Host: Preeta Bansal
Moderator: Pavi Mehta
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of ServiceSpace, a global platform founded on the simple principle that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us!
Good morning everyone, or good afternoon or good evening, depending on where you are in the world. My name is Preeta. I am really excited to be your host for our weekly global Awakin call. Behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this space. Today, our very special guest speaker is Sue Cochrane.
Our moderator is Pavi Mehta. Pavi is a writer and volunteer with ServiceSpace. She co-leads its inspiring news portal, Daily Good. She’s the co-author of Infinite Vision
. A writer, poet, and visionary, she is an inspired and a truly inspiring presence, who revels in the poetry of everyday life and reflects that back in manifold ways through the alchemy of her beauty, intelligence, and grace that lie at the core of her being, and which she channels and sprinkles ever so subtly and magically to the world. I am going to turn it over to Pavi to get the ball rolling. She will introduce Sue so we can begin the conversation. Over to you, Pavi.
My goodness, thank you, Preeta, for that generous introduction. I am not sure that I can live up to it, but I aspire towards it. It is my privilege now to introduce to all our listeners our guest, Sue Cochrane.
I think of Sue as a diamond, not just because she is beautiful and multi-faceted, and not just because her brand of quiet brilliance catches light and sparkles, but because she possesses a degree of tensile strength that takes the breath away. It’s a strength that is born of unfathomable pressures. She emerged from a childhood marked by the extremes of domestic violence, alcoholism, grave illness, and poverty with her remarkable and varied gifts intact. A self-taught musician, a lover of language, poetry, and craft, she sacrificed personal dreams to support an ailing mother. After deep losses and devastating abuse spiraled her into a period of alcoholism, she pulled herself out of the abyss through the 12-step program. Graduating with honors from law school, she served 18 years on the Family Court bench in Hennepin County, Minnesota, after a career in legal services. Following this appointment to the court in 1995, she created a revolutionary new model for family court cases which aspired, as she puts it, “to put the heart back into the body of family law.”
Sue is the mother of three boys adopted from Korea. Her first cancer diagnosis came roughly 18 years ago when her oldest was in first grade. The second diagnosis, which was 10 years later, was a terminal one. In the wake of being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, Sue accepted an invitation to chair an international symposium focused on bringing love into the law—particularly family law. In a move that is classic Sue, she brought musicians, storytellers, and meditation teachers to speak to this group of lawyers and judges. It has been eight years since the terminal diagnosis.
She has endured 19 brain tumors, two craniotomies, a malignant pituitary tumor, and targeted experimental drugs. With the support and encouragement of her beloved brother, Mick, who is frequently by her side, Sue has just completed the manuscript of her memoir, “The Crystal Gavel.”
In every exchange that I have ever had with Sue, diamond light flashes in ways that go to the very core of what it means to be human, what it means to walk towards our deepest hurt, and to hold ourselves and each other in ways that heal. Sue, thank you beyond words for saying “yes” to this invitation.
Thank you, dear Pavi. That was so beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know if that was really me, but I will accept it and receive it with love and gratitude. Thank you very much.
Well, we’re going to dive right in here, Sue, because there’s so much to cover. To get the ball rolling, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to: “When did you first sense that you had an inner light and/or a higher power or a deeper force operating within your life?”
: Well, honestly, it was when I was a young girl in a Catholic school. They taught us about Jesus and his unconditional love and that God was all-knowing, helpful, and powerful. When I would be in church in the formal setting with all the singing, candles, and incense, I honestly felt something inside. I even thought I would be a nun. The nuns, in those days, told us that girls could only be a wife or nun. What I saw in my home did edge me towards becoming a nun, but sadly I lost the spirituality a few years later, with everything happening in my home. I would pray to God and Jesus and nothing would ever change. So, I started to doubt.
: Can you speak a little bit about your journey? You mentioned it in one of your writings about “selective mutism,” having lost your voice as a young child and finding your way back to it. Can you speak a little bit about the condition in which you lost your voice and found your way back to it?
: Yes, it is a condition that I don’t know how it happened or where it came from, but when I started kindergarten, I could not speak or sing with the class.
Before my father lost everything due to alcoholism, he was a trial lawyer. My mother was a social person, stay-at-home mother, who was very funny and witty. They tried everything to get me to talk including bribery and shaming. Nothing worked. No one saw it as anything other than me being shy and that I was holding back.
I did have a voice through my music. I actually wrote poetry before I could even write. I remember standing up in front of our fireplace reciting my first poem to somebody. I could speak at home, but mostly to my younger brother and to our neighbor friend when I was older. But I never raised my hand all through school or law school. It was really hard. But my writing was good. I got straight A’s so the teachers kind of thought I had something to offer. But it’s not willful. It’s not stubbornness. It,s not necessarily from a trauma. They really don’t know, but it’s now in the DSM as a social phobia. I guess we will leave it at that.
: It's amazing to just see the trajectory and the voice that you have today and how much of a voice you've been for other people in the course of your career. Could you share a little more about the kind of the crucible of your childhood, just to give our listeners a sense of those formative years, before we move into the work that you did as a judge and within the legal system.
