Jane Norrie has been a member of Second Congregational Church since 1977. Her late husband was a UCC Pastor and Jane’s life work has included medical office management, technical support, as well as 15 years of experience as a therapeutic equine assisted activities instructor and director of the Ride and Shine Special Equestrians Program in Shaftsbury, VT. Now retired, Jane continues to be active as a mentor for aspiring equine therapy professionals and as a coordinator of healing ministry activities at Second Congregational Church.
TALES OF A LIFE-CHANGING FOURSOME
Everyone loves a story, and my story today is in four chapters about four life-changing events in my life since 1977 – all of them associated with members of our Second Congregational church family. It was very difficult to limit myself to only four chapters, as many, many wonderful people and events flooded me with memories. It’s a good thing I had Tom Steffen as my sermon writing coach as he is very good at insisting on staying within a 15 minute time limit. Left to my own devices I might have gone on for at least an hour!
To set some historical context, we might take note that there was a somewhat revolutionary movement toward de-institutionalizing Brandon State Training School and placing its former residents within local communities near their families of origin. In the early spring of l977 my husband David, recently semi-retired from parish pastorate due to health problems, received a phone call from Vermont State Conference Minister Charles Chamberlain informing us that UCS in Bennington was recruiting group home staff for a community care home for developmentally disabled adults transferring from Brandon. Charles thought we might be interested in applying for this position. We did apply and were hired to begin work on preparing a house at 215 Union St. to receive 7 residents, all young adults, 5 of whom had spent most of their life in Brandon State Training School.
Of course we immediately transferred our church membership to Second Congregational and were more or less settled into our new position just in time to celebrate the Bicentennial of the Battle of Bennington with the greatest ever Battle Day Weekend parade and all the fixin’s! A short time thereafter enter Tom and Nancy Jean Steffen for chapter one of the life-changing foursome.
The stresses of our 24/7 residential staff position soon proved to be overwhelming for David. In the early winter of 1977 he was admitted to Putnam Memorial Hospital’s ICU with gastrointestinal bleeding. When I went to visit him early in the morning of his first hospital day I found him in a state of delirium, in 4-point restraints, unable to recognize me. His nurse was handing me a telephone and telling me that Dr. Guerrero was on the line to speak with me. I was on the verge of going to pieces when someone came up behind me, put his arm around my shoulders, took the phone and started speaking with the doctor on my behalf. That someone was Tom Steffen. Later when I asked Tom what he was doing at the hospital so early in the day he told me he just “had a feeling” that he ought to go visit David. I am very glad he listened to that inner guidance and came to my rescue, not only ministering to David’s and my spiritual needs but also insisting that I take time off from the residential job and stay at the parsonage for a few days until David’s health stabilized and we could see our way clear to re-adjusting our living situation in Bennington. Tom and Nancy Jean’s hospitality was like a harbor in a storm for me. While I was given respite in their home I also came to know Nancy Jean as a role model of a pastor’s wife like none I had ever known before, seeing her in action as a successful business owner in her own right as well as wife, mother and faithful leader in church life.
This was not to be the last time that Tom and Nancy Jean would come to my rescue as over the next ten years I learned to cope with being the main wage earner and caregiver to my husband who became increasingly disabled by severe heart disease and diabetes. David died in November, 1987, just 2 days before our 26th wedding anniversary, at what had by then become Southwestern Vermont Medical Center’s new West Wing ICU. Tom was there waiting for me when the staff asked me to leave David’s bedside as they began cardiac resuscitation. Again Tom supported me as Dr. Guerrero told us that David had never regained consciousness. And yet again Tom and Nancy Jean opened their home, now having moved to Margaret Lane, to me, my family and friends who came to attend David’s memorial service. In the years since then both Nancy Jean and Tom have helped me to find out who I was as a pastor’s widow and ultimately who I am as a single woman, a person who continually learns and grows and who is very different from the young woman who moved to Bennington in 1977.
Chapter two of four tells of an influential woman by the name of Claire Santway. Since 1977 Claire and I have become dear friends, perhaps even to be described as what Celtic tradition calls “anam cara” – soul friends. Claire gave me a love of Yoga practice which she facilitated for a few of us in her sunny living room. An especially important message for me would come through when, after guiding us in practice of several poses, Claire would tell us to lie still on our back for a few minutes to “relax and absorb the benefits”. How often even now I need to remind myself to relax in order to absorb the benefits for my well-being which are offered in many surprising ways. Even more important, however, is that Claire was the very first person to tell me about Reiki energy therapy and to demonstrate its benefits as a hands on healing modality which she learned through attunement to Reiki level I. This took place in the mid 1980’s at a gathering in a Manhattan city apartment where Claire’s teacher was a Reiki Master just one generation removed from Japanese Dr. Usui who promulgated a method of Reiki practice which has since spread throughout the world. Eventually that introduction provided by Claire led me to use of Reiki for relief of multiple sclerosis symptoms in my own body, and after a few years to my initiation as a Reiki Teaching Master as a student of Nancy Edwards here in Bennington.
