By JULIE PRIOR GAGNON
Have you ever wondered how it came to be that this relatively new to the Islands, redneck girl began writing for The Islander?
Before I started writing for The Islander, I shared my stories on Facebook.
Yup, it was on Facebook that my “Today’s Story” posts intrigued publisher Tonya Poutry and she believed that others might enjoy them as well.
Here’s a favorite of mine that I posted exactly a year ago this week.
Today’s Story: October 30, 2018
Today is Tuesday. 3 days after this story’s events happened and I am still having difficulty finding the words to share.
I am not sure why it’s so difficult. Maybe it’s because of being in so much pain that my brain has a harder time working or maybe because the story is so deeply touching and freakishly connected to both me and my new friend’s past and present. Actually as I write this, I am sure that it is option 3, “all of the above.”
Saturday was spent cleaning my room and closet, which had become a disaster area. By about 3 p.m., I was stir crazy and had to get outside, knowing by 4 p.m. or so (each day), I have to start taking muscle relaxants in order to help deal with the head pain. That all being said, I told Carl that I was going for a Jeep ride and was on my way.
I headed to South Hero to drop something off to a friend, but in typical fashion…I couldn’t figure out which house was hers. On my way back home , I had a strong urge to head up the East Shore for a change instead of the West Shore, which is my favorite route.
I was so very happy that I was out for the ride! Not only do I love cruising in the Jeep with the radio cranked, but I had the added beauty of the gorgeous foliage and lake to take in.
I was almost home, less than a mile away, when I was driving by the bay where Carl keeps the Landing Craft in the summer. As I approached the bay, I saw a car pulled over, and a man waved as I drove by.
Assuming that I knew the man and just didn’t recognize him at first, I stopped and backed up to say hi.
It turns out that I didn’t know him, but he was very pleasant as he told me that he just stopped there to take some photos of the scenery. When he spoke, of course I had to comment, “You talk funny, where are you from?”
It turns out that he was from West Virginia and is now living in the Islands.
Of course I lit right up when he said West Virginia! I spent two weeks down there whitewater kayaking and absolutely loved it. I always said that if I didn’t live in Vermont that I would live in Maine or West Virginia.
We continued to chat and found out that we had a couple other things in common, the first being a love of baseball. It turns out Thomas was a very good baseball player. He shared some stories of his favorite player Roberto Clemente, and I shared my stories of Yaz.
Then Thomas said, “wait a minute, I have something in my car for you.” He went to his car and came back with a beautiful Dinger bat. He handed it to me and said, “Here, I want you to have this.”
Honestly, I didn’t know how to react. It was such a random act of kindness but how could I accept something like this from a stranger?
But then as I gripped the bat, it fit my hands like a glove. It just had the perfect weight and balance. I had to get out in the open area and start swinging. As I did, I was brought back to those fantastic days of neighborhood baseball games and competitive softball. Looking back on it later, I realized that I wasn’t feeling any pain at the time. I was so happy and so engrossed in my gift that I was like a kid on Christmas morning.
Thomas asked if I wanted some pictures with the bat and I enthusiastically replied, “Yes.”
We then talked a bit more and he shared how much kindness he has received from strangers since moving to the islands. He was so appreciative and truly touched deeply. I wasn’t surprised, as these are the same people that accepted me when I was new to the area. But it made me smile ear to ear to hear his story.
As I was about to leave he said, “wait, I have one more thing for you.” He went to his car, took out a card of St. Pio and handed it to me.
Now, I am not a participant of an organized religion, yet I do wholeheartedly believe in Saints. My favorite Saint is St. Anthony, but I had never even heard of St. Pio of Pietrelcina.
I thanked him, wished him the best and headed home.
When I got home I looked up St. Pio on the internet. Believe it or not, he is well known for his “Prayers for the Sick.”
Finding that extremely ironic given my personal health issues, I sent a message to my mother asking her if she had heard of him. Her reply was, “My mother prayed to him. I had one of his relics when I delivered one of you kids but I don’t remember which one. I held it all through delivery.”
After all of the coincidences of this chance meeting of my new friend…I have no doubt.
