May 1, 2020
By Bea V. Larsen
Recently I put pen to paper and in a matter of minutes made note of nine turning points in my life, times when unanticipated events caused me to shift direction in a way that significantly impacted important decisions about my future — not those well considered plans, developed over time that led me to select one path or another, but those times when events came out of the blue and either required or offered an opportunity for a new direction. The last word written at the bottom of my list was “pandemic.”
Distancing, for me (one of the lucky ones facing neither lay off nor bankruptcy, nor presence on the front lines holding our world together) means an isolation that offers new hours for introspection and wonder. For those whose work is suspended, or for whom professional careers have already drawn to a close, our efforts to connect with friends and family have taken center stage. Nurturing our relationships provides a focus on our love and caring for each other and reduces fear and anxiety. For me, the greatest loss caused by social distancing is my face-to-face conversations with dear friends over a shared meal, friends I have come to know so well (and they me) that self-disclosure is easy, relaxed, and nourishing. Is there anything more precious than those friendships in which we are fully seen, both our vulnerabilities and our strengths known and accepted?
So, how are your conversations, online or voice-to-voice, going? Most of mine are spent describing the state of our cupboards, how we maintain exercise and how our loved ones are coping, before we devolve into bemoaning the political scene. With weeks, or more likely months, of continued physical separation, recognizing that the depth of our relationships is what will offer life’s greatest satisfaction and joy going forward, might it be possible to use the turning point of this pandemic to design ways to enhance the quality and depth of these vital connections? I think so.
To put my idea to a test, on a recent sunny spring-like day, I invited my next-door neighbor and longtime friend, Jack Sherman, to join me in one of our small community gardens. Over the past 55 years, since our law school days in the 1960s, we have played a significant role in each other’s lives, both personal and professional. He and his partner, Charlene Ventura, frequently invite me to share their dinner meal, an invitation I always accept. But those lovely companionable evenings are no longer shared as we maintain our physical distance, although we check in on each other frequently.
Seated far apart, Jack and I talked about one of the important turning points in our past. It was 1972. I was employed at the Legal Aid Society and Jack was an Assistant State Attorney General pursuing cases where the State was seeking to take private property by eminent domain for some public purpose. A recent Supreme Court ruling (Argersinger v. Hamlin), expanded the right to counsel for persons facing incarceration and unable to afford private counsel, in other words, a Public Defender. To implement President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty”, Congress provided federal funds to cities for an array of programs. Jack was approached by two prominent state legislators, Bill Bowen and Bill Mallory, and asked if he would take on the task of establishing a Public Defender office for Cincinnati. Jack invited me to join him in this venture.
This was a major turning point for both of us. I immediately accepted. We both resigned our positions and within days were exploring office rental space and soon hiring our first staff attorneys.
Basking in the sunshine amidst spring flowers, we talked about how we had both so quickly decided to give up the security of our positions and move to this new phase of our lives, an enriching discussion about the values we each held at that time.
I am looking forward to writing more about and exploring life’s turning points with other friends in the weeks and months to come. Join me?
Larsen has retired as senior mediator at the Center for Resolution of Disputes. She received the 2007 John P. Kiely Professionalism Award, the 2014 Themis Award and the 2020 Mediator of the Year Award from the CBA, and also served as CBA president in 1986-87. Her commentary can be viewed at www.bealarsen.com.