4. Nora Lynne

In this episode, academic program coordinator Janelle Myers-Benner, who has worked at CJP in various capacities for 20 years. speaks of her formative experiences volunteering in Bolivia; the many programmatic shifts she’s helped usher through CJP; and memories of her second daughter, Nora, who died in 2008.

As young adults, Myers-Benner and her husband, Jason, spent a year working at an orphanage in Bolivia. They returned to Harrisonburg “struggling with big, big questions, and [CJP] was a place where questions were welcome, and not only welcomed but engaged,” she says. Myers-Benner then got her first job with what was then called the Conflict Transformation Program in 1999 as a work study student.

“I cannot reflect on my 20 years at CJP without Nora coming prominently to mind,” Myers-Benner says. Nora, the Myers-Benners’ second daughter, was born in October 2007 with a rare genetic condition. Myers-Benner worked from home and hospital throughout Nora’s life and returned to the CJP office when Nora was about four or five months old, baby in tow.
She remembers the community rallying around her family during this time. In one story Myers-Benner recounts that Linda Swanson, a student at the time, “almost filled the CJP freezer with these big trays! I think she fed our family for a couple weeks … that was this abundance of generosity and this outpouring of love.” A CJP alumna, Ann McBroom, took Nora for long walks while Myers-Benner helped the program transition to EMU’s new database.

“Many of the people who come through our doors are just unforgettable people … the roots feel very deep, and the connections feel very deep,” Myers-Benner says.
Her hopes for CJP going forward are also focused on the people. In another 25 years, Myers-Benner says she hopes the school will further “center the leadership of indigenous people and people of color.”

“We need leaders who are creative, who can dream, who can hope, who can envision something different than what we currently have, who’ve shown the ability to rise above immense challenges.”


Guest

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Janelle Myers-Benner

Janelle Myers-Benner completed studies in justice, peace and conflict studies at EMU in 2001; she began working at CJP in 1999 while finishing her bachelor’s degree. Her childhood years in Jackson, Miss. and time living in Immokalee, Fla. and Santa Cruz, Bolivia have been significant parts of her life journey. Since 2005, she has been putting roots down in Keezletown, Va. on a 6-acre homestead with her husband, Jason and daughters Kali, Alida, and Terah, along with the memories of their daughter, Nora, who died in 2008. They are focused on learning to gain their dietary needs from the soil in that place, which is very connected to their desire to find a just way of living. When not working for CJP, she can probably be found in their gardens, tending animals, making cheese or working on some other food-related project.


Transcript

Janelle Myers-Benner:
When you’re out there looking for resources on organic gardening or permaculture or other things about food systems, you see a lot of white faces on the books and in the magazines and yet many, many, many of the practices that we use now in agriculture that people have earned lots of money from writing books about, came over on slave ships with people from West Africa and like, and we don’t, we don’t give the credit to the communities that actually developed and maintain these practices and taught other people, sometimes not with a desire to teach people, you know…

[Theme music begins and fades away…]

patience kamau:
Hey everybody, happy Wednesday to you! Welcome back to Peacebuilder, a conflict transformation podcast by The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. With us this episode:

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Janelle Myers-Benner and I’m currently the academic program coordinator here at CJP.

patience kamau:
Janelle Myers-Benner completed her studies in justice, peace and conflict studies at EMU in 2001; she began working at CJP in 1999 while finishing her bachelor’s degree. Her childhood years in Jackson, Miss. and time living in Immokalee, Fla. and Santa Cruz, Bolivia have been significant parts of her life journey. Since 2005, she has been putting roots down in Keezletown, Va. on a 6-acre homestead with her husband, Jason and daughters Kali, Alida, and Terah, along with the memories of their daughter, Nora, who died in 2008. They are focused on learning to gain their dietary needs from the soil in that place, which is very connected to their desire to find a just way of living. When not working for CJP, Janelle can probably be found in their gardens, tending animals, making cheese or working on some other food-related project. Just a quick reminder though before we begin, registration for our ultimate celebration gathering is now open. Join us on June 5, 6 and 7; seriously, you don’t want to miss out on this! For details about events and activities, go to emu.edu/cjp/anniversary.

[Theme music fades in, swells and ends]

patience kamau:
Hi Janelle.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Hi patience.

patience kamau:
How are you today?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I’m good. I’m enjoying the beautiful leaves…

patience kamau:
Mm, cause we’re recording this in the fall, even though this will air in the spring, there’ll be no leaves…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
It’s a beautiful time! It’s kind of at its peak right now.

patience kamau:
Yes it is. Yes it is.
How did you end up at CJP, EMU, CTP, or rather EMU, CTP now CJP – what was your journey here?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
My journey here. So I came to EMU for school in 1996…

patience kamau:
Undergrad?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…as an undergraduate student. Um, and then left shortly after I came to do a stint of voluntary service in Bolivia. So when I returned to EMU after that stint, um, I took my first justice, peace and conflict studies class as part of my undergraduate degree, and in that first year had classes with Vernon Jantzi, Lisa Schirch and Ray Gingerich. And at that point I hadn’t declared a major at EMU at all –I was still exploring what I wanted to do or be…

patience kamau:
Yes…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Still am…

patience kamau:
Uh-huh, it’s a journey.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Um, and yeah, those…the two classes that year that I remember was “peace and justice in the global context” and “peace and justice in the American context” and by the end of that year I had declared my major in the Justice Peace and Conflict studies Program. And at that time there was a lot of overlap between then, CTP and CJP and so I also was able to take classes with other CJP faculty, John Paul and Vern…I already said Vernon, Howard and Nancy Good, and when Jason and I, my husband Jason and I got married in the spring of 1999, I still had two more years of undergrad and Ruth Zimmerman approached me at church one Sunday to ask if I wanted a work-study job, and so I started in the fall of ’99 as a work-study student and that was 20 falls ago and I got stuck and never left.

patience kamau:
Has it felt like you got stuck?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
No, it has been deliberate choices along the way to stay.

patience kamau:
Mm-hm, mm-hm. Okay. All right. Um, [laughter]
…tough question? [laughter]

Janelle Myers-Benner:

[laughter] I’m glad some editing will happen. :)

patience kamau:
[Continued laughter by both]
It’s good, but that’s the point of the podcast, to actually capture thoughts as they…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…emerge?

patience kamau:
As they merge, exactly!
Um, so what have been your title changes from work-study to the current title that you just told us?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So actual title changes. I, so I started as a work-study student and did that for two years. And then, um, right when I graduated I then became office coordinator and I don’t remember, I don’t remember years, but um, it was more a process of like adding things on, and then kind of taking things away, and so my next title was probably academic program coordinator. Um, but at that point I was also working a lot with admissions, so kind of doing admissions and registration. So I think I’ve really only officially had three… [Laughter]

patience kamau:
Oh, but unofficially, you’ve been a “Janelle of all trades”?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I’ve had my fingers in multiple different things along the, along the way.

patience kamau:
And I think the benefit of that, that we as your colleagues have come to see is that you’ve, you probably have interacted with most of the students who’ve gone through here, and you remember many of them, …

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Mm-hm…

patience kamau:
…talk a little bit about that. What’s that process for you? How does it feel when someone comes and says, “do you know this person?” “Where are they?” And all that sort of stuff. How do you keep up with people and how do you keep their memories fresh in your mind?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Wow! Many people that come through our doors are just unforgettable people. I mean, as I’ve been reflecting on 20 years, I don’t remember everybody and I definitely am not keeping up with everybody as much as I would love to, but I do feel like each name usually brings like a little warm, warm feeling even if I can’t place the year or it’ll be more like, Oh, that was in the early years or that was more recently. Um, but yeah, I do, I do feel like I, I know most names and most names’ faces also come to mind and it feels special. I mean, it’s probably one of the things, and “stuck” isn’t the right word, but like the roots feel very deep and the connections feel very deep. Um, and it feels like, well, it’s a place I’ve spent half my year…half my life now. So some names are more like a vague recognition and a remembering and others like specific stories or conversations or interactions come to mind and people come to mind when you hear about places too. So it’s, there’s lots of hooks and reminders and…

patience kamau:
…yeah, half your life! So you’ve basically grown up here? I mean…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I actually wrote that in some of my notes as I was reflecting on questions that might come up in this. I, I often have reflected to people that I feel like I’ve kind of grown up at CJP.

