Discover more from Accidental Mentors
It's all about relationships
Susan Walker (1943-1997) taught me the value of connecting with people no matter who they are
The first time Susan and I met in Joy’s Harvard Divinity School dorm room she didn’t like me. She told Joy she thought I was too sure of myself, too brash. I had made a crass statement about the telephone operator’s sexy voice, so she had good cause. I didn’t know what she thought about me at the time, and fortunately, in what I would learn was typical for Susan, she gave me another chance. I eventually won her over and she became my dearest friend.
Playful, practical joker, community organizer, activist, spirit-centered woman, mother, adoptee, motorcyclist, nature-lover, trouble-maker—all these words describe Susan. She had a vision for a better world and expected, and in some cases demanded, others share in her vision. When her trash company insisted that she place her garbage in plastic bags, she challenged them until she prevailed. Long before any of us considered the damage caused by plastic grocery bags, Susan carried her own bags to the store and refused to buy fruits and vegetables in plastic. She hired undocumented workers as a protest to the unfair immigration system and worked at a Chicago homelessness coalition to fight for solutions to the pervasive homelessness crisis. Susan lived her values and did it in such a way that others around her started living them too.
If I could use one word to describe Susan it would be “connector.” She possessed a big personality, someone who traveled in crowds or maybe better said, crowds traveled with her. It seemed Susan knew everybody and insisted that everybody she knew had to know each other—and have fun together. She loved playing board games, especially UpWords, and reveled in playing practical jokes.
Because of an early cancer diagnosis and radiation treatment in the 1960s, Susan walked with a large brace on her leg and often used a motorized scooter to get around. I can’t count the number of times she would drop me off at a store to pick up something she said she needed and then completely disappear. In the days before cell phones, all I could do was wait for her to return, which she eventually did, pulling up beside me to ask if I wanted a ride somewhere. She would laugh and, as I crawled into the car, say she couldn’t understand what I was upset about. Of course, I wasn’t really upset, but I knew enough to play along. That was all part of the game.
The times I remember most about Susan, though, were not the times she was playing games, but rather, the times we spent being quiet together. I would sit beside her on the sofa in her wilderness cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, sipping on a glass of wine, and just listen, first to the haunting loon calls coming from the lake below and then to her. In those moments, Susan reflected on her life and her passions—her challenging childhood with wealthy adoptive parents, what it meant to connect with her biological family, the importance of her children and what it felt like to lose one of them as a toddler, her love of music, especially womyn’s music, and her commitment to do all she could to change the world for the better.
For Susan, making a difference in the world was all about developing deep relationships with the people she met—anyone she met. She engaged with everyone from the clerk at the corner store to the lifelong caretaker of her property to the Ojibwa children at Lac Vieux Desert Indian Reservation in Watersmeet. They knew she cared about them because she let them know. As I watched her do this, I pushed myself harder and harder to connect with people the way she did. It didn’t come easy for me. I am naturally more shy, more awkward, and more hesitant to engage with strangers. But with practice, I gradually grew more comfortable. Now twenty-five years after Susan’s passing from a second battle with cancer at the age of 54, I can say I’ve had some success. I’ll never be the connector Susan was, but her spirit guides me to try, and that’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Accidental Mentors is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.