Six degrees of separation, they say. The saying goes that if you reach out six degrees in any way, all things are eventually connected. I absolutely, without question have always believed this to be true. As of recent, however, I’ve started to rethink my position on separation and connection. In my own right, I have found that if I tell myself there is a degree (or 5) of separation between myself and whatever I’m facing…it provides me with a buffer. A cushion of safety that allows me to continue on in ignorant bliss regarding whatever the topic may be – from a disagreement between friends to a horse being neglected in the next county to Lou Gherig’s disease. To bullying in schools. To girls being kidnapped and raped for pursuing education; to the neighbor’s dog being chained in the yard all day.
As long as we maintain a degree of separation….we’re ok. We’re free and clear of duty to our fellow humans…..but mostly, of the guilt. The guilt that those are not our circumstances. The guilt that we are free. That we are healthy. That we have a good job, or a nice house, or that we didn’t have to fear for our life to obtain an education. We shun things that are separate from ourselves for making us feel this way – we criticize social media and activists for trying to bring us down when clearly – there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re one person…and I’ll be there first to admit – I, Heather Gallaher, am very unlikely to find the cure for a terrible disease. I am an artist, a writer, and a horsewoman. I am not a scientist. I can not fix it on my own. I can not single handedly bring clean water to the rest of the world, or convince the terrorizing cowards of the world that education is the answer, not the enemy. What I can do is be present. I can hear, and I can give of myself and my gifts, in any way possible.
We feel guilty for being the ones that lived, the ones that can’t empathize…that can only sympathize….we feel guilty for thanking God that it isn’t us fighting that fight…because honestly, no one should have to fight any of those fights.
But the fight is real. We are real. We, the humans, the people big and small, the animals, the trees, the water…we are all real. And here is what I have come to. We are not separate. A teacher of mine used to read passages aloud to us in class, and she would always pause and repeat lines she felt were impactful. And she would pause again. So, friends….we are not separate.
We, are not separate.
We are one. One community of humanity. One ever changing, growing possibility. The love and greatness we are capable of when we take down the walls and degrees of separation between us is immeasurable, and each and every one of us has a gift that can change the world, one heart at a time. When I began this journey, this work I am doing, I had a hunger for change. A feeling that I could create something that no one else could, not because I was necessarily a better photographer – though I strive to be; but because I knew that I could see things that others didn’t want to. I knew that I could look where people didn’t want to look, and I could hold onto it. I could embrace the places that hurt, the wounds that had not healed yet, and look life in the eye and say, YES. I am here with you, 100%. I could go to places with people that weren’t ready to show themselves to the world, and I could make them believe that they were beautiful, that they were so, so worthy. When I worked, I felt alive. I wanted to make sure everyone I touched felt the same. I would challenge you to look inside your heart today and open yourself to those things you have been holding separate, and let them in. Be alive, and present in the world happening around you. Your family that lives 2,000 miles away. The mom down the street with an autistic child. Your cousin’s child that was diagnosed with a rare heart condition. The girls being raped and killed for wanting to learn to read. The reality of terrifying diseases taking the very breath from the people we love and the people we’ll never meet. Open your heart to all of it, and then open yourself to the possibility that if we each acted in love and awareness; that we CAN create great change. What if we opened ourselves and offered our hearts without expectation or agenda? What if one morning, we just brought the mom down the street a cup of coffee and talked a while? If we read the story all the way through and shared it with our friends, not to shame and guilt those we love – but to ensure that we are all fully aware of what we, the human race, are facing together. Because together friends, we are capable of facing so much. And we are capable of winning. This is not a piece on the disasters and depressions of the world, it is a call to action. To love. To live. For life is too fragile, and too short, to do anything but love openly, honestly, and to live without fear.
I may not cure a disease. I probably won’t raise a million dollars. My gift has changed the world though…and the change began in me. The change began in allowing myself to grieve. To feel the pain that happens all around me, everyday, and to know that I can recognize it, acknowledge it, and release it. When this happens, I am free to use my gift the best way I know how. I am open to talk about it – to share my heart about it, free of bitterness or resentment about the things I can not single handedly change. Although I can not change some things; I will be present in them. I promise to not leave you standing alone if you should ever call on me; and someday, you will come and stand by me in my hour of darkness, because man and woman, black and white, ill and healthy, Christian and Muslim, old and young, rich and poor – we are all in this together.
Last summer, my friend Ellen Gordon wrote me and asked if I would be willing to photograph her brother David and his son Michael. David was diagnosed with ALS almost 2 years ago, and just happened to be the only one of the Pearce family I didn’t personally know. As a child, David’s sisters Becky and Nancy, and their parents Donna and Glen played an invaluable part of my life in horses. Their sister Ellen and her husband are close friends of my family; and I thought that maybe, this might be my chance to give something back to them, this family that had given me so much without even knowing it. I read her email, and I cried. I was overwhelmed that someone would trust me with this, and for a moment, I was afraid. I questioned my ability to do their family justice in the endeavor. Who was I to be able to quantify the relationship between a father and son during a time like this? At the time, David was still in considerably good health, able to walk and talk on his own. It has taken me a year to be able to sit and write about this; because I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to say. The day I showed up to meet them at Ellen and Jon’s home in my hometown in New York, I had no idea what to expect. Ellen had said that Michael, then 3 years old, was having a rough day, and that we may not be able to do the shoot at all. I was determined; and I knew that if I could just get started…we would be ok. David was skeptical as well, and if I had been battling the physical pain and exhaustion of ALS and the emotional roller coaster that is having a 3 year old…I would have had my doubts as well. By some grace though, Michael agreed to take a walk down to the pond. There he went with David, hand in hand, and I knew we were going to be alright. That day we did things that I know David didn’t believe we would be able to do. Quite honestly, I didn’t know that we would be able to do them. David, who looked exhausted when I arrived that afternoon, came to life. We laughed. Michael hugged him while they layed in the grass and played superman. There is a light that exists in the eyes of a joyful child that is the most remarkable thing. It dances and captivates you, and you are rendered still, quieted by their magic. Michael has this light when he looks at his father, his teacher and protector, his hero and his best buddy in the world. David watched Michael play, and while I expected to feel pain for him, I felt a surge of admiration. Here was a father that in the face of the utmost adversity, was more committed than ever to being the best parent he could be. I remember, and I think about the two of them often…because I am not separate from them. What I hoped to give David and his family that day was the gift of not only a memory captured…but an experience. An hour or two free of worry. Free of pain and restriction and can’t. What I did not expect was to be given such a gift in return. David and Michael gave me faith. They reminded me that true love is unconditional, and it does not waver in the face of any storm. Love is a warrior, a sword wielding protector; and it will stand through the fury and fire of hell in the same honest, straightforward way that it shows us the beauty of the stars and heavens.
Thank you to the Pearce and Gordon family, and to David and Michael. You have my love, my faith, and my gratitude. Everyday.
“God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain, but without stain.” – C.S. Lewis