patience kamau:
What does that mean for you?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Well, I, so when I started I would have just turned 21, when I started at CJP and also had just gotten married and still was in undergrad, which is often a time of a lot of change for people and their thinking and worldviews and just kind of embarking on life, uhm, away from my family of origin, my home for the first time. So when I think about how my CJP experience has changed me, it’s a little hard to extrapolate it from just like normal growth and maturity that happens when you’re 20, and you’re still like exploring and learning a lot about the world. So the time that Jason and I spent in Bolivia was pretty life altering and transforming and we were still really sorting through a lot of those experiences. And I feel like CJP was a really amazing, beautiful container for me for that because it was among other people who were asking similar kinds of questions about the world, were feeling similarly, um, struggling with big, big questions and it was a place where questions were welcome and not only welcomed but like engaged, and so I couldn’t imagine kind of a better place to be…

patience kamau:
…to have expounded on those…at least explored those questions.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Right.

patience kamau:
Why was Bolivia so formative for you?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So our time in Bolivia, we were there for about a year and we were, um, we spent most of that year serving as house parents in an orphanage in Bolivia. We were there under the auspices of a fairly conservative Christian organization doing short term missions. And it’s, it’s actually painful for me to reflect on even to this day, 20 plus years later. Um, I feel like I learned so very, very much, um, by that year and especially by the children. But I struggle a lot with the cost that it was to them.

patience kamau:
What do you mean?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Um, so these children had in that time, at that time in the way the home was set up, and I feel really grateful for the way some alterations have been made to the orphanage there. I’m super excited that some of the people that have worked there have gone through the star training and have become more aware and educated around issues of trauma, um, especially in children. But at the time that we were there, the home was basically resourced largely by white North Americans who came for short amounts of time. So children were basically given new parents every couple months or at most like a year was a long time for someone to be there. And so a number of the children in the home, especially the teenagers, when I came back to EMU and was back in classes, I, I basically felt like they were a little prophetic voices in my life because they asked a lot of hard questions in Bolivia that I didn’t have answers to.

patience kamau:
Do you remember some of these questions?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I do. I will never forget –Miguel was about 16, I think at the time and I was only 18 at the time…

patience kamau:
…and you were parenting?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…and I was parenting! There’s a number of problems with this scenario, but I so well remember Miguel coming up to the, the Casa Esperanza, which was kind of our volunteer living quarters and in Spanish, he basically said to us, you know, “why do you come here from North America and think you can have power over us?” And kind of wanted us to leave. And…

patience kamau:
Was he angry?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
He was very angry. Yeah. And there were a number of reasons for there to be a lot of anger. Um, there had been a lot of, a lot of really painful things happening at the home that we were unaware of prior to arrival. But for me it was the first, Miguel was one of the first people to poke a little hole in my, like, “here I am giving a year of my life and coming to serv” and here’s this person that I’m here to serve, telling me I’m not really wanted. And Miguel and I think formed a very good relationship over the course of the year, but then I left, you know, like everybody else. And so I, Miguel in my mind a lot and some of the other children, as I came back, both at EMU and classes and in my work at CJP, especially thinking about how we equip ourselves for whatever type of life or service that we want to do. I feel, I feel really supportive of what CJP is trying to do. I know we don’t always get it right and we’re still learning a lot too, but it felt to me like I was given a very limited package of tools for my time in Bolivia and they were all spiritual tools. Um…

patience kamau:
So you didn’t feel equipped?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
No, I had three months of training that was all on…all very narrowly focused on like prayer and fasting and things like that, but no…

patience kamau:
No tools…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
No tools for… no understanding of child development, no trauma awareness. I don’t know that I heard the word trauma. Um, and then landed in a home that was riddled with cycles of sexual abuse among the children. One of the teens had committed suicide the year before we came. Um, and a lot of these children were not orphans, they had families that just economically couldn’t afford to keep all of their kids, so in some cases, some of the children were in the home and others were still with family. So there was just so much there and I just, I felt like I came home with just like a suitcase full of questions. Um, and why I say that was such a growing experience for me is I don’t know if I would have, I don’t know if I would have taken peace and justice classes if I wasn’t really yearning for like some space to, to look at these big questions that I felt like I wasn’t finding receptive places to take them to. And I also think CJP felt like a really good landing spot and, and place for me too because a lot of, I mean I continually keep unpacking that year in different iterations.

patience kamau:
Of course, yeah…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…as different things come up at CJP too.

patience kamau:
I mean, things that we categorize as very formational as you describe this as, they probably shape us for the rest of our lives and we just, over time, just keep thinking “oh right, that’s what this was about.”

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Right. There’s a new twist,

patience kamau:
i know! But I am curious, um, you said that you didn’t feel prepared –were you aware of that while you were there? Or is this something that, retrospectively, you’ve come to recognize how woefully unprepared you were with these sorts of tools?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Very aware then!

patience kamau:
Very aware on the ground! Ah, why was that?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Because I felt like I was drowning.

patience kamau:
Oh, mm…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I’m, I just was grasping, you know, and um, for better or for worse, I think that my, my own childhood up to 18, while there was a fair amount of kind of tumult in my, in my home at various stages, I think it was the first, it was the first time in, in this way, that kind of my package of tools let me down. Like in most of my other instances, it kind of got me through or, or I think it was just the first time that, that I just felt like this is not working for anyone. It’s not, it’s not helping me have clarity. It’s clearly not serving these kids well. They’re clearly needing something that I’m, I’m not able to provide and I’m probably not the person to provide it, which was another learning. And that that particular learning I think has, has more kind of sunk into me more over the years of like even if I had been well prepared for the job…you know, even if I had been a trauma expert or a child development specialist, I may have not been the right person to be there anyway. Um, which again is why I’m so glad they’ve completely rearranged the home to be in small casitas -small houses- where house parents are largely Bolivians and others from South America and then volunteers still come in to do building projects, to do fun things with the kids. Like there are still volunteers –that’s still definitely part of the way they’ve organized it. But I feel like it seems to me from the outside looking in that there is more of a, the kids have a little more of a grounded sense of home than I think they did when we were there. So I’m grateful for that.

patience kamau:
Do, do any particular examples come to mind when you said that some of these tools helped you deal with your own tumult in your own childhood that did not then work here? Do any examples come to mind?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, as I was talking about it, I was like, “I don’t, I don’t know exactly what I mean by that.” Um, so there were certain things for me that were helpful. Well, let me back up. I think that the group that I kind of, my, my friendship, my community group as a teenager and through my high school years, we kind of shared, we shared the same toolkit. Um, and we also utilized that in our, in our relationships. And again, I would say this is largely things that I still think are, are really good resources for, for some people and in some instances, and I think partly because of negative experiences in Bolivia… um, this is actually another thing CJP has done for me and this is a slight tangent, but I think it fits here.

patience kamau:
Go for it…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Mmm. I feel like my experience at CJP has also opened my eyes to a new way of living out one’s faith in the world that has been really inspirational and um, hopeful for me. I feel like my experiences of faith-based living or, or, um, were much more about how do I get someone else to think the same way I think, to believe the same things I, I believe and to do things exactly the way I think they need to be done because God told me or, you know, it was, I feel really grateful and I really, I feel like I had some examples of this in my growing up years for sure, but I’m speaking specifically of my teenage years and the places that I went to get mentorship and influence was much more kind of a perspective of like, “we have what you need, and so we just need to figure out how to get you what we know that you need.” And in terms of faith being a resource, personally for me it was, it was less, it was more of a struggle and less of a source of sustenance. And I can remember a couple of the first times at CJP where a student, I’m thinking specifically of students but, where a student in the program, like the Conflict Transformation Program at the time also sang at a CJP event, uh, like a worship song, that was one I had sang as a teenager and I had this moment of incredible cognitive dissonance where I was like,… [laughter]

patience kamau:
“Okay, what’s happening?” [laughter continues]

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I’m at a CJP party…

patience kamau:
Right…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
They’re singing a worship song that I would have sung and like, –but it was a good moment of cognitive dissonance. Like it made me stop and think, because I do think that for some of us, when we have negative experiences, it’s possible to want to throw the whole thing out. It’s like a human tendency I think to be like “…that was hard and painful…” and was like actually genuinely did contribute to something that wasn’t helpful, we can just kind of want to like package it up and get rid of it. And I think CJP, I’m still on this journey, but I think CJP has been…and since that, that student singing the song since then, there’ve been other instances too and in my conversations with faculty where being able to interact with people for whom I feel like their faith is not only a source of inspiration and discernment and guidance for them, um, but they also utilize it in a way that is, I don’t want to use the word authentic because I think there are, like, I think that I was attempting to have integrity and be authentic all the way through.

patience kamau:
Mm-hm…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
It just feels more expansive and open and inviting and less threatening, um, and not use to be, I guess I want to just say invitational. Um, so yeah, some of that I’m still unpacking, but…

patience kamau:
Yeah, it sounds like when you heard that student sing the hymn or worship song, as you called it, um, helped you reframe…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Mm-hm…

patience kamau:
…like one way of what you had associated that song with…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…yeah…

patience kamau:
…to this other new experience that was welcome and different, and so the cognitive dissonance being, “oh, I like this.”