I have a renewed courage and faith (very much needed) and know in my heart that I was that kid Mom brought into this world as she prayed to St. Pio of Pietrelcina.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Writing for The Islander seems to be effortless some weeks and painfully difficult other weeks. When writing about others, words have a way of escaping from my fingertips smooth as the flow of a gradual, deep river with very few obstacles or bends in its path. Yet, when I am writing about myself, I find that the journey is more like a shallow, rocky, rushing mountain stream. I find that my words bounce back at me with a lack of control and confidence as I keep coming across potential dangers in my path.
This analogy is actually humorously ironic. One of my favorite passions in life is kayaking down crazy, dangerous, class III to V whitewater. The idea of paddling on boring, calm, event-free water is of no interest to me.
Saturday, Oct. 12 I had a heart to heart talk with a loved one. We discussed some difficulties that I am having. Honestly, the talk is one we’ve had many times before.
The familiar conversation was focused around my oversensitivity to other’s feelings and problems, how I need to learn to let things go, and how I am so poor at taking care of myself. Like I said, it was a talk that has been talked before…one that has been repeated all through my life.
After this most recent discussion, I felt a bit better. Yet, I still felt somewhat misunderstood. It’s like a “Catch 22.” I’m often embarrassed and confused when my unusual and over-sensitive personality creates such a challenge for myself and others.
That very night, before bed, I checked out Facebook. A friend had a post titled, “Empath Self Assessment Quiz.” I had heard about “empathy” before but didn’t know “empath” was a thing. Curious, I clicked on the link. I can’t even express the astonishment and disbelief as I read the information. It seemed to have been written specifically for me (which really freaked me out). One example is, “Being an empath is different from being empathetic. Being empathetic is when your heart goes out to someone else. Being an empath means you can actually feel another person’s happiness or sadness in your own body.” Dr. Judith Orloff 1 Feb 2019
I took the quiz, and out of twenty questions, only one didn’t apply. That one is, “13. Do I have a low pain threshold?” Now, if they are talking emotional threshold then it would apply. But if they are taking physical pain threshold then it doesn’t apply in the least as I am pretty much a pain-tolerating superhero.
According to Dr. Orloff, “Answering yes to more than fifteen questions means that you are a full-blown empath.”
After reading a bit more on the subject, I shared the link to my own Facebook page – excited to expose my mind-blowing discovery with the world. I hoped it might help explain me to others and maybe help someone else who is as confused in that area as myself.
The next morning, I checked Facebook and found a friend added a link to the book “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People” by Dr. Orloff. I immediately messaged my friend and asked her when she learned about “empath” and read the book. She replied, “Literally this weekend. So funny when I read your stories, I always think that’s just like me (meeting people wherever I go and people telling me everything and the part no one sees - taking it all on and feeling it so intensely. The nature thing the animal thing. It’s all right there and explains why life is so great and so painful while others seem less affected. The stuff about addiction resonates as does relationship issues (fear of them because they are so intense when you take in the feelings of another person). It totally wild isn’t it? I’m assuming all the signs resonate with you too?”
Damn, my friend is right on the money!
Needless to say, I ordered the book that very morning before heading off to the Fairgrounds to sell calendars at the WOKO Flea Market.
During my drive to Essex, I was so excited about the knowledge and validation of the word and all it represents, “Empath.” Constantly one to want to improve myself (and ultimately making others happier by doing so) I began brainstorming how to handle the unfamiliar yet familiar bag of tricks that I believe I have been carrying since birth. I thought about going to (yet another) counsellor to talk about the new discovery. But it didn’t take long for me to rule that out. It seems counsellors always want to talk about the past and that never seems to benefit me in any way. Still unsure on where to go with my new knowledge, I had to put the thoughts aside when I pulled into the fairgrounds and had to set up camp for the sales.
I immersed myself in the process of creating my presentation. When finished, I took a seat, extremely overwhelmed at all of the people and commotion around me. A friend was coming in a bit to help. In the meantime, waiting for the doors to open at 8:30, I just put my head in my hands and closed my eyes.
