A Conversation with Sarah Beth

A Conversation with Sarah Beth

At the March 2022 Reauthoring Teaching Retreat, Charley Lang and Larry Zucker interviewed Sarah Beth Hughes, with the rest of the Board as outsider witnesses.  In Sarah Beth’s words, “I want to talk about who Sarah Beth is and why that matters to me.”

Why Sarah Beth Matters to Me

1Did I understand correctly that when you were young, you were Sarah Beth primarily?

In my family. My full name is Sarah Beth and my mom always called me Sarah Beth and my siblings call me SB. And I always liked that, but somehow it got watered down to Sarah. And then a few people picked up on that when I write something or even on my email address, it says, Sarah Beth and they asked if they could call me that.  And it just feels really good, like it’s a different me or a preferred me.

2You mentioned there was a watering down. Can you say more about that? When was that?

When I went to school or wherever, people just assumed it was Sarah. And then I just didn’t feel like, saying, “Oh, it’s Sarah, Beth.” It felt like troubling people to say an extra syllable or something or pretentious or something. And then there was my sisters, I have many sisters, but one of them is named Mary Jo and then it was just funny like Mary Jo and Sarah Beth, but my mom liked those double names obviously.

3 Did Mary Jo stay Mary Jo?

Yeah. Mary Jo, stayed Mary Jo. So I didn’t really want to be watered down.

4What's the opposite of watered down?

Full color might be. Sarah Beth is also more muted, but not muted like can’t speak, but more intentional about who she is and what she says rather than hiding like, “I’m only Sarah, I can’t take that extra syllable.” Or not wanting to bother anybody. Sarah wants to hide a bit in the background. Sarah Beth is gentle, careful and tender.

5What else is she that maybe Sarah didn't give a full invitation?

I’ve got to tell a story about one of the people that calls me Sarah Beth. His name is Bob.
I did the training to be a hospice volunteer and the woman who ran it said, “I really want you to work with this man named Bob and his wife, Margo. And Margo has Alzheimer’s and she’s at the end stages.” And I was like, “I’m really busy. A single mom with three kids. And I got stuff going on in my life. And my work is very busy.” And Jane just said, “Oh, there’s something telling me that you guys would be a good match.” So I was like, “Okay.” It ended up taking maybe almost a year or eight months for Margo to die.

6Were you glad you took up that offer to work with Bob and Margo?

Yes! They taught me so much. Being with Bob and just the way he looked after her with such attunement, such care. She wasn’t speaking anymore and he had had her in a home and then he brought her home. With such intention and ritual, he made her the apple sauce that he fed her with love. And he played the music that she liked, and he could see her sort of come to a little bit with the music. And he took her outside to see the birds, and they watched the goldfinches together every day.

Near the end, I was coming there every morning and sitting with the two of them. He would make three cups of tea and one for Margo, one for me, one for him. I would come over at about 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning and we would just sit quietly or we would notice the birds and he might braid her hair. It was just so lovely. And then the morning that she died, he called me first and he had caregivers that came and one of them was supposed to be there, but she wasn’t. And it just turned out that I was there helping him.

We washed her and we dressed her in her wedding dress. And he had gathered all these rose petals through the last couple of years and he put silk sheets and then rose petals all around her. And we washed her with lavender oil and it was just so beautiful the way he cared for her. And then he put a scarf around to hold her chin up, her mouth closed. And then she looked like a movie star and we were just in awe about how beautiful she was with her white braid and her movie star scarf.

 

7Is the vector of the story the things you've drawn from your experience of being with Bob?

He just seems to see me in a way that feels like how I want to be seen. Shortly after that,  my dad, sister and mom died all in one year. I was able to be a Bob to them or Sarah Beth to them. I was able to give that special care at each death. I was there and I made sure we had the oils and that we dressed them in what was right for them. There’s a lot more to that story, but Bob, he just asked if he could call me Sarah Beth. And he just said like “You are the person I need right now to be on this journey with me and you see Margo.”

