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The first decade of the new millennium contained unspeakable tragedies, a life changing trip, and the beginnings of a lifelong love.
As the 1990s drew to a close, I grew tired of talking about how to squash the Y2K bug and teaching corporate executives how to use a mouse. I yearned to go back to nonprofit work, where I felt like I was making a real difference. I thought that meant I would leave technology behind, but instead I found myself challenged to do both. I got a job as the executive director of a 24-hour mental health crisis center like the one I volunteered for in the 1970s, this time in beautiful Traverse City, Michigan.
At the same time, Gini and I continued to write software books, conduct workshops, and speak at conferences.
And if that wasn’t enough, I became more and more involved with my Unitarian Universalist faith community on a regional and national level. Amid these professional demands, three tragic events and an inspiring trip shaped the first decade of the new millennium.
The most significant event of the “aughts,” the attacks on September 11, 2001, changed so much in this country, most importantly instilling the sense that we, at least in theory, were united against terrorism, especially terrorism perpetrated by Muslims. I struggled with this apparent unity and did not support the retaliatory attacks on Iran or Afghanistan, especially with no evidence that they were behind what the 9/11 tragedy. Sadly, that put me at odds with much of the country, but I held on to my beliefs and did what I could to support communities who had become victims of Islamophobia—not nearly as much as my dear sister Hope did, however, who you’ll read about in this section.
In the piece I posted about my 1960s junior high school friend Susan, I wrote about how I spent that day connecting our crisis services to the national 1-800-SUICIDE hotline.
What I haven’t shared is that, in the hours before the news, I fired the clinical supervisor of the center—a man who’d been in that role for twenty years and was beloved by many of the staff. Although I tried to apply my colleague Elaine’s technique of helping the person see that their skills could be better applied elsewhere, I didn’t succeed. When we got word of the attacks, I was in a staff meeting informing them of his firing. September 11, 2001, will go down in history, not just for the horrific attacks, but as the hardest day in my professional life bar none!
The next tragedy also whirled from the sky, but this time it was delivered by Mother Nature. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast washing away entire towns in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The subsequent failures of the levees in New Orleans destroyed huge swaths of that iconic city and left the rest in tatters. For reasons that are hard for me to understand, this event impacted me more significantly than the 9/11 attacks—maybe, unlike 9/11, we knew the storm was coming and yet it took weeks for the full tragedy to unfold.
Because of the impact it had on me, I spent time over the next few years doing relief work that started in a Red Cross Shelter in Hattiesburg, MS, and continued with rehabbing houses in New Orleans’s 9th Ward. In addition to the work I did there, I credit this time with the beginning of my slow and sloppy transition from technical writing to writing narrative nonfiction. I chronicled the people I met there and the things I witnessed with blog posts published by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). I’ve since written further about one little girl who taught me more about coping with trauma than anyone I ever met. You’ll be introduced to her in this section too.
By 2008, the shadows of these tragedies began to recede. In March of that year, I took a bus trip through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, billed as a Southern Civil Rights Tour. That trip tilted my life on its axis.
Growing up in a Sundown Town (intentionally all-white community) in Northwest Arkansas, I lived in a bubble that insulated me from efforts to integrate and the voting rights and civil rights movements. I had heard about Martin Luther King, Jr., and honestly didn’t like him all that much. Although my parents, especially my mom, spoke to me about how she didn’t understand why people around here didn’t like Black people, I know that some of the racism that surrounded me every day seeped into my psyche.
After leaving Arkansas, I worked to eradicate as much of these racist ideas from my mind as possible, but this trip, the Southern Civil Rights Tour, grounded me in a way that no other work had. Talking with people who had been involved in the Movement, walking in their footsteps, and seeing the landscapes that birthed so much courage, changed me.
When the organizers, the Rev. Dr. Gordon Gibson and his wife Judy, announced that this was their last tour—that they had accomplished what they had set out to do—two other participants and I, along with the woman assisting the Gibsons with logistics, begged them to lead one more. They agreed, introducing us to their contacts and teaching us how to take the reins. As I write this, fifteen years have passed, the Gibsons are still involved, and we’re running more trips every year, tours that we now call pilgrimages. In upcoming stories, you’ll meet two co-founders of the Living Legacy Project and two veterans of the Movement I’ve met through Living Legacy Pilgrimages.
The third cataclysmic event of the 2000s that significantly shook my life happened on July 27, 2008, when a gunman entered Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN, and opened fire on a Sunday morning church service, killing two people and wounding six others. It was one of the first mass shootings in a church, and it attracted national and international attention.
In my role as District Executive for the UUA, I arrived there the evening of the shooting and didn’t leave for two weeks. I returned many times over the next two years to help manage the response, including establishing a fund to assist victims and their families. It was some of the most significant work I did during my years with the UUA. I will share a story of one of the victims through the eyes of her two sisters that caused me to grapple with the meaning of hell in a way I had never viewed it before.
And finally, this decade that had been filled with unspeakable tragedy ended with one of the most exhilarating encounters of my life. I met the woman who would become my wife. I had planned to include Wendy as the very last story of this series, but at her suggestion (as my editor-in-chief), I’ve moved her into the 2000’s, at the time we met. However, as with many of the women I’m writing about, I fully expect her influence will continue until one of us, presumably me (since I’m fifteen years older), leaves this earthly realm.
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