“Whenever I see or meet someone, my response is ‘They know something I don’t’. Each person is a world unto themself. Each is exciting and beautiful”. -Kathe
Deciding to become a hairstylist wasn't because of my innate love for the industry, or any ounce of natural talent. My interest in learning how to do hair was when I realized that it was a unique and artistic way to connect with others.
For as long as I can remember, I have been excessively sensitive. For example, there was this one time when I was probably 10ish, and I was out to dinner with my mom. I vividly remember seeing a woman sitting at a table across the room eating her meal by herself. Later, my mom would go on to tell me that some people ENJOY going out to eat by themselves, but to me in that moment it broke my little heart. To this day, I still get choked up remembering how sad it made me to think about her feeling lonely!
I remember looking over her throughout our dinner, and wondering what she was thinking and feeling. Yes, in hindsight I realize how creepy that sounds… I was desperate to make sure she knew she wasn't alone, so I got up, walked over to her table, and told her that I really liked her white tennis shoes. Looking back she probably was just enjoying a quiet meal to herself and most likely wasn't just waiting for a 10 year old to come along and interrupt her self-care time to have her footwear celebrated.
I will never know who that woman is, what her life was like, or what she was actually experiencing in that moment. Even though commenting on her shoes had very little personal meaning, I would do it all over again. Why? Because I think that, regardless of what you say/do, slowing down to acknowledge someone else’s existence creates connection, and that can be quietly impactful all on its own.
With social media we are a strange combination of disconnected connection. We see connection as immediate gratification, mixed with experientially- removed vulnerability. It can give us the illusion of connecting, without the insecurity or awkwardness that can come from being face-to-face with another human. If a social media interaction gets uncomfortable or TOO personal, we can disconnect. We can log off. We can have “internet issues”. We can block.
When we are face-to-face with another person, its not so easy to avoid discomfort. The thing is, when we avoid being vulnerable IRL, we dont learn how to tolerate insecurity and awkwardness, which are both TOTALLY normal parts of being social beings. If we dont put ourselves in situations that push us to work through that discomfort, or tolerate and talk through conflict, we are missing important opportunities to build trust and authentic connection. Trust isn't built in the easy conversations, but more so in the interactions that trigger our relational fears (abandonment, disappointment, misunderstanding, anger, etc). If we can tolerate those hard aspects of connection, we can learn to trust our capability in getting through them and not losing the relationship. This builds trust.
“…I think about my mom's own kindness in spite of her adversity, including a childhood in which basic needs were unmet, and the constant physical pain she suffers. She finds something special in each person she meets, regardless of that person's age, race, or gender. That inspires me to stop when I find myself being impatient and strive instead to lead with love and kindness.” -Kati
Kathe was nominated by her daughter Kati, and I can honestly say they are both incredible women. When reading through the letter describing why she was nominating her mom, I was caught off guard by how emotional it made me. Kati shared a snapshot into the struggles her mom has been faced with throughout her 73 years of life, and the unique and captivating ways she has chosen to manage the hard days, while still going out of her way to love others.
Kathe grew up in North Dakota, with her 12 other siblings. She experienced a level of poverty that a lot of us are privileged enough to never understand. To Kathe, home was often a one room shack with no indoor plumbing. As siblings, they had to share essentials that I guarantee a lot of us take for granted. From sleeping in the bed, to sharing dishes because they didn't have enough for everyone.
Living in abject poverty didn't just affect her home life, but also brought on ruthless bullying at school. Kathe’s love for reading gave her an escape to a different world, and helped her develop a uniquely insightful experience and curiosity when it came to people.
love for reading
When Kathe’s class would receive the Weekly Reader, she would take it home and stick it between the mattress of the upper bunk, and the metal frame so that she could keep it safe and read it over and over again. She would fantasize about meeting the people she would read about, which included the Ethiopian Prince, Haile Selassie (who she dreamt about marrying), Queen Elizabeth, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson and President Eisenhower. Not only was she enamored by the people she would read about, but was captivated by all of the places they would be found. She had dreams about traveling to the Panama Canal, England, Washington D.C. and New York (to name a few).