: Yes, that voice problem for me actually became one of those themes for my work. I knew what it was like to not have a voice. I made it my mission to make sure people could have a voice that came into contact with me, either as clients or in front of me in court. That was probably one of my top issue priorities. But the childhood, it started out, as I said, quite idyllic. Father was a lawyer in the early sixties. He was really successful. Mother stayed home. She was witty, artistic—she was everything. And she gave us everything. She read poetry to us when, I mean, we were babies. She started reading O. Henry and different things to us. And the celebrations we had. It was like a movie of just happy things. But apparently, she knew he had a drinking problem when she married him and hoped it would get better, but it didn't.
He began to abuse her, even while she was pregnant once. I witnessed some of his violence towards her, smashing things, screaming, suicide threats. We would follow him to a bridge where he threatened. It was horrible, and yet the system thought he was this incredible lawyer. So that was happening and we hid it all. It was a story of hiding and shame behind our door. Mom called the priest one day and said, "I need a divorce from this man." And they threatened she'd be excommunicated. That crushed her. When I heard that, I really started to doubt. I was about nine. Then we fell off the edge.
He never paid our support. We were on welfare. It was quite a crash from being affluent to a few hundred a month. There were times we had no water, no electricity. She had MS [Multiple Sclerosis]. She had symptoms her whole life, but it was diagnosed right before Dad left. He left us ultimately and filed for the divorce. She was really incapacitated a few years later. So, the addiction, the poverty, the disease—she became severely depressed. He had one visit. He showed up drunk and she never allowed another visit. It was also a violation of the divorce decree, so we never saw him again. I think that's enough for now [laughs].
: Oh, dear. I mean, just the images that swirl up as you're speaking. It's hard to fathom. I'm wondering what gave you strength? What kept you going in those years?
: Two people were there for me—one, my younger brother, Mick. Our older brother had his own life and friends. So, Mick and I played together. I started speaking for the stuffed animals and it created a whole system of these nice, kind teddy bears—and then poodles. It was, he said, "just like Sesame Street." I mean, they had ongoing personalities and issues, a radio show, a kitchen. I had an incredible array of voices there.
Then my Grandma, my mom's mom. Mom would drop us off there and they had incredible love for us. Not many words. They were German, born here, but still had a thick accent. They survived the Depression and all they did was love us. They put no pressure on us other than to kneel for the rosary and go to mass every day. Other than that, it was beautiful there. They farmed their little yard in the city. We ate wonderful food.
So those two. And then having the voice through music and the puppets, and the writing. I think one of your Daily Goods talked about imagination and creativity as the answer for trauma.
: Yes. That was, Bessel Van der Kolk
: So I believe that's probably the theme that kept us going.
: It's incredible. And I think about how early on you adopted the role of caretaker for your younger brother and for your mother who was sick. You used the phrase “unconditional love” earlier and, in some ways. I feel like that’s been one of the facets you've been honing in your life, that quality of unconditional love. Can you speak a little bit about that? About what it means to you?
: I would love to. I loved my mother despite all her imperfections. The house went to hell, I'll just say that. Everything fell apart and no dishes were done. But I loved her, and I even loved my father, still. I wanted him to get sober and come home. I loved Mick, loved my grandparents, and I felt the love in return, which I think helped it to grow. And I loved, of course, music and my animals. But I think loving some very imperfect people like my mother, helped me to—I mean, I had a funny thing I'd say to myself, "I want to be the judge who doesn't judge."
You know, I really do care. I don't judge people. I do—we all do sometimes—but it's not one thing I go to immediately, like one of my sons does [laughs]. I just don't go that way too much. I hope that answers it a little bit.
: Yeah. Well, and for those of you who haven't seen it yet, Sue has a beautiful blog called Movement of Healing
. On it, there is a tab that says, “Click here for unconditional love.” [Laughter] It comes highly recommended.
So you had this deep love for the arts and for language, and for French in particular. You spent a semester abroad thanks to a really perceptive French teacher you had. And you were accepted into a degree program at Stanford that you turned down to enter law school instead, to fulfill an aspiration your mother had, and also to be able to take care of her in those years of her illness. Could you speak a little bit about what that experience, of going to law school and forging a path forward? Did you know when you entered that you were going to be a bit of a renegade? How did the judge who didn't want to judge come into the world?
: Well, not very willingly, to be honest. Law school was not my first choice. It was so nice to see some comments on my Caring Bridge
from two women who also had Dr. Root, my French teacher, and know her incredible abilities. She told us they kept creating more courses for our small class because we were so advanced. She said, “You could go right into the Ph.D. program.”
I went home and talked to my mom and she said, “You promised
to go to law school.” I honestly don't remember that at all. Somebody seemed to need to go to law school in our family. Dad kept saying “One of my sons is going to be my partner.” Never Susie, because that just wasn't in his consciousness then. I took a year off hoping for a miracle of some sort that would guide me and it didn't come. I took the LSAT, scored high, and I started night school.
I could take care of my mother during the day and my brother took care of her at night. I thought maybe that would help me get rid of my shyness and my introversion, and it didn't. It just pushed me into more drinking because I was having so much social anxiety
There was a slight part of me that came alive in political science. One of my professors called me aside and said, “You know, what are you going to do after college?” And I sort of said, “law school.”