When I heard a voice directed at me, I looked up to see the man who had a table kiddy corner to me. I had noticed him earlier as he had a lot of “Wolf” theme. My daughter’s spiritual animal is a wolf, and I had intentions of going to his table later to see what he was about. Yet he approached me. Before I said a word, he asked, “Can I try something”? Confused, I replied, “Ok.” He asked for my wrist and then softly touched it with his hand. Seriously, and I have no explanation for why, but a shot of energy began to travel through my body. He asked if I felt anything, and I explained what I felt. He then asked where it went. Immediately I pointed to my head. He looked at me in the eyes and said, “What are the strong emotions that you are feeling today?” To this, I just stared at him and didn’t say a word. He continued, “You feel everybody’s emotions and pain. You need to learn to let things go.”
Insane, right? Seriously, I don’t make up anything that I write for the Islander. I am just sharing with you a fraction of the world that I live in.
We continued to talk a bit, but honestly, I was getting overwhelmed and I told him that I needed to just rest. The man was very cool and understanding, an Indian with great intuitive ability.
What just blows my mind is that in less than 24 hours, this common theme, education, awareness, support, rollercoaster of emotions all came across my path. The whole sequence of events, the timing, and the same message presented to me from such a variety unrelated sources…has my mind spinning.
Yes, it’s an exciting awareness that I will learn more about as I can. But I really have to tell you something.
As cool as it is learning and improving myself in this manner, I would still put it all aside when given the opportunity to be consumed by the demands of a crazy paddle down a whitewater river in my little kayak.
Respectful yet unafraid of being bounced of rocks and tossed upside down, I have more confidence and ability to right myself and continue paddling with Mother Nature than I do handling the real world.
Does this make sense?
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Ijust arrived back at my folk’s house in Waterbury Center, after a ride to the Cold Hollow Cider Mill with my brother Brad. We stopped in to grab a dozen donuts, and on our way out (and I am sure that this comes as a surprise) I talked to a stranger. An elderly man, cane by his side, was sitting by himself. He appeared happy as a clam as he swung softly on the wooden double bench glider just outside the store’s entrance.
Enamored by the calm, peaceful and happy expression on his face, I said, “It doesn’t get much better than that does it?” As a smile spread across his face he replied, “No, no it doesn’t.”
I opened my bag of donuts and reached it out to him so that he could take one. He said, “Thank you but there are some people inside buying some donuts. I will have one of those.”
I proceeded to ask him where he was from. He responded that he was from Hinesburg but had brought visitors from NY to the cider mill. As I shared with him that Brad and I had lived in Hinesburg, his wife and two NY guests came out from shopping.
We talked a bit more about Vermont and then I said, “Wait a minute please, I have something in my vehicle for you.” Brad stayed with them (actually while holding the store door open for others), and I went to the Jeep and grabbed a couple of calendars.
Before handing them over, I explained the story behind the calendars, their creation and purpose. I exclaimed that if they were taking Vermont famous donuts home, then they should have a Vermont calendar as well. When I first said that it was a “Vermont Pinup Girl Calendar,” the women’s faces immediately dropped. Honestly, I understand their initial reaction – just the mention of a pinup girl can trigger conflicting emotions for a woman. However, I put their concerns quickly to rest when I began showing them the photos. They belly laughed as they turned through the pages. They truly enjoyed the spoof on a pinup girl idea – chuckling at me in dirty work clothes posing with items like roofing shingles and a weedwhacker.
The conversation then escalated and became serious (the purpose of the calendar). Like most everyone, they all knew someone who has been affected by Lyme.
When it was time to leave, I asked if they were huggers. They all replied “Yes,” and hugs were shared across the board. The elderly man I had first spoke with commented on what a great hug I had and asked for another. When hugging him a second time I said, “You know, I never used to hug. Most Vermonters aren’t big huggers.” The woman from New York said, “He was just telling us yesterday that Vermonters don’t hug much!” I responded, “Yeah, when I got sick, I started hugging a lot. Life is too short not to have fun and share some love.” All four of the strangers readily agreed, and our conversation continued as we walked to our cars.
This story is actually relative to another from yesterday that I had thought about sharing. I had to drive to Winooski to pick up a part for my significant other and had some pretty strong emotions and observations on the trip.