Janelle Myers-Benner:
It was a radical reframing!

patience kamau:
Yes, yes, there you go! You didn’t have to let go of the song and now it had this other new meaning. [Laughter]

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah. [Laughter]

patience kamau:
That’s amazing. That’s great.

[Transition music plays]

patience kamau:
So what are the academic program changes? What have they been, through your 20, 21…20 years?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
20 this fall. So programmatic changes, I guess the biggies, the big ones. So when I started, we would have been the conflict transformation program. So kind of morphed from “Conflict Transformation Program” to “Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.” So when it was the “Conflict Transformation Program” within it was very clunky and I’m sure everybody that was there realized that. But we were the “Conflict Transformation Program” that then had graduate program in “conflict transformation,” so it was a little little redundant there. So, um, so then we had at that time the master’s in conflict transformation and the grad certificate and so since then we’ve added on the master’s degree in restorative justice, the grad certificate in restorative justice. Um, there’ve been a lot of other, there’ve been programs that have common stayed and then there’ve been programs that have kind of birthed and had their time and left for a while since…

patience kamau:
The “Practice Institute” being one of those?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Practice Institute, yep. Um, and also we, for a while were, were doing, uh, doing courses and a program in Lancaster at the EMU Lancaster site, and that was kind of a, a shorter stint that we did over a couple of years.

patience kamau:
Oh, interesting. What were those courses there?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
We did a “managing congregational conflict,” there was a “leadership” course, I believe there was, might’ve been a “mediation/facilitation,” I think we did “intro to conflict transformation.” There were people that were getting our grad certificate, which meant we had to do kind of the practice and analysis courses and then had other electives. So that, and I think, I know Dave taught with that. I think maybe Ron, maybe Nancy, I’m not sure who all went to Lancaster, but…

patience kamau:
Ron Kraybill?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Kraybill, mm-hm…

patience kamau:
…and Nancy Good?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Mm-hm and Dave Brubaker, David Brubaker. So that one was kind of a short-lived program, I think partly because the drag up 81 North is grueling for anyone to do week after week. [Laughter]

patience kamau:
And it’s just getting worse.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
It’s not getting better!

patience kamau:
Some day they will expand it…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Oh, maybe that’ll make it better or else they’ll turn it into train tracks –that might be the best solution.

patience kamau:
But we digress. [Laughter continues]

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yes, we do digress! Um, so yeah, that one came and went. Um, the Women’s Peacebuilding Leadership came with the graduate certificate in peacebuilding leadership –that was birthed during the time that I’ve been here. Trauma, the STAR program out of September 11th. Um, we’ve also had a lot of other like collaborations and programs that have, have happened. So there’s a lot, when I first started, other than potentially someone taking a course at the seminary, there was really not traffic much between our students going to other programs and taking other programs across campus. So to me that’s been a big expansion, whether it be students taking something in the education department, occasionally counseling, still the seminary, sometimes especially the leadership, the organizational leadership and the MBA program. So that feels like a really expanding thing that has happened. Um…

patience kamau:
And that’s with mostly other graduate programs within EMU?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Mostly other graduate programs within EMU.

patience kamau:
Is the nursing program one of those also?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So I don’t think we have had anybody take nursing courses. We’ve had, we’ve, Gloria Rhodes teaches a class with the nursing program, but I don’t think any of our students have taken courses. And the Zehr Institute started too during this time. So and honestly when I think so that’s academic kind of programmatic changes, but, the changes I think about most is just the people changes. Like, and that’s the part that I think about a lot more I guess just because it feels like, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s almost like you’re on a boat and like people keep coming out in little boats and getting on and then other people get off and leave and like, it’s just like constantly changing…

patience kamau:
…that’s a great picture, I just pictured it…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…and to like stay on the boat and like you’re just constantly welcoming new people and saying, and each person that comes brings different skills and each person that leaves takes different gifts, and so for me, that’s been probably the more –almost, and I’m gonna use the word jarring because I don’t think jarring has to be negative all the time, but it’s just maybe, or a shock to the system like that there’s, and those shocks can also bring a lot of renewed energy and vitality, and some of these programs are birthed from new people that joined us. But I, I have to admit, I’m not somebody that like thrives and loves big changes. So it’s definitely been one of my growth edges is I made a note while I was thinking about CJP that I feel like the only thing that seems constant at CJP is that there will always be change.

patience kamau:
Oh, that actually a …thing…that “the only thing that is constant is change.”

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, and it’s very true and has been my lived experience here. Um, but I also think it’s, it’s one of the unique and wonderful things about CJP is that we are constantly changing. But I will add or, and I will add that that can be one of the challenges for the “nuts and bolts” people in the system, is that constant change can make one feel as if they’re losing their bearings.

patience kamau:
So why did you switch from using “but” to “and” right there?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Um, I’m not sure. I dunno, I’m trying not to use “but” as much.

patience kamau:
Ah, why is that?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I think, I think more because I, “but” seems to be like almost negating what came before, like this is true, but this kind of overrides it almost rather than these are, I’m, I’m holding both. Maybe it’s Tammy Krause‘s TenTalk –embracing the “[Holding] Both And” — I’m trying to embrace the “and” rather than the “but.”

patience kamau:
Yes, yes. Oh yes. That was a pretty impressive TenTalk she did, wasn’t it?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
It was amazing!

patience kamau:
Uhm, do you miss the people who’ve left? Do you have constant thoughts of, “oh, I miss this person and how they were able to do this and that…”and are you able to speak to one or two?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Oh yeah, sure. So for me, I feel like I wouldn’t still be at CJP if it wasn’t for Ruth Zimmerman and she was probably one of my early mentors, and I think also someone that saw potential in me that I hadn’t like seen or accessed, and, and I also feel like I was pretty happy being the office coordinator. I really liked organizing cupboards. I like, I [laughs] at that point in my life, it worked fine for me. I felt like I was part of this amazing organization and I was having some little small part and I felt like I was really thriving in that and whether it was out of necessity as her plate grew or, or a combination of that and seeing that she thought that there was more that I could be doing, I feel like she kept encouraging me and like giving me new things to try and to do and, and expanding um, my role at CJP then CTP and yeah, I just, I can remember feeling very supported and personally cared about, which is a theme that I continue to feel, but I think she played that role in a really like critical juncture of my time and made it a place that I wanted to stay.

patience kamau:
Cause she was affirming of your gifts.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, it was pretty hard for me when she was leaving, I will admit. And also, she left right when I was expecting our daughter Nora, who died in 2008 and so she, she left at a time when there was a lot of other tumult in my life, and so I remember that being a poignant departure for me.

patience kamau:
Nora, 2008, so she would’ve been 11 this year?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Mm-hm, her 12th birthday is Wednesday of this week.

patience kamau:
Oh wow.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah.

patience kamau:
Mm, so how are you doing with that? Like what’s been your journey through that? So she was born, you were here?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah.

patience kamau:
How was that?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I cannot reflect on my 20 years at CJP without Nora coming prominently to mind and October always feels very different in my body than other months of the year, and I think there’s something about the like I just keep looking out the window. I’m not ignoring you in front of me patience…

patience kamau:
Yeah, that’s ok…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…but the color of the leaves and the changing of leaves and the way fall is a reminder of letting go and, and death, that brings new life later, but yeah, as I was thinking about talking with you about my time at CJP and, and especially the community aspects of it immediately kind of that, that like snapshot that, year to year and a half, um, was like the very first thing that came to my mind. So a couple of memories or a couple of things that come to mind…so maybe I’ll just say really briefly for people that don’t know our family’s story.

patience kamau:
Yes, thank you, thank you…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
For some of you, you’ll remember Nora because you were part of that year. Um, but for those that don’t, our second daughter, Nora was born in 2007 and had a really rare genetic condition, um, for the genetic people out there, Petty-Laxova-Wiedemann syndrome, which is a handful of cases in the world. And she lived until she was seven months old and…

patience kamau:
What is the syndrome?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So the syndrome is…what I’m going to say this syndrome is, is basically a conglomeration of symptoms that a group of researchers –Petty, Laxova and Wiedermann– uh, put together into a package that they defined as a syndrome, um, and I might be skeptical about calling it such a thing, but when, when the, the geneticist found an article about, they call it “Petty syndrome” for short, and sent us the article when Nora was about four months old, it was as if they had come and looked at her and written an article about her. Like it was so clear that that all of the, …so a lot of it is some physical abnormalities or anomalies I should say, like smaller digits on her fingers and toes or partial webbing on her fingers, um, she had a really large umbilical hernia. She had, you know how babies have little small soft spots on their head where their skull bones haven’t fully formed?