He said, “You aren't going to make it. You're way too shy.” It was the opposite of the Dr. Roots story. But I made it through because I can read and write well, but the talking wasn't there. I had to do a moot trial and I will admit that the professor later said he thought I was going to pass out during it. I was so nervous. But I got through it, graduated and then found sobriety and that is what helped me get on the right path and find my voice.
: And so, as you proceeded you decided to go into family law, which puts you right back in the intensity of a world of divorce and domestic abuse. Was that a very conscious decision?
: There were times when I thought, “I want to help people like my mother.” She would call our Senator once in a while. She called people and she couldn't get help to get on disability or to have my social security. She was just lost. I remember thinking, if I was a lawyer, I would help people like my mother. That was one thought. After that, my father’s only living relative, his older brother, was a lawyer and then his wife was a lawyer. My uncle came to my mother's funeral—dad had already died—and we were standing there in the receiving line, and he said, “Come to my office Monday. I have a job for you.”
He was very gregarious. He did antitrust law. He had this big opulent law firm, but I was just a go-fer. I took the job because Mom was dead, and now I didn't know what to do. I was in night law school. He had a lot of wealthy clients and, because I was a woman, I got their divorce cases. And I enjoyed it. I could go to court and could hear about their lives. Then I went off on my own and started a family law practice. That's the first step I took.
: And when you became a judge, what were the things you were seeing that you felt were not sitting right and you wanted to change?
: I saw a lot because I had this rare opportunity of representing some very wealthy people in court. When I was at Legal Aid, I was the lawyer for the Native Americans—just not their center, but individuals and some of the poorest of the poor of our urban area. I noticed we were last on the docket sometimes. Some judges were very biased against people on assistance. One judge had never heard of the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law that had been in place for decades. These kinds of things troubled me. Some judges were just harsh and insensitive. There were some who were wonderful. I thought, “I want to be like them.” We need more of them. So that's what inspired me. I wanted to be fair. I wanted to treat everyone kindly and equally.
: Can you describe a little about the changes you brought into the system?
: At first, I went along with what was there. I'd go out into the courtroom and handle my cases like everybody else. At that time, we had an armed deputy sitting in the courtroom and we'd sit up high like most judges. I was never comfortable with that. When someone's appointed, they do the public announcement, so-and-so was elevated
to the court.
Well, I never liked sitting up there. I liked being down on the floor with my clients because, again, I could identify with a lot of their problems. It took me a few years to know I had to start changing that initial divorce hearing because it was so adversarial. After it was over, the parents simply could not get along enough to co-parent their children. It was too late. I knew I had to find a way to get rid of that first hearing, and find a more humane way to handle their cases. That was my first goal.
: How did you go about changing that?
: Well, I’d call it an organic process. I’d walk into work normally and there'd be a stack of files on my desk with a docket, and I would just do it. Then I called the clerk one day and had an idea. The court has to educate the parties on the damage that a contested case could cause the family and just give them the facts. There was a movie we made them all see. I called it the “one size fits all program.” Then we'd have a judge talk afterwards. I could see them getting bored during the movie, but they really loved the question and answer with the judge. There could be a whole auditorium of people.
I called up the court administrator and said, “Do you have a flowchart of family court? I'd like to send a letter out before anything is filed.”
She said, “We don't have one, but I'll make a quick and dirty one.”
I still remember her saying that. So I get this sheet that had so many boxes and arrows and labels. I mean, it gave me a headache looking at. But there was one box at the top that said, “Start here—papers filed, judicial officer assigned.” And there was my opportunity. So I’d write them a letter saying I’d wave the one-size-fits-all program if they would come in and talk to me before filing any papers—and that's how it started.
: And what was that talk? Like where did you hold it and what happened?
: Well, this is another big change. I decided just to do it the way I felt would be the most helpful. So, we met in my chambers. I did not have my robe on. I had my kids little scrawly pictures on the wall. I had their photos on my desk, and they saw me just as a fellow human being. I did have that flowchart blown up, but I had it turned to the wall.
I told them a few basic things—basically, that if they chose to litigate, they would be turning their lives over to me. I would do my best, but I’d never meet their children. I said that I did well in law school, but I didn’t have a child psychology degree. I told them I’d asked to decide everything: when you see your children, how much money you live on, where you live, where they live. And I had one more fact I had to tell them—that 95% of all cases were settled without a trial. Most people went through this whole rigorous, hideous chart and then settled after they'd spent a lot of money, energy, and lost all cooperative ability.
So, I pulled out the chart towards the end, held it up and said, “This is family court and we're here.” I pointed to the START HERE. Then I said, “You can choose a different path right now and not have to go through all that, and if I were your best friend or your sister, I would recommend that because I want to empower you to make the decisions. I don't think you need someone making your decisions. You're not in the 5%.” I had another part where they would talk to someone about the alternative. But 99% chose the first option. And then the court took notice.
: That is just such a phenomenal story! And the humanity in your approach is what speaks so loudly. I'm quoting from an article you wrote where you say, "In family court, it is as much a matter of the heart as the head. But our deepest values like empathy, care and compassion are often treated as irrelevant in such a system. This is why many people, judges and lawyers included, find the legal profession unsatisfying, ineffective, and potentially harmful, especially in the realm of family conflict." And I think about that, what you said earlier, wanting to be a judge who didn't judge. That really touches on this quality of equanimity. I know you've mentioned this in an earlier talk about the near enemy of equanimity being indifference or apathy, which many in the legal profession can fall into almost thinking it's a part of the profession that goes with the territory. How did you navigate that?
