Susanna Williams lives in Bay Ridge Brooklyn where she can be found extolling the charms of NYC. She’s the founder of BridgeEd Communications Strategies which provides social media training and mentoring, program development, and network analysis for organizations, with a particular focus on higher education.
It’s my third trip to Brooklyn in three days, so I actually have some sense where I’m going when I emerge from the Jay Street/MetroTech subway stop. The sun is shining and there is so much vintage holiday vibe in the neighborhood that I feel like I’ve time traveled. I always felt like I missed the best years of NYC, and this is the one place where I feel like I can touch those magical and elusive decades. Which means I’m three blocks past my destination before I realize I need to stop and reroute.
I spot Susanna Williams and her brother Stefan from a couple of blocks away – good lord I love tall people – standing on the sidewalk in front of the Brooklyn Friends Meetinghouse; Susanna with her gorgeous auburn curls and beautiful smile and Stefan, tall and old New York in his dapper hat. It’s Sunday morning and the #IRLProject is going to church for the second week in a row. We hug and exchange greetings and before we go in, Susanna gives me the lowdown on how the Quaker service will go: an hour of quiet punctuated with words that speakers feel led to share.
If it’s a thought that won’t leave you alone, then it’s probably meant to be shared with the group
“If it’s a thought that won’t leave you alone, then it’s probably meant to be shared with the group,” Susanna says and I’m both fascinated by, and grateful for an hour of meaningful quiet. Having practiced meditation on my own for the past couple of years, the thought of sitting quietly with other people is so lovely that I can’t imagine wanting to talk, but I’m weirdly excited to hear what other people might have to say. We walk up the steps of the simple building and the dependable heat of old radiators surrounds us immediately. The huge rectangular windows of the meeting room are filled with sunlight and I feel like I’m in David Cromer’s, Our Town as we move into a row. Four sections of benches fan out from the space in the center of the large room, two of them ending in bleacher style seating. People are scattered among them, sitting so quietly it feels like performance art, and then at 11:00, with nary an amen or a hallelujah, it begins.
The silence is unlike anything I’ve experienced. People of all ages and races are looking at each other, closing their eyes, staring at the windows. There are times I’ve been uncomfortable with silence in my life, but this is different. Flanked by Susanna and Stefan, I feel their peaceful energy and for the first time in weeks I’m able to stop, rest, regroup, listen. I’ve been in a bit of a Dark Night of the Soul for a couple of years so the preponderance of thoughts and worries, and lack of profound revelation doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is the hope I feel rising in my spirit; the way I am comforted to know that others are listening, can hear and share the wisdom they receive.
Susanna is the first to speak.
“I have a four year old friend. When I was visiting her a few weeks ago, she pulled me aside and said, “Let’s do silence!” She then picked up two foam puzzle piece edges and started waving them in the air making a whooshing sound. It wasn’t quiet. But it was silent. Silence is a verb, it is an active engagement. Something you consciously do. And that is what makes Quaker meeting so important. Whoosh! Whoosh!”
Silence is a verb, it is an active engagement.
She sits down and the silence continues, but now I imagine the lives that have occupied this meetinghouse – conscientious objectors, peace activists, abolitionists. Their presence occupies the room, filling its silence with decades of active truth. It is the same truth that is written in Susanna’s DNA and it is here that I begin to understand how a lifetime of “sitting in the light” can shape a human spirit, making it, at once, both impermeable and open. I was stunned the first time I saw it on Twitter.
This was a woman who worked for The Gates Foundation and also tweeted about her love life, a working sheep farm, and the challenges facing disadvantaged students in this country. She crowd sourced a conversation about whether to buy a house in Seattle or pay off her student loans early, which was fascinating in light of previous shame-free stories about a period of unemployment when she’d relied on food stamps. With lesbian aunts, marriage equality was no abstract concept for her—she’d grown up with the idea that this was how the world should operate. She was open to new people and ideas, while unbending in her commitment to old ones.
She is happy, in an era when it’s fashionable to be a cynic; willingly vulnerable at a time when it’s so much simpler to hide; and optimistic amidst a sea of studied irony. This sort of life is only possible with deep roots and a sense of self, untethered to passing fancy. The slanting sunlight of the meetinghouse reveals the source of both.
More than a year ago Susanna said, in public on Twitter, that she would be moving back to New York City, the place where she’d spent her childhood and then her grad school years. She didn’t know when and she wasn’t sure how, but she was announcing it to the universe so that we could watch it unfold. My response to this was the same as it would be to someone who wanted to be on a reality TV show, Good god, what are you thinking? Don’t expose your life so everyone can see it! I didn’t say these things to her, because I am polite like that, but also because in some tiny corner of my heart, I wanted to believe that this kind of faith could still win. For Susanna. For me. For anybody crazy enough to Hope Out Loud.