patience kamau:
Yeah the…what’s it called? Augh, it is escaping me, anyway, uh-huh…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, so hers started right at, between her eyes and went all the way around the back of her head. So basically the entire top of her head was a soft spot, like there were no bones at all so, fragile! Fragile to have her four year old, very eager sister hold her at the time. Um, but the biggest, biggest part of her syndrome was the inability to amass subcutaneous fat. So basically she didn’t have fat on her body. So a lot of people when they looked at her thought that like she almost had a little bit of the look of some of the syndromes like progeria or others that make babies almost look older. Like her skin was kind of wrinkly and almost translucent, you could see her veins. And so she was born at UVA at at 37 weeks gestation, so full term, and she was only three and a half pounds, and despite working to feed her around the clock every hour, she never got above six and a half pounds. It was just like she couldn’t, yeah, it’s a very long story, but in the end we discovered she also had pulmonary hypertension and kids who have pulmonary hypertension need double the calories to grow because their heart and lungs are working so hard. And that was the point in her life that we realized that her genetic potential and was going to be really much shorter than most people’s, and because without being able to amass fat and needing double the calories to grow, it was just like her systems tuckered out. Um, that’s what I would say –she tuckered out. She gave it her best. Um, and where CJP intersects with this is actually all the way through. Um, so I didn’t really have a break with Nora at all. Um…

patience kamau:
What do you mean?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So I basically worked the whole way through her life and so…

patience kamau:
No maternity leave?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So as it worked out I was on bed rest, um, I was on bed rest for about six weeks before she was born, so I got set up to work from home during that time, and then she was born at the end of October, which is a decent time of the year that there’s not quite as much critical things happening. So a lot of things just kind of got bumped off till I got back, and then I managed what I could from the hospital and stuff with her. So I did, I took some time off in there, but I didn’t have like a, there wasn’t a like “replacement,” it was more like, w”hat can we bump off and not do?” Um, and then I just filled in on the most important stuff just to keep systems going. So the bad part of that was feeling torn a lot of the time, but I will also say that so much of my experience with Nora created a sense of being completely out of control, like I didn’t know…I was in, I was in a world in the hospital, so she was in the hospital for the first month of her life and for about two weeks at the end of her life. She was born and died both at UVA hospital in Charlottesville. So there were times that I can remember being in the NICU, the neonatal intensive care unit, and just feeling like all of the alarms and the beepers and the buzzers, like I couldn’t help. Like I didn’t have the expertise, I didn’t know what the buzzers meant. I didn’t, you know, I could help by holding her. I could help by being present, but there was a lot that I couldn’t do. And so sometimes I’ll be honest, it felt really good to go out to the lobby to log in and be like, “I know how to do that!” [Laughter] I can help someone. I can respond to this email and give somebody a piece of information that will make their day easier. Like there was definitely moments where I needed that. There were also moments where I just felt like I wanted to give up because I can’t, I’m not doing anything well because I’m so spread thin, which that’s somewhat of a continual theme. [laughter] But um, uh, but yeah, it was very acute at that time and it was interesting in the years since Nora, like there’ll be times that I’m working on a project and I’ll see like a long old email thread and I’ll notice the date was like, you know, June 1st, 2008 and I was like, Nora died on June 4th like I was writing an email about that June 1st — what was I doing? And I think it was again, just like there are ways that I think we just seek some little pockets of normalcy.

patience kamau:
Yeah, and so this was your way of…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I mean I, I knew how to do it right. Like I had been there. It wasn’t, I wasn’t doing it really new stuff, I was just like keeping systems going that I knew how to keep going. Um, and so that’s the like work side of it. But the other side of it is that, so Nora never went anywhere other than our home and doctor’s appointments other than EMU. She never visited grandparents. We never took a trip with her cause she couldn’t really travel well. We had do a little car bed cause she was so tiny and she didn’t like it, and she was, yeah, it was just not a good situation. We didn’t take her to a lot of public places because of fear of getting sick and she just didn’t have a lot of reserves. So she really wasn’t a sickly child, but she was so tiny and fragile that we wanted to keep her, keep her from getting sick. So we just didn’t…and her care was intense enough that just, we just didn’t go out. When she stopped growing at about four or five months, um, we negotiated with CJP for me to be able to bring her to work with me. Um, because she also was smart and she learned like all of our girls have learned, all four of them have been very smart about the difference between a bottle and the real source directly from mom. Each of them have gone on bottle strikes, which the others grew so fast and furious that they had plenty of reserves to make it through the strike or like for us to work with it or be like, it’s okay if they go an extra hour, with Nora she had no reserve…

patience kamau:
…she had to feed.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah if she was hungry, we needed to feed her and if she would take it, we wanted to give it to her. So when she did her bottle strike, it was like Nora.

patience kamau:
So she would not feed from the bottle at all, she only was breastfeeding?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
She wouldn’t take the bottle. And so and so we decided that I would bring her to work with me. So that was the first time I moved to the faculty wing cause it didn’t seem quite, I was over on the side of the office, the welcoming side…

patience kamau:
Yes, on the North end…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
On the North end.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Um, and so we moved to where there was a little more privacy cause I was nursing her often and just so that I wasn’t necessarily the one that needed to be jumping up to welcome people. So I brought her to work with me for a number of weeks. Her main social outing in her life was, she did make it to one CJP graduation. So there’s one picture that somebody took. I didn’t have a camera there, but there’s one picture of me standing on the lawn and she’s in the front pack and I like treasurer. I think Bill Goldberg might’ve taken it. I’m not sure who took it or somebody. Um, but yeah, that was her one, one outing. And when she died in June, we had her Memorial service in Martin Chapel, which is where we have the graduation. But three, three stories that came to mind immediately, and it was more around you kind of saying we might talk about CJP as a community. And three, three things came to immediately to mind for me. The first was that people did share meals with us along the way, and I, I still remember so the first two stories are about now CJP alumna, but I so remember Linda Swanson wanting to bring me some food while we were, while we were kind of home bound and I promise she almost filled the CJP freezer with big trays, I mean I think she fed our family for a couple of weeks, but when I went to get it, you know, thinking you’re going to get a little casserole or something, and there were like, I think probably five of those big tinfoil like pans of food for our family of three. Um, so that just was like this abundance of generosity and just an outpouring of, of love. And then the other thing is, the other thing happening, speaking of programmatic transitions is at that year was the year that the university moved from the old database to the new database that we all currently use now, which for a university is a massive transition. So what CJP was doing at the time, which nobody really cares about or wants to know, and those that remember it probably are feeling somewhat traumatized by me even mentioning it, was that we had our own database and EMU had a database and we merged them, at that time.

patience kamau:
What? CJP ran its own database?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
We had our own database, an access, database and then EMU had a database that was the official database and we merged them, which was incredibly complex and very, very messy and very, very tedious. And so basically for a number of us, we spent days hours and days and weeks in a little room in the seminary building, working on the conversion process, mapping it, figuring out what fields, figuring out how the new database was going to help us run the programs that we were running on our external, not EMU supported database. And so I needed to be able to focus and that’s when I was bringing Nora to work with me, which was really challenging on some days. And Ann McBroom was a student at that time and offered to just come in and take her and walk around the campus or be right outside the door to bring her whenever I needed to feed her. And it was what I needed for those days that, you know, she did it a couple of times. Um, and lastly, so Nora died in June and her first birthday would have been October 30th of 2008 and CJP staff and faculty and students planned like a little one year. It wasn’t a birthday party, but it was more like a little Memorial Service just for CJP in Martin Chapel and at that service, students played music. I think a couple of people shared — don’t remember a lot of the words that were said, the main thing I remember from that service was that they had, they presented us with a stain glass piece that CJP had commissioned Mert Brubaker to make for our family, which we had talked with her about, and it, it’s the most beautiful piece. It’s the one thing I would grab if my house was on fire, it would be that piece of stained glass, which the fire thing. So basically we had designed with Mert — so Nora lived for three seasons. She never was alive in the summer, but she lived in the spring. She was born in the fall, she lived through the winter and she died in the spring. And so we talked with her about doing a 3-panel stained-glass piece with each panel of those three symbolizing each of the seasons that she was with us. So the fall one is a beautiful like 3D of different colored leaves, the winter one is a fire –we heat our home with wood stove and the spring one is three yellow flowers because at the time that Nora was with us, Kali who was our daughter who was four at the time, one day just told us that when we see the first three yellow flowers, we’ll know that that’s when we can take our baby outside. And so now every spring when we see three yellow flowers, it’s always a reminder — three daffodils or three Crocuses. But this is three daffodils on the stained-glass piece. So the stained-glass piece was up at this service and Mert was giving her artist’s statement, kind of just sharing what the process was like for her of creating this piece. And we were using candles in Martin Chapel and there was like a burlap cloth around this stained-glass piece, and while Mert is sharing…

patience kamau:
[Laughter]
…did it catch on fire?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
It caught on fire and there was literally flames coming up behind the, like you had this moment where you were looking and you’re like…

patience kamau:
…”wait a minute”…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
“The flames on the stained-glass are actually flick…wait… that is actually fire!” [Laughter]
So it kind of ruined the moment in terms of like…then people were like…

patience kamau:
[Laughter continues]
…or made it memorable!

