Story of Betty and Jay and Kate
Recorded by Kate, January 2015
Adventure Writing and Digital Storytelling is a one-of-a-kind Middlebury College course, taught by Professor Peter Lourie. Adventure Writing provides students with the opportunity to explore a facet of their surroundings and a challenge to translate that exploration into two pieces of creative non-fiction – one written and one in film. To explain what I have done in and around this class as one single adventure would be a stretch.
There is a story though.
And a story inside of that story too.
As with any good story, this one requires some context.
Jay Leshinsky is a 68 year-old heart. Jay walks and talks and for more than ten years, Jay has served as the continuity on the organic garden here at Middlebury College, a place where the great majority pass through after a short couple of years. Jay keeps a tight garden – tools stand as straight as rows run. A quiet place, a peaceful place, just far enough from the everyday haste of the campus proper.
I am Kate, twenty-two next week, one of the many passing through. I wish to be different. To pay attention to the people around me – young and old, college student and otherwise. Though my past and my family live three thousand miles away, in the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area, I have spent the summers between my college years here in Middlebury. It is simpler that way. The land is more simple. There are fewer roads, fewer disruptions. Have you ever looked out from the top of Mt. Abe?
I wish to be different and I mean that I am careful not to suggest that I believe the world to begin and end on the edge of our campus. I am grateful that I have had the chance to see what can unfold when I do step off campus. To see what is revealed when I do take a moment to look around.
It began two summers ago. I was, with twenty something of my peers, constructing a solar powered house that we would later call InSite. As the construction lead, one of my responsibilities was to interface with our many mentors, the ten or so men who taught us the first thing about building.
I did learn how to hold a hammer, how to frame a wall, how to plumb a house. I also learned that people love to teach what they know. Ask a simple question, be still, and that’s it. Half an hour later and I am right there where I was, knowing something more and knowing someone who I didn’t before.
Lance is six-foot-four, two-hundred-twenty-five pounds. In August, Lance decided that he would teach me something new everyday. Lance taught me to operate a tractor, a bulldozer, a man lift; to ride a motorcycle, to milk a cow, and it was Lance who took me for my first swim in an above ground pool. Chris can run across roofs and handle a nail gun as well as anyone I’ve seen. He is fast-talking and quick to lose focus except in the woods where he took me for my first deer hunt. Lou was the first in his family to leave the dairy business because he believed himself to be an artist and wanted to work with metal instead of cows. Bob’s lost more fingers than he’s kept and fell in love with a woman who raises chickens and bakes biscuits for the farmers market in Rutland that summer we met.
These men hold wisdom that reflects time outside and time spent hard at work rather than time spent in a classroom. These men are patient and kind and surprised to meet me. I’ve become hooked on conversations with these good people who work on something concrete and constructive. I recognize the value in time spent with people who have lived longer and different than I. It is relieving to escape the confusion of my own head and the abstract nature of a college education. I hold onto the moment when I am told that I am different than expected – quiet, peaceful, and curious — an old soul, as they say.
I met Jay in July at 51 Main. This last July, almost six months ago now. I knew of him but did not know him. On that day, I was a participant in a workshop on networking, required by the School of the Environment, my school at the time. Jay was one of many well-connected townspeople to arrive, two hours after we, for the hands-on component of our lesson. Jay was one of several opportunities I had to practice the newly learned catch and release of a self-assured handshake. I felt especially unsure of myself on that summer afternoon. My face grew warm and red and I thought about rivers. I tend to drift, to let my mind drift, to bodies of water, submerging myself into bodies of water, in the moments when my own self-awareness becomes too much. I was drawn to the assurance that Jay promised in his posture. I saw two feet on the Earth, hands thick from a day of work, calm, collected, and smiling. We did not shake hands. We did not talk about our work or the future. Instead, we spoke about gardens, about growth, and about sunshades.
Kate, Jay wrote later that day, so many times in my life timing has been a key component of making things change. I hope that my discussion with you at 51 Main was one of those instances. I certainly would like to talk more about it.
I can remember Jay’s rhythmic speech and the long pauses between words more clearly than I can remember the content of our conversation that first day in July. Soon after though, we were sitting together outside. We would meet in the garden. Jay would hang up the sheers or the shovel of the moment and I would lose sight of all due dates and deadlines and to-dos. I surprise myself with how quickly I sink into stillness in the presence of Jay. Jay is generous with his life’s stories, connecting simple happenings to larger truths and allowing complicated narratives to unravel over time. I was especially drawn to Jay’s story of Betty.
That will require some context too.
Jay met Betty in the wake of divorce. Both had been married before. Both had kids. Jay tells me that it took a long while to get the first date. Betty postponed, explaining to Jay that she had a three year-old’s birthday party to attend. At the time, he wondered if that wasn’t her funny way of saying I am really not interested. Of course, the birthday wasn’t made up and Betty was interested in Jay. The year was 1987. The two were married in 1998. When Jay speaks about Betty now, he explains that she was very light. I can see that in the pictures. She has a small frame and a wide boat bottom smile.
