Transcript

3.27.16 - Amelia: Hey everybody! Thank you so much for tuning in to the very first episode of "Shaping Sapiens" -- brought to you by myself, Amelia Torres. I'm your host for this episode, and today we're featuring the amazing, incredible, wonderful, exemplary human being that is Barbara Abelhauser. How was that introduction?

Barbara: I'll take it! Yeah, it does my ego good.

Amelia: Well, that's what this whole thing is about! You know, it's just to lift you up and share your story with others. And I want to also say that Barbara -- I met her in Seattle when I was there last Octob-- last September, I believe! And we went to this storytelling event called "Fresh Ground Stories." Is that right, Barbara? If I'm remembering correctly?

Barbara: Yes.

Amelia: Yeah, so, if you are ever in the Seattle area, check out "Fresh Ground Stories." It's hosted by a guy named Paul Currington, and he's just super talented and really encouraging. And what I loved about the event wasn't that it because it was showcasing professional storytellers, but that anybody who had a story and wanted to tell it could get up on stage and tell their story. And so, I was one of the new kids that night, and -- not gonna lie -- I was pretty confident, and was like: "Oh yeah, I've done some storytelling before, this is no big deal!" Told my story; sat back down. And then -- You, Barbara, were the story that caught my attention. Your story literally took me from sitting back and moving to the edge of my seat with my jaw to the floor. Because...

Barbara: Oh, wow.

Amelia: It really did! 'Cause you just went up there. You were so unassuming, and you just opened your mouth and started speaking so lovely, and so honest and genuine and authentic, and I was just like whoa... Who is this woman? And you told your story, and I was like: I want to be her friend! I need to know who she is! I'm going to go up to her! 'Cause I just want to be near her; she needs to be in my life! I want to be her friend.

Barbara: Oh, I can't imagine my life without you in it, so that worked out quite well.

Amelia: Aw, thanks for that, Barbara. Well, on that note! I would love if you could please share with us your story, the one you share with all of us that night back in Seattle.

Barbara: Ok, well, I should start off by saying that I am a bridge tender. I open draw bridges. I've been doing that for a little over 14 years. The thing that I love most about the job is getting to look at the world from one fixed point. You can notice patterns that you normally wouldn't see. You know exactly what time various people jog across the bridge every day, coming and going of bird migrations, anything related to nature. Even where the sun comes up in the winter versus the summer, it's just -- it's like you get to sit there and look out one window and see everything in perfect detail, and I just loved that about that job. But, the story that I told at "Fresh Ground Stories" was about when I was a bridge tender back in Florida. I used to work the graveyard shift, and I worked this one bridge called the Ortega River Drawbridge in Jacksonsville. And it was nice and quiet and peaceful, and at night you don't get as much boat traffic. So, a lot of time to think and to write, and as the end of the shift would near, you know, the sun would rise and the sun set -- and when you get to see them every single day, you notice they're, they're like snowflakes. No two are alike. It's just -- it's such a gift.

Amelia: That's so awesome.

Barbara: But, another part of my routine was that there was this fisherman that used to come under the bridge every morning right at sunrise, and he never needed an opening because he was just in a little jon boat. But, he would wave and smile at me, and I would wave back, you know. And I saw him every day like clockwork for years. Then, one day he came through, and he waved and he smiled, and I waved and smiled, and he went on his merry way. Then, I found out on the news that day that he had had a heart attack on his boat. And the boat kept going down the river, then it beached where the river curves. And that -- I can't even begin to -- It's like I didn't even know this guy, we'd never spoken. We weren't friends, but we were friends, you know? 

Amelia: Right.

Barbara: If that makes any sense.

Amelia: Absolutely. 

Barbara: And so, that really affected me, especially the thought that I was probably the last person that saw him alive, you know. And that was hard, that was really hard, and I thought about going to the funeral, but how do you approach someone's relatives and say, "You know, I didn't really know your relative, but he was a friend"? Anyway? You know? I just -- I couldn't -- I couldn't bring myself to do that, and I kind of feel guilty about that now, because I think that probably they would've gotten some comfort from the idea that maybe, you know, in his last moments he was smiling. I just, I kinda felt -- I don't know -- guilty that the most intimate moments of his life he shared with a total stranger, you know? So, I didn't go to the funeral. But, then, where it really gets strange is -- I, then, saw an article in the newspaper about it. And, all the things that I thought were facts were actually assumptions. He wasn't -- like I thought he was this old retired guy, you know, happily retired, but he was actually the age I am now, early 50s and not retired.

