As summer was winding down and the beginning of the school year was amping up, I received a text. “I have an ask of you”. This text was from Stacey, someone I’ve been close friends with since junior high but wasn’t in regular contact with. It threw me off guard. This was the second time in our 30 year friendship that she had asked me for anything.
Stacey carries a lot. More than almost anyone I’ve met. And still, in all this time, she’d never really asked anything of me. I knew in that moment that no matter what was on the table, I was going to say yes. One way or another. Her ask was this: she was founding an online Wellness platform, Willowjak and would I be a regular contributor, and share my journey towards healing and story as a mother, wife, breast cancer survivor, artist, as someone who had dealt with the long-term physical and mental illness of a parent, as all the things that made me Lauren. Her hope was that my journey may ease some pain or provide insight to someone struggling and that it may perhaps even contribute to my own healing.
I was touched and honoured to be asked. But I didn’t know how to say yes. I still had so much to work through, we were negotiating parenting and experiencing the collapse of our performing arts industry as a result of the pandemic, I was writing a new play, and for the first time in 2 years, even though the pandemic was still going, I was able to spend relatively normal and crisis-free time with my husband and little boy, I was committed to self-care and I was ready to get back on stage when the restrictions lifted. I was anxious to dedicate time to the things that made me feel joyful and of use. I knew I would feel enormous anxiety about opening up my thoughts and life on a weekly basis. As a writer, I knew it would be challenging to generate enough quality work, work that I would be proud of, on such short turn arounds. More than that, when I have chosen to share the truly intimate parts of my life on public and social forums, it has take months and sometimes years before I felt compelled to do it again. As well, with everything going on in the world, I didn’t believe my voice was one that needed to be amplified. Not unless it was going to amplify someone else’s. I was already experiencing guilt over this. So, when Stacey, who for the second time in 30 years, “had an ask of me”, I said yes, but with enormous hesitation. I said yes because it was Stacey, truly one of the most resilient, selfless, thoughtful, aware people I have met, someone who was sure to make this new platform an inclusive, healing, and love-driven space, in terms of both the content and the people generating it. I said yes because while I worried about my capacity to commit to something that required so much time and energy, this was Stacey, someone I had the luxury of trusting and who now needed to surround herself with the people in her life she trusted.
My deadline for Willowjak is tomorrow. Unlike my other articles and posts, I have not spent time letting my mind or spirit take over, I have not steeped in the work, crafted, retooled it, dug deeply into, as I normally do as a professional artist. In fact, until this very moment, I had no clue at all what I could possibly tackle in a meaningful way for my 4th post, with so little time before my deadline. But it seems obvious now. This next post is, in a way, a love letter to Stacey, aka WillowjakMama, the incredible human behind this platform. It is written simply. I am resisting the urge to tap into the poetic or the craft because I know it will just get in the way. I just want to tell Stacey I love her. When you’ve finished reading it, I hope you’ll spend some time looking around at this beautiful thing she has created.
My sisterhood with Stacey is one of those relationships many of us have at least one of, the kind where you mostly never see each other but when you do, it is the truest of comforts and connection. The last time Stacey and I had any contact outside of social media, was in 2013, a few months after I gave birth. My husband and I, through our company B2C, were producing dirty butterfly, a new play by Jamaican British playwright debbie tucker green; he was directing, I was performing and it was as if we had just given birth to two babies at the same time; our son and our production. Stacey who lived outside of Toronto, brought her fifteen-year-old Jake with her to AKI Studio. The production, presented by Obsidian Theatre, was an intense, socially driven, poetic, brutally truthful drama and even experienced theatre goers, including some of our fellow artists, had a difficult time processing all that was on the table with this piece of theatre. Stacey, who I hadn’t had contact with since 2010, along with 15 year old Jake, while moved by the production, were unphased by it. They understood the depths of it because they had already lived so much life and because of who they naturally were as people. Stacey had shown up, unprompted, with the purpose of supporting me, her friend, a new mother, an artist, and to further expose her child to the realities and diverse perspectives of life and art. She’s always been cool that way.
As mentioned, the last time I had contact with her, outside of social media, was in 2010, shortly after my mother died, where again, she asked to see me so she could provide me with comfort. The time before that, was at my wedding in 2005. Her twin boys, 2 years old at the time, had been diagnosed with autism days before, yet there she was, with a wedding gift she’d hand crafted for me. She was in pain. She was stretched thin. But she came for me, someone she hadn’t seen in years. Because this is who she is.
Stacey is many, many things. But every memory I have of her (and there have been many), is rooted in some form of active caretaking of other people. This is in no way meant to categorize her as one thing. On the contrary, Stacey is full of dimension; hugely aware, political, empathetic, grounded, tender, courageous, committed, resourceful, relentless, loyal, open, creative, full of play and humour, she lacks vanity and pretence, has more character than most, demands more of people and has immeasurable generosity of spirit. In essence, Stacey swings between being epic, nurturing mother earth for most, and truly not giving a shit about what people think of her.
I remember the first day I met her, in October of our grade 8 year at Joseph Brant Senior Public school in Scarborough. This was already my 9th school as my family moved around a great deal. (I touched on this briefly in my post The Ongoing Attempt). I was nervous, as by now, the kids in my class had mostly been together since Kindergarten and every time I moved, the relationships into which I entered were becoming more and more established. I was nervous but had always been able to make friends quite quickly. Within moments of the class realizing there was a new girl, I was being accosted aggressively by the different groups; the Alpha cool girls were the first, next were the outcasts, then the quiet ones, each warning me not to talk to the other groups, all the while, the boys started with their immature taunting and I knew one wrong move would brand me forever and that no matter what group I chose to be friends with, I was going to be rejected by all the others. Overwhelmed and intimidated, I tried to evaluate everyone as quickly as possible. Stacey, clearly one of the cool ones, came up to me gently and knelt next to my desk, gently offering me guidance with her warm smile: “Don’t listen to any of them. Be friends with who you want to be friends with. They’ll all get over it. And you’ll be friends with them all anyway.” I was gobsmacked by and grateful for her thirteen-year-old-maturity and wisdom.
