By Julie Gagnon Prior
“As an advocate, Julie Gagnon Prior has had to give a lot of hugs. She didn’t hug much before she got sick, she said, but now hugs are her greeting of choice — fierce, warm squeezes that she administers with all her might.”
This quote is the opening lines of a feature (about the calendar) in Seven Days, by Sabine Poux written June of this year.
Had a journalist written about me in my earlier years, the quote would have been alarmingly different.
Growing up in the seventies and eighties, hugs weren’t a common practice in my family. I am not sure if this was a sign of the times or if it was just a personality trait of my family.
I came from a family of eight, and the only one I remember hugging me on a regular basis was my brother Bob (who lives in North Hero).
For this piece of writing, I asked him why he hugged me so much.
He explained, “when we lived on the river and you were 1 and I was about 5, you knocked over my block tower. I yelled, and you cried. I knelt down and hugged you, and you stopped crying. I decided right then I never wanted to make my little sister cry again.”
The hugs from Bob continued. During the school year, he gave me a hug every morning before he walked out the door to catch the bus. Then again, every afternoon when he returned home he gave me another. This is one of my memories from childhood that makes me just relax and smile softly but oh so warmly. It’s a memory that brings me peace, strength, and pride.
Unfortunately, when I started school myself, I learned that hugs weren’t always positive. One confusing hug was when a relative pushed me away because I was too excited and hugged too hard. I had hurt her.
More confusion came when another relative pushed me away and said that I was too old to be hugging: a concept that really threw me for a loop.
The real kicker that stopped me from hugging whenever I could (without being rude) came from the news of the arrest of a school bus driver in Jericho. My family had moved from Jericho to Essex Center the summer before I started fourth grade. I don’t remember exactly when I heard the news, but I do exactly remember how it made me feel: confused, angry, embarrassed and afraid. See, the bus driver who was arrested was my bus driver for grades 1 through 3. Luther was his name, and he always made me feel so special. At the holidays he had a five gallon white bucket full of candy for the kids. But for me, I could get candy every day of the school year if I gave him a hug. As an innocent, naïve, little kid, I believed I was extra special and being rewarded for being a good girl. To this day these memories make me feel sick to my stomach.
Not hugging for the years after moving to Essex really wasn’t a very difficult task. Back in those days a very large percentage of Vermonters weren’t huggers. Emotions and gestures of affection were guarded commodities. Heck, even when my dad walked me down the aisle to give me away in marriage, he turned to me and shook my hand. And I was good with that.
Having kids brought out a lot of hugs in me. But, heavy sigh, I do wish that I had hugged them so much more… When relatives started getting terminally ill and passing, I stepped up my hugging game another level. Whether they be hugs of joy or hugs of sadness, each hug seemed to melt another layer of hardness off my heart. Me being older and the world being warmer, I began to expose myself with more vulnerability, trust and faith in others.
Interestingly enough, a by-product of my personal growth resulted in an increase in hugs of those around me. I think that observing this phenomenon increased my curiosity and appreciation in the true magic of an embrace.
Now, add to this equation a chronic illness. The result, for me, is an unhindered, unweathering drive to spread the healing beauty of hugs.
Like learning anything, there is an element of trial and error. My own personal effort to learn to accept and spread hugs has had its share of shameful, uncomfortable failures. I learned the hard way that I need to remember that not everyone is comfortable with or enjoys hugs. It’s ironic that I would forget this at times considering my own past. But yeah, I have offended and upset people by assuming that they would enjoy a hug. I am so very sorry for those situations, and now I always ask, “would you like a hug?” or, “are you a hugger?”
I have to admit, I now really do love hugs. I love giving them to people who enjoy them or need them. And I really appreciate people who go out of their way to give me a hug.
Hugs make my mouth smile…but they also make my eyes, heart and soul smile too.
Yup, hugs and smiles. That is where its at. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
I was born into this world sporting some personality traits that have caused quite a bit of concern for many of my family and friends over the years. Admittedly, my over-the-top lack of inhibition, unbridled trust and childlike curiosity in strangers quite often has many others on edge with worry. I feel bad for putting loved ones through this confusing (to them) stress. Yet, I wouldn’t trade these qualities I was blessed with for anything. These qualities combined with my “simple” mind have allowed for awe inspiring conversations with complete strangers that have left a permanent impact on myself as well as some others.
The “Julie’s World” segment of The Islander has been a fantastic avenue for sharing some of these stories. If you haven’t read the story titled “A Lesson of the Heart” from the 6/25/19 publication: I strongly suggest that you go to https://www.theislandernewspaper.com/juliesworld/a-lesson-of-the-heart and read it before continuing on with this story. You will understand why I am making this request; when you reach the end of this piece.
Just a couple of weeks ago I had another random, feel-good, goose-bump ridden encounter when I stopped at a corner store in Winooski. I grabbed a couple of waters and as I approached the counter, I observed a man leaning on a cane. The cane was highly decorated (in a most unique way) and I walked closer to get a better look. The range of eclectic items weaved amongst each other had me laughing out loud with amazement. When the man noticed me, I exclaimed, “I love your cane!”
Now, very seldom do I travel with a camera (and my flip phone doesn’t take very good pictures), but that morning before heading out; my gut prompted me to throw my camera in my backpack.
When in the store, my camera was out in the van. I asked the man if we could go outside, and if I could grab my camera and take a picture of his cane. When he said yes, I further explained that I sometimes write a piece for a local paper in the Islands. I asked permission to share the picture and some of our conversation. He was happy to oblige and happy to talk a lot as well.