One thing I saw was pure, wholesome beauty. I was at a stop light and school had been let out not too long ago. As I sat waiting for the light, I watched a young woman and her daughter walking home. Holding hands, the daughter was a spectacular example of youthful exuberance, confidence and individuality. She had long, light brown hair with natural waves that were exaggerated by the fall wind. Her fashion choice was refreshing, a warm sweater, tights, cute skirt and little boots. Her face displayed the expressions of the day as she shared her story with her mother. I rolled my driver side window down and called out to the mother, “Hi, your daughter is absolutely adorable!” The mother beamed with pride at my comment as the daughter sweetly called out, “Thank you!”
Further down the road, I saw an older gentleman begging for change. Having been outside earlier, I knew that the air was frigid. My heart broke as I read his sign that mentioned that he was a “psychiatric patient.” Knowing how many psychiatric patients aren’t receiving treatment in the modern-day world, I wanted nothing less than to go give this man a hug and take him to where he could have a hot meal. Unfortunately, the conditions were such that I couldn’t help.
I realize, most people would not stop and talk to a man on a bench and offer him a donut, or role down their window to tell a woman her daughter is adorable, or think twice about helping a homeless person. But I have been told more often than not: I am not “most people.” Having been told that, many times it’s a compliment but many times it’s quite the opposite.
Actually, just last weekend someone who has known me for a very long time told me that I have very defunct social skills. They said that I say and do things that I shouldn’t in public, but that I am lucky because most people love me anyways. It was a confusing statement to hear but the gist was that I should be different in public.
Not long after that, another person who has known me for a long time stated, “I can’t believe you are still alive,” implying that strangers can be dangerous.
Honestly, hearing these comments cuts like a knife and causes me to question myself and my personality. Seriously I don’t know why I am the way I am. Maybe I was born this way, or maybe it’s a learned behavior or maybe even a defense mechanism-based behavior.
Either way, it’s hard for me to swallow that such great stories (in my mind) can be met with such disgust and negativity. Should I change? Should I work to be more normal? Am I wrong to be who I am and to act this way?
But after thinking long and hard about things…… I am not going to change.
I do what I do because my gut tells me to.
I have an unbound faith in the good of the people I approach.
I know for a fact that my “quirks” make a lot of people smile.
And, I also know that when I can make people smile or let them know that they aren’t alone…it makes my heart feel good.
And I like it when my heart feels good. How cool is that?
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Even now, 50 years old, I still have nightmares about school. The dreams involve forgetting my locker combo, my schedule, or being unprepared. Honestly, these themes were my reality. I learned to carry books around in a backpack so I wouldn’t need a locker. I had a schedule in every notebook. And, I was most always unprepared for class.
I began school at 5 years old, 1st grade at Jericho Elementary. With no preschool or kindergarten under my belt, that introduction involved a significant learning curve for this young, active child. My teacher was extremely strict. Unfortunately, she didn’t appreciate my personality, and I endured consequences. My days often involved time sitting on a stool facing the corner as well as physical discipline. I spent most recesses alone in the classroom, instructed to keep my head down on the desk. Needless to say, in 1st grade I learned the survival skills of being very quiet and still.
Teachers after 1st grade were mostly decent. Because I was quiet and still, I didn’t draw attention to myself. Unfortunately, I had other traits that slipped by teachers until high school.
Concentration and the ability to focus on a task, much less complete one, were significant challenges. My classroom time was spent daydreaming. Looking back, I wish there was a way to capture all the stories that I created in my head. The adventures in my imagination, while the teacher talked in the background, would be the makings for some fantastic stories!
Socially, school was no problem and sports were my saving grace. Unfortunately, I learned a tough lesson in 8th grade about “balance”. That year Essex Middle School had their first involvement in interscholastic soccer. Not only did I make the team as starting striker, I was voted captain. Despite being our inaugural year, we made it to the finals.
Before the championship game, I earned a detention in Science class. I was then informed that my incomplete assignments resulted in a failing grade. As a consequence, I was removed from the soccer team.
This hurt deeply. Not only personally because I wasn’t allowed to play, but I felt extreme guilt as I let the team down. At game time, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the team. I watched from a distance as we lost the most significant game at that point in our young lives.
