Kindred Spirits Are Everywhere

Tis the season for both heartbreaking news and stories of beautiful people and organizations. I’m putting aside all the harried, busy stuff for a bit and sharing news about some of my favorites: Glennon Doyle’s Together Rising, Humans of New York, A Wider Circle, and my friend Sue Leather. Because in a tough world, goodness deserves attention.

Take Glennon Doyle, a blogger at Momastery who started a non-profit called Together Rising. Here’s an excerpt from Glennon’s recent piece on efforts to help the Syrian refugees:

It has been a hard few weeks. Every day we have been freshly stunned and brokenhearted by what we’ve learned, seen, and heard. And that’s good. When my heart is truly broken, I feel low, abiding joy. Because I know I’ve stumbled onto something worthy of my time, energy, money, and life.

On Monday, December 21, Together Rising “will be launching the largest, most beautiful, most important and life-saving Love Project this community has ever seen.” I’m in. You can find Glennon on Facebook here or her blog.

You know who else is doing amazing work? Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York. In a series of recent Facebook posts, he too has told the stories of refugees–some joyful (they are coming to America!), others heartbreaking (the loss of family in senseless violence, the visa revoked). His is an advocacy advanced through that most powerful medium: story-telling. Brandon started a petition to bring a young woman named Aya to America. I loved that after reading about Aya, my children wanted to sign it too.

Here in the D.C. area we have an incredible community organization near us called A Wider Circle. The staff at a Wider Circle knows that the number one reason people are in poverty is birth, and the number one reason people rise out of poverty is support. So they’re starting a program to provide long-term, wraparound support to those seeking to rise out of poverty. For DC area folks, there’s more information about the program here; I hope to share more in the coming months as my family partners with some of our neighbors to lift another family out of poverty.

I want to end by sharing a personal story, the story of my friend Sue Leather, who died this week (too soon, with cancer it’s always too soon, isn’t it?). Sue was an incredible force of light and love. Like the incredible people I wrote about above, she was all about togetherness, about widening her circle to include others.

Have you seen the Facebook post that asks “what’s the one word that describes how we met?” That post makes me crazy. Because how can one word capture all that goes into meeting a friend? Here’s my far longer than one-word story of meeting Sue.

Working abroad was a lovely option for a recent U.S. university graduate with no job prospects in the early 1990s. I’d had a most excellent summer and fall bartending in Scotland, but it was time to move on. Alone in a somber Geneva hostel, I quickly realized that winter was not optimal travel time and perhaps another job was in order. So up went a sign in Geneva’s British-American library (my French too abysmal to leave one in the central library). Mind you, the sign had no contact information–though it did say how cheerful and VERY AVAILABLE I was, and feel free to leave your name and number if you’d possibly consider having me watch your children.

I still have the sign:

au pair sign

I gave myself three days before I’d move on, as Geneva that January was cold, expensive, and admittedly a bit lonely. Day one, nothing. Day two, still blank. But everything changed on Day three. ONE person dared write her name and number on that page, one person dared see something in that cheery and vague notice.

That person was Susan Leather. She immediately became my favorite person in all of Geneva and we hadn’t even met. But we did later that day, over coffee at the World Health Organization (WHO), where she’d started a new job working on AIDS education programs for Africa. I don’t remember the details of that conversation. What I remember is that I trusted her implicitly; knew instantly–as one does, sometimes–that Sue was a kindred spirit, the sort who smiled with her eyes and radiated warmth. And after she’d called my reference, she made her offer.

“If you’re ready, we can just pick up your bag,” she’d offered. “Now?” I asked. “Why not?” she said.

And thus it was that a name on a sheet of paper one morning (Susan Leather, call “anytime”) brought me and my backpack home that same evening to meet her family in a house nestled beneath the Jura mountains. The kids said “welcome” as though they were used to strangers parading about; Sue’s husband Alan dashed in from some sort of work party with a warm greeting and we all jumped in to make dinner and I felt instantly at home.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Sue cared for 22 year-old me as much as I cared for the children. She taught me how to drive a stick shift (I managed). She tried to help me with my French (still abysmal, that’s on me). She and Alan showed me the pleasure of a good glass of wine with dinner (totally mastered that one). And all the while, she did incredibly important work, back when AIDS was so very feared, when people wanted to turn away from it, or ignore the rapid climb in Africa–but not Sue.

Sue was such a lovely mother, the sort who read aloud, who didn’t yell or lose her temper, who was fully present with both adults and children. She and Alan made it all look so effortless–working, parenting, actively involving themselves in local theatre productions. I suppose they were busy but they were so good-natured and clearly happy; their home never felt harried. That is no small thing, as so many of us know.

It was a hard place to leave, but we stayed in touch for the next twenty-five years. Sue’s family came to visit mine and five years ago we went to stay with them, again surrounded by the beautiful Jura. I am so very very glad we took that trip.

The world is a heavy place right now. There is cruelty and fear and, far too often, a tendency for people to want to lock themselves and their families away from the rest of the world, particularly those who come from elsewhere. And then there are the Sue Leathers, who smile with their eyes and do meaningful work and say, at every turn, “welcome.” Who, by their acts and example, inspires others to do the same.

I wish I could write Sue a long rambling email and tell her my teenager performed as Hermia in a scene from a Midsummer’s Night Dream; that my son is fearless on the soccer field, that I continue to plug away at the writing thing. That maybe we can try for another visit, that her first grandchild is so very darling and perfect.

I cannot, but I can try to be a kindred spirit to others, just as Sue was to me. And in doing so, in the words of one of my favorite childhood characters, I know what I’ll find:

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”  L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables


sue and me
Sue and I in Geneva, November 2010. Peace.

14 thoughts on “Kindred Spirits Are Everywhere

  1. Fran Devine says:

    Thank you for this wonderful essay about Sue. We worked together in London in the early 70s, and I last saw her when she visited us in the north of England a few years ago. What a wonderful woman she was and your writing brings her so vividly back to life.

  2. Aviva Goldfarb says:

    You have a beautiful and abundant heart, Kristin, and I think of you as one of my kindred spirits. Thanks for the wonderful holiday post, and so sorry about your friend Sue.

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thank you Aviva. You’ll appreciate that I remember thinking, after connecting with Lisa Flaxman at our essay reading, that she was a kindred spirit as well. They’re everywhere, thankfully–a lovely counter to the hard stuff. So glad to have friends like you.

  3. Jenny Gaylin says:

    Dear Kristin,
    Thank you for such a heart-felt essay filled with hope and love. I am terribly sorry to learn of the loss of your friend. She sounds like one of the workd’s special people.

  4. Terry Buerbaum says:

    Thank you for sharing thoughts on your beautiful friend. Your article is awesome and yes Kindred Spirits are everywhere if we only take the time to open our eyes to look. Thank you for the reminder. Beautiful tribute Kristin! You are such a talented writer!

  5. T.O. Weller says:

    Kristin, you write so beautifully. I could feel your love for Sue in each word.

    Thank you for sharing your words with us.


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