: I hadn’t encountered meditation, Buddhism, or mindfulness then, but I had learned a lot about equanimity in the last 20 years. I put it together myself, at first. I just wanted to create an open space and let people have their voice. Sometimes it wasn't comfortable. Sometimes there was shouting. There was anger, almost all the time. Sometimes my staff would look at me like, should I press the red button
? (that's when all the deputies would come pounding in) and I'd shake my head, “No. I don't need them.”
I’d say, “You know, if you talk at the same time, I can't hear you both. I do want to hear you both.” I’d always request, “Would you be okay with just one at a time? You can take notes if you don't like what you're hearing, and then I'll hear your objections.” A lot of people didn't have lawyers. That's what I'm talking about now. Is it okay to tell a story of something unusual?
: Well, I had a couple and they were fighting over custody after the divorce. Mom wanted to move to Texas, I think. He loved his son so much and that would, of course, interfere with his weekly time. She’d met a man. They were getting married and were going to move because he had a good job there. The husband in this case objected strongly. So, he brought a motion to stop her. I noticed people peeking in the window of my courtroom door in all these colorful outfits, and I’d say they looked like African dress. I finally asked, “Is that your family?” And they said, “Yes.” They were from Liberia. Normally, the family would be involved in such a decision. I said, “Well, would you like them to be here?” “Yes!”
So, they all came in and sat around the council table. They had an elder gentleman who seemed to be in charge. I said, “Well, should I leave you be for a little bit?” And they all said, “Yes.”
It was getting to be lunchtime, so my clerk and I raced over to the supermarket and bought trays of fruit and set up tea on the courtroom table off to the side. Every hour or so I'd peek in and they hadn’t touched this fruit. They were working hard. They were talking.
I finally get a knock on my door and they said, “We're done.”
So, they’d settled it, and all the fruit was gone. So they read it on the record, and I thought it was an extremely fair agreement. They were leaving—and my petty self was going, “Hmm, no one thanked me for their fruit.” There was one last person leaving and this woman turns around, and with this smile she says, “And thank you for that fruit!”
So that's just one story out of many. People often can solve their own problems if they're given support.
: Yeah. You know, when you became a mother—you adopted your sons and had the first diagnosis come in—can you speak a little bit about the decision to become a mother and how that has shaped your practice as well as what that first encounter with mortality was like?
: Motherhood and mortality, M & M. I was 40 when our first baby boy arrived and 42 when the twins arrived. We didn’t expect twins. No one does [laughs]. I had already been on the bench and so that was a big commitment. There's this part of me that wanted it all. I wanted to have a career. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to do good in the world. So, I took on quite a bit and I wouldn't have without my husband. I met him in law school. He was a city prosecutor. We found a really good preschool. We all rode in together and then rode home together. Those were good years, happy years. He's even older than me, which I like to remind him. He's 68 right now, and we have these boys in their early twenties. We rose to the occasion. Our neighbors would see us come home and run to the park. They said, “It’s either going to kill you or keep you young, we can't tell, but we love watching you guys.” We were busy, busy, busy.
Well, I found a breast lump one day and got so scared. I immediately told my husband and rushed to the doctor. She said, “It's probably benign.” She sent me to the top surgeon just in case, and did an ultrasound and it came back as a simple fluid filled cyst. She did not think it was necessary to do anything to it and I disagreed, but there was a moment where I could not speak up. She was very, very much in charge. One of those experts, you know. She kind of made me never want to be an expert. I just never want to do that to people.
If she’d said, “What would you like to do?” I'd say, “Take it out.” But she didn't. My friends agreed that the machine was right, so I didn't have to worry. She said, “Just wait a year. Go to your mammogram.”
Well, I waited more than a year. And it was cancer. By the time they got to it, it was stage three. That was devastating and I was in shock. I thought I’d enough bad things in my life and it would be smooth sailing for the rest of my life. Facing that was very, very hard.
I want to credit Piper Breast Center. They focus on the needs of the patient, which inspired me more towards how I wanted the court to be. They give you tea in nice china cups. They welcome you. They just make you feel like you're not alone.
When I went there, they saw my anger and shock and devastation. They said “Well, we have a healing coach. Would you like to meet with her?” At first, I thought, “Oh, they just don't want me to sue the doctor,” but I went to her. And there again—is it a theme?—she just listened to me… and listened and listened every week, until I went through a lot of grief about my mother's death. I didn't want that for my boys. She gave me that book by Rachel Remen
—how one doctor created a more healing system. I vowed to get out there for one of their retreats, and I did a few years later. The healing came when they offered me that healing coach. I'm not sure how I could have survived it without her. Then I started to commit to finding more healing.
: My goodness. And what tools or practices did you reach out for in the 10 years, between the first diagnosis and your second? How did you ground?