In high school, I vowed never to be kicked off a team again. I was able to “get by” with my grades despite the issues with my fantastic imagination and lack of interest in anything else when confined to a classroom.
My mother, of course, knew of my challenges. It was the spring of sophomore year when she sat down and read through the course options for the next year. She suggested that I read about “Farming and Forestry”. The class was part of the Essex Vocational Program, involving half of the school day for juniors and seniors. Mostly based on “hands on” and “field work”, the curriculum included areas of study that were right up my alley.
With an unfamiliar enthusiasm, I made the trek up to the Agriculture Building on the first day of my junior year. Little did I know, I was beginning a life-changing educational journey.
Mr. Canedy was an absolutely outstanding teacher and also became one of my best friends in life.
He recognized my learning quirks. While practicing extreme patience, he taught so much more then farming and forestry skills. He taught me how to learn. I still smile when I think about when he was teaching me to back up a hay wagon with the tractor. I turned the wheel too sharply and ended up cutting part of a tread off the tractor tire as it cranked against the wagon. I went into a panic, thinking he would be furious. He was only feet away watching me. When I finally gathered enough courage to look him in the face, I was very confused. I could tell he was bummed about the tire, but he hid it well. He softly explained to me what I had done wrong and asked me to try again. I had great difficulty understanding why he didn’t get pissed off and take me off the tractor. Instead, he taught me the most valuable lesson of making a mistake: take accountability, buck up, and try again.
He realized that the classroom was rough for me. Acknowledging that, he altered my personal curriculum to provide me with more “hands-on” learning.
One example was having me go (as a junior) with the senior class for the winter. The task was woodland maintenance on a lot in Jericho. Instead of being stuck inside, I was outside in the elements. My time was spent with the big boys cutting down trees, skidding them out, chainsaw maintenance, etc. Needless to say, at that point, I loved school!
Senior year, Mr. Canedy provided me with another priceless opportunity. He had me work at Chapin’s Orchards in Essex Center. Perfect! I was already helping milk at the dairy farm that was on the property. And, Chapin’s was only a hop, skip, and a jump from where I lived. The year was 1985.
Now I’d like to fast forward to last week, almost 35 years later.
My son asked me to go apple picking. It would be our first trip to an orchard with his newborn son. I asked where he’d like to go. Expecting South Hero because that’s where I always brought him and his sister, I was pleasantly surprised when he answered Chapin’s.”
Driving to the orchard, I became overwhelmed with heartfelt emotion. Once there, I was like a little kid, showing them all around and sharing my stories from my time there (stories my kids already heard half a million times). The most impressive accomplishment I showed them was the large number of apple trees that I planted in the field to the left of the barn. That section of the orchard wasn’t open to the public that day. But, with permission, we walked over to those magical, fruit-bearing trees that were nothing more than a twig when I placed them in the ground so very long ago.
Having been years since being there, I went into a giddy shock when I saw an old tractor. It’s on display and is the very one that I used when working there. I was ecstatic to have my butt back in that familiar seat that I warmed for so many hours years ago, while holding my first grandchild in my arms.
We then walked into the barn and saw a sign on the wall. Again, a pride (that I never experienced in a classroom) came over me as I read the first line to my son and his family. “The original orchard at Chapin Farm was planted in 1929, with the newer orchard of 1500 semi-dwarf trees planted in 1985.”
So overwhelmingly proud by the end of that experience, I’m surprised my head fit inside my car for the drive home. It did fit, and driving home, I warmly reflected on the day’s events. I realized, I didn’t just share these stories with my family, as they sat listening to me talk.
I shared these stories with a “hands-on” experience in which they were able to use all of their senses…sight, sound, smell, taste and touch…
How cool is that?
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Last week my 34-year-old cousin Chucky shared this on Facebook, “It really sucks I can’t get close to anyone because of my own stupidity. I can’t just blame everything on the brain injury. I really wish for clear thoughts and love. I’m really sorry for hurting anyone.”
