Deepening the Interwoven Life
Deepening the Interwoven Life

Deepening the Interwoven Life

Releasing the limits of self to kairos time.

August 13 th 2020
Appears in Summer 2020

A few years ago my father and I were in an argument and he said to me, “You are like the sun. Beautiful. Warm. Necessary for life. But up close your intense energy and heat are deadly.”

I admit that I am a person of intense energy. For much of my life that energy has been useful—except when it hasn’t. And now, in this time of pandemic, it has surfaced many thorny questions. I have found myself more conflicted than ever before. Conflicted in my role as a wife and mother, the leader of an organization and as a citizen of my city. And conflicted by how to use that energy—when to channel it and push forward and when to pause to acknowledge what the world needs of me, and what I need for myself. What follows is an account of my personal struggle to answer the question: What am I called to do right now?

My energy is connected to both my trauma and my deeply knitted relationships. My initial trauma happened at birth. I came out of my mother’s womb not breathing and with a facial deformity. This scarred me in different ways throughout my life and was so traumatic for my parents that they decided my father would deliver my two younger siblings at home. While a bit of a renaissance man—a painter, poet, and master chess player—my father is a plumber by trade and said that delivering my siblings was just working with a different type of plumbing.

Around my eighth birthday, I was kidnapped from my childhood home. A man entered my bedroom. I didn’t actually wake up until he had already carried me out my front door. I clearly remember the multicoloured pattern of my nightgown—the black, yellow, red, and green—his gun, and the blue car we drove off in. At some point I found the strength to tell this stranger that I forgave him. That Jesus forgave him.

He paused, opened the car door, and let me out. Alone and barefoot in the dark of night, I walked until I eventually found my way home. I entered the now unlocked front door of my house and went directly to my parents’ room to tell them what happened. They didn’t believe me. Understandably, they thought it was just a bad dream.

As I continued to insist, my parents took me into the living room, sat me down on the couch, and knelt in front of me. And when my father saw the bottoms of my feet, black with dirt from a night of walking barefoot, he knew I was telling the truth and he began to cry.

Soon thereafter, my parents found out that the pastor of our church was misusing church funds for personal gain. When they exposed what was happening, the church decided to shun my family instead of firing the pastor. For eight years, the community that was supposed to hold me ignored and chastised me. And in the years that followed, our family lost my grandparents to illness, my mother’s closest friend and her three-month-old daughter in a car accident, and three family members to suicide.

But of course, my childhood wasn’t all trauma. My core family unit was deeply connected. We had beautiful rituals. My mother, who has a photographic memory and had seemingly memorized the Bible, would tell my siblings and me biblical stories before bed, always ending with “Jesus said go to bed.” My father would take us on walks along the canal at Butler University on Saturday mornings, where on one trip he tied a dollar to a tree and each week our task was to find it and see if it was still there. My siblings and I loved playing in the alley beside our home. It was poorly paved, creating large craters that filled up with water when it rained—a perfect place for us all to jump in muddy puddles.

The most notable aspect of my childhood is that I wasn’t under pressure to achieve outcomes. I wasn’t expected to go to college. My parents couldn’t have cared less about their child becoming a doctor or a lawyer. I was under tremendous pressure, however, to be in a right relationship with others, to live a righteous life, to follow Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

In our house it wasn’t about getting an A, it was about giving our all in service to God. It wasn’t about winning the Math Pentathlon competition; it was about practicing diligently and supporting my teammates. The pressure was intensified because it wasn’t delivered in a sermon; it was observable in how my parents lived—and continue to live—their everyday lives.

My family was my protective factor. They taught me effective coping strategies: open dialogue, exercise, prayer, commitment to a cause. They modeled self-advocacy, self-discipline, hard work, the value of being on a journey. And so instead of my trauma causing me to disassociate, I developed immense intrinsic motivation that manifested as an intense energy. An energy that over time, I learned to channel. As an adolescent, I channelled my energy into being a figure skater and as a young adult, studying biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. However, I didn’t truly hit my stride until my work in Baltimore with Thread, a community that builds relationships across lines of difference in a way that makes everyone feel seen, known, and loved.

Thread grew out of both my and my husband Ryan’s experiences. While in junior high, his family unit was completely shattered when his mom was in a car accident and temporarily unable to work. She lost her job, they moved into public housing, she became addicted to painkillers. All of this coincided with Ryan’s transition into high school. After failing his classes his freshman year, a group of teachers banded together to provide not only tutoring but also clothing, food, and money to keep the water and heat running in his home. They became his extended family, his protective factor. By the time we met during his senior year, he was an honour-roll student, varsity athlete, and on his way to the United States Naval Academy.