: I was very afraid of a recurrence and in fact the kind of breast cancer I is known to recur within two to five years. I did have a scare. There were some tumors on my ovaries that turned out benign, but there again, I went to a therapist to deal with how to become comfortable knowing my boys would be cared for by others. I was sure I was going to die, so I got one more reprieve there.
I did get to Commonweal. I went to their cancer help retreat. I got to meet the co-founders. Then I realized, I'd gone to AA, which was wonderful when I was getting sober and helped me get my life on track, I realized I needed to be around people who had had cancers. That was very healing, being in that small group for a week. I started meditating there. I came back and found a local meditation center and I just jumped in with both feet. It was just what I needed, and I did that. I’m still connected with them—and I tried acupuncture and read healing books. It turned into, from a crisis, to a healing opportunity.
: One of the things I remember you quoting Michael Lerner
saying that healing can take place even when there is isn't a cure. Could you share a little bit about what healing means to you?
: That’s a good question. I’d say healing is when everything feels okay. It's the it's meant to be. That sort of a simplistic answer. But even if I'm going to die soon, sooner than I want to, can I actually get comfortable with that and not have that conflict inside about it? And feel loved. I think a lot of the healing was getting more love into my life. I went to a spiritual director who also just listened and listened and listened. That's how I learned that listening is an active thing that really helps people—like you're doing for me right now.
: Oh, my goodness. I just look at your life, and how many times you've been pushed to these brinks of facing your mortality, in these very extreme ways. And how the tendency of some can be—when threat appears, when fear surges through the system—that the heart shuts down, you close off and build walls. Part of your remarkableness and this power that you hold, is just how open your heart has remained.
: I thank all the people, programs, books, you—all of your incredible work. It's all there if I reach out for it, but you're right, we have to be able to receive it. I will say my poor mother, she wouldn't go to the doctor. She wouldn't get self-help. She shut down. I think there were times I'd say I did not want to do that. I made a conscious choice. It's out of my comfort zone to speak to large audiences. But this one's easy, because I'm just speaking to right now. I was never that comfortable with public speaking, but I can receive love and help from many sources and I feel grateful for that.
: You approached your circumstances with your imagination, and the creativity that’s so inherent in you—and in all of us. You brought those to bear on your journey in a way that—I'm thinking of your blog posts early on in the movement of healing. You have one titled, I think. “Stage Five Cancer.”
That's a stage that you invented to describe the place that you were in. This time you said it's precious, it's joyful, it's grievous, it's hopeful—and in stage five, the difference is that you're truly conscious of the inevitability of your death. At times you can even befriend it. That's so powerful.
There are two things I want to make sure we touch on before we open it up to others on the call. I’d love for you to share the story of one of the miracles in your thread of miracles that point to this invisible web that holds and surrounds us, and that’s the story of the little medal. Then the other thing I’d love for you to touch on is the story behind the title of your memoir.
: Oh, all right. Well, thank you. After the terminal diagnosis at that point, it was in almost all my bones, but you can live with that for quite a long time. I was feeling pretty okay and found a wonderful oncologist. I did not need chemo. He found a special pill that I could take. It was pretty cutting edge. It was working. Well then a brain tumor appeared and it was a really complex one. It had a lot of different tendrils going every which way, and my own surgeon team over there would not operate. I remember he had tears, too, and so did I.
I went to the Mayo and they acknowledged it was really a complex tumor. I left there and felt there was nothing we could do. That's another time I prepared for death. My sons were in an art high school at the time, the twins, and one art teacher there—she's very accomplished, Pat Benincasa
—makes Joan of Arc medals
. They’re beautiful. She gives them to women of courage. Then it expanded to all people of courage. Then it expanded to people who need support. She'd given my son, Tom, a packet to give to me. We opened it together in the car and it had this beautiful message about how Joan had strength to go fight an army, even though she was an illiterate teenager. I loved it, and it's very beautiful. I went to a local little store to buy a chain. I started sobbing, and the woman took me to the counter, opened her computer, and showed me this surgeon in Phoenix who had saved her friend's life, who also had an inoperable tumor. Now she's alive with children and does triathlons. So, I sent him my images, and he operated on me and got the tumor out.
It does feel like a mystery, a miracle, being taken care of—that there is that web of care out there. Again, it seemed to come from the fact that I just let my feelings out, and then someone was there to help me. Those things happened to me. And from then on, I said, the surgeons know. So yeah, I've had ten, but they're all gone now.
And the crystal gavel. Well, I loved your diamond example. No one's ever said that to me—and then I forgot about how diamonds are made. I went, yeah, I can relate to that part, for sure—that pressure and intensity. But yes, one of my cases, this poor woman, I have to say, I think she reminded me of my mother—disabled, divorced, ex-husband never paid her any support for the children. Now they're grown up, but she's got medical problems and no money, can't visit her grandkids. There were 10 years of court orders and they all ruled against her. He had no money. He looked like a pauper on paper. Turns out he was funneling the money to his girlfriend. I'll just simplify it.
They had a very elaborate scheme going, but I went back and read everything and we did a trial. I ruled in her favor and opened up this corporation and added the girlfriend to the divorce, which was unheard of to add a third party like that, so we could access these assets. Well, that's when I got my first cancer diagnosis. So I left. She had no attorney, either. They were writing me horrible letters about it being a totally wrong decision. I'm used to it, you know. You get appealed once in a while, but I had to leave. I never knew how it turned out—whether the appeals court confirmed me or overturned it.