His words struck me like a bolt of lightning to my core. After reading and re-reading his post countless times, I eventually broke free from my computer to organize my thoughts, only to be drawn back to re-read it several times again. I then reached out to him and asked if he wanted to be part of a piece for the Islander that I have wanted to do for months but have not had the courage to complete.
“Cuz” readily agreed and put his story down in writing for me. I am so deeply thankful. Unknowingly, he is paving the way for me to confront and share some of my own issues that have been killing my spirit slowly and painfully. By only changing one word, I am able to use the rest of his words to share with the world what I have been feeling so long. Here’s my version, ““It really sucks I can’t get close to anyone because of my own stupidity. I can’t just blame everything on the Lyme brain. I really wish for clear thoughts and love. I’m really sorry for hurting anyone.”
See, Chucky and I have always been kindred spirits. We both love to have fun, enjoy nature to its fullest, and we are both quite talented at hiding our pain on the inside with a full smile on the outside. It turns out we are even more similar then we originally realized, now that we both have “brain quirk” badges.
Here is some of Chucky’s story: “The first of my struggles after the brain injury was confusion and fear. My normal world was connecting with others and helping out friends, for it was the day after Christmas of 2017. I was headed northbound on 105 to visit my friend in Enosburg. I made it to Swanton before an oncoming Subaru was hit in the rear and flew into my lane. Smash! My face hit the steering wheel and my knee hit the dash as my body remained fastened luckily.... I woke in the smoke. Frantically, I looked for my friends outside the vehicle. They were okay. The ambulance was already there. I hobbled on to the cold pavement and hopped to the ambulance in sight. That was just the beginning of the survival horror.
After being hospitalized and transported to Burlington, my primary concern was my friends’ condition and my shattered orbital plate in my face. Many faded faces tried to speak to me in the hospital, but I couldn’t quite comprehend all of their words or begin to read the paperwork I needed to fill out in order to get financial and recommended assistance. Very frustrating. My brain always wanted rest. I would typically sleep over eight hours, then wake for a few, only to go back to sleep for another 3 hours uncontrollably. I rested at home for a long while as paperwork from the hospital piled in.
It was nearly impossible to convey my situation over the phone, as my speech was greatly affected by the accident. Anxiety and depression weighed heavy on me. I was quite worrisome and somewhat delusional. All that stuck with me was that I was “lucky.” But I was scared that I’d never be the same. And I had a fear of fear. Many of my emotions blew up into tremendous stress. Many conversations and situations I couldn’t/can’t understand.
This brain injury rocked my world! It continues to shape my world into a confusing lifestyle at times. I’ve learned to write everything down such as plans, groceries or any tiny reminder that can simply be forgotten within a matter of seconds. My greatest motivator while having a brain injury is patience. Because I have come a long way to get a little bit better. Letting go of unhealthy stress and taking a necessary break from a noisy world has been the greatest help.
I am most thankful for family and friends who stuck by me and reminded me what love and life truly was.
Many things are still overwhelming almost two years after the accident. I focus on routines and relaxing in order to get through every day. Now I am strong. I survived horrors of confusion and I am conquering my fears one day at a time. I still tear up telling my story because it’s the greatest pain I have ever conquered and I am so thankful to feel and live.”
It’s by clinging to the coattails of his courage that I now writing this piece. It’s been hanging over my head like the cloud that hangs over Eeyore. I too am scared, confused and heavily afraid of hurting others. I’m also one who used to live to have fun with others and help in any way I could.
Now I stay close to home as possible and live in fear of exposing my brain short-circuitry to others. Familiar faces, names, and memories can all be so overwhelming. My brain knows very well that it should remember all of them but it just can’t fill in the blanks. I fear that people will think that I am rude, standoffish, or a jerk because I don’t remember even the most basic things that a normal brain would. And just like with Chucky and so many others with cognitive challenges, the struggle isn’t obvious (like a leg in a cast for example).
If we add into the mix, a personality that is well adept at concealing pain of any kind… well that makes the puzzle even more confusing, misunderstood and lonely.
I live in conflict with balancing “the old me” with “the now me.” My heart wants to be out there helping others and playing as it’s always done. But my brain is now cloudy, confused, anxious, scared and very easily overwhelmed. My coping mechanisms are so defunct that the smallest challenges that should be molehills are steep, rocky mountains.
