(1973, “honoring” necklace)
Looking back on my dance with death, as I have done numerous times and in various therapeutic settings, I have come to believe that, real or imagined, I was given a message that has guided and informed my life: there is more for me to do. Throughout my life, I have wondered, what is the more I am meant to contribute?
Having received the notion of purpose before a broad context for the word purpose had been understood, my awareness of an as-yet-unknown-thing I must do stirred up angst within me and contributed to a feeling of being isolated in the world. Painful shyness and the resultant angst were already present in my psyche before the near drowning but became exacerbated by both the trauma and a lack of support for processing it out loud. Unquestionably, the experience seeded within me an insatiable desire to understand the mysterious realm I had briefly encountered.
The year after my near drowning, I asked a teacher during Sunday school if God ever spoke to people out loud, and she seemed completely undone by the question. Occasionally, she said, our minds may play tricks on us and make us believe we are hearing or seeing things that really are not there. “You may have wished God would speak to you, so you imagined he did.” My question – and my feelings – had been dismissed by an adult playing the role of listener and guide, but the adult neither listened nor guided. I felt sad and ashamed.
When I was ten years old, my mother hosted a gathering in our home for a group of people from an outreach ministry in another town. As a dedicated church volunteer, such gatherings were not uncommon in our home. Among the guests that day were a Native American woman and man who were part of the community being served by the ministry. Intrigued and attracted to their beautiful beaded necklaces and turquoise jewelry, I settled down near them. They explained the significance of some of the stones on the rings and belts and necklaces they wore. A metal medallion on the man’s belt buckle, inlayed with turquoise to form an intricate design, symbolized what he described as “the afterlife.”
I asked if they had ever been to the afterlife. Looking surprised by my question, they laughed kindly and said, no, then, teasingly asked if I had ever been there. Maybe, I said, and told them about what happened the day at the water slide. They listened intently until I had finished my story and, after a bit of silence, the woman looked deep into my eyes and said, “You were very blessed to receive a message from Creator.”
Not having had the opportunity to fully process my near-drowning experience until then, the Lakota woman’s words evoked feelings of validation at having been seen, heard, and understood. This experience was significant in my own emotional development, and laid some groundwork for making my own positive impact on children with gentle presence, listening, seeing and reflecting.
A few weeks later, the couple showed up at our home unexpectedly, with a gift. As the grownups sat around the kitchen table drinking coffee, the woman waved me over and placed a small pouch in my hand. Inside was a beautiful, delicate necklace strung with tiny seeds and rings of pink and blue beads that looked like flowers. She told me the pattern was called daisy chain and that Navajo people use it often. She made the necklace, she said, to honor me for all I was learning and would continue to learn. My ma looked confused. I felt deeply acknowledged and appreciated. That was the last time I saw those people, but the necklace remains with me today.
The brief time I spent with the Navajo couple gave me an important model of how to be fully present to children. I knew they had really seen me, deeply, and that experience represents one early inkling of my decision to work with children. Those people demonstrated the power of gentle presence, of listening, of seeing, and of reflecting back to children their innate value and worth. It is a model that has guided me in my own lifelong work with children.