I came back, but was depleted from chemo, radiation, the mastectomy, and so I asked if I could go part-time. They said, “We have this part-time traffic court position.” It was feeling like a step down at a tiny office in an older building, but I ended up starting a program there, too. I can't seem to help myself.
We got a court out into the city because we had had a restorative justice day, a year program. Mostly African American men, they get stopped, they lose their license, they keep driving. Then they end up with massive fines. They can't work. They can't drive. They can't pay support.
So, on one day, all these judges would meet in their community. They'd come in, do a day of community service and we'd give them a fresh slate and they could get their license back. Well then, the court pulled that, said it was too expensive. There was a lot of pain around that from the community.
I thought, “Well, I'll just do it.” I did have to get permission, but then I started taking court on the road. I had all corners of the city. We'd go with my staff. I did that part-time, and while I was doing that court, one day I go back into chambers and there's this package.
I opened it up and there was this beautiful gift of a crystal gavel—full-sized, just beautiful. You could see the sparkling coming off it. The little note was from that woman in child support case. She said, “I hope you don't mind. I finally found you in traffic court and I wanted to thank you for reading everything and for your ruling, which the appeals court affirmed. And then my ex-husband settled with me. I have a cash sum. I can travel now. I can get medical care. And this made me think of you.”
I'm supposed to return any gifts I get. If you're on the bench, you can't take any gifts. I just thought, I can't return this
. So, I hid it. And I never thanked her because I thought that if I wrote a thank you note, it would incriminate me. The law does things to your brain sometimes.
And then I started to display it. It's just such a beautiful thing. One day a deputy came to straighten my bookshelf and knocked it off and broke it. It broke into five pieces. I was very sad.
After the cancer came back, I did go back to family court. When it came back, I took out the broken pieces at home and put them on a black piece of velvet—like they have those sand trays with rocks sometimes in waiting rooms at therapy offices. I move them around and they sometimes make really beautiful new formations. I think that's kind of how life is. You just don't know how it's going to go, and it changes. We could still help make it beautiful, I hope.
: When you think of the crystal gavel, like there are so many layers to that, what does it mean to you?
: Well, one metaphor was like with that legal system and in the court, you're not supposed to go into emotions or love or feelings. People are supposed to leave all that at the door. Everything's a legal problem, but we know it isn't. There are lots of other root causes to what caused that conflict. I will just say we are now making problem-solving courts in the court system. I'd love to see that in family court where there's addiction, there's abuse, there's mental illness, but we just have to focus on the legal problem.
So, the crystal, it's like it shows all those colors that are already in the atmosphere, I guess, but our eyes do not see them. But if crystal can refract them where we can see the beautiful colors, that's what I was trying to do. I wanted to bring all of that out and not just see one part of them. And you use that word “facet.” It felt like there were other facets. So that's one, and then also that brokenness. Brokenness is not necessarily the end. It's just how we're defining it as broken. It actually transformed into another beautiful thing that I get inspired from.
: Beautiful, and a beautiful transition point. Over to Preeta. Thank you, Sue.
: Thank you so much. Pavi. Thank you for inviting me here.
: Wow. Such a beautiful conversation. I was just thinking of both of you, how both of you have such an amazing ability to refract all the beautiful colors of the world and the atmosphere, and this conversation is a true reflection of that. So, thank you both.
I know you were pursuing different healing modalities at various parts of your life, and I wondered how you came to that Japanese art form, Kintsugi
, and what that meant for you.
: A friend brought it to my attention, a very good friend. She's very well read and open to things, and she just mentioned it one day while we were on a walk. It hit me like a thunderbolt . Embrace your imperfections. Show the scars with gold. It's more beautiful after it's repaired.
Well, that just made such an impact on me because I was raised to hide my flaws, or if something's broken you toss it out. It’s a terrible pun, but I felt all the pieces fell into place when I heard about that. I realized that the gold was love, that that's what held me together.
So that's what I like to think of. Again, it was one of those random things that I heard that really helped me and changed how I viewed my life. People do like to know that there's hope for terminal cancer patients. You can live eight years. I have a lot of scars on my head and body. They call those “precious scars” when they're golden. So, I like to think of that as my history. That's who I am.
: You also talked about your early exposure from your mother to art, poetry, music, your own love for music, and your mixed feelings initially about going to law school, which in many ways is a more left brain activity, but you managed to bring all of that love and beauty and art into it. But I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about your feelings about art and that creative impulse and how you were able to kind of transmute what is a very traditional male, left-brain profession with some of that sensibility.
: It wasn't overnight. I was timid sometimes to try to change things. I just started on my own caseload. I did have to get permission. They said, "Okay. Run it up the flagpole. See if anyone salutes."
I'll never forget that. So I just went with it. Then I realized, “Oh, there's creativity everywhere if we let ourselves.” I did put a room next door. I had to fight to get it. I brought lamps and rugs and chocolates and paintings, so that when they talked to me, and then talk to a mediator they would feel comfortable over there. If I look back, the Indian Center (the Native American Center was called the Indian Center then) was such a creative environment and I was really free to do some things there, too, with their welcoming spirit.