The more I have learned about Kathe, the more I see how her pure and judgment-free curiosity shaped her in to the type of person who sees someone else through the lens of compassion and genuine interest.
Kathe’s life didn't become easier over the years, but that didn't stop her from being a strong, capable, and hardworking individual. As a young adult, Kathe got married to Kati’s father, a black man. This was at the tail end of the 60’s, and the social pressure and stress that came with being in an interracial marriage was substantial.
Due to many factors and experiences, Kathe and her (then) husband divorced, which left her raising their 3 daughters on her own. This is yet another example of her resilience to withstand life’s very generous helping of complex pain and loss.
Kathe supported her three girls by working nights at a potato chip factory. One of the stories she shared with me in regards to this job was about her car drive to work. Their car was not the most reliable source of transportation, and often times threatened to bite the dust as she drove it to and from her factory job. Kathe shared with me that one of the ways she would distract from the obvious distress was to come up with original poetry. She then went on to recite one of the poems she would repeat to herself in those moments, like it was yesterday. I asked her if she has ever written them down, and she said “no, but for you I will”:
(Kathe wrote this shortly after getting diagnosed with Lupus. She warned me that she had been “feeling a bit sorry for myself, thinking about failed relationships and the wonder of the flowers that surged the earth on my 17 mile drive from town to my house in the country”)
Queen Anne’s lace and bachelor buttons
Grace the edges of the highway leading to my door
They crimp the bridges they adorn
As if vying for a place to reproduce
And each yields its own kind
Like minds unwilling to negotiate the moment they possess
And she with dress, less pure than snow
Bends to the wind before the rain and multiples
He; fragile, proud, royal, keeps the pain of summers fire and dies
Then on a bright September afternoon
(I wear a bonnet to protect my face)
And walk alone
Amid the Queen Anne’s lace
“She [Kathe] is brilliant but lacked the resources to finish her own schooling. Even though she was exhausted from working so hard, she always engaged me and my sisters in discussions about literature, politics, and history. The fact that she is so kind, loving, and giving to everyone she meets is a testament to me of the human spirit, and makes me really know the power of love”. -Kati
Not only has this 73 year old superhero defied the barriers life has given her with curiosity and strength, she has taken the hard moments and said “hey, I can do something with this”.
Adding on to Kathe’s story of adversity, she has struggled with pain and complications from her diagnosis of Lupus. With the symptoms and side effects that come along with this debilitating illness, Kati and her family decided to move from their home in California, back to Minnesota to be of support. When I asked Kati how her mom’s kindness has inspired her, she shared this:
“My husband, 8 year old daughter, and I moved to Minneapolis from Berkeley, California recently so that we could live with my mom, who just moved here from Wisconsin. It's hard melding two homes, especially at this point in our lives. I sometimes find myself being cross or impatient but then I think about my mom's own kindness in spite of her adversity, including a childhood in which basic needs were unmet, and the constant physical pain she suffers. She finds something special in each person she meets, regardless of that person's age, race, or gender. That inspires me to stop when I find myself being impatient and strive instead to lead with love and kindness.” -Kati
Kati’s honesty in answering this question left me speechless. When we experience genuine connection and love with someone, it doesn't mean indefinite “happy moments”. You can get frustrated and annoyed AND at the same time be completely inspired and floored by how remarkable and amazing that person is. Kati sees Kathe as a person. This can be so hard when it comes to family, because we bring so much memory, past hurt, and uniquely difficult family dynamics into the relationship. It’s often hard to separate the person from the history, and Kati gives a perfect example of honoring both.
When Kathe walked in to Steller Hair she brought with her a contagious energy of good, along with a candy dish full of those totally nostalgic butterscotch candies in the orange crinkly wrappers. Employees and clients alike benefited, not just from the deliciousness of the candy, but also the memories that they brought up for them (whether it was grandparents, holidays, or that nice lady from church, the stories were so fun to share and laugh about).