My purpose for writing on this topic it to share a reminder with others…. Please be patient. This world has become so fast paced and challenging with of the ever-changing technology. Add on to that the political, social and environmental conflicts and a perfect storm is created and can swallow an injured brain into the fog.
Please try to keep in mind that a large number of people who you encounter on a daily schedule may have these challenges.
The brain is an amazing thing, but also so fragile.
A traumatic brain injury, drugs, birth defects, dementia, illness, PTSD, and so many other conditions affect a person’s cognitive abilities.
Please, be patient, don’t judge if someone if having difficulty with even the simplest tasks. We are all only human and in human bodies. And were we can’t be expected to know or even understand what someone else is dealing with… we can at least be open minded, kind and again… Patient.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Do you remember as a kid; overhearing the adults reminiscing over how much the world has changed in their lifetime?
Sometimes I would take a seat on the floor and listen intently to the conversations, especially when my Grampa talked. Grampa’s stories involved such detail and colorful description that his words played out like a movie in my head.
I remember being awestruck over the vastness of change within his lifetime. But at the same time, I was confused and conflicted because I couldn’t fathom that much change within my own lifetime.
But now, at 50 years old and with my own grandson’s arrival; I realize that the stories that I have to tell may have the same effect on him.
After reflecting on the changes between my childhood and the childhood that kids experience now-a-days, I have made a game plan. I like to think of it as my “Grandkid Bucket List”.
The lifestyle of children in this day and age is so very different from only a few decades ago. I can’t help but smile to myself as I fill out the list with some of the very simple yet memorable childhood experiences and lessons that I want to pass on.
Overall, the “Grandkid Bucket List” I am creating revolves around experiencing nature and respecting and appreciating people.
Now my grandson is only a little over a month year old, so I have some time to expand or edit the goals. But I thought that I would share with you some of my initial thoughts.
1. Catching Crawdads. Ahhh, a stream or river with a shallow edge and small rocks is perfect. The soothing sound of the rushing water needs to drown out any other sounds of civilization. We’ll find the right size rocks for those little hands and pick them up carefully so as not to stir up the mud (making the water cloudy). We will discuss that crawdads swim backwards and the place to grab them is behind their pinchers. Of course, we will never hurt them and will always put them back to go back to hiding under their rocks.
2. Climbing Birch Trees. A skill my brother Bob taught me; it’s guaranteed to amaze. We will find the proper diameter and height tree for each of our own height and weight. Of course, I will have to help them climb their tree the first few times. But I imagine it won’t take long for them to learn to do it on their own. We will take turns climbing a tree, up, up, up, until it begins to slowly begin to bend. Then, inching up higher and higher until the sweet spot is reached. It is then that the precious, caring birch will slowly and softly bend over; bringing its passenger back to the ground with grace and ease. Once released from the hands of the traveler, the tree springs back to it’s original pose, reaching for the sun.
3. Touch-Me-Knots (Jewelweed). Popping touch-me-not pods is quite possibly one of the most relaxing yet addictive late summer past times. The bigger the pod, the bigger the explosion. Sometimes the challenge is to pick as many pods as you can and put them in a hand…without them exploding upon touch. Many people aren’t aware of this phenomenon and it’s a fun one to share. The joy and amusement on a child’s face as they share a pod with another (who hasn’t had the experience), as the pod explodes and startles the newbie is priceless.
4. Puffball Stomping. This can be a bit of a trickier experience as the puffballs need to be located and they need to be at the proper stage of ripeness. The experience is even more enjoyable when done while barefoot. Stomping on a ripe puffball barefoot is nothing short of awesome while witnessing the black smoke escape out from under one’s feet and thru their toes. One of Mother Nature’s own magic shows.
5. Wild Berry Picking……. Will Not be on the list… Big, ugly, scary spiders like to hide amongst berry bushes and this is unacceptable.