: Beautiful. So, I'm going to read out some of the questions I’m receiving online from our listeners. Tway, from Encinitas California says that you mentioned the two people who inspired you during the tough early childhood years. When you lost your voice during those young years is it possible it might have been so you could focus on developing an inner strength for the years to come? It's kind of an interesting question about whether holding your voice inside built a strength that allowed it to manifest later.
: I think that is very insightful. And yes, if we're giving out, giving out, there's nothing left. So that was in reserve. In fact, one of my stuffed animals was this giant red poodle named Effie. I could hold her up and in my little self behind her, I could say the truth around our house sometimes. But I would have never had these opportunities. I like that question. I focused more on reading and writing and music and puppets. So yeah, if I was talking all the time, I wouldn't have done that, I don't think. Thank you.
: So another question we have is, it was mentioned in the bio that a favorite song of yours has legal associations - Jesus Dropped the Charges
. The question is, how has mercy and forgiveness towards yourself and others played into your healing journey?
: It’s been a critical part of everything working. It was hard for me to forgive myself. It still is. I talked a lot about getting unconditional love from others, but it was very hard to do it to myself. And it still is. And now, with meditation, I can learn to notice that, and be aware of it and not beat myself up over it. It's just opening to all of those things. But yes, those have made all the difference.
: Beautiful. I want to read to you a bit of a lengthy reflection that Jane shares inspired by your call. She says, “Without having found a career for myself, and having missed the bus in some ways in terms of directing my life, despite having had an early desire to fix myself due to perceptions of imperfection, I’ve only recently come to accept that it is what it is, and I may as well make the most of my failings, which I can also see as blessings, and deal with the inner critic. Most of that ability has come from meditation. “She says, “the lack of career success still gnaws at her. I am in awe of Sue's pathway in the legal system since, no doubt, she might have been one of the few lone voices. It must've taken its toll in some ways, but I imagine there was never an option to leave that field, or at least not one she could have taken lightly. Much respect to you.” She says, “Thank you for introducing me to kintsugi
. I have a small vase that looks like a kuntsugi repair and offers a lovely counterpoint to the cracks that let the light in. Can I be so bold as to say, I think that you may be a kuntsugi repair yourself, too.”
: Thank you. Jane. Wonderful reflections and I identified with them all. I did question my choices. I went to my uncle's antitrust law, then my own practice for two years, then the Native American Center law, then the family court. But I did follow, I just tried to do what I thought was right. I love what she said about that voice. That was what Gandhi
said, about accepting that still small voice. I love that phrase, and he said, even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority. I liked that, following that still small voice. I am not always good at it. Moving with discomfort is one of the hardest things.
: I'm actually reminded by some words by Charles Eisenstein, who wrote the book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible
. He talks about coming across a young man who went through unbearable childhood trauma and basically spent most of his life healing himself from that trauma. The young man was later saying that he didn't do much professionally with his life, and Charles responded to him saying that, “just healing your trauma, you've done more than probably most people do in their lifetimes. It doesn't need to be this grand scale. But we each have the work before us to do and that's enough.”
: Oh, that's wonderful. You just reminded me of someone—I think it was my AA sponsor—and how, in the business section, they show graphs of companies going better. She said, “No one charts our inner successes.” That made me feel better, because I knew I was working hard. I knew I was doing things for myself, but no one celebrates that. Your community does, and I love that you honor the inner journey.
: Sue, before we started the call, you talked about your husband being your anchor. You also mentioned during the call, that you met him during law school at a time when, I believe you were going through some issues with addiction to alcohol. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that relationship and how he's been such an amazing anchor in your life.
: Oh, I might even have to say he's a saint that he put up with waiting for me, all those years. We didn't get married until he was 40 and I was 36. But we met first year of law school. I knew he was interested in me. He was also introverted and came from a poor background. I don't think he was abused, though. But I fell for a young man in law school who was alcoholic and he abused me. I got engaged and my uncle was going to pay for the wedding. Soon after I graduated, I did get sober. We would break up after a lot of our fights and there was my husband every time. We stayed friends for years and finally realized we were meant to be together.
When I was in the courts, I did have a lot of opportunity. I got to go to Russia and talk about domestic violence with a group. I got to go to Ireland with a friend and I got to go to Commonweal. He would just stay home. There were times that I’d wish, he was more like me, but a therapist once said, “You wouldn't get to be you if he wasn't there for you like that.” So, we were a good pair, but very different. He's an anchor, for sure, a wonderful, very quiet, deep person.
: Beautiful, we have a couple of questions. One says, “as someone who has encountered such life-threatening conditions repeatedly, how do you practice with physical pain and the grip of fear?” And ther’s a related question from Colleen, “Sue, what advice do you have for people, who are not, knowingly, facing their mortality on a daily basis?
: Okay, I'll start with the grip of fear. Every time I have a PET Scan or a brain MRI, I just need to know the results right away, but I start shaking. I'm afraid it's going to say the cancer is all over. So, and this just organically developed—I get that paper and go outside, if it's sunny, and sit in the sun before I open it. I would just breathe until I stopped shaking. Then I came up with this little mantra: No piece of paper can take away my peace of mind
. Even though I didn't
have peace of mind in the moment, I was feeling good that day. I had a family. I was sitting in the sun, so why would I let that piece of paper, no matter what it said, suddenly ruin everything?