Amelia: Wow.

Barbara: I made up this whole story in my head about who this man was, and it was just all fiction. They said that he had fallen out of the boat, and he wasn't found in the boat. For some reason for years I thought he had been found in the boat. And that was kind of strange and upsetting to think that his family found the boat first, and then didn't find him for about 12 hours later. He was a mile down the river, actually, when they found him. And the reason I found out these facts, actually, is that I had done an interview in 2009 with StoryCorps, and during that they had to fact-check this story about the fisherman, and that's when I found out all these differences in my story. In my belief system, I had walked around feeling guilty about this person that I had made up in my head for years. And then, I got more facts about him through the fact-checker, and I found out that on that particular day, his fishing trip started at 3:00 p.m. And if that's the case, then, I wasn't the last person to see him alive, and I had been feeling guilty about that all these years. Turns out that, you know, I just made that up in my head, but I am very sure it's the same guy, because that's the last day I ever saw him. I mean, after seeing him daily for years; that was the very last day I ever saw him. But, my idea about his age and his working status and all those things were just a creation that I made up in my head. It was just, really, kind of disconcerting.

Amelia: I really feel this profound sense of frustration, like: Ugh, if I had just -- If I just knew better. Or if I didn't allow myself those things that I thought in my head. But, what I love about the story is that you guys didn't even -- you never spoke, right? You never said, "Hi, my name is So-and-So. And this is So-and-So, and this is what I do. And I'm retired, and Oh, I work up here on the bridge." There was no interaction. You just got to assume about each other.

Barbara: Yeah. Makes me wonder what he thought about me, you know? I mean obviously he knew where I worked, because I was on the bridge, but I mean -- I had this friendship with a fictional person, and I'm assuming he did, too. It makes you wonder what his fictional person was like.

Amelia: Right. Yeah, and I'm really -- I'm intrigued by when you say "fictional," because he wasn't a fictional person. He was a real person. It was just -- maybe the fiction or the story that you made up in your head that is fictional. But, then, it still -- like every fiction there -- it's rooted in some sort of truth at some point.

Barbara: Definitely.

Amelia: Yeah, and I think that's a really -- even though it's a really lovely -- I mean, it is. It's one of the most lovely stories I've ever heard, and any time I tell it, I always tell it the fictional way, because that for you was real.

Barbara: The funny part about that is that even though now I have more facts, I still tend to fall back on the fiction.

Amelia: Yeah?

Barbara: Because I lived with the fiction for a lot longer.

Amelia: Yes.

Barbara: Makes you wonder about reality, and what we think about one another, you know? And -- I don't know -- it's just a strange experience.

Amelia: Totally. Perceptions of reality! What is real?

Barbara: And I write about stuff like that in my blog quite a bit, but I find that my comfort zone is to fall back on thinking that my reality is the reality, because if I do otherwise it gets too exhausting and stressful. And kind of scary, because you can't hang your hat on anything! You can't count on your reality as being "the reality," you know?

Amelia: Right, and I feel like you just pinpointed the exact underlying, foundational, existential problem or dilemma that we all face as human beings. The fact that we spend much of our lives creating stories. Either about ourselves or about those around us. And when those stories prove to be not so true, and they break up and distort and shake our entire belief systems, and the way we see the world, and the way we see our own world and our own realities. Then, we want to cling to: What was the last truth? What was the last thing we knew to be true? And hold onto that, because it provides us so much comfort. And, what I love about your fisherman story isn't that it was fictional, but that it was real! You lived in that story for so long, and, sure, in the end some facts changed your perception on that time, but those facts can't take away from the time you actually spent living it.

Barbara: Yes.

Amelia: So, speaking of truths and realities, I wanted to also ask you, if you wouldn't mind, if you would like -- to share the story of why you moved from Florida to Seattle in the first place, because that story, for me, touched me so deeply. And it makes your fisherman story that much more rich in universal human truths, and I'd really love it you'd share that, as well.