 

8Bob also described you as the person he wanted to go through this with. What was he seeing in you that made him want you to be that person in his life?

I think he would say he sees a tenderness in me. He liked that I followed my intuition. He loved the goldfinches, watched them every morning, talked about them and wrote poetry. And so I made him a little stuffed gold finch that I felt silly about. And then he just loved it when I gave it to him. Margo held onto, she kept her hands crossly tight on her chest in the final stages. And she would almost hurt her hands with her fingers. And so a washcloth was often put there, but then he took out the washcloth and he put the goldfinch and she just clutched the goldfinch.

I just love that story.  I helped him feel safe through all the scariness of what was happening with Margo.  He would describe himself as very introverted, I didn’t get in the way, but I could help.

9Who else has known you as Sarah Beth?

Steve Gaddis also called me Sarah Beth. He saw my sensitivity. And Michael (White), if he had known that, would see the Sarah Beth in me. So it just feels sort of special. If I write a book someday that gets published, it would be Sarah Beth Hughes.

10When you're in your Sarah Bethness, what do you think contributes to your creation of that sense of safety for others?

I think it’s about noticing where I can just try to slip in and help and noticing what someone might need or what I can do to be of service, but trying to do it without making too much fuss about it.

11This sensitivity that you have and I guess other people have responded to in other ways, what else do you think it's part of ?

I told a story once at Narrative Camp about Michael calling that skill that he called it ‘peripheral vision,’ he called it noticing not just what the person was saying, but noticing what might be happening otherwise that I could respond to.

In my family, my mom was so thrilled that I was there when my dad died and that I could just look after those things so that he could die at home and that he could be in his own clothes and that it was also peaceful. She just kept saying, “He’s so peaceful.”Before that, my life sensitivity had been like, “Oh, you’re so sensitive. Oh, she’s crying again. “

12Did she come to appreciate more that kind of sensitivity the way you would rather be seen?

I was always storied as  the nice one, but this felt more nuanced. She came to appreciate that it was more than just being nice.

13Being a leader in attunement sounds like way beyond nice- like you were really shaping the whole family's experience.

My sister Kate is a leader in a more conventional way. She is someone who always saw that in me. She would be in the Sarah Beth camp.

My sister, Wendy is someone who always saw that in me.  Even though I was her little sister and I was 13 years younger than her, she talked to me like I knew something and wanted to know what I had to say. When she was dying, she asked me specifically, “I want you to be the one to make the decisions and to be with me.” And the last thing she could speak to me was just, “You be with me.”

14I was wondering if you think that Bob and Wendy shared a kind of knowingness about you? And now it sounds like you're surrounded by people who see you as that person.

I just feel like both of them could see me in a way that lots of people didn’t. And yes, now I’ve been able to curate who’s in my life more and make sure they see me as that person and ask to be seeing that way.

15How do you get yourself so surrounded?

I came to narrative therapy after I just graduated with an English degree, moved to Vancouver and was walking my dog on the beach every day with this woman named Elizabeth, whose dream was to be an opera singer. And all of a sudden she was going on tour as an opera singer. And she said, “Yeah, do you want my job? She was a friend of Stephen Madigan’s and I got hired at Yaletown Family Therapy.  And I knew nothing about family therapy, knew nothing about any of this world. .. I started reading some of the books that were around and some articles and then worked there for quite a few years. That’s how I met Michael and how he hired me to be the book distributor. And then just watching Michael teach, watching him do live sessions and video tapes of his sessions. He had some of that way of being that attunement that I was… And that interest in stories and that curiosity and the way of seeing things a little bit differently, all the things I was interested in.

Sarah Beth Hughes works as a Couple and and Family Therapist in Nelson, BC Canada.  She was introduced to Narrative ideas through her work as the North American Distributor of Dulwich Publications throughout the 1990's.  She got the privilege of attending many of Michael White's training and got inspired to do this kind of work herself.  Along the way she also met many of Michael's colleagues and friends including Peggy Sax who have helped her feed her passion for this work.

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