All photographs, text, and graphics in this website are © David Lee Myers
23 February 2021
Quite naturally this rough material will be part of how you know and understand me. Nevertheless, these events do not define me. With the exception of the one brutal event, my life is wonderful.
Decades each of two satisfying marriages, of classic black and white photography, of community history interviewing, photography, and writing, of teaching college photography, and of color photography on landscape, abstract, and natural history themes. Thirteen years in public office wrestling with electric utility policy in the turbulent 1980s. A decade of playing in a semi-professional classical chamber music group. A published book on butterflies.
— David Lee Myers, 2021
Journey of Healing
In April 1993 my first wife, Elaine Serrell Myers, was on her way home from an evening class on payroll accounting. A drunk driver crossed the center-line and collided head-on with Elaine, killing her instantly. Elaine was a passionate promoter of year-round organic gardening and manufactured a Garden Clip Greenhouse™ to support that. She had had a twenty year career as a fine studio potter making table and kitchenware. Elaine continually questioned the activities and values of our society, and after conversations with her, friends often found themselves thinking deeper about such issues. I had been married to her for twenty-seven years, after meeting in high school—we went to the Senior Prom together. Graduate school at Berkeley, backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. Moving to the very rural Washington coast and learning new skills to get by. Lives in pottery, gardening, photography, oral history, community politics, college teaching. Growing up together in so many ways, from teen-age to middle-age.
My Healing Path
Each person’s Healing Path is different. Mine grew out of my own experiences and resources, and will be only suggestive to others who need to draw on their own selves and surroundings. I began with a determination that I wasn’t going to let my wife’s death kill me too. I would find a way to resume living, to resume finding joy and doing good works.
The First 24 Hours
On that first, dreadful night, the Wahkiakum County Sheriff Gene Strong, Deputies, and Prosecutor Fred Johnson took care of me in the warmest, most caring way possible: Near midnight they gathered up two of my close friends Steve Puddicombe and Meg Benedec to accompany Deputy Dan Kistler—a neighbor—when he knocked on my door. He sat patiently for several hours while I tried to absorb the indigestible shock, he explained what had happened in the crash, and reassured me that Elaine had died instantly without suffering. When he left, my friends remained to comfort me through the night. This support by a caring community helped me believe from the very beginning that as awful and difficult as my loss was, that I would have help and could come through it OK.
The next day the Prosecutor encouraged me to go to the funeral home and view Elaine’s dead body. I was too shaken to drive, so Jessica and Sunrise Fletcher took me and joined some of Elaine’s family to view Elaine and her car. Yes, it was very challenging to so vividly encounter the mangled death of Elaine’s face. Doing so answered a lot of questions, and it sure left me with no way to slip into denial of her death. Later the Prosecutor helped me read through her autopsy, another batch of awful information. In the end I felt much better because of these two experiences with the details of Elaine’s death: As bad as the facts were, they were easier to stabilize in my heart and soul than were the wild runnings of my imagination and fear.
Elaine’s funeral was far more expressive than the normal American one. Several of us close to Elaine conducted it ourselves, in a community hall. Friends, family, and I took turns telling what we had loved in her and what we had lