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Kind • Funny • Adventurous

Her Story

Kirsten Neumann-Stephens

Teacher - Hastings, Prince Edward District School Board

Kirsten's Story :

I don’t know if there is a name for how I move through this life.  I make space and time for people to give me things that they hold dear. The things I collect, keep safe, and eventually use to connect to others aren’t tangible objects; they’re stories.

I was 15 years old, sitting in a restaurant across from my Dad, when I learned how to create space and time to accept these gifts.  My dad was largely a mystery to me, and this meal was a rare moment when I had him to myself. I desperately wanted to know who he was beyond my small orbit.   Over the course of that meal, a life of war, loss, abandonment, love, treachery, and re-invention tumbled from his lips and lodged itself in me. I had no real understanding of my own father before I asked the right questions and made space and time for him to share his life with me.

People fascinate me.  Truly. When asked recently why I loved Iceland so much, I prattled on about its geology and beauty before I realized that all of that comes second to Iceland’s people.  They made me fall in love with the country. Icelanders are open; they want to talk; they invite questions and dialogue; and they are endlessly funny. They wanted to know what I thought of their home and I wanted to know what made them tick.  They afforded me the time and I created the space to connect our vastly different worlds.

That is ultimately what fuels me, this deep desire to connect with others.  I refuse to drift through this life without slowing down to acknowledge the struggles, joys, or frustrations of a shared human experience with strangers. I am that person in the grocery store who begins conversations, who diffuses tension when in uncomfortable situations, who aspires to make others feel a bit of joy and experience laughter in the drudgery of mundane tasks.

The things I’ve learned in these encounters are immeasurable.  The universe frequently puts people in my path to offer me the answers to questions I have before I even know I have them.  A number of years ago, I was struggling with a task I had assigned my outdoor education students: to create a “Bucket List”.  As I often do, I set to completing my own list, so that I could take part in their experience and rich discussion afterward. I was paralyzed.  Nothing came to me, I was completely incapable of engaging in this project. I’m a woman with PLENTY of plans and ZERO fear of commitment, so what was my problem?  Just a few days later, while strolling the beach with my husband, we came upon an older gentleman. As he passed, we locked eyes and he greeted me, “How are you?” “I’m fantastic!  I’m on a beach! Wow could I be anything but?!” He called after us and we turned to find him beaming and walking back toward us. What happened over the next 10 minutes of listening would forever change how I communicate and consider the concept that had given me so much trouble the week prior.  “Bucket List” became “Life List”, a term he coined in the 1960s. He had a “Life List” and was so proud to share that he could strike an item from that list, at age 73 on this, his first ever Spring Break in Florida. “Bucket List” is now a banned word in my classroom because it is associated with “kicking the bucket”, whereas Life List is how I plan to live my life.  My Life List is long.

These days, I am less inclined to leaving my desire for connection and story keeping to chance.  It wasn’t until sitting down to write this story that I realized that I have created a narrative about my volunteer gig that simply isn’t true.  I don’t spend part of every weekend at the local nursing home because my charming 90 lb Sheepadoodle needs a job as a therapy dog (though this is part of the story).  I create that space in my life because I love and care for these people, and the residents have no shortage of time to spend with me and my endlessly affectionate sidekick.  Slowly, over the past four years, they have been transferring their stories, their experiences, their legacies, into my safe keeping.

I am not a hoarder.  I hold these stories until I know where they belong.  Most often, they find their way into my lessons to inspire, to lend authenticity and relevance, to demonstrate relationships, or to provide context.  In rare times, they find their way back to loved ones after the person has passed away. Those are the words that find their way back home. Every story eventually finds its way out, leaves its mark on me, and I am a little bit changed.