He began by sharing the story of his 4-year-old granddaughter who wanted to decorate his then-bare cane with a piece of ribbon. After that beautiful addition, he continued to add odd and / or meaningful items. He pointed a few of his favorites out to me. Among them are a pair of old, dried up dentures. Yeah, this item definitely falls under the “odd” category. He pointed out some bells that are very reminiscent of ones that might be used on Santa’s reindeer. I noticed a sort of “voodoo doll” but he didn’t bring that one up and I didn’t ask about it. He did point out the pacifier. “The pacifier,” he said, “is for when I meet people who are whiners. I show it to them and ask if they need to use it to settle down”
As we stood by his truck, he also became very excited and said, “Oh I have something else to show you!” With that he reached into the bed of the truck and pulled out a pinwheel. At this point I asked him if I could record him for a bit (instead of photos). He said, “Well yes!” and he began blowing on the pinwheel to make it spin as I recorded.
He then said something, and I have this recorded, that just about made me have to sit down from shock.
Now this is the point that I truly hope that you have read the article from The Islander website that I referred to in the beginning of this peace.
Ok, so while I am recording him on video on my camera, he continues to blow on the pinwheel. But then, like a flipped light switch, he suddenly stopped, looked at me and then blurted out a most random part of his life story. He proceeded, “My friend Birdman, he’s a local boy in Burlington. Been there 30 years. And he inspired me because he’s got this shopping cart with everything, he owns in it.”
With that last comment, he decided it was time to leave, said goodbye, climbed in his truck and left.
It seemed like forever before I could even pick my jaw up off of the top of my boots.
It was 31 years ago, when I was on a very mournful, lonely walk….
That I came across a man who carried all of his belongings in a shopping cart. I never knew the man’s name. But that day he handed me a gift. A gift that I have to this day. A gift that plays the songs of a bird…….
Louis Armstrong said it best, “And I think to myself What a wonderful world.Yes, I think to myself, What a wonderful world”
By Julie Gagnon Prior
It’s been several weeks since I have submitted a piece to “Julie’s World.” It hasn’t been by choice, and believe me; I have tried.
Have you ever seen the movie “A Beautiful Mind” with Russell Crowe acting as John Nash? It’s a movie from 2001, directed by Ron Howard. The movie is based on a brilliant mathematician. There is one scene in particular that I empathetically and personally appreciate. The scene displays the walls of the character’s office covered, like wallpaper, with pages upon pages of handwritten math equations. I imagine that to see such a “manic” display would confuse most people. Yet, I can understand, relate and even feel a bit validated by this particular scene.
I have not been able to submit any writing of any quality recently. But it not from lack of trying. I, myself, have pages upon pages of thoughts, rhyming words, notes of encounters, deep feelings and more that my soul wants to share.
Unfortunately, with Lyme, it is not only your physical body that suffers. It also affects your emotional and mental abilities/capacities.
For me personally, medicines are a slimy, slippery slope. The introduction of new medicines or the omission of needed meds can send my brain into a very delicate, unstable, unpredictable whirlwind of dark storms.
In the past ten years, there have been times that I have been so overwhelmed by my brain’s malfunction that I have been dangerous to myself and others. And yes, I have been suicidal.
Once my chemical imbalance has been stabilized after one of these episodes, I am afraid. I am afraid because I don’t remember much of them. I am afraid because it represents a loss of control. I am afraid because it is a period of time where the real me disappears.
Sometimes I have reached out for help and sometimes I haven’t.
Sometimes my brain allows me to seek out a friend or relative; sometimes my brain will go to extreme measures to keep them from knowing.
These past weeks I have been able to recognize that I was on that slippery slope and heading downhill. I contacted my doctor to have blood drawn to check for issues, and I did something else of which I am very proud. I went to Sheriff Ray Allan and asked him to help me make a safety plan. Yup, I am extremely impressed with myself for being honest, realistic and humble enough to share my fear and concern. Ray was fantastic, and I and my family are feeling much better about the future with this additional support and game plan. It was just a few days after meeting with the Sheriff that I received my blood work results: hypothyroidism that requires two medicines to balance my body function. This case of depression (and other symptoms) was validated: Validation always feels wonderful.
I am now on a positive track. The meds are kicking in, and I had a procedure at Dartmouth Hitchcock that is reducing some of my physical pain.
The very first feel-good story that I would like to share is the miracle of the arrival of my first grandchild. My son Joshua and his partner Shannon gave birth to Ryan Hudson Prior. My mother, daughter and I went to visit the young family in the hospital in St. Albans. It was such an overwhelmingly, surreal experience. As I am trying to find words that will do justice to describing the event, I realize that I am shaking with emotion. It’s a good “shaking,” but it does make it difficult to type. Witnessing the love, gentleness, inherent caring and instinctive nature of my son with his own little boy brought me to tears of awe. These two parents, with their first child, have displayed a calm, comforting environment that not only resonates within themselves but carries over to those around them. Observing the soft touch as my son caresses his own son’s face, the soothing voice, and the curiosity and amazement as he plays with his fingers and toes makes my eyes leak a steady stream of warm tears of amazement.
When I held Ryan in my arms, life was perfect. Now, when away from him, I actually feel my body mentally and physically ache wanting to feel his warmth and soft skin back in my embrace. Ahhh, Life is Good, and I am going to do everything I can to stay here and enjoy it.
Julie Gagnon Prior
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she