Janelle Myers-Benner:
It made it so memorable. I’ll never forget, I’ll never forget that moment.

patience kamau:
Wait, wait, so how did that fire get put out?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
People just like went up and like stomped, you know, like padded it out, you know? But it was a very, yeah…

patience kamau:
Were the rules about candles on campus instituted after that?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I’m sure there were…that might be when those rules got more stringent, I don’t know. It didn’t set off any alarms. We got it out very quickly, but it was very memorable, the whole thing was memorable. I mean, I remember, I don’t want to throw out too many names because I’m going to forget somebody, but I do remember Kristen Wall played violin I think at that and yeah. And just it felt, it felt like, even though there were times during her life and death and the grieving after that, I, I wished that I could have given more space to that in my life and I still feel that on some dimension, and I also feel like I can’t quite imagine a work environment that would have been better at that time, I always felt like she was very welcomed at the office when I came in. Um, I definitely had faculty popping in, like when they could see that I was like trying to nurse her and type and talk on the phone at the same time that like, I can remember Dave coming across and just like offering to hold her or like, “what can I do to help you?” [Laughs] Um, so I think circling back to like, you asking me at the beginning when I paused for a long time about like, are you stuck? You know, I think that partly the growing up here, partly the like so many memories of Nora are here that there will be a new, a new dimension of grieving when life takes me to another place, um, because I do often think about, you know, putting Nora and her little seat and being like, “are you ready to go to work?” And like driving to the office and coming in and getting her little bed set up in my office and even the seminary room, like it’s the call-a-phon room. I think the phone-a-thon room I think is where we spent all of those hours. But you know, it’s like, it accesses both painful memories and also precious ones. And, and even the painful ones I welcome because they also are my memories of her so…

patience kamau:
…and they’ve shaped you…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…and they have shaped me! And in the years since many CJP people have like participated in the blood drives that we’ve had in her memory…

patience kamau:
Mm, yeah –you have those annually don’t you?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Twice, we do it once in June at her, at her –the anniversary of her death, and we’ll have one on Wednesday on the…on her birthday.

patience kamau:
Yeah, what happens with those, um, say a little more about the blood drives, what happens with…why did you choose that?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So the reason, yeah. Oh, it’s amazing that we chose that as one of our rituals of remembering. Um, we’ve, we’ve done a variety of things, this is the one public thing that we do um, twice a year. Soon after Nora died, Jason and I decided to give blood together –that was much more monumental for me than Jason, cause I have always felt like I have just a small phobia of needles. Like, I mean just right now talking about them, my legs started to go a little week on me. I mean, it’s always been like that. Um, growing up like my dad was a doctor and so like huge amounts of bribery to like get me to go get a shot. And like I just, yeah, very, very nervous around needles…

patience kamau:
…no needles…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I don’t like needles! I still don’t like needles. Um, but I felt like Nora’s life and her death taught me that I could do things that I thought I couldn’t do. And, and I felt like Nora did really hard things that I would never wish for a baby to have to do with such, I won’t even, I don’t know. Courage seems active. I think she was a very courageous person, but she also like this acceptance like, and so Nora never received blood. So I know a lot of people end up giving blood a lot because if like they had a child or a loved one who received blood, it was like a way to give back or whatever. It wasn’t that so much. For me it was actually initially a very personal ritual like it was, it was, it wasn’t all that altruistic. I mean I like doing things that serve multiple functions, so it was like good for me and good for somebody else as bonus. But it was also like, it was also very much for me kind of continually remembering her, but remembering her through a ritual of doing something that was a challenge for me and it did get easier over time. And honestly it was, we were at the old RMH Rockingham Memorial Hospital giving blood one day and a whole group of Old Order Mennonites came in like at the same time and I was like, “h, what are they doing?” Like they’re all coming in together. And then I learned that like people do drives where they like just reserve the whole donation center for a period of time and they market it and you know, get people to come. And I was like, “we like to do things like that!” Like wouldn’t it be more fun to make this a party where you don’t have to think about the needles the whole time and so we just decided to try one to see like would people be interested in joining us? And it was so fun like, and it was also really meaningful that people that did know her or knew us during that time came to join us to remember her. But then like connections and friends and people that we’ve learned since Nora, that didn’t even know us at that time, it was like a way for them to get to know her a little bit. Like we would bring the book that we wrote about her, we’d bring like her memory box and other things and bring a lot of homemade snacks. Let people make things if they can’t donate blood, cause I also am in a community where lots of people can’t give because of travel restrictions and stuff. So allowing other ways of participating. And so we started just doing it every like once a year, then you know, twice a year. Yeah. It continues to be really meaningful. Um, and this, this falls is, well, it’s kind of the second one like this, but it’s the first that we’re actually joining with another family that also lost a daughter, Nora this spring who shared some time at UVA with our Nora, like, so…

patience kamau:
So she died older?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
She died when she was, yeah, she was older. Just this spring. Yeah. So she was born right around the time that Nora died and then just died of an illness this spring. And so this particular blood drive on Wednesday will be for two Noras.

patience kamau:
Two Noras!
Who was Nora? Describe her as a person who, who was she as a person in those, was she eight months old?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Seven months, just over seven months.

patience kamau:
Seven months. Who was she, how did you get to know her? Who did you see her to be?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So I would say for myself, there was a long period of, it took me a while to bond with her as like a little individual person because of, I have a lot of feelings about the way hospitals manage, uh, the NICU. That was a very negative experience in our lives and the PICU, the pediatric intensive care unit at the end of her life was a very positive experience. And if anybody ever wants to talk about pediatric palliative care and how it connects with CJP, I’m, I’m ready. I love it.

patience kamau:
You should tell us about it. So after you finish describing her, do, tell us about that.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Oh, that’s going to be way longer than this podcast. Um, I’m really excited about that. But um, so about Nora, I will say she lit up when Kali was around. That was like…

patience kamau:
She recognized her sister…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Oh. Oh. She recognized her sister –she would, Kali would come in the room or Nora would hear her voice and she would just like light up. I mean the best pictures we have are of Kali holding Nora on her lap and Nora tilting her head up to like just look at Kali’s face with this like big smile. So yeah, I mean watching, watching her with Kali was probably like the bright spots of those of those months. Um, I do feel like a lot of Nora’s life, she had to put a lot of energy just into like her daily functions such that, she was a very determined little person. So again, teeny little person and she was really tracking with a lot of like the “milestones” –and I did a little quotation mark there because I don’t really believe in like kids having to do things at certain ages, but in terms of what her, her body didn’t inhibit her from, you know, holding her head up right on time and right before kind of the last like decline for her health wise, she rolled over like she was very determined to take her little body over and she rolled over even. It was actually one of those moments where our neighbor was visiting and we hardly ever had visitors, and got to see that moment. Her dad missed it, but so, I would say determined I also feel like one of the things that that makes saying goodbye to an infant different is that we never processed Nora’s illness with her or we never like were able to talk with her about the fact that she was dying or that she wasn’t gonna live a long life. But it also meant that I don’t think that that was really part of her experience either. I feel like she just took each day of life as it came and she lived her best in that day that she could. It was one of the things that, well, Jason wrote a poem about it, but just to observe a little person doing that, I don’t know. I feel like it taught me so much. I feel like her death was like the most excruciating moment of my life and also I’ve said like the most beautiful moments of my life are the births of my four daughters and the death of one of them. Like I will say it was beautiful. Um excruciatingly beautiful in the sense that I don’t feel like she struggled at all. I also feel like, so when Nora died, I, I thought a lot about CJP and I thought a lot about graduates and this is where I’m going to get emotional. Um, but, and this is where pediatric palliative care comes in, is that I feel like so many of the people that I have grown to love and appreciate and admire at CJP have had to deal with communities and loved ones and family members who have died not surrounded by love and not, and have been left like communities and families and individuals have been left with so many unanswered questions, and to me that’s like grief and trauma all intermingled. And I feel like for Jason and I, the biggest gift we received at the end of Nora’s life was that being able to be immersed in the palliative care team meant that I feel like we had no unanswered questions at the end of her life. We knew that based on our own intuition and based on all of the experts that joined us in a team meeting, it was like a circle process at a hospital, like they all went around and said, “we don’t have any more ideas,” “we don’t have any more ideas,” “we don’t think there’s anything else…you could do this, and we think she would die while we did this procedure.” “You could try this invasive diagnostic test and she would suffer a lot and we don’t think it would do any good.” So we were able to hear everyone and together come to a decision of like, the best we can do for her is to provide comfort care. That’s her best chance of recovering from this dip and it’s the best chance of her dying surrounded by us rather than needles and prodding and under a procedure. And so I feel like the gift that Jason and I have received is that I feel like our process of grieving with Nora has not had a lot of trauma in it. It hasn’t had unanswered questions. It hasn’t had, like “did she know she was loved?” “Did she feel cared about?” “Was she suffering?” Like did, “did she seem scared?” Did she seem…,and that has been a big source of comfort for us over the last 11 years. Um, and I feel immensely grateful cause I, I think that if we were also trying to like deal with many questions of like, “did we make the right decisions?” …and instead we got to just completely rearrange her hospital room and all of the doctors and nurses were like, “we’re leaving you alone and you tell us if you need us.” And we were able to just watch her and follow her cues in terms of what she needed, and she just was brave but also just accepting and yeah, it was, I don’t know…

patience kamau:
Mm, sounds like a team that was taking care of you as you took care of her.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, it was a very well functioning team.

