Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Deborah Eagan Yorde: An Appreciation

A few days ago, Rick asked if I would say something at Deb's memorial celebration. And while there are many things I could say about Deb, I’m going to focus in on two things Rick said to me shortly after her passing that have haunted me ever since. The first was that Rick said Deb was a “serial forgiver.” And the second thing he said was that until recently, Deb didn’t think she qualified to be considered an “artist.” 

First, a little context for why I’m here. I met Rick and Deb back in 1993, shortly after they moved to Gambier from Chicago. They came to my house for dinner, and from that point on were regular members of the household. Sometimes, we even placed a couple of extra plates at the table, just in case they showed up at the door needing some food and friendship after working ridiculous hours at the business they came to Knox County to take over. Throughout the years, we celebrated successes and milestones with each other, and comforted each other in times of failure and loss. And perhaps the truest test of friendship is that we helped each other move lots and lots of stuff, lots and lots of times, and lots more times than any of us would like to admit, and we did so without second-thought or complaining. What I’m trying to get across to you is that we became each other’s chosen family. And even when Deb moved up to Maumee to be with Rick, we continued to get together when possible. In between get-togethers, Deb and I spoke by phone. And each of our conversations would always start the same way. We’d chit-chat for a few minutes before getting down to real business, which always started when one of us asked the other, “So: how are you doing? Really.”

Over the last two decades, I was privileged to be able to be there for Deb during difficult times in her life, and boy was she ever there for me during my struggles.  One of the things I came to learn about Deb was just how deep her ability for compassion ran.  She was compassionate toward everyone, and she was certainly compassionate towards me over the years. She realized that everyone struggles with choices in life—some of us more spectacularly so than others—and she realized that our demons sometimes shout down the better angels in our heads and temporarily win. But she also knew that that didn’t necessarily make you a terrible person in your heart. The thing that mattered to Deb was whether or not there was any real personal recognition, and whether or not the person strove to do better in the future. 

Authenticity was important to Deb. While she was kind to everyone, she had little time to invest in people who were false and took no responsibility. But if you were sincere in wanting to clean up your mess, then you had no greater cheerleader than Deb Yorde. So it came as no shock to me when Rick told me a couple of weeks ago that he received an email from one of Deb’s boyfriends of 40 years ago, who said that she never gave up on him, even when he kept messing up: she saw there was real value in him, and miraculously found a way to hold onto that and continue to cheer him on through his struggles. I also experienced this first-hand with Deb. So this is the “serial forgiver” part of her being.

The other part, her not acknowledging until recently that she qualified to be considered an “artist,” seems unrelated.  Interestingly, for her business name she chose “Craftsman Hill,” not “Artist Hill.” Without getting into any lengthy philosophical discussion about the differences between an artist and a craftsman, let’s just say that the terms can overlap in many ways. But for me, the most important differentiating factor is that real art has an “X-factor” that holds a message for us which transcends the functional use of the craft, and can stand on its own, separate from the product’s utility.

Now clearly, Deb considered whether or not what she created was art or craft. But I’m not sure how much she ever actually stressed over the question. I once asked a successful business-leader friend of mine the question, “How do you know if you’re a leader?” And his reply was “Look back over your shoulder… are there people following you? Then you’re a leader.” I can apply this to Deb by saying that if she looked back over her shoulder, she wouldn’t just see large numbers of people happily wearing the things she made. She would see people clamoring to touch, and feel, and simply look at her creations because they’re so uplifting and beautiful. Her work just makes you feel good. They have that X-factor… because Deb had that X-factor to her being. So when she had that recognition recently that she was, in fact, an artist, I don’t think it was a “Yay, me! I made the club!” type of moment, but more of a simple acceptance: “Yeah… I guess I am an artist.”  What was important to Deb was not the end realization, but the process of getting to that recognition.

As with people she serially forgave, Deb realized that it’s the process of developing as a human being that counts. We’ll never be perfect, but as long as we keep confronting our issues and moving step by step slowly forward, that’s what matters. It was the same with her craft-art; she simply kept putting one foot in front of the other, eyes always on the process.

One of the things I loved so much about Deb as a person was that, unlike some artists, she never tried to push her work on you. Again, she was in it for the process, not the fame and glory. She was a humble artist, which is probably why all these years she didn’t even consider herself an artist. When I look at her creations, I don’t see a shred of ego in them. What I do see, though, is a reflection of who she was at her core: a person of rock-solid values and character. She was someone who had her priorities in the right places. Her output rings with such authenticity because that’s just who she was.

Lastly, of all of Deb’s work, the pieces that are most beautiful and significant to me are the ones with lots of knots in them. We’re going to run into knots and entanglements in our lives, and some of them just can’t be unraveled. But even though that may be the case, Deb’s work proves to me that you can still have a beautiful life by incorporating those knots into the big picture and moving forward with your head held high. And for this simple recognition—as well as her 21 years of friendship, cheerleading, compassion and love—I am incredibly grateful.