We married three days before my nineteenth birthday, and in 2004 our lives became intertwined in a new way when we founded Thread, an organization that works to harness the power of relationships to support exceptional young people who face significant opportunity gaps that have resulted from decades of systemic racism. The Thread community became a place where I could be in a right relationship with others and have a vessel to channel my energy through relentless work.

Years later when I became a mother, I found myself doing, in addition to my Thread work, many of the foundational rituals from my childhood. My daughter Evie and I loved walks in the park, jumping in muddy puddles, and reading biblical bedtime stories. One of her nighttime favourites was I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, and I would struggle to read the line, “I wish you more pause than fast forward.” I found it difficult to pause because, by definition, it means to cease channelling, to fight the immense inertia that was a lifetime in the making.

My struggle with pausing became quite evident a few years ago when I was at the National Aquarium with Evie and my parents, who were visiting us from Indiana. The work texts and emails kept coming. I wasn't present. And then I got a call from Albert, a young man in Thread, whom I had known for almost a decade. He and I were cut from the same cloth. We both talked fast, walked fast . . . part of our toolbox for burning energy. He had been shot the summer before, had a colostomy bag inserted, and was in the hospital to have it removed. Albert had just come out of surgery and was alone and unravelling. My work, my family, and Albert were all essential, but no amount of effort or energy would allow me to be in three places at once. I felt like my head was going to explode.

My mom looked at me and said, “Slow down, pause, just pause, and you will know what to do.”

And after a few minutes it was clear. I found myself, channelling away, in a cab on my way to the hospital. It was the last time I saw Albert. He was shot and killed weeks later.

***

Many have called this pandemic the Great Pause. It is also a time when the inequities that have long plagued Baltimore have been laid bare in a way that can’t be unseen. And so my instinct has been to channel. But I should know better. Just as I needed my father to pause the night when I was kidnapped, to hear my plea for help, to see the bottoms of my feet, to start with a shared understanding of the truth, we must do the same with our neighbours. We must own that racism is a pandemic that has been crushing our country for hundreds of years. That policies were intentionally put in place and continue to be put in place to inflict trauma on black Americans. Policies that limit opportunities and choice. And as a white woman, I must own that I continue to benefit from those policies and systems.

At this moment, there is an even deeper inequity found in the fact that we are all being asked to make the decision to pause, to stay at home. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the impact of these policies and systems on the young people in Thread—from food insecurity to inequitable access to quality education to the growing health disparities. So as the world began to pause, we engaged our Thread community in the same way we engaged our own families. We reached out to all of our young people to see if they were okay and began hearing that many of them were taking public transportation, sometimes multiple times a day and often without protective gear, to access meals. Imagine waking up each morning faced with this choice—your safety or your survival. Is that really a choice? So Thread volunteers and staff delivered two weeks’ worth of groceries to over a hundred families—because that is what family does. We care for one another.

And then we began to ask the question, Is there a way to get weeks of groceries to more families across the city? Can we create a different system that has more choice, more opportunity, more equity? We realized that the relationships in Thread extended beyond our young people, volunteers, and staff. That deep trust existed with other institutions. In a matter of weeks, more than a dozen houses of worship, non-profits, corporations, and individuals came together to form Food With A Focus and distribute weeks of groceries to over ten thousand families.

***

Many aspects of the past few months have been extremely triggering for me, and my inclination has been to default to my coping mechanism of channelling. The problem is, I was so busy channelling into one set of relationships that I failed to pause and examine the impact on another set of relationships.

Our daughter Evie came after fifteen years of marriage, eleven years of praying for a child, and two years of being at peace thinking we would never have one. At the time of her birth, my husband Ryan had transitioned from a successful career in the private sector to serving as the budget director for the city school system. It was budget season, and he had deadlines. I was eight-plus months pregnant when my blood pressure spiked because of an intense board meeting. I soon found myself being induced. Thread was in the middle of making a major strategic decision, and my inbox was full. Our ninety-plus-hour workweeks had no pause. Rather than interrupt Ryan’s meetings, I decided it best to clear out my inbox for my eight hours of labour. Most pictures of that day were of me on my Blackberry, channelling. Evie, like me, was born not breathing. I waited desperately to hear her cry. Nothing. They quickly removed her from our room.