Barbara: Sure, no problem. Well, I lived in Florida -- well, I was born in Connecticut, and then we moved to Florida when I was 10 years old, and I had lived in Florida that whole time, mostly. Few little traveling and exchange student kind of jaunts, but mostly I lived in Florida. But, I never really felt like I fit in in Florida, politically. I always felt like I stood out, and not in a good way. So, I'd been trying to get out of Florida for decades. And finally, I got into this relationship with a guy named Chuck, and he was just an amazing human being. He was the love of my life. We had a really good four years there. Then, one day I went up to Connecticut to visit my favorite aunt, and he was dog-sitting, and working, and everything at home, and I was going to be back in a few days. Then, I get this phone call, and it's from a number I don't recognize. And it turns out to be the Jacksonville Sheriff's Department, and they're calling to let me know that Chuck -- that they found his body in his pick-up truck, still clutching his asthma inhaler. And he was in the parking lot of the pharmacy two blocks from our house. So, yeah, that was -- that was that. Everything changed at that moment, and I -- I just fell apart. I think the hardest thing I've ever done is get up off that hotel room floor and go back home and face this. It just -- it's like I had this future and then, all of the sudden, I didn't have this future anymore, and it was really hard especially, since I had to pass that parking lot where he died every single day on the way to work. And, you know, that was awful. Then, also, since we weren't married, his family came and took everything. As a matter of fact, I'm looking at it right now. I've got a couple t-shirts, some photographs, one book, and a stuffed animal. And, that's it. That's all I have to show for the relationship, and that was hard after four years of living together, it was like -- I don't know -- it popped like a soap bubble, really. So, about a month or so passed after that, and I was telling this co-worker that I had to get out of this town. 'Cause not only was I passing that parking lot every day, but I was passing -- everywhere I went, it was like the ghost of Chuck, you know, it was like: Oh yeah, we ate dinner there, and we bicycling there, and we did -- there was always something and, I just wasn't coping too well. I was saying I wanted to get out of this town for 40 years, and now I really wanted to get out of this town. And he just kind of casually mentioned this job in Seattle, and I'm thinking, well, you know it's a bridge-operating job. It's the same kind of thing I'm doing now, but I'm like: they're not going to fly me out for an interview. Surely, they're not going to do that. So, I applied, mainly because I figured well, what do I have to lose? I've already lost everything. And, to my shock, they interviewed me over the phone and hired me site unseen.

Amelia: Wow.

Barbara: So...

Amelia: Amazing.

Barbara: I was like Wow! Ok, now I have to make a decision. I have to actually choose. I looked around and was like there's nothing for me here. I don't have family in town. I don't have Chuck. And why not? Even though I never -- and I'd literally never been to Seattle. I didn't know a soul in Seattle. I didn't really even have a -- other than the show, "Frasier," that was my concept of Seattle. I thought Seattle was like flat and snowy. And so, here I was -- at the time -- 49, and I packed up my stuff, and my dogs, and drove across the country, which was amazing!

Amelia: Wow.

Barbara: And just started over here. What I didn't really expect -- or didn't allow myself to think about, I think, is that -- I mean, starting over is always a challenge, but when you start over at 50, you're really starting over, because most of the people my age have like lives, and families, and routines. There not really looking for new friends. So, it's a lot harder to re-establish yourself within a place where you don't know anybody at this age. I mean, when you're like college-aged or something, it's a lot easier. And I have made friends, especially through that storytelling group. I've made a lot of friends that way. And, ironically, the day after tomorrow (March 24) will be the two-year anniversary of Chuck's death.

Amelia: Wow.

Barbara: So, it seems like -- it feels kind of like -- in a way it feels like yesterday, and in a way it feels like so long ago.

Amelia: Wow.

Barbara: And the funny thing is, is, you know, I love it here. I love my job. I love my house. I love everything about Seattle. I feel like I fit in politically more than I ever did in Florida. So, I'm glad I'm here, but the irony is Chuck would never have been able to live out here. Chuck with his severe asthma he couldn't handle temperatures below 55 degrees. He'd go straight into an asthma attack. So, he couldn't have ever lived out here. So, if he were alive, I wouldn't be here. And yet -- and I hate that he's not alive, but I love where my life is going. So, there's this weird juxtaposition there. But, I think he's watching over me, and I think he's proud of me. So, that makes me feel good.

