August 18th, 19th, and 20th I had the great pleasure of getting to know the amazing Juanita Nelson through the stories of those who knew her and her partner, Wally. The gathering at Woolman Hill in Deerfield, Massachusetts organized by the Nelson Legacy Project which celebrated her 100th birthday anniversary was incredibly inspiring and eye opening. I grew up in the Happy (aka Pioneer) Valley, which is an area of western Massachusetts that Juanita called home for the last four decades of her life. While I don’t believe our paths ever physically crossed, it became crystal clear to me during the course of the weekend how much she and Wally shaped the region.
I heard over and over again how the example they set as civil rights activists, peace activists, war tax refusers, subsistence farmers, and advocates of simple living inspired people who lived in the Happy Valley and beyond. I only knew of Juanita and Wally the same way I knew of
Randy Kehler, Betsy Corner, and Francis Crowe (local peace activists): I heard their names spoken by my family and teachers, saw newspaper articles mentioning them, and the like. They were all part of the fabric of the region. But until Juanita’s birthday anniversary gathering I never fully comprehended how much I owed her and these other folks for cultivating the soil (sometimes literally!) in which my life took shape. Juanita and Wally lived out their values and the ripple effect of their example shaped institutions, individuals, and systems both near and far.
It was so lovely to hear the personal stories of their friends and to understand how so many of us have incorporated the Nelsons’ ways of being into our lives in an effort to make the world a more compassionate, honest, and peaceful place. Being a war tax resister and proponent and practitioner of simple living I felt less alone after the weekend: I’m walking in the footsteps of so many wonderful people who believe like I do—and like Juanita and Wally did—that it is a worthwhile pursuit to examine our complicity with the causes of violence and to do better. A quote from Juanita is especially apt: “I am concerned to strive for a coherent, integrated life.”
I left the weekend with lots of ideas (some of which I’m already putting into action) and two questions:
- How can I strive to be less complicit with violence in all its forms?
- What am I capable of? What are we (my family) capable of? What is my community capable of? and on and outwards, because the Nelsons made it clear that we are capable of so much, especially when we join together.
Over the coming weeks I’ll return to those questions for inspiration and, whenever I’m feeling a bit lonely in my pursuit of peace, I will revisit the memories of my time spent with new friends at the gathering. I heard from her friends that Juanita and Wally wouldn’t like being put up on a pedestal, but I think she would have approved of the gathering as a way to meet new friends, feel renewed, and recommit oneself to constructive nonviolence. I will do my best not worship them as heroes, but add them to the list of inspiring people who have graced my corner of the world with their presence and reached far beyond it.
~By Lindsey Britt