I hadn’t seen a picture of Betty until quite recently, long after I had become familiar with the sound and shape of her name. Betty’s beauty, and the light in her eyes in these pictures from their wedding, was devastating to me. Jay speaks about grasping, and our tendency to want to hold on to those things that are great, believing that the moment, the instance that is happening right now, is and always will be. I watch myself grasp to photographs of Betty. It seems impossible to let go and I will never even have the opportunity to meet her.
Jay explains that Betty had a plan for everything. She liked to be in control and I think that I can see that on her frame too. He says that it made her a good mother, that she was a wonderful mother. He says she knew everyone in town – the butcher at A&P, the baker at A&P, the students on their way home from school. Betty had a plan for everything.
In both stories, there was a moment on which everything else would build.
In my story, it was the end of October. The day was cold, cold enough that there were no students sitting on the Atwater Dining Hall terrace but early enough in the season that the outdoor tables were still sitting there. All eight of them, empty and round. I sit outside as long as the tables do because the winter is long in Vermont.
I ate with my gloves on and as my head lightened with the morning’s first cup of coffee, I watched the slow trickle of students in and out of their morning routine. It was one of those perfect college campus mornings when it just so happens that every person I want to see passes by and each one takes a moment to sit down. I remember well that I read Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day aloud in one of those brief conversations. It is a poem that I have read again and again but on that morning, it hit me deeper than it had before. I felt wide-awake in my body and tight in my throat as I spoke those nine perfect last lines.
I don’t know exactly was a prayer is
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass
How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
Which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
I kid you not, the sun popped out from behind what had looked to be an impenetrable field of clouds. Its light fell across the right side of my face, the synchronization further tightening my throat. I opened my mouth to laugh, an attempt to clear the constricted feeling, but it was my eyes and not laughter that welled up. I asked my audience (Lauren, Miles, and Ben) if they noticed the well-timed entrance of the sun and they said that they had. How wonderful is that?
With a second cup of coffee, I wished that I had learned to skim, knowing well that I would not finish the reading that sat in front of me. There were thirty pages or so but every other sentence was hitting me hard and I doubted whether I would make it off of that very first page.
When life things are going well, really well I mean, a morning cup of coffee sits in a different place. I am high and everything around me is beautiful. I am seeing textures and listening to sweet combinations of sounds within each sentence. On that first page of the reading, I read:
It will seem to us that we are nothing when we are no longer actuated by the stress of self-will. It will seem we have no progression, nothing progressive happens. Yet it we look, we shall see the banks of the old slipping noiselessly by, a new world unfolding around us. It is pure adventure, most beautiful.
I read these words like a perfectly wrapped gift. They are extracted from ‘The Reality of Peace,’ a D.H. Lawrence essay that is surprisingly hard to find. I have since learned, though, it is an essay well worth the read. We must lapse upon a current that carries us like a repose, and extinguishes in repose our self-insistence and self-will. It goes on then to what I read on that day. The letting go of self-will; to see slipping by most beautifully. This was Jay. Willing to look to the past and to talk about it for its joy and its teachings but, even more so, committed to the present moment, trusting of the self and the universe. There he was, in all of his wonder, sitting inside of ‘The Reality of Peace.’ When I asked Jay if I could record his story was the first time I ever went inside his house. It was different than I expected – so full of light, with shiny faced photographs on all four sides of the refrigerator and sprinkled across every wall. In retrospect, I should have known that Jay’s would not be a house that held on to loss.
It was the fall of 1990 when Betty’s symptoms began. Betty who loved to ride bicycles was out with a friend, riding down South Street. At the end of the road, where pavement becomes dirt, Betty fell. There was no obstacle, there was nothing that she hit in the road, it just, her balance got lost. Jay said that in the days following that first fall, Betty repeated to him and to herself, ‘it isn’t me, it is just not me.’ It wasn’t her, Jay said. It was the week of Thanksgiving, just one or two months later, when Betty had her first serious attack. Betty, being Betty, managed to drive herself home, arriving at home and to Jay, certain that something was not okay.
Months passed before Betty was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis. The plaques that were forming on her brain had caused her to lose her balance on the afternoon of the fall off of her bicycle. Over the eleven years that came after, those same plaques and new plaques much like those would cause Betty to lose her mobility, her vision, and, eventually, her memory. Betty died in October of 2001.
I met Professor Peter Lourie that same week in October. This last October (2014) the month of Mary Oliver, D.H. Lawrence, and Jay. I was late to our meeting. I am almost always running late, but Peter speaks quickly. Though his words travel at three times the speed of my own, I was sure that he was listening as I recited the Lawrence quote, told him about Jay and about Betty, and explained that I wanted to use Adventure Writing as the framework through which I could understand and then produce this story. I was unsurprised to hear that Peter remembered Betty from the community. This is great, Kate, Peter said.
Now there is a second side to my side of this story. It did indeed come out of left field but will all tie together eventually. Stick with me.