Amelia: I think he is. I -- I just am always -- I just love your story so much! I had tears in my eyes just listening to your story again, and really feeling all of the complex, complicated emotions from loss to leaping into the unknown, and driving across the country, and hoping that you're going to land somewhere safe and sound. I'm just really in awe -- I am in awe. I admire you so much. I love your story. And when we met I had just done my own road trip, but it was just for pleasure. And so when you told me your story of coming all the way from Florida all the way across to Seattle, I was like -- I -- she's like a girl after my own heart.

Barbara: Isn't it amazing how how profoundly huge this country is?

Amelia: It's --

Barbara: You kind of know that, basically. But until you've actually driven across it, you don't really, really understand just how vast, and varied --

Amelia: Yeah, it's huge!

Barbara: and incredible this country is!

Amelia: Yeah.

Barbara: You know?

Amelia: It's so big. It's just SO BIG! I think I'm still reeling and a little crazy from just how much it takes to drive across the country and change your life, essentially. And I'd also like to take this opportunity to formally ask you, my friend, that when the day comes and you decide to officially write the story of your life. Can I please, please, PLEASE be your screenwriter?? I would LOVE to write the screenplay of your life.

Barbara: Sure! Why not?

Amelia: Alright! You heard it here, folks! So, BACK OFF, anybody else!

Barbara: I mean, that's what I love about the storytelling group, too, is that you pass people every day that probably have amazing things to say.

Amelia: Yeah.

Barbara: And you don't know it! You know?

Amelia: Exactly.

Barbara: I'll sit on a park bench sometimes and I'll just watch people walk by, and I'll think: I wonder what their story is?

Amelia: Yeah.

Barbara: 'Cause everybody has one.

Amelia: Everybody.

Barbara: Everybody has one.

Amelia: Absolutely. They totally do. Which is exactly why I'm doing this podcast to take people that you would never know have incredible stories and put them out there. So, thank you for being a part of it. I'm always and forever grateful that I made it to Seattle and decided to go to the storytelling event, which by the way, I should say that the theme that night was "Comfort Zone," which made your story that much more appealing to me, 'cause you were the epitome of somebody who was getting outside of their comfort zone.

Barbara: I seem to find myself outside of it quite a bit, actually.

Amelia: And I think that's the only way you should live life is always on the fringe of your comfort zone.

Barbara: Well, I think that's the life that you will be living. I hope that's not a curse, but a blessing. And I -- I'm really -- how do I say this? I'm very proud to know you.

Amelia: Oh, gosh.

Barbara: In that, I expect amazing things out of you, Amelia, and I think you're gonna go far in life, and that gives me hope for the future. So, thank you for talking to me.

Amelia: Oh my gosh. Thank you for being my friend! I love you so much, and I can't wait to talk to you again.

Barbara: I love you, too.

Amelia: Take care.

Barbara: Bye.

Amelia: Bye-bye.

Amelia: Alright, everybody! That's our show for today! YAY! First episode of "Shaping Sapiens!" Thank you so much for sticking with us. Thanks for bearing through any heavy breathing you may have detected in this episode. That, I assure you, was neither Barbara nor myself, but rather my 12-year-old slumbering, snoring dog at my feet. And thank you most of all to Barbara for existing and sharing your story with all of us. If you'd like to find out more about Barbara Abelhauser and her story -- the fisherman story -- you can find it in StoryCorp's new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work by Dave Isay. Already available for pre-order on Amazon and set to be published on April 19th. You can also find a short blurb about her in Parade Magazine on April 10th, which will feature stories about people and their unique jobs and what they earn. And, if you can't get enough of her, you can also find her every day on her blog, theviewfromadrawbridge.wordpress.com. Hope you'll join us again for episode 2 of "Shaping Sapiens," which will feature the crazy girl with big dreams, my very dear friend from Argentina, who saw the potential in an old broken-down van in her parents' backyard and decided to bring it back to life for a 5,000 kilometer road trip across South America with me last spring. Until then, good night, good morning, good afternoon, wherever in the world, you may be.