patience kamau:
That’s interesting because the feels unique in the, in the, in healthcare…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…I think it is unique, mm-hm…

patience kamau:
…um, like they had been educated in CJP or other places. Uh…

patience kamau:
…that’s what I said, CJP in the medical setting was what palliative…we, so Nora died in June and that fall, right around her first birthday, Jason and I were invited back to UVA to be part of a, they called us, it’s the only time I was actually a faculty person, they called us like “parent faculty” in a pediatric palliative care conference where they brought, brought together parents who’d lost loved ones, children, parents who’d lost children, um, social workers, nurses, doctors, anybody that’s part of like caring for critically ill children all came together at this conference and we would have some plenary but then we would work in small groups where they split us all up so that each team had like a social worker, a nurse, a doctor, a parent and were addressing different, different issues, talking about stories. And we had this one panel discussion where I just was sitting there taking notes and listening and I was like, this is completely a CJP panel in a healthcare setting, and like it was talking about like “cultural competency” and like listening to the values of the people that you’re working with. And determining what they need. Like by asking them like a novel concept, like “let’s ask these people what they need rather than assuming we know what they need.” And, but it’s a huge leap for experts. It’s a huge leap for people. But I also think it’s the lessons that we have to learn at CJP. Like we might be experts, we might have PhDs, we might be educated, but that doesn’t mean we know the community. And just like with a family, like I felt like at the end of Nora’s life we were treated as the experts on Nora’s care, even though we didn’t have the MDs and we didn’t have the nurses, you know, professional experience. But they, they treated us like, you know, Nora better than us, so tell us what you’re noticing and then we’re gonna work with you…

patience kamau:
…to fill in the gaps…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So different than the NICU. In the NICU the nurses called her “my baby,” like the nurse said “my baby,” some of them, others were great, but like there was just this sense of when they rounded on the patients you had to leave, so any time the nurses and doctors were talking about Nora, we were removed from the room while they decided the next plan of treatment. I mean it’s…

patience kamau:
Oh, you were irrelevant?!

Janelle Myers-Benner:
We were irrelevant. We were irrelevant to her care. And I think that’s also a really bad model of peacebuilding.

patience kamau:
Oh isn’t that’s true! Because that makes me think about the criminal criminal justice system, which makes the “victims” irrelevant to the process.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, other people are having this side process…

patience kamau:
…that really affects you, yet you are not involved…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…and I can’t, you know, we would come back in and we would get like the nurse on call would let us know, you know, the low-down of what happened, but like it was…it felt so strange to me. Maybe partly because I had been at CJP for awhile, I just felt like “who am I in this?” Like “what piece do I play?” And it was also fresh, like I had just birthed this child and I’m not with her 24-7 like I’ve been with all, you know, with Kali before and what felt natural. And I think that, yeah, that made the whole kind of bonding as a family of four and figuring things out difficult when you just felt like a visitor into a space with this child that you were going to take home at some point, but you weren’t really being empowered to, yeah…

patience kamau:
To be part of that…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…to be part of it.

patience kamau:
It feels like it should be field –maybe it is a field that I’m not aware of, but like a restorative…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Oh yeah…

patience kamau:
I mean really, they should not kick you out. It feels odd anyway.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Well, and in many ways I feel like the palliative care, so a really exciting thing that CJP slash palliative care related for us is we’ve stayed really closely in touch with the director of palliative care at UVA and she’s still there. And this spring, Jason and I had the wonderful opportunity of doing the STAR Level I training together for the first time and the director of palliative care that we worked with who’s now a friend, came and did STAR with us. So that was just a really unique experience…

patience kamau:
…you went through STAR together?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Jason and I and Noreen Crain, who was Nora’s doctor at the end of her life, came and did STAR in February this year.

patience kamau:
Oh wow.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So it was just like a bringing that together and um, felt really unique and also was another time of like processing and thinking about that time and yeah, highlighting, we shared some of Jason’s poetry in the STAR week just because again, it felt so connected to, and I mean for, for Noreen, it’s not just like the trauma of the people that you’re working with, but also the trauma that people experience being in caregiving roles and like working with critically ill children day after day…

patience kamau:
…is a secondary…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…it’s…

patience kamau:
…trauma.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah. So…

patience kamau:
Wow-wow that you did STAR together that’s…was that the first time you had done STAR since she had passed away?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, I had never done it.

patience kamau:
That just happen to just be the right time or I was it…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, no, it was, um, so our youngest daughter just turned four and this spring, just before STAR stopped nursing, so I was for the first time, not nursing a child and all of our kids were old enough to love, relish the idea of a week, mostly with grandparents. So it felt like a really unique opportunity for us to take part in a training.

patience kamau:
How have the younger siblings, how do they know Nora?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Mm, yeah. Oh it’s so touching that like Nora has been one of both of their first words and like, you know when babies are little, like one of our favorite things with, with babies, Jason especially really loved the stage when like they’re getting –where they’re just starting to say words and they like point everything and they want to know what things are, it’s like they’re just like absorbing vocabulary and like, you know, whether it’s a trashcan or a picture or whatever, but they, both of them would point to the pictures of her and say, “Nora, baby Nora” and, and you know, I think it’s honestly really helped our whole family, but our kids too, to talk really openly about death and dying. We also live on a farm. So there’s, we are experiencing a lot of life and a lot of death and all of them participate in the blood drives. Um, take part. And um, Kali always said that orange was Nora’s favorite color. Now we never got to ask Nora if orange in fact was her favorite color, but it seems like a great color. She was born in the fall, so we have, we have claimed orange as Nora’s favorite color, so occasionally on a very special anniversary we’ve had like an orange themed, blood drive or we’ll do different things with orange and of course kids love that kind of thing anyway, but I think the blood drives have been away. We also created a garden for her at our home that the kids play in and they know that that’s Nora’s garden. We have pictures up all over the house. We have a book that my mom created for her. And then we also have a blog that we did a lot of our kind of grief writing and processing that we’ve made into a book that they’ll look through pictures. Sometimes they talk really openly like you know, you had four babies and one of them died or you know, like it’s, and sometimes for me it strikes me cause it’s so just raw and honest and just there. But it’s so refreshing too like, there’s just no filter. I mean, no filters in a good way. It’s, and I think it also has like they’ll say, well, Terah who’s just turned four, you know, she’ll name it as sad or, but I don’t think for them it strikes them as a very deeply emotional thing cause they didn’t have a personal attachment to her. And Kali doesn’t remember a whole lot.

patience kamau:
Didn’t Kali refer to her as “drimpy” or something similar, when she was in utero?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, in utero, which we thought was somehow strangely appropriate for Nora when she came out [laughs] “drimpy” is just like the most perfect, perfect little nickname for her. But yes, that was all Kali’s invention [laughter].

patience kamau:
Is she’s still referred to as that?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
We haven’t called her that much. No, we haven’t. I mean we all remember it and we chuckle about it, but yeah, I think we just like “Nora” too much.

patience kamau:
Yeah, of course. Do the younger two think of themselves as having two older siblings? Well Terah is a little young for that, maybe, I don’t know.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
You know, I, I have never outright asked Alida or Terah if they think about it that way, I would guess they probably don’t really think about it that way. I mean I think,…

patience kamau:
…and maybe these are things that are self-evident as they get older.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah. And it’ll be interesting how they process it as they get older. I think Nora is more like a part of our family scrapbook and a part of our story and a part of, you know, things that come up as we process life. But I, I haven’t sensed that either Alida or Terah have ever really experienced a sense of like, I miss like I have a sibling that I miss. You know, maybe it’s that Kali is just such an incredible big sister that they feel that their big sister tank is full with her. I don’t know.

patience kamau:
Yeah, it’s interesting I asked that because when…um not too long ago when both president Bush and Barbara Bush died and they were, the conversation was all over the media about their child Robin, I think was that her name? I had never heard of this person before, and of course when they were talking about this and how they were both buried right next to her and all that stuff, and I found out this child had been in their, I mean she died when she was two, maybe three, maybe four.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Wow.

patience kamau:
But just the prominence with which she was spoken about was very…she was impactful. She was the younger sister, I believe of the president, the younger president Bush, but it was just interesting to me to just think of siblings who then come after a child and how that actually shapes them. So anyway, that’s fascinating.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Mm-hm, mm-hm…

[Transition music]

patience kamau:
So back to CJP…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…back to CJP.

patience kamau:
In your mind, just dreaming about CJP and it seems like it has, you’ve had, this has had this very major impact on you. What would you hope CJP will be in 25 years from now, CJP at 50? What is your hope or your dream for this place?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
So I got to listen to the most recent webinar, the RJ webinar…

patience kamau:
…ah, the one with sonya shah and Kazu Haga? The title was “How do we walk our talk?”

