On the arrival of the new year, I am pondering the Japanese word 寄り添う[yo-ri-so-u], one of the most beautiful Japanese expressions. The direct translation is to “snuggle up” with someone or stay close. But it carries more than a physical meaning, implying acting together in solidarity, connecting with people’s lives and hearts, or coexisting harmoniously. In short, it’s about symbiosis, care, understanding, and empathy, all together.
Disturbingly, however, it is easier said than done. In the past, I’ve experienced some unsettling situations in my work, such as sloth and turnover from a few of my collaborators. The more people we involve and the more closely we work together, the more likely we are to run into conflict and drama. Sometimes, the idea of co-creation seems unattainable without sacrificing quality. I sometimes get bogged down thinking what I could have done to address the problem as the organization’s leader. I feel I need to let go more and respect people’s freewill. “Those who come are welcome, those who leave are not regretted,” says the Chinese philosopher Mencius. But shouldn’t we also care more about respecting others’ “free spirit” while we are with them, not when they leave us?
Collaboration and co-creation comes with uncertainty, ambiguity, and frustration, not just the joy of creation. In a sense, my work is a good testing ground for cultivating mutual tolerance despite different ideologies and interests. When breaking free from convention, we want to co-create something transformative — something “higher” than ourselves. When interacting with people and standing with them, I want to pay more attention to our underlying purpose. How does each action serve the larger community? Would it be possible to experience寄り添う[yo-ri-so-u] in everyday life, when many of us become so alienated from a sense of community or belonging in the face of increasing divisiveness?
I close my eyes and try to remember when I deeply sensed 寄り添う[yo-ri-so-u] in my life. I am transported back to 2007, the year I saw that free spirits can foster a true sense of community.
In 2007, shortly after I became confined to a wheelchair, I met Lesley Nan Haberman for the first time. She was headmistress of the Montessori preschool Family School West (FSW), in mid-Manhattan. I was seeking to arrange my daughter’s pre-K education. In the initial parent interview at FSW, I was nervous, as if I were applying to a university. Most well-intended NYC parents go through this anxious process of choosing a pre-K for their first child. I was not a helicopter parent, but definitely a first-time parent.
At the very beginning of the initial interview, Lesley asked what happened to me. It was rather abrupt but definitely not obtrusive. I gazed into her eyes and sensed a deep compassion in her that is hard to put into words. She shared her own health condition and associated pain with me as if I were her sister or close friend. The rest of the discussion I do not remember. At the end of the interview, she not only affirmed my daughter’s enrollment but also asked me to serve as a class parent.
Without having to think, I said yes. I recall feeling encouraged and validated in her warm presence. Most of us are drawn to people who treat us this way. In retrospect, I think she gently took me under her wing and gave me the confidence I needed to regain in my life. Maybe she saw through my feelings of vulnerability. I was quite limited physically and still learning to adapt to my disability, which had occurred just one year previously. In every interaction I have had with her since, I am always deeply touched by her caring, her passion, and the beauty that wisdom and compassion confer.
That year with FSW, from September 2008 to Aug 2009, was my golden year. It initially felt as if I were a returning soldier, badly wounded in the war. But feeling the miracle of being alive and re-uniting and caring for my baby girl was pure gold and changed my perspective. Life was genuinely beautiful. And, the fellowship, participation, friendship, and love I cultivated with many people who came into my life during that year have come to make up my support, my backbone, and my drive to become whole — doing, being, and aligned. Lesley gave me permission to exercise my ‘free spirit’ as a class parent and an independent woman — that is how I interpreted the fragments of her gestures and expressions.
At FSW, students were engaged in a wide-ranging and stimulating curriculum, including foreign languages and songs, violin lessons, cooking, and flower arrangement. How amazing it is to expose pre-K children to flower arrangement. I knew a little bit of this art of composition from my culture. Then the idea of Zero Waste, using unsold, expired but still beautiful flowers sprang into my mind. Within a few blocks radius from FSW, there were four stores selling fresh flowers. I walked into each one and pitched my idea. One of them said yes. My weekly pick-up and delivery of a huge bucket full of flowers to FSW began that day and continued for the whole school year.
I soon realized that I had become ‘a scene’ on the street in the middle of Manhattan: a huge bucket-full of flowers moving on wheelchair. It was not only heavy and hard to balance on my lap, but also tall, blocking my frontal view, so I had to tilt my head 90 degree to drive. I must have looked comical. I was fearless and reckless, and most of all, joyful. Of course, the large, surprised, curious faces of the children were priceless every time I entered the classroom with my colorful cargo. But there was more. On the street, I was frequently showered with warm cheers and encouragement. I often stopped and chatted with strangers and was touched by their kindness. Passers-by were metaphorically and figuratively stopping to smell the roses, and so did I. Even during my ‘flower off-duty’ days, local restaurant and cafe owners and staff on my commuting route on 9th Avenue exchanged morning smiles and afternoon waves from a distance every time I zipped through the street. FSW teachers were always grateful for, and creative with, my “catch of the day.” One time during December, I brought a bunch of bare tree branches — all that was available — wondering if they were usable. The moment they saw the branches, that looked as if I had collected them from the wild winter forest, the teachers broke into big smiles, “We can use this for learning about seasons!” The ladies at the flower store became familiar faces. At the end of the semester, we gave them a “Certificate of Appreciation” and some pretty potpourri and small dried flower bouquets that our students had created from the donated flowers, which made them tear up. I felt that the entire neighborhood was connected like one living organism, sharing the same heartbeat.
Everyone, regardless of their station, was my peer. All my interactions within my tiny community brought me a sense of humility, safety, trust, belonging, inclusion, and freedom from my ‘superior’ sense of self with my Ph.D. or my new, ‘inferior’ sense of self from my wheelchair. I felt just as valuable as every other human being on the planet. This came from behaving and reacting from purposes, not emotions.
The compassion that Lesley and many other friends and strangers so lovingly showed goes to the heart of the concept of community building. I was affirmed, appreciated, nourished, and most of all liberated. My behavior was transformed in accordance with the vital transformation in the community. When our compassion and gratitude shine through, the community is drawn together and becomes ‘whole’ again, as did I. The neighborhood where I lived had become an extension of myself, my metaphysical state of being.
Although my personal experience may be unique, and I have not finished learning, I think of Lesley as a kind of universal role model. She was carefully observant, standing with her community, bringing me in where I was nurtured and slowly began standing with them in return. What drew us together was free spirit, trust, empathy, creativity, harmony, and belonging — all the elements of 寄り添う [yo-ri-so-u]. The connected community grew from this. Next time I encounter conflict and struggle, I will remember to flex my 寄り添う [yo-ri-so-u] muscle.