Third chapter in historical progression tells of the family of David McMullen and Desmond Clohossey who moved from Staten Island to Bennington around 1987. They were attracted to Second Congregational and soon became active members. They were men of varied talents- gardening, music, carpentry, home decorating to name a few. Desmond was almost totally deaf so of course he and Dave were fluent in American Sign Language. They lived in the neighborhood of the farm where I boarded my horse – a wonderful thoroughbred named Calypso Kid. Desmond loved the horses, dogs, cats and other animals at the farm and wanted to learn horseback riding. So in exchange for sign language lessons I gave him riding lessons. He learned to ride a whole lot faster than I learned how to sign! In the course of our friendship both Dave and Desmond taught me many life lessons. One of the most outstanding for me was a new way of understanding the KISS slogan which was popular at the time. Keep it simple, stupid was the common usage, but Dave taught me to change that to “Keep it simple, sweetheart”, insisting that one should never call oneself stupid. Many’s the time this turn of phrase has helped me deal gently with myself in difficult circumstances. So it was that Desmond became my first equine assisted therapy student and Dave became another dear friend of the Celtic anam-cara sort. You may have guessed by now that Dave and Desmond were homosexual partners. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and while they lived their lives with us they helped our congregation work through the process of becoming Vermont’s first Open and Affirming congregation. Towards the end of his life Desmond still came to visit Calypso Kid, now unable to ride but still loving to touch and groom The Kid and to delight in the fact that he could hear the barking of Jesse the Golden Retriever who came to play fetch the stick. Dave’s last lessons to me and others in a circle of caring friends from 2CC were about how to provide end of life hospice care when hospice care was still a rudimentary idea to most folks. As many of you know, I went on to become a professional in equine assisted therapy programs, and of course I still often remember Dave when I tell myself to keep it simple sweetheart.
KISS may also stand for keep it short sweetheart. Thus I have arrived at my fourth of the life-changing foursome – Estelle Bennett Atwood. In a way she ties together my beginning years in Bennington with my present life because it was her legacy which made it possible for UCS to open the Atwood Center for Services to Developmentally Disabled Adults. Many of the folks whom I first knew when they moved into the community from Brandon State Training School are today served by the Atwood Center Programs which make it possible for them to live up to their highest potential in the community. It has been a joy and a privilege for me to remain connected with this population in several ways over the years and to see amazing changes in their lives as they have learned to hold jobs, to live independently and find great satisfaction in life through the mentoring and social skills development programs available through the Atwood Center. I remember Estelle as an amazing woman who was a stalwart of our congregation and legend has it that she was still going to the gym to pump iron well up into her 70’s. I in particular thank God for Estelle’s wisdom, compassion and generosity which inspired her to endow the Atwood Center as a place where special people find safe haven to discover and nurture the goodness within each one.
I rejoice in the imagery from Rev. 22 of the beautiful river flowing from the throne of God with the Tree of Life growing on its banks – the tree which bears fruit for 12 months of the year – the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, for the healing of people. As with many stories, mine has a prologue in which I was a horse crazy kid, my dog at my side or (best yet!) trail riding on horseback. Even then I knew that I wanted to be a teacher, and somehow I did know about the reality of healing touch. My epilogue is yet to be but I’m sure it will be strongly influenced by the amazing place that is Second Congregational Church, Bennington, Vermont. You as a congregation have given me formal affirmation to pursue healing ministry. You support me in adventures of learning about dowsing, labyrinths, healing with sound (oh my!). You pull me back to being reasonably well balanced when I’m on the brink of becoming wild-eyed revolutionary activist. Now I live cautiously in the world of internet communication and I sometimes fear that with all our social media we have opened a Pandora’s box the contents of which is way beyond control. With the development of the Hadron Collider and discovery of the Higgs-Bosson particle I fear we may be in danger, like Icarus, of flying too clos to the sun and falling back into the sea of chaos. Yet God is in that Higgs-Bosson particle and God seeks a wholesome, holy and healing relationship with all creatures, with all creation. I am a Vermonter by choice, sure that there are saints and angels hovering round to help guide us into ways of living wisdom. So always I strive to rejoice in the words of Psalm 121 – “The Lord will protect you from all danger; He will keep you safe. He will protect you as you come and go, now and forever.” Amen.
Message shared in worship.
Scripture- Psalm 121 and Revelation 22:1-6