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yes, and one of the things that I, so I was excited to, I was excited to listen to that and it felt timely and honestly, CJP at 50, I hope we’re doing even better at “walking our talk” both at CJP and more broadly at EMU. And one of the things that really struck me in the presentation is that they mentioned the feeling that at this point in history, nothing that they’re saying is really new. And that is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about at CJP personally. Um, in my own like learning and growing is, and he was saying it’s kind of just a repackaging of something that others before him have had already discovered or learned about. So I think that’s been a theme for me in recent months and is really connected with my own growing awareness and steep learning curve of the importance of kind of learning where the roots of what we know and what we practice come from. And also realizing that the history that I learned in school, the attributions that have been given to things that we know are not all as they should be, that we haven’t credited necessarily the right communities and the right people for the knowledge that we now benefit and the practices that we benefit from. And this is a thread for me across, and I would say I’m, I’m focusing a lot of my energy around this specifically in the areas of farming and homesteading and gardening and growing that when you’re out there looking for resources on organic gardening or permaculture or other things about food systems, you see a lot of white faces on the books and in the magazines. And yet many, many, many of the practices that we use now in agriculture that people have earned lots of money from writing books about, came over on slave ships with people from West Africa and like, and we don’t, we don’t give the credit to the communities that actually developed and maintained these practices and taught other people, sometimes not with a desire to teach people, you know. Um, and so that has been a deep personal learning for Jason and I in our own work on our homestead. And we have a lot of work to do on that. Um, but I feel like it’s something that I, I sense a deep desire at CJP to do more of and whether that be expanding our resource people in classes, expanding the readings. But I think for me, I really hope that CJP at 50 years will be an organization that not only amplifies but centers the leadership of indigenous people and people of color. I feel like one of the things that struck me this January, Jason and I were at a conference, it was an agricultural conference, but just thinking about kind of who, who do we need to lead us in this kind of next, whatever’s coming. I feel like many of us probably can agree that there are a lot of challenges ahead of us, um, as a, as a human species and, and whether you name those as like political challenges or climate change or, or whatever the challenges that might feel most center in your mind, it seems like we need leaders who are creative, who can dream, who can hope, who can envision something different than what we currently have, who’ve shown the ability to like rise above immense challenges. Like all of these things. And at this conference I was thinking a lot about it and just feeling like so many of the groups and communities that have experienced oppression and other things have shown a lot of those characteristics of like immense resilience and especially the ability to hope and dream about a different future. And at this conference, Leah Penniman is from Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, and she often tells the story of her grandmother’s grandmothers who when they realized that their communities were being kidnapped and taken to an unknown place and an unknown future, they braided seeds into their children’s hair. And for Leah, that was like a story of like my ancestors believed in a future with soil and then a future that these seeds might be, you know, worth something that they might actually grow food that they believed in her basically, in a future that would need. And I feel like that’s the kind of leadership we need and I hope CJP can find a way to…

patience kamau:
…cultivate that.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Cultivate it, make spaces for it, open up. Um, I really, yeah, that’s one of my big hopes!

patience kamau:
Mm, may it come to be!

[Transition music plays]

patience kamau:
Can you think of anything that’s been most uh, most challenging to you professionally and whatever it is, how could you have done that differently?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Huh. So a couple of different things come to mind and they might be a slightly different angle, but when I was thinking about challenges professionally, they’re kind of, it’s a little bit more of a personal challenge probably than…well, maybe it’s kind of both. I mean, one of the biggest challenges for me over the years has been times where I feel like either the larger university in which we’re nested at EMU is not living up to values that I feel like are core to me, but I also feel like are stated as core to the university. And I would say at times CJP also, um, I really struggle to be at a place, be…devoting so much of my time and energy to a place where I feel like I don’t know if I can maintain my integrity and to feel like I can be really authentic, and so over the years that’s been, that’s been just a challenge for me to work with. Like, do I stay and try to work at change from within? Do I, do I stay and like engage and participate or for my own integrity or is it better to not be nested in that organization for myself? And another challenge that came to mind that I think, um, for me is very, has been really hard for me over the years is the sourcing for all the stuff we use at CJP. So whether it’s office supplies or whether it’s furniture or whether it’s food or other things, I feel like we talk so much about environmental responsibility, we talk about sustainability, we talk about sourcing things locally or from like not degrading. We talk about building community. Um, and it’s been really, really hard for me to feel like EMU, and I will say CJP is not at all on the cutting edge of thinking about more alternative and radical sourcing of the things that we need or even questioning the things we need. Like what do we need and what are the, what are the costs of that like? So if we need computers, um, are there ways to need less of them? Are there ways to like expand their life or there, you know, I feel like, um, and with food, uh, it is more challenging and it is more costly, but we should be paying more for food. And, um, so some of those things have been actually quite hard for me over the years and I have attempted in my own little sphere at times to alter, I would say probably mostly in the area of food sourcing for events that I get to be part of the planning of, but I would love for it to be a whole like university effort and a whole CJP effort. I also think that professionally, so I feel like my position is unique in the sense that like I work very closely with faculty at CJP and with students and but I in many ways feel like my career or like what I see as what I’m really wanting to do professionally is actually a little more lodged at our homestead, at Tangley Woods Homestead in Keezletown, where we’ve been for 14 years now, so 14 out of the 20 so I feel very deeply invested in my work at CJP and I feel really grateful for professional opportunities that are, are like linking things that I want to be growing at in both spheres of my life. For example, I’m excited that both Jason and I get to take part in the upcoming Racial Equity Institute that’s happening in November here in Harrisonburg and it feels like that is something I very much need and want for the work that I’m doing at CJP and it’s something I very much need and want for the work that we’re doing at our homestead too. I would say the biggest challenge for me at my time at CJP that I do not know how to approach differently and I’m not sure what change to make in it is that I feel like, except for maybe the first couple years, I feel like my job has been so full that I don’t feel like I’ve been very reflective a lot of times and I don’t feel like I’ve had a lot of creative space to think of new ways of doing things that, you know, I feel like I wish there could be more kind of built in long-term planning rather than just constantly looking at what is the next most urgent thing that I must do.

patience kamau:
Mm, being less reactive and being more…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…proactive…

patience kamau:
…and responsive I suppose.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yeah, and proactive. So that’s a continued challenge.

[Transition music plays]

patience kamau:
Um, in your work with, uh, you talked about your work a lot with the faculty, who –a lot of them would self-describe as peacebuilders– in your work with them or even in your own experiences, what have been the main, what have been the biggest changes in the peacebuilding field in the last 20 years?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I feel like other people will have to talk..I will say that I’ll say a shift that I’ve noticed or that I’ve, I’ve experienced in the 20 years that I’ve been is that, and I want to be very careful that I’m like, this is a broad strokes thing. This is not by any means like true across the board, but I feel like in my earliest years at CJP, I felt like I worked at a place that was mostly doing international peacebuilding, like people that, and even U.S. people that were coming to CJP, many of them planned to work internationally. So, and again, I wasn’t in classes a lot, but it, it just felt like the, the kind of cultural context was like, we’re a multicultural environment. Many people are going to be working in all different contexts. And I also felt like there was, there was, um, how do I say this? There was a reverence. There was like an awe of CJP and of what we were teaching, and um, now it could be that I was just in a different seat on the bus at that time. Like it might be that I wasn’t hearing the, the channel, I wasn’t as part of the conversations about the challenges, but okay, from my, from my seat on the bus, we were largely international. There were voices that were saying, “Hey, what’s happening here?” Like there were definitely voices saying we need to pay attention to what’s at home too,…