Jin Shin Jyutsu is an ancient Japanese art of healing. Similar to acupressure, Jin Shin seeks to harmonize the flow of energy through the body by applying pressure to some combination of the twenty-six codified safety energy locks – unblocking, alleviating, healing. The touch is almost imperceptible. It is believed that it is the recipient, and not the practitioner, who is able to shift the energy within the body. Jin Shin depends on self-correction that comes from self-awareness and that awareness can come from what is as simple as the redirection of consciousness towards a given part of the body.
I became aware of Jin Shin ten years ago in the months that followed my mom’s diagnoses with cancer. She received Jin Shin treatments along with chemotherapy and, though I never thought that my mom was going to die, (how could I possibly let my twelve year-old self believe that my mom was going to die?) I am damn grateful that she is alive today. In the years after my mom’s recovery, my brothers and I saw Jill, the Jin Shin practitioner, infrequently but over a long period of time. It was how the cure-all kiss, Neosporin, Band-Aid evolved in my family. Sick stomach, broken elbow, broken heart — it didn’t matter, my mom was sure Jin Shin would help. And it did. Maybe. There is something to be said for lying still for an hour and for the gift of another’s undivided attention. There is something to be said for gentle, intentional touch.
In the last couple of years, I’ve come to evaluate acts of faith on their concrete occurrence knowing well that if my actions are good or inconsequential in and of themselves, even no result will not cause disappointment. I see now too that all things change and, at times, what is needed in a moment of pain is something to hold onto, something that promises that the current circumstance will pass.
There are twelve or so teachers of Jin Shin Jyutsu around the world today. Jill is one. How she ended up there begins with modern dance and is a story for another day. For now, know that Jill’s body remains proof of her years as a dancer. She speaks more slowly than me, more slowly than Jay, and with a clarity that takes some time to adjust to. There are no sounds to fill the spaces between words. There is no motion to distract from the spaces themselves. And even though she stands and speaks in the spirit of some enlightened being, Jill will be the first to tell you that Jin Shin is not about her. She is an intermediary between the relentless, unwavering universal pulse and the very small and also perfect individual who lies there on the table.
It was November when Jill invited me to attend her weeklong course on the fundamentals of Jin Shin Jyutsu. The class would run from January 14 – 20, smack dab in the middle of Peter’s Adventure Writing course, on the Upper West Side of New York City, six or so hours southeast of where Peter’s class would meet.
There is an emerging opportunity in my world, I wrote to Peter (who I had met only two times before), I have been offered free admission to a five-day course in Jin Shin Jyutsu in the month of January. I see this as directly related to my project as it focuses on energy and healing. However, attending the course would mean me missing three days of class. Though I recognize that being away for three of twelve classes is not great, this opportunity is deeply important to me. I am sure it will influence my final work (written at least). What are your thoughts?
Peter’s response was immediate. My thoughts? How could you not do this? Will your final projects be anywhere as deep or final or thoughtful or heartful if you don’t do it? You have all my blessings on this one. Wonderful. See you first day of class.
It was another one of those perfect days on a college campus. The sun is shining and every passerby is a friend.
With Peter’s blessing, I went to New York. I learned a great deal. I came to believe in the power of the practice. I became more certain that I want to spend my life creating the space for the world around me to heal. I was reminded that we cannot truly hear anything until we believe it ourselves. As significantly, I became clear on why I believed it so crucial to record Betty and Jay’s story. As I already knew, it was not the loss, but the scar that I was drawn to.
Unlike many schools of medicine, both Eastern and Western, there are no words exchanged between the client and the practitioner in the course of a Jin Shin Jyutsu treatment. There is no medical history requested, nor is there any diagnosis or prescription returned. Words are not forbidden. If an individual arrives and shares that he is undergoing treatment for cancer or that she was in a serious accident, there is no punishment of course. But the ailment is seen as only one part of a more complicated story. Jin Shin approaches the body as a landscape on which all that needs to be known can be read. In an accident, we are hurt where we are already vulnerable. Vulnerability is the result of a great number of complicated intersections, past and present. Jin Shin does not seek to diagnose because it is not illness alone that informs how we are today. Jay offers Betty’s story as one part, one piece, of the complex history that informs today. When a tree loses a limb, it does not die — but how interesting to see how the tree grows around loss.
As I see it, Jay is that tree. He did not die with Betty. Far from it. Simultaneously, he allows the experience of loss, eleven years of deterioration that he could not affect, to inform the way he continues to live. The opportunities we get in the world, to see the world in more depth than we saw it before, he said. In my conversations with Jay, I see the mark from where Betty once grew. I see too that he has only grown out from there. From way up in the sky, with two feet on the Earth’s floor, Jay is a teacher, a healer, a friend.
Thank you, Jay, for the stories you tell. Thank you, Jill, for the perspective you teach. Thank you, Peter, for encouraging me to tie these forces together.
With me I carry the gifts of so many. Incredibly light! I will write as the new world unfolds.
With love and gratitude. Your friend, Kate