Two or three years later, Stacey came to me with her first ask. We were in grade 10 or 11. I was raging with hormones, my main focus socializing and adventure seeking. Stacey, on the other hand, had organized a massive fundraiser for a young girl. And she was asking a few of us to volunteer after school at a booth she’d arranged at the Cedarbrae Mall, where we would try to raise as much money as possible. I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember, for weeks this went on and she raised thousands of dollars to help a little girl and her family who were struggling.
A few years later, I was out late with our mutual friend LK. We were teenagers, drinking and adventure seeking and were too smashed to go home without getting into trouble. It was the middle of the night. We called Stacey and begged her to let us crash at her place so we wouldn’t get into trouble at home. She was furious but she said yes, even though this meant she would have to explain this to her own mother and put up with us. When we arrived at about 3:45am, she made us call our parents to let them know we were safe, then fed us tomato soup and soda crackers but to teach us a lesson, forced us to watch Steel Magnolias; an agonizing punishment for LK and me and we whined the whole time. And she let us. And she relished every moment.
Around that time, I decided to move out of my family home and into another. Once there, I found myself in a troubling situation but refused to move home because I needed space. Everyone was worried about me. Stacey insisted I live with her family until I could work things out. She knew I wouldn’t be safe until I was home with my family but because I refused, she had her family take me in. She gave me space to be me. She protected me. She was so irritated by me and yet she anchored me. And I also got to inherit her Mama and little sister, more gifts from her for which I am truly grateful.
Stacey married her junior highschool sweetheart, our friend J. They had a baby early in their relationship. And then they had twins. I won’t go into all the details of these complex relationships, but you can read about them in Stacey’s posts on this site. They went through so much together and apart. What is important to know is that Stacey has been a committed mother of two incredible twin boys, Will and Owen, now adults, both with autism and her other brilliant child, Jake, who I wrote about earlier, who is on their own healing journey and is as remarkable as their mother. You can read about the world she has to tackle relentlessly in many of her inspiring, powerful posts. It is because of Will, Owen and Jake that she created this platform. Willowjak: WILL. OWen. JAKe. When Stacey loves, she loves hard. And when she loves, she embraces it all.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer and was told I would need surgery, the first thing that came to my mind was an image of myself in a sundress, dancing on the beach and I knew I would be okay. When I learned it had advanced and I would have to undergo a treatment protocol that didn’t seem possible to endure, the image in my mind changed abruptly; I now saw myself in a gala gown, walking across a stage and speaking to a room full of people about my experience (which you can read more about in my article Of This Salty Sea). In a way, by providing me with the opportunity to contribute to this platform, Stacey is making that vision come true for me. Her creation of this site is giving all of our voices a platform, the chance to soothe someone else’s painful experience, and the space to heal and show up. This is what Stacey does. She doesn’t just take her pain and transform it into something positive. She takes her pain, invites others to show up with theirs, and she transforms it all into something useful, tangible, of service and inspires us all to do the same. Her actions ripple over the world and soften the painful edges.
The image above reminds me of Stacey’s gifts. The delicate hands, covered in the soil’s dirt from carrying it, holding it, somehow containing all of the soil’s essence, with only a few unnecessary grains escaping. These hands are tender, but have the maturity to know that inside the dirt is the beginning of a plant, delicate in its infancy, but full of the world’s potential; hands that are self-assured enough to know that the delicate, exposed roots of the plant need freedom and protection and if they give space for both, the world will receive its many gifts. Stacey is a self-proclaimed “unshiny person”. But those glimmers in the image are Stacey too; she may not be shiny, but she sure as hell sparkles.
Stacey is vulnerable. She is an army. She is not a pushover, nor is she a bully. Stacey has a laugh that you want to hear, a laugh you want to inspire. She shines. She is comfort. She is tough. She disarms. She arms. She is an advocate. She is active. She is a policy changer. She affects change. She nurtures roots. She is wisdom. She should shatter but never does. Stacey forces you to confront yourself. She demands that you show up for yourself. She inspires you to show up for other people. And she allows you to be yourself, understand yourself, grow yourself.
I’m so grateful she asked me to share this journey with her. If you are in Stacey’s life then she is in yours. If you know Stacey’s last name, you will smile, because it represents her totally. Her life is loaded. She carries so much. And her life is more rich than most. Her capacity to make all of our lives more rich is endless.
Thank you for tethering me to you all these years, Stacey. Thank you for your totality. I love you. I admire you. You are my sister, my teacher, my friend.
Lauren Brotman is an award-winning actor, creator and artist educator. Her company, Bound to Create (B2C), founded by Lauren and her husband Jack in 2004, is keenly interested in the beauty, boldness, and truth born from confronting the challenges that face the human spirit telling stories for the stage, recently expanding productions to film and television as well. Lauren is a mother, wife and recent Breast Cancer Survivor. For more about Lauren’s work, please visit www.boundtocreate.com. You can find her on IG @laurenrachelbrotman, you can find her company on Twitter and IG @boundtocreate and you can follow her upcoming film project on IG @ellesvalleyfilm.
(Photo credit: LV Imagery)