An immersive, audio-driven, essay film that bears witness to the experiences of nurses providing care to Covid19 patients at the beginning of the pandemic
In May of 2021, I invited nurses who were providing care on the frontlines of the pandemic to share their stories with me. It was a big request, and I knew it. Though the pandemic had been underway for over a year, many had not begun to process all they had experienced.
From May through September, I recorded ten hours of stories from the nurses who agreed to participate. They worked in the ER, ICU, and Covid units of hospitals in a variety of states in the U.S. This film bears witness to the experiences they shared with me.
The voices of the nurses themselves narrate the story. The visuals are intended to support the viewer in listening deeply and engaging with the emotions of the experiences, rather than illustrate them literally with images of hospital rooms, masks, and ventilators that have become all-too-prevalent in our news streams.
I created this project as a service offering for a year-long program I participated in through Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The support of my collegial cohort led by Roshi Joan Halifax was steadfast as I sought to figure out my path into story as an act of bearing witness to suffering.
Through my MFA studies at California Institute of Integral Studies, I had opportunities to workshop the film as it was in progress and benefitted greatly from the insights of my fellow students, artists in an array of different disciplines. Crafting the visuals for the film was my greatest challenge, and I am especially indebted to the visual artists in the group who helped me learn their ways of seeing their art and coached me in applying those principles to mine.
I send my profound gratitude to all who helped me along the way, most especially to the nurses who entrusted their stories to me.
“Healthy people base their lives on healing, authentic stories. Empowerment comes through the process of telling those stories.” — Theologian Matthew Fox
The keepers and tellers of our stories are precious people. We all do it to some degree, I think, even if we don’t realize it. And as Matthew Fox points out, the pay off for telling stories– healing, authentic stories– is not just a brief interlude of good entertainment, but rather an experience of empowerment, if we allow it to be. I’d like to tell you a story about a storyteller who understand this idea inside and out. In fact, he lives and breathes the idea daily. His name is Charles Hale and he shares his work at Stories Connect Love Heals.
A voracious reader of anything New York and its history, Charlie is just as often pouring over an edition of The New York Times from the 1800’s as he is today’s news. He scours any record he can find in search of details about his ancestors, Irish immigrants who settled in New York City and worked hard to build a life there, yet left behind precious little in the way of letters, photographs and evidence of their lives. Without these kinds of personal artifacts to help him know and understand his grandparents, great grandparents and great greats, Charlie uses bits and pieces of historical records, often finding only tiny shards at a time, and weaves them together with a discerning eye and a compassionate heart in a way that brings past generations to life again.
Charlie has a name for his work. He calls it “breathing of an ancestor’s space and time.” I get goosebumps every time I hear him say it. No small feat, Charlie actually manages to put us in the shoes of his ancestors. Literally. He has been known to retrace the steps that his great grandparents must have taken in traveling from home to work. He researches what the weather was like on the day of a particular event he’s unearthed. He finds out what buildings existed at the time so that he’ll know what his ancestors would have passed by as they walked. He learns what headlines they would have read in the morning paper. By the time Charlie is finished with his story, I most certainly do feel as though I am breathing with his ancestors in their space and time. I can practically smell the coffee that was at their breakfast table.
In a recent conversation, I asked Charlie about his passion for storytelling and where it comes from. To answer my question, he told me of an exercise he’d once done to find the one word that describes him best. After a lengthy process of elimination, comparing words and honing down to the ones that felt the most true to who he is, he came at last to a single word: connection. And stories, he said, connect us. “When you tell a good story, if you tell it well, the other person can get into your space and share a moment with you. When we share a moment together, we literally breathe of each other’s space and time. And when we breathe of each other’s space and time, we create community.”
Excerpts from our conversation form the storyline of this video. At one point I thought I might provide a voice-over narrative to tell Charlie’s story. But in the editing, I found that Charlie’s voice and words tell his story best. So I offer you a moment to share from our chat– and a chance to breathe of Charlie’s space and time.
*Huge thanks to author Jean Raffa for bringing the Matthew Fox quote to my attention. I highly recommend her blog, Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom, as a thoughtful, thought-provoking place to visit.
**On a musical note, the piano composition in this video was graciously created by Barbara McAfee, http://barbaramcafee.com
When I was four years old, I asked everyone to call me “Cowboy Bob.” I can hear myself pausing indignantly and growling, “Don’t call me Lucy. Call me Cowboy Bob.” I cannot recall how long this phase lasted, what prompted it to start nor what caused it to end, but when I think of this era in my life, I smile.
About the same time, perhaps a year or so later, I received a gift from my parents– a ukulele. What I really wanted was a guitar and, in all honesty, I was offended by this toy-ish instrument. Didn’t they take me seriously? Didn’t they know I was ready for the real thing? I was almost six, and in my mind I was an adult already. I don’t know if Cowboy Bob and the ukulele are linked, but somehow I feel they are.
In the 40 or so years that have passed since then, my musical life took a lot of twists and turns but never took off. I begged for piano lessons. Got piano lessons. Begged to quit piano lessons. Quit. I got a guitar. Took lessons. Never practiced. Quit. And at some point, I put away all instruments for a long time.
Somewhere in my 30’s, the guitar called to me. I picked it up and this time I didn’t quit. I don’t have the soul of a virtuoso, nor the patience to practice enough to truly master an instrument, but I found out why I was so drawn to these instruments and to music. An unknown, untrained place deep in a corner of my heart told me I that I needed to put my stories to music to save them, to savor them, to share the beautiful truths that lived in them.
I bought a ukulele and started playing it again. It felt so at home in my hands, like it belonged there, like it was always supposed to be there. Why on earth had I ever put it down?
Recently, I was looking on ebay at vintage ukuleles– old instruments with dings and nicks and personality. I wasn’t looking for a fancy or expensive instrument, but one that had a history in it. When I came across a uke with the Harmony logo on it, I recognized it instantly and realized I already had what I was looking for. It was on a shelf at my parent’s house.
One phone call to my mother, a few days of waiting, a UPS delivery, and voila! My old ukulele was back in my hands. I put new strings on immediately and tightened the sticky tuning gears to get them hold a tune. I admired the nicks and dings in the uke’s body, history that I had put there myself.
Almost immediately, the ukulele began to show me a song. It was about coming home and about being welcomed back; about what we toss away and what we carry forward; about what makes us leave and what causes us to return. Most of all, it was about the “knowing” that is always with us but that sometimes takes a long time to learn.
Looking back, I realize that Cowboy Bob had an important piece of wisdom for me that I knew all along and yet had missed at the same time. The cowboy in me was saying loud and clear: “Take me seriously. Listen to me. I have something to say!”
I had tossed aside the ukulele because I misjudged it, underestimated it, didn’t think it was big enough or serious enough to hold all my intentions, my ambitions. And yet, many years later, I found it was the only instrument I ever needed.
I am a pack-rat of the highest order. I save everything. Well, not everything. I save memories. Photographs, letters, old cassette tapes with recordings of friends and family, and ancient family movies. But the problem is that if you save everything, you sometimes can’t find what you need when you need it.
For months I had been thinking about an old cassette tape that my father recorded for me on the weekend of my graduation from high school. While I was out at parties with my friends, my father recorded messages from family members visiting for my graduation. What I remember most from that tape is my grandfather’s laugh. I kept replaying the tape in my mind, but I desperately wanted to find the real thing.
My grandfather, Forrest Lee Mathews, was a booming presence, someone who was prone to taking people by surprise when he spoke. He said exactly what he thought—no mincing words. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a down-to-earth eye on the world. Every time I listened to the tape, I could feel the delicious tension in the room when my father asked his father to record a message for me. My grandmothers had just delivered their messages, short and sweet, and while I cherish the sound of their voices on that tape, I can hear their discomfort at being recorded. “Lucy, we are so proud of you,” said one. “We are so happy to be here, Lucy,” said the other.
When the microphone got to my grandfather, I could practically hear the collective holding of breath as everyone waited in anticipation of what he might say. He began to speak slowly, with all the natural warmth and charm that was his essence. I have always wondered if he thought in advance about what he would say, or if he simply made it up as each word rolled off his tongue. In his gentle southern accent, he proceeded to deliver a message that surprised everyone and resulted in laughter around the room. I think even he was surprised at how funny everyone found his comment. He, too, began to laugh, and got so “tickled” (as we say in the south) he barely got his closing sentences out. The moment is so candid and real, the laughter so unplanned and so true, that I feel lighter when I listen to it. And I feel closer to my grandfather. It’s as if he’s in the room with me.