Piece by piece her Twitter peeps watched it unfold, until the day she announced she would soon be driving across the country to begin a new life in New York City, just as she had predicted. I direct messaged her on Twitter and asked about coming through Kansas City, not knowing that her friend Patrick was doing the same. And if you need further proof of either the community of Twitter or the people of Kansas City, you should know that Patrick’s wife Jessie invited me to join them all for dinner, in spite of the fact that I was a complete and total stranger. It was June 19.
I had other plans that night so Susanna and I agreed to meet that afternoon. My job and my current living situation were coming to an end in three days and I was terrified. Yet over chips, salsa and drinks, she somehow managed to make me believe in my own future as much as I now believed in hers. We talked of having lived within blocks of each other during our years on the Upper West Side of New York. She shared the twists and turns of a career that ranged from teaching third grade to working as a secretary, to cleaning houses, to being a political consultant. In the face of the unknown, she did what she could and assumed the Universe would do the rest. Her path in New York was only partially revealed but she was so undaunted, and by the time she said she had to go, I was relaxed and optimistic for the first time in weeks.
Five months later in the Brooklyn Friends Meetinghouse I’m feeling the same way. Visitors are asked to stand and introduce themselves at the end and I manage to do it without being a hater. We collect our coats and saunter through Brooklyn towards the Iris Café for brunch. Susanna openly revels in her love of the city and I remember that feeling during my first year in Manhattan, every corner and stoop, a thing of beauty. The restaurant is on a street so perfect it looks like a movie set. It’s her favorite place right now and I feel so much harmonic convergence that I’m not remotely surprised when there are people waiting outside, but we are seated immediately.
We talk as friends, our meeting in June giving us a jumping off point beyond who/what/when. Susanna tells me about her consulting business and how work is finding her as she moves forward. It’s all unfolding as she imagined it would, enough that she signed a lease on an apartment in Bay Ridge, an act of faith if ever there was one, this belief that the rent will be paid every month. It’s a high wire act, but she makes it look easy.
I hear Stefan’s hilarious story of arriving in the office of an old school New York talent agent, only to be asked to answer the phones when everybody had to leave. He’s got a deep and resonant voice, so it’s easy to imagine him saying, “Mr. So and So’s office. He’s not available right now. May I take a message,” only to be met with a stunned silence and then, “That’s the most polite greeting I’ve ever heard from this office.”
They share sibling stories with me, tales of taking care of each other over the years through breakups and career changes and how that’s happening now, when Stefan has moved to New York and is staying with Susanna, applying to law school, starting over. “It’s like I’m borrowing your faith,” he says, to which she responds, “But that’s how it’s supposed to work.”
It’s like I’m borrowing your faith,” he says, to which she responds, “But that’s how it’s supposed to work.
The sunlight is fading as we walk through the cobblestone streets of Brooklyn Heights. I tell them goodbye, knowing it’s not for the last time and take a final look at this charming city before descending the steps of the Jay Street/MetroTech station in a Zen state I’d previously thought impossible for the city that never sleeps.
But three weeks and three thousand miles later, it’s not our best day here at IRLProject HQ. I’ve got writer’s block and homesickness and I feel terrible about not being at a protest march, or thinking about Christmas, or figuring out where I’m going to live.
I put my headphones in and take a walk, listening to the recording of our lunch at the Iris Café which feels like a million years ago. I text Susanna and apologize for talking so much, and then say again how much her life encourages me, what a force is her willingness to be positive and enthusiastic. This world is put off by those who make their hearts known and do not hide; vulnerability that is powerful openness on a higher plane, but I know it can’t be easy. Susanna texts back and tells me it’s not. She’s had a hard couple of weeks and says she’s grateful for the encouragement.
A few days later we trade emails, me asking for clarification about something, her asking how I’m doing, and when I tell her the truth, she sends encouragement my way. She’d poured out her own sadness to a friend the day before, and shared the words of self-care and encouragement she received. “I’m just passing the water along,” she says when I thank her.
There’s a lot about this project that is unknown, risks I’ve taken that feel like they may not have been worth it; a focus on myself that produces nothing but anxiety. But when I can step back and remember that this isn’t about me, it all changes. In the midst of some dark days in our history, hands are reaching out to hold one another in the darkness of this digital universe. These people have allowed me access to their lives, told me their stories, even their heartbreaks.
Gratitude washes over me for those who said yes. I imagine getting to watch these lives in the coming years and how it will feel to have done this with them. I daydream about publishing a book and all of us sharing the profits, and watching them together on Oprah, so smart and funny and fabulous (I know Oprah is over—it’s a daydream) and millions of people getting to see what I saw. These people are changing the world and all I did was show up for a front row seat to their lives.
In an instant my mood changes. There are things I wish for all of them, particular blessings I’ve prayed that will rain down on their heads as karmic repayment for the kindness they showed me. But at this moment I imagine Susanna, joyful, open-hearted Susanna, falling in love and getting to witness it via the parallel universe of the digital space. I imagine her getting married in the Brooklyn Friends Meetinghouse, all of those lives bearing witness. Mine, in real life, there too.