. I was able to notice all people sitting together in peace even with the differences between us that I historically knew we shared. I looked around all my parts were astutely aware of political affiliations, runs for office, and those who have experienced the most struggle out of social despair. However, our common humanity was present in the room. We all loved or had been impacted by Donna. We all listened to the same drums. We all felt pain in our hearts.
The little red angry man part I carry softened when I heard and saw Donna’s grandson in the back of the room and the struggle her son was experiencing trying to reign in a toddler. I get that struggle with my whole body. I was reminded of my own family and our similar stories of prematurity that weave us together like a seamless quilt. I was reminded of the uplifting messages she sent while I was in the hospital on bed rest and how her grandson Jasper overcame all odds and that she was hopeful for us, too. I noticed the thought that we share more to this life and the common theme that binds us all together at the end is suffering but triumph within. We likely all suffer and grieve in similar ways if we are able to let real self come to the table and direct the parts of us who are afraid, angry, sad, and lonely we can exist peacefully.
Initially, I didn’t notice the part of me that was flared. I was just in it. The belief that suffering shouldn’t happen on “our end”- especially for the good guys - and that it wasn’t fair she was taken was driving my thoughts and grief. I watched a few people on the screen speak of Donna and her impact. We watched clips of Donna speaking throughout the years and her passion was alive as though she was still in the room. Present and agitating in the most productive way possible, even after death. Donna was still ever present in this world.
Donna’s face came on the screen. She looked different than our lunch we had a few years earlier and from the last time we saw each other in person. I noticed the same sparkle in her eyes just a few weeks prior to her passing in that video. Donna died with dignity and a message. She spoke of her unlikely friendship and building of bridges without compromising her integrity or self. She spoke of what mattered and how to have difficult conversations but that we were all more alike than different if we can get beyond our egos. Donna was speaking in a language I now understand as “real self”. Little red angry man doesn’t have to drive me but can sometimes come on board when I see, feel, or perceive a threat. Thanks, little red man. You’ve helped me out in my life but the last word is not yours. You can and will always exist within me but at that moment, you can step off the stage and hear Donna again. It doesn’t mean to step down. It means you can dialectically see humanity and fierce advocacy in the same spirit and vein.
The angry red man stepped further off the front of my stage as I watched Donna’s face fade from the screen and Bob stand up. He stood up with confidence and candor to speak. I held my breath. As he spoke, I actually believed his grief. He was dynamic and kind with his words. He was also funny. He didn’t sway from his beliefs but at that moment, I felt he actually did love my friend. I could see why she was confused about liking him.
There is no doubt in my mind that Donna had planned this. This was her statement, her memorial, how she wanted her legacy to continue. The little red angry part of me knew better and also recognized that was the purpose but didn’t see it in the time I was blended in it. She was still teaching us even after moving to a new dimension.
The gay men’s chorus sang. The drums and rhythms were back in my heart and I was present. A fleeting thought ran through me wondering, “Does this change Bob’s heart at all? Seeing the love and witnessing the grief of Donna’s wife, friends, family, and community? Even if he fundamentally sees the world through a religious lens will this moment somehow make a difference in how he lives, continues to speak, and if he should see me with my family on the street?” My real self hoped so. My angry side is still a bit tainted but more out of sadness than anything.
I am sad the angry part can so easily blend with me when I think injustice is happening. There is often a greater story and a story of humanity it doesn’t want to see. We all live through the narratives we enter into this world and experience what life brings our way. Under no circumstances were we dealt hands that assured us no suffering in life.
During my first lunch with Donna, I had prepared the agenda in my head and wanted to build a plan of attack for the community but she had a different idea on how to engage me and the first step is by slowing down knowing each other. We can be interested in the parts that make our lives whole. It isn’t just one thing and each deserves a place at the table. All of our parts deserve a place at the table, even the little angry red man that will serve as an aware agitator from this point forward and speak in a more intentional way. We can still learn and embrace her courage today.
Once the angry part left my body, I wept and couldn’t stop. I was no longer filled with anguish and anger that Bob had sat so close to Sumitra but honored that it was their decision and that Donna was still teaching me from a different capacity.
We may not be able to have lunch together again but we can look for our real truths by asking parts of ourselves to step back and allow each to have a voice. They can all exist in the same space.
Thank you for being my friend and wanting to know me. I desperately needed to know you that day too.
***Special thanks to Donna's wife, Sumitra for allowing me to share this with the world***** <3 I love you.
Also, if you'd like to watch something that shows how Donna impacted lives and put everything on the line, here's a link to a documentary that is very powerful:
Jill Lehmann-Bauer, LISW, ACSW
Clinical Social Worker, Central Iowa Therapy Solutions, LLC.
Passionate about advocacy, recovery + healing, attachment theory, and relationships.