The good news is that I did find the tape. The clip here is for anyone who is curious to know exactly what my grandfather said that day. And I’m now taking more seriously the chore of cataloging and organizing all my pack-rat treasures because they hold so many important memories for me.
But the bigger question that has arisen for me from all of this is: how do we “archive” the ones we love? What bits and pieces, handwritten notes, recorded audio do we select to create a full picture of someone? Bigger yet, perhaps, how do we archive ourselves? What is the essence of me that I will want my granddaughter to search for one day?
Of course, there is no simple checklist. The answer is personal to each one of us. In thinking of my grandfather, I wanted most to hear his laughter. In fact, that’s a sound I cherish about everyone dear to me. But there’s so much more that can help create a full picture of someone– hearing a narration of a familiar story; reading a handwritten letter that captures a moment just after it unfolded; hearing someone speak about what matters most to them; and, of course, looking at photographs or watching a home movie. We can capture so much in this digital era, but how do we make sure we capture the most important things?
So I am posing the question rather than answering it– what relics or treasures are most important to you about the ones you love or about yourself? Is anyone else a pack-rat like me, squirreling away treasures of memory? (I know you’re out there!) What do you keep and why?
Have you ever noticed how your mood is lifted when you spontaneously catch the eye of a stranger and share a smile in passing? So often, we stay in our own private worlds, our defined spaces of friends and family, of familiar routines. But once in a while– sometimes on purpose, sometimes by serendipity– we connect to someone we don’t know and it lifts us up. To me, those moments are the small reminders of a big idea– that we are all connected and that behind the face of every smiling stranger, there’s a story.
A couple of years ago, in a Tai Chi class I was taking, my curiosity was piqued by a woman I hardly knew who had a hobby I never imagined I would find fascinating. She was a quiet presence in the far corner of the room, taking the same spot each week, as we all seemed to do. Tall and slim, with her long gray hair pulled back in a pony-tail, she moved gracefully, purposefully, silently.
One day, I happened to overhear her describing her needlepoint projects and was captivated. I edged to the outskirts of the group that had gathered around her as she showed her work and described it. Listening to her speak, it was almost as though her philosophy of life unfolded in every stitch of her work.
A few weeks later I gathered the courage to approach her and ask a favor. I wanted to tell her story, to record her voice, to photograph her work, to let her wisdom unfold through her description of her hobby. At that point, I was only just beginning to explore the realm of mixed media storytelling. I had barely any samples of my work to show her to give myself some credibility in asking. I asked anyway. And she said yes. I was stunned that she would trust me with something so personal as her own story when I could only give her a vague notion of what I wanted to create.
I had envisioned a story based on audio and images featuring her face, her gentle countenance, her words, and the colors and textures of her needlepoint projects. In my original plan, her voice and face would be at the forefront and I would be invisible– an unseen editor creating a vehicle for her story to tell itself. Yet the day I interviewed her, I learned that she did not like being in the spotlight and would prefer that her face and name not be featured in the story I would create.
So I did the only thing I could think to do– I became her narrator. While those who know me best will tell you that I am not shy about hamming it up and being the center of attention in small gatherings of close friends, when it came to this realm of sharing stories of heart and substance, I felt shy and was more comfortable being an invisible hand behind the story. But the thought of letting a good story go untold was too much for me and nudged me forward.
I first mixed this story in 2009 and shared it with family and friends. The anonymous subject of my story became known as “The Threads Woman” amongst my friends. Several said they wished they could meet her, have coffee with her, learn more about her, be her friend. They, too, had been captivated by what I saw and heard.
Remixing the original materials with the newer software and techniques I now use, I was pleased that the heart of this story is as compelling to me now as it was when I first heard it. And just as “The Threads Woman” said yes to the story idea originally, she has graciously allowed me to share her story more widely, reminding us that we are all connected and that we all have a story to share.