patience kamau:
To the United States?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
To the United States context, but it felt like, like there was a constant trying to rein, rein us back to look at the context. It wasn’t like a natural, like this is our main focus. And so I would say, you know, there was a period of time that was like that. And then I actually think a lot of, I feel like we started getting calls from our –not physical calls– but like our, our students and our alumni started saying like, “great that you want to do this work, but what’s happening in Washington D.C. is directly impacting what’s happening on the ground in all of our contexts. What are you all doing to address what’s happening in the U.S.?” Like go home and do the work. [Laughter] And so like we started getting those like challenges which are valid and helpful and good critiques. And so I feel like there was, there was both a shift and a desire to pay attention to the U.S. context. But then I also feel like our student body has slowly shifted a little bit too and that we don’t have as many international students. Some for like maybe natural reasons and some for challenging reasons. Um, whether it’s visas or funding, um, or you know, we don’t have as many…we didn’t, we had a Fulbright scholar grant that was a big programmatic thing for a number of years where we were actually getting cohorts of Fulbright’s Fulbright scholars each year. So now I feel like I’ll say the last five years or something, broad strokes, again, I feel like we have many more students that really want to work in the U.S. context and want to look really closely at current issues, but also where those come from and look more at the history of the context here in the United States. And I feel like some of us are sprinting to catch up with our students sometimes. Like I feel like our students come and are really pushing and challenging us, again in good ways, and again I feel like we are wanting to be a responsive organization, but I think a number of us and I’ll even own for myself like are realizing how much we have to learn and are realizing we have work to do. Once again, I mean since the very beginning faculty have talked about like students as colleagues and that we learn as much from students as they learn from us, but I really feel it now. I really, really feel it now.

patience kamau:
Do you, do you think you feel it more because, because you yourself are different, you’re older, you’re more mature, you’re more aware or is it actually truly that it is a change? Not, not with the…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…not with the student body?

patience kamau:
Yeah, not the International versus local, but the struggling to catch up with where the students are.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
It’s probably a combination of both maybe. I do think that I’m getting to interact more closely with students, which I really treasure. You probably see me walk past your window with a student every now and then…

patience kamau:
I do, I do…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…and I, yeah, whenever I can do a meeting on the run, I do a meeting, walking. Um, it’s my, my resilience package for making it through long days. Um, but yeah, I feel, I feel like it’s such a two way street in learning, and again, back to the like team approach –I love it when we can all bring our strengths to the table and learn different things. Like I think I have things to contribute, but I would say right now I feel like I’m definitely on the receiving end of lots of important lessons…

patience kamau:
…leanrings yeah…

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…lots of important learnings.

patience kamau:
Oh, that’s great. That’s great.

[Transition music plays]

patience kamau:
So outside of work, however you define work, because it sounds like even when you are at home you are doing work on your farm, like what do you do for fun?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Oh, hmm. Well fun and work go hand in hand for us. Um, actually my great aunt Eleanor, who’s 94 now just stayed with us for about 10 days, and she talked about when she was growing up, “we didn’t really do things for fun,” but she said she really enjoyed when they would all sit around shelling black walnuts, so I was like, “yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s our family too.” So well, I’ll, I’ll web it, I’ll weave it in with CJP. So yesterday I hosted a little cheese workshop for CJP students, so there were about seven, seven joined me in the kitchen and we made butter and yogurt and mozzarella cheese and ricotta cheese and cheddar cheese and farmer’s cheese — think that was the six things we did. But they got to experience what the Myers-Benner family does for fun, which I had put, I had skimmed cream into a bunch of different jars and we had a butter shaking contest. So we put music on, we dance around the living room and we see who gets butter first shaking their jar of cream.

patience kamau:
On themselves?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
No, you’re just, you’re just shaking the jar and it will turn into butter.

patience kamau:
Oh, oh-oh, sorry, my ignorance just flared right up!

Janelle Myers-Benner:
That’s fine, you can come to the next workshop. [Laughter] So yes, we, we had a little butter shaking competition, but our family has a lot of fun in the different seasons of the year and much, much of it is very woven together with the way we sustain ourselves with food. So one of our favorite things in the winter is that we save all of our own seeds, and to save seeds, if you’re breeding, you need to test things. You need to know if it’s worth saving the seed from something. So we have popcorn testing nights where we shell off corn from individual ears and we test them and we do blind taste tests to see if we can tell which is the best popcorn to save for next year’s planting or squashes. We’ll roast a squash and then we have to test and we all like know the thumb, like thumbs up, thumbs down, thumb in the middle. Um, so those kinds of things and, and harvest days are like big celebration times in our family. Like our kids. If we would harvest sweet potatoes or white potatoes or plant garlic without them, we would probably never hear the end of it. Like, “what do you mean? I don’t get to do that till next year?” So we, yeah, and like the first persimmons that fall from the tree, like that first baking of chocolate persimmon muffins, it’s definitely like a celebration. Our family does enjoy playing games. We don’t do it a lot in the spring, summer or fall, but we are starting to near the time of year where that can happen a little bit more…

patience kamau:
…the winter?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
…because the evenings are longer and you just can’t garden very well with headlamps -though we have tried! But when the ground is hard and it’s dark, it’s harder.

patience kamau:
Ah, yeah, I think the winter just means rest for a lot of things, at least with growth.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Yes. Yeah. The planting. Yes. Yeah.

patience kamau:
Oh, great.
Um, that’s all I have. Would you, do you have anything else you would like to add?

Janelle Myers-Benner:
I’ve said a lot. Um, I don’t know that I do –maybe a thank you. Yeah, it was good to have the opportunity to reflect back. I think sometimes when over the course of 20 years there are like mountain top experiences and there are low points and challenges and depending on where you find yourself, it’s sometimes hard to see the whole journey, like to see the whole expanse of it. So I think it was a helpful thing for me to think about the good and the bad and the beautiful and the challenging. Um, so I am grateful for the opportunity.

patience kamau:
You’re very welcome; thank you for doing it.

Janelle Myers-Benner:
Thanks patience.

patience kamau:
All right, bye bye.

Following their daughter Nora’s death, both Janelle and her husband, Jason, did a lot of processing through writing. They had the opportunity to contribute to a website on grief authored by CJP alumna Janelle Shantz Hertzler as well as a nursing journal article on how families make meaning after loss. They are currently working on a co-authored article with Nora’s pediatric palliative care doctor, sharing the impact of palliative care from a parent’s perspective and a doctor’s perspective.

[Outro music begins to play, and fades into background]

patience kamau:
All the music you hear on this podcast has been composed by: the one and only Luke Mullet. Our audio mixing engineer extraordinaire is: Stephen Angello. Audio editing support was generously provided by: Michaela Mast. And I am the podcast executive producer, audio recording engineer, editor and host: patience kamau. As you are able, please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast so that other peacebuilders may find it. We’ll be back with a new episode in two weeks! Thank you so much for listening and join us again next time!

[Outro music swells and ends]

7 comments on “4. Nora Lynne”

  1. Elena M Huegel says:

    Once again, I have so enjoyed the podcast! Today, as I painted hummingbirds and poinsettias native to Chiapas where I live, I listened… Thanks so much, Janelle for:
    -Sharing from your heart.
    -For being honest about your challenges, questions and continuing search.
    -For your love of the natural world, your passion for all life, your desire to be part of life-giving and life sustaining processes. I identify with your need to have integrity – I struggled at EMU-SPI with all the ways of being that didn´t show respect and care for the environment. Even the one class that I took on conflict and the environment was completely estranged from the beauty around us at SPI. It was the one class I was least satisfied with.
    -For ALWAYS answering my emails – in fact, I think you have answered my emails, in your different capacities, and at different stages in my life over the past 20 years! It seems like a small thing, but I have so come to appreciate people who answer even with, "I don´t know, but I will find out" and then follow up. ¡GRACIAS!
    -For your insights into giving original peoples and and the people who hold the wisdom their rightful place. Living among the Tseltal and Tzotzil Mayan, I have grown in my appreciation for what they know and have held on to in spite of everything…The wisdom that they still share even in the face of all they have lost.
    Thanks again, Patience, for a great job!

    1. patience says:

      elena, thank you so much for your faithful accompaniment through every episode. it means a lot! :)

    2. Janelle Myers-Benner says:

      Elena, how wonderful to hear from you and your thoughts on the podcast. Thanks for listening AND for sharing what you received/appreciated from it. I like the image of you painting while you listened! Blessings, Janelle

  2. Phoebe Sharp says:

    THANK YOU!

  3. Asad says:

    Such a joy and inspiring to hear from you Janelle! I still remember those days I got support and guidance from you and others at CJP. Nothing but gratitude to my formative academic years at CJP which truly had transformational impact on my worldviews and who I am today. Thank you Patience for recording this profound genesis of CJP via this podcast.

    1. patience says:

      it is my total pleasure asad; thank YOU for listening! :)

    2. Janelle Myers-Benner says:

      Asad, so glad you enjoyed listening to the podcast! And I'm so grateful that my journey intersected with yours!! Janelle

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