We left the NICU four days later. I went back to working on the sixth day, hosting a fifty-person event at our house. During my return to channelling, I read an article about the importance of a baby being held while the mother’s heart rate is low. Evie needed me to learn to pause. So I did. As she got older, I would carve out time for an adventure each day. The focus was her, us. This was possible in the midst of our intense workweeks because Ryan and I began to gradually outsource every other aspect of our lives from grocery shopping, to cleaning the house, doing laundry, and maintaining the yard. This privilege gave us the ability to choose when to channel and when to pause.

Suddenly it felt like COVID-19 had minimized my choices. Many of the tools in my toolbox were gone. The outsourced village vanished. The need to be discerning about when to pause with Thread was more critical than ever, as was the need to intensely channel at times like distributing groceries. The need to be sensitive about when to pause with family was also more critical than ever, as was the need to intensely channel to school my daughter, clean the house, and do the laundry. Most days felt like the day at the aquarium, when no amount of energy would allow me to be in right relationship with everyone. My ability to recognize when to pause and when to channel felt fuzzy.

And then I received a text from a young person in Thread who was checking in to make sure I was okay. In that text, he referred back to a gift he had received from Thread at his high school commencement many years ago. It was a frame with the word “resilient” written inside—a word that his Thread family felt best represented who he was. He said that he still had the frame and it was giving him strength in this moment—reminding him of his resilience and ability to get through this. What he didn’t realize was that his words, and the fact that he still had his frame, were what I needed to pause. To realize that the tension I felt was part of the struggle to create a more interwoven life.

That day at the aquarium, I worried that whatever choice I made would harm one of my relationships. I would fall short of the standard. What I failed to contextualize at the time was that my parents had their own relationship with Albert. They knew him. They loved him. For years, they had come along when I gave him rides to school. They listened to him coach me on how to effectively engage my graduate school advisor and date my husband. When he was in trouble, they offered to have him come and live with them in Indiana. They watched him console me through years of struggling to conceive and rubbing my big baby belly for the first time. The interconnectedness between me, Albert, Evie, and my mom and dad meant our wellness was inextricably linked. There wasn’t an either/or choice that day, just like there doesn’t have to be an either/or choice between safety and survival.

I continue to try and break down the silos I have created in my life, to move toward a fully integrated way of living. Evie had been planning her school party for her sixth birthday for months, making ten paper hearts with different designs and a friendship bracelet for each of her classmates. When she realized she wouldn’t be able to give her gifts, she was devastated. So we decided to try and make her corona-birthday extra special by getting her the dog she had been asking for since she could speak. One night, we were looking at pictures online and she found the puppy. As we scrolled down to look at more videos and pictures she burst into tears and said, “We can’t get the puppy.” I was perplexed. It took a few minutes for her to finally calm down and reach her words. “Mom, it costs too much money. That money could buy groceries for a lot of people.” The intensity of my long work days, the calls and Zooms, my inability to identify when and where to channel and pause, my lack of integration—Evie had been absorbing it all. So I asked her if she wanted to come with me to share groceries with families. She jumped at the chance.

Our next distribution was just days after George Floyd’s murder. Evie and I had been discussing what happened and that black people were hurting deeply. As we got ready to leave the house, she asked if any black people would be at the distribution site. I said yes and she quickly replied with “I am going to give them my paper hearts and tell them I love them.” While paper hearts don’t even come close to mending the racist policies and practices that have gripped our country, acknowledging the hurt, pain, and injustice is a good place to start. And allowing Evie to struggle alongside me with how to use the choice and opportunity that we have been given, simply because of the colour of our skin, is a good place to start in finding a more interwoven life.

When I look back on this time, I will remember my city’s ability to discern when to pause and when to channel. In the face of fear, anger, frustration, and uncertainty, we have been able to focus on creating unshakable bonds, connecting on a different level, viewing one another and our city in a new way—seeing the bottoms of one another’s feet. And in working to find equity in our relationships, to close the choice and opportunity gaps, we took steps toward breaking down the powerfully orchestrated divisions that often tear us apart. It is in creating this new social fabric, this supportive environment, that we can build collective coping mechanisms, interventions, and systems change. We are laying the foundation of trust—trust that will allow us to develop a societal intrinsic motivation that leads to an energy. Energy that results in sustained action and ultimately healing.

Topics: Community
Sarah Hemminger
 
Sarah Hemminger

Sarah Hemminger is a social entrepreneur, scientist, and ice dancer who co-founded Thread with her husband Ryan Hemminger in 2004. Sarah has been awarded fellowships from Ashoka, Echoing Green Foundation, Open Society Institute, and the Albert Schweitzer Fellows Program, which support social entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. In 2010, Sarah received her PhD in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

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