Thursday, August 14, 2008

the life and death of a peacemaker (or, what living large is really all about)

I met Mary-Elizabeth Butler thirteen years ago, when I had entered UMass Dartmouth as a "returning student" (I was 25) and was looking for other undergrads my age. I was also looking for a way to get involved and fully immerse myself in the university experience I had missed out on during the first half of my twenties. MEB, as we called her, was Director of Student Activities at the time. She took the time to meet w/ me, to help plan activities and jumpstart the Adult Re-Entry group (which, sadly, never did sustain itself), and somewhere along the way we became friends -- she was only a few years older than me, after all. So imagine my utter shock when just a few laters I learned that she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

From day one of her diagnosis, MEB took her illness in stride. She entered the situation fully present, completely accepting, and ready to respond to it. She read books. She sought out alternative and mainstream treatments simultaneously. She changed her diet (and she was always rather petite). She eliminated stress from her life (which, unfortunately, included a very messy exit from UMD, complete w/ labor grievances and scorched bridges). She took up yoga.

But she never stopped living. Not for a moment. Always the adventurous world traveler, she continued to see the world and connect w/ its youth, and she kept her pulse on the student services field, helping to draft grants and shape programs. She stayed positive. She stayed focused. And she stayed connected to everything that mattered to her. The ocean. Her friends and family. Her body. Her Self.

MEB came w/ me to Long Island a couple of times, once to the Winter Solstice festival at St. John the Divine in NYC, and once to see Brian Wilson at Jones Beach theatre w/ two of my brothers and their significant others. I remember having a moment at that show where everything was in alignment, nothing else mattered, and love was everywhere. It seems corny when I read those words on the page, but I guess you just had to be there. But she felt it too at that moment. We were both just so grateful.

In 2001, when I needed a new place to live, I happened to mention it to MEB, who proudly offered me her apartment since she was moving to Newport, RI. We both knew it was meant to be and laughed at the synchronicity. I lived in that apartment until I moved to NC two years ago, and couldn't have asked for a better living situation. MEB, who lived by intuition, had followed hers to Salve Regina, where she eventually took over as Director of Career Services. Newport agreed with her. Like me, she loved to be near the ocean, drew strength from it. I went to visit her a couple of times. We hiked, went to a cafe (she drank her green tea, of course), caught up, and recounted all the blessings in our lives.

I don't remember when she told me she had bone cancer, but I was saddened yet again. And yet, I never saw MEB not smiling, even when she had lost her eyebrows and eyelashes from the chemo. It also didn't stop her from going to Rome. I always returned from a visit w/ MEB inspired and in awe. I had asked my mom to pray for her, and called her after one of our visits.
"I've never seen anything like it," I said. "She's a peacemaker."
My mom, no stranger to the term, asked, "What do you mean?"
"She's not fighting it. She's not resisting or denying it, mind you. But she responds rather than reacts. She responds to the cancer's violent oppression of her body the way Gandhi or Martin Luther King responded to the violent oppression of the people. She takes direct action, but she does so nonviolently. She responds with love."

I lost touch w/ MEB after I left for NC. I'd had a bad feeling when an email I'd sent bounced back. Her cellphone number didn't work either. But I never followed up. I wasn't as good at being present as she was. I took for granted that if anyone could survive and defy the odds, it was her. I took for granted that we'd speak again at some point. We'd let time slip by before. Reading about the John Edwards mess and feeling for Elizabeth Edwards, I suddenly couldn't get MEB out of my head. I'm ashamed to say that I googled her, and that's how I found out that she had passed away on April 17, 2007.

I think a part of me knew all along. But my heart sank as I read the words. And I filled with guilt for finding out the way I did. I'm even having moments where I don't believe it. My friend is no longer on this earth.

But I don't think MEB would be too concerned about that. She was quite forgiving of such things. And the way I see it now, she is now both my friend *and* spirit guide, and I can talk to her any time I want.

If you want to know more about what kind of person MEB was, please click here. I think she'll inspire you, too.

Namaste, MEB. If there's anyone who lived large, it was you. May you continue to inspire me, and my readers. I love you.


Stacey Cochran said...

The idea of "living large" sounds a little like Flow psychology. I've become a fan of Csíkszentmihályi's work, and have started using some of his work in planning my course calendar for this fall.

EBSCO host (via NC State's library) has a number of articles as they relate to American Youth, Happiness, and Pedagogy.

Inspiring stuff.

The Purple Panda said...

Thanks, Stacey-- I'll be sure to check it out.

The Purple Panda said...

Re. Flow Psychology: Back to my undergrad days yet again, when I was a psych major. The name didn't ring a bell, but when I looked at the characteristics, I seem to recall going over it in one of my classes (maybe Sport Psych?).

Based on the general characteristics I just read, I think MEB was beyond that. It wasn't a matter of control for her -- it was a matter of *surrender*. I think she was self-actualized (see Abraham Maslow).