I sat Kathe down in one of our red Steller chairs, and we got to talking immediately. I was swept away by her wit, stories and overall energy. She also kept catching me off guard by her questions about ME. She would look directly in my eye, and ask me very specific and intuitive questions, and I couldn't help but answer honestly. After chatting for a bit she declared “you have ADHD, don’t you”, which I (caught off guard at first) replied, “I dont think so, but I do know I have an anxiety disorder with a side of PTSD and a dollop of OCD”, which she answered “oh, that makes sense too”. It was throughout this initial conversation that I began to see her magic. Kathe cares about who people are as PEOPLE. She loves stories, and she loves listening. She also isn't afraid to speak her mind, or push past the passive aggressive social norms that are prevalent in Minnesota.
I jokingly (kind of) offered her a beer, and she told me that she has never had a one in her life, and for being from Wisconsin, that made her an anomaly. At first I took that statement as she hasn't ever had alcohol, which she then went on to share that Rum and Coke was her go-to drink of choice.
For her hair, we decided to do a semi-permanent color to blend out her silver and richen up her natural. She shared with me that they were headed to the Wisconsin Dells that weekend, and she was going to see her ex-husband and his wife, and she wanted to “look good”. I told her she already WAS beautiful, but I was excited to help her FEEL beautiful!
Beyond giving Kathe a fresh hairstyle, I had a few surprises for her. After emailing back and forth with Kati, I got some ideas about who this amazing person was, and how I could show gratitude and love to her, beyond doing her hair. True to how most of my ideas go, I get fixated on what I want, but dont allow myself enough space or time to actually execute said plan. Thanks to my “all-or-nothing” attitude that, at times, is helpful, I was very determined to make it happen. The details of Kathe that stuck out to me the most were:
Her love for reading, history, and stories
Her experience with chronic pain, which I could relate to.
Her love for antiques; and
The fact that she value’s handwritten notes.
(A HUGE shout out to my mom, Julie, who ran around town and found all of the very specific items I wanted to give Kathe, due to me not planning out my time well enough.)
Kathe was the first Kindness Project nominee that received her invitation via snail mail. Kati shared with me that her mom doesn't email, and appreciates handwritten correspondence.
So, I came up with a game plan. For 1 week prior to me meeting Kathe, I put out some notecards in the Steller waiting area. I shared with our guests that Kathe is someone who shows up for complete strangers with kindness, and I’d love for complete strangers to show up for her. I also recognize, from my own experience, that chronic illness can be so isolating. I loved the idea of giving her lots of little notes to remind her that she is important and loved. In light of this idea of “snail mail” it reminded me of a book that is so dear to me. Growing up, my family had a “get-better-box”. This box consisted of toys, antiques, and other unique items from my parents and grandparents childhood/life. We only got to explore and enjoy these unique items when we were sick, which was pretty often for me. One of my favorite books that I remember reading over and over was “The Jolly Postman”. This book was full of envelopes with letters to different fairy tale characters. I remember opening the envelopes as if the letter was meant for me, and reading them over and over again. I decided that I wanted to give this book to Kathe, but also insert envelopes of letters from “real life” people.
This book might not make sense at first, and it might not feel meaningful. I am sharing it with you because it is one of my sweetest memories during a time where my autoimmune disease took so much. When I was little, I remember reading it, over and over again. I remember opening the letters, and feeling like they were written specifically for me. Having chronic pain can be so isolating, and I want this book to be a reminder that you are not alone.
From what I hear, you give so much love and kindness to strangers. Throughout this book you will find notes of love and kindness from strangers to YOU.
You matter. Thank you for showing up, and being kind.” -Katie
It’s always a nerve wracking and vulnerable experience when I decide to give an “unconventional” gift that has personal meaning to me, and zero guarantee that the recipient will find it meaningful to them. Kathe’s reaction to opening this gift brought tears to my eyes, and reminded me that giving isn't as much about the item, as much as its about the story and intention.
Along with the children book full of letters from strangers, I also included coffee beans from our neighbors at Spyhouse, an antique doily, letters from her friends and family, and the book “1001 books to read before you die”. Kathe IMMEDIATELY opened up the book, and started exclaiming and sharing about the different authors she recognized and loved.
Kathe’s hair took me about 1 1/2 hours, but the entirety of my time with her ended up being close to half a dozen hours. We talked, and talked and talked, and could have kept on talking.
I can honestly say that my time with Kathe gave me the emotional and mental boost that I didn't realize I needed, as well as a uniquely charged connection that I wasn't expecting.