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Stillness: Remembering my friend Paulette

I learned the news just days ago.

A dear mentor, former Supervisor, and most importantly a friend, passed away on Friday.

Her name was Paulette Maier, and she was a tireless crusader for equality, social justice, women’s rights, and so much more.

I knew her from my time working at the Women’s Shelter of South Texas.

As a new hire, I was instructed to observe her as she did some initial intakes for non-residential counseling clients (clients coming in for the first time—either for domestic violence or sexual assault(s) or both).

The first session was absolutely transformational, as if a year’s worth of school compressed inside an hour.

The client was a young woman in her early twenties. She had been raped.

She told her story. There were tears. There was anger, sadness, shame.

After speaking for a while, she stopped and looked at Paulette as if to say “OK, now what? You say something now.”

But Paulette stayed silent.

My rookie self was instantly uncomfortable. “Oh my, say something,” I thought to myself. This woman just poured her heart out.

But Paulette held her gaze. She nodded her head affirmatively and compassionately, as if to say “Yes, yes, yes—you are right. All of that was horrific.”

In her stillness, Paulette was whole.

In her silence, she held the space.

That space was filled with the most devastating of emotions, but she held it unwaveringly JUST AS IT WAS.

She said nothing for what felt like an eternity.

But it was exactly the right amount of time.

To offer stillness in that horrible recounting of a crime did more for that young woman than a thousand words could have. Of course, she went on to talk eventually, meeting that woman exactly where she was in true person-centered fashion.  But it was in that space before the talking began that was the most powerful to me.

Paulette shared with me, without her even knowing it, the greatest gift a counselor can give, in my opinion. That is the ability to hold a space. Donald Winnicott, one of my most favorite psychotherapists, spoke about this as the “holding environment.” Our charge as counselors is to be able to sit with and hold the space for our clients with full acceptance.

Can we sit with the uncomfortable? Can we sit and not have to change the moment into something else or go into problem-solving mode, for example? That day Paulette showed me in action the ability to acknowledge with compassion another person’s suffering without having to DO anything about it. Therapeutic, to say the very least.

Paulette and I never had this conversation—the one I’m having here with you nearly 10 years later. I did not fully grasp what I witnessing then, so I wasn’t able to thank her or even discuss it. I only knew something extraordinary happened, and I could feel it. I could understand that much, and I could try to emulate that.

Paulette was also a Quaker. I think it’s important to acknowledge this as it relates to her tremendous gift of being so comfortable holding a space like that. It is not surprising to me that she was a master of this because she spent countless hours sitting in silence with others and sharing a space of stillness with her fellow Quaker Friends at their silent meetings.  She also cherished time unto herself in reflection by the water and reading.  I believe she almost needed this in order to balance the complex waters of working in the field of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault for as many years as she did.  Although she had many triumphs in the great work she did, it was hard and the disappointments were many.

I never knew a Quaker prior to knowing Paulette.

As I am not a Quaker myself, I can only speculate about it based on my own experience:

In meditation we are asked to sit with and hold the space of our own experience. Can we be still with our often messy lives, or do we need to make some sort of pivot and turn away? It’s ok if we can’t always be fully present with ourselves. That’s actually pretty normal. But it’s valuable to see that for what it is too.

If we need to move away from something we are experiencing, we can give ourselves permission to do that. We can take comfort in the fact that we can build this compassion muscle in ourselves. Just as we do with anything else in life, through practice we grow stronger so that eventually we can hold our own space fully—even if for just a moment, or two, or three. As we begin to do this for ourselves, it becomes easier to do this with others. I believe Paulette’s gift to others had a great deal to do with this important aspect of her life—her ability to be still with herself.

I miss Paulette, and even though we had lost touch through the years, I never lost touch with the incredible value, empathy, and compassion she shared with everyone she encountered.  I will miss her sweet, kind smile and her laugh.  I’m sorry I never got to tell her this story.  She leaves behind a most extraordinary legacy. I thank you Paulette, and I miss you.

paulette

1951-2015

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About

Melissa Marks Garner is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Yoga Teacher and has over 13 years experience.