6. Summer Night Outdoor Lights. Education at its finest. On a hot summer night, after leaving the outdoor light on, we will step outside to witness a magnificent variety show of all shapes, sizes, and colors of insects. A stunning spectacle of characters gathered together almost in worship of the light. We’ll be starstruck observing characters that we’d never witness during the day. At this point I feel that I need to clarify something. Despite collecting June bugs on nights like this (when I was young) and convincing my younger brothers that it feels good to have them crawl around on their tongue…. I won’t do that to my grandkids.
7. Christmas Cookies. The more variety the better. We will work together to create colorful, magical treats; all while listening to the Christmas music recordings created by my Dad playing guitar(s). Then, after creating packages of the mix, we will travel to unexpecting, kind, friendly people and present them with the gift of love and appreciation.
8. Easter Bunny Cakes. Another opportunity for “giving”. I’ll make the cakes ahead of time, cut them and arrange them in the shape of an Easter Bunny head, and cover with frosting. We will have a variety of candies such as licorice, gum drops, food colored coconut, colored marshmallows, and more. Each person will decorate their own individual cake and then choose who they will give it to. Of course, we will have one for ourselves as well. But the grandkid(s) will be encouraged to take a moment to think about who might be most appreciative of such a gift. I used to do this with my own kids and we would often bring a couple cakes to the halfway house in Waterbury (people who were once in the State Hospital).
This is just a sampling of the “Grandkid Bucket List”, so many more ideas and goals are swarming thru my head.
Truly, I am going to treasure every chance I have to share stories and experiences from my lifetime with these children. And at the same time, I am going to treasure being part of the stories and experiences that they will someday share with their grandchildren……
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.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Growing up in Essex Center in the 1970’s and 1980’s was much like living in Grand Isle in 2019. There wasn’t as much farmland as there is in Grand Isle. But there was plenty of it, some of it right behind my house on Towers Road. I spent many hours in those fields, kicking and chasing a soccer ball, flying kites, cross country skiing, walking through to get to the skating pond or frog catching pond (depending on the time of the year). I shared the field with bobolinks, deer, rabbits and other friends.
When I started college in 1986 and moved to Burlington; I felt like I was in a foreign country, not understanding the culture or language. There were so many people that I felt claustrophobic, but at the same time I felt like I was on the outside of them all.
Have you ever noticed the formation of flock of geese when they are migrating? Have you noticed that sometimes there is one goose who isn’t in formation and seems like it’s always trying to catch up and be part of the group? I felt like that goose. I felt like I should be comfortable in the grouping within the big city of Burlington. But my heart and soul wanted to be by myself back in my small town.
One day I was feeling very lonely and lost, and decided to go for a walk. I went downtown and instead of walking on the main touristy streets; I took to the side roads. It was on a quiet, rundown road that I met one of the most generous people of my life. This man, about in his sixties, was pushing a full shopping cart. I said, “hi” to him and his face lit up as he said “hi” back. He asked me if I would like to see what he had in his cart. Of course, I said yes. He was exuberant as a child showing off their new prize marble. As he picked out each item, he shared the story of where he got it and what it meant to him. He truly appreciated and cherished each one of his treasures.
After quite a long time of talking and laughing over his stories, he looked up at me and paused. He then smiled ear to ear, and told me that if I would accept it; he would like to give me a gift. At first, I hesitated, because I didn’t want to take anything from someone who had so little to begin with. But after seeing his smile and the sparkle in his eyes, I said that I would love it. So, he reached down deep into his cart and pulled out something I had never seen before. It was a plastic white ball about the size of a baseball. The plastic was shaped kind of elegantly with simple designs around the globe, all attached to a small white cord with a plug. I had no idea what it was. But he said to take it home, plug it in and see what it does. It was then that he said that he must be going, smiled and walked away, pushing his cart in front of him. When I got back to campus, I immediately plugged it in. It was the most awesome moment when I heard the sweet song of birds coming out through the ball. I was overwhelmed. Here this man had all of his life belongings with him, and he was so unselfish as to share with me. I will never forget that generosity.
When my kids were born, I would plug the gift into the outlet; and they were thrilled to think that we had our very own special bird that lived in the ball. I guess now that they are adults, I should tell them that there really isn’t a bird in the ball….
To this day, I still have that gift, story and lesson in my mind and heart.
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