So, that's a little habit I have to deal with scary results. And the last one, I’ve had five liver tumors. I prayed it would not go to my liver or other organs, but it did. That's the first time I had chemo, starting in September. I swore I'd never do chemo again, but I did it. I got anemic, I had low blood pressure, but the tumors are gone.
That's the good news. My blood pressure is going up. Now I'm getting iron infusions and I feel like the red blood cells are coming back. I'm bald again.
Once my teacher said—like, I'll use fear, “She who is aware of fear, is not the fear.” When I'm aware of it, I'm a little bit away from it. I'm not it. Same thing with pain. I'll do my best to just be aware of that pain and face the not knowing.
Yes, like most of us, we don't face our death. We don't want to. I just felt invincible most of my life. I mean, I don't wish this on anyone, but I like knowing about impermanence. My sons have all had serious health issues, different ones, and I've had to do this for them, think about these things. It's really helpful to try, if you can, to start earlier than the diagnosis, to face it—because we are all going to get old and die.
: There are several other questions that have come in. One asks about your relationship with Mick and his role in your journey. Another asks, how has accepting your mortality opened and expanded your life?
: Mortality has given me the courage to say “yes” to things I normally would not have. In order to try to leave something for my boys, I started a blog. I got the help of this incredible artist. He made up the domain name and it was available for 99 cents. Wow! —themovementofhealing.com. I just loved it.
It was scary, but I started the blog. Then I started up the stories for the book. I said “yes” to do this talk in Atlanta to a healthcare organization who wanted to know how I could be terminally ill and happy. I said “yes” to NPR when they wanted to talk about my signature song. I said “yes” to Pavi and you. I just think it's making me feel freer doing these things I normally wouldn't have done. Mick has supported me for everything. He flies in for everything. When I gave a little Dharma talk at the meditation center, he's there for that. He's there for this. He flew out to Phoenix for that brain surgery, the inoperable. He just comes. I feel like we're the same age, almost like twins, but I could see where he thought I was the big sister. Now it's such a mutual love and he's been just such a caring, supportive person. He's a chair of an English Department and has published four novels. He's an incredible poet. He has so many responsibilities. He has his own family in New York, but he drops everything to help me. I couldn't be more grateful.
: So beautiful. What a beautiful relationship. As we close, I'm curious to know what's on the edge of your practice now at this point in your journey. You've contributed so much artistry to your life, to the courts, to your clients, to the litigants before you. What are you feeling most called to now?
Honestly, I'm still hopeful there will be changes in the courts. I love the concept of planting seeds and you never know when they're going to sprout. I worked in a government center at a big concrete plaza and I always felt like I was just throwing them on concrete, they're never going to grow. But they are. There are global movements for access to justice, the World Justice Project and Justice For All. I think a new study just said two thirds of the world is not accessing justice. Then we have a national group, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, they're looking at all these issues like doing a family court through the eyes of the person using it. I still feel energized. If for any reason I would go in a total remission, I’d want to go right back and help them do that.
I also would love to see my boys launch. I wanted to see them in careers and with their partners, and who knows, grandchildren, whatever. Those are things I think about. One wants to go to law school now. He was a dancer, but a car hit him. That's the edge. Then if this book—it's a very personal memoir—if that should go somewhere, I don't know. It's one of the more open things I've ever done. I have to get brave. You say hit the edge. I do have to get courage anytime I come out of myself more publicly. I'm working on that still. You've made it so comfortable for me and Mick, with all of you, Pavi, you, and your community. It feels very loving and safe. Thank you.
: Thank you. It's funny to hear you talk about needing more courage. You're an embodiment of courage. It's such an interesting thing for all of us to reflect on. Pavi, I wonder if you have anything else you'd like to share? I'll just say that there's so much gratitude that's flowing in from various emails and online. It just feels like people are a little bit in stunned in silence at the beauty that they've encountered. It's just moving beyond words.
: Thank you, Preeta, for all you do in the world, making these things happen, bringing us all together.
: I think there's really nothing more to add, and there's also infinitely more. I feel like we could sit here talking all day. I just want to say, from our extended community, I just feel such gratefulness, not just for your presence, but really for Mick who is, in some ways, the reason we're connected. He wrote into DailyGood
almost two years ago now with an essay he had written that was titled "Last Lecture." It just went straight to my heart when I read it. The love between both of you, brother and sister—it's this beacon of what we can be to each other on this earth during our walk on this planet, brief as it is. The beauty and the healing and holding each other's highest potential up as a reflection for each other. That is what you represent. I know he's been a silent witness on this call and a support and I just want to call out how much of a reason he is for all of us being here today.
: Thank you. He can hear you. You made me think of a quote from the Buddha about someone who had thought he said spiritual friends are half of the spiritual life
. And he said, "Oh no, it's all of it."
Going it alone, I did that for a while. No. Having this is spiritual; it is not an intellectual relationship. I'm sure you know that. I love that you put that on your DailyGood. He is such a "daily good" person. Thank you so much, Pavi and Preeta, and all the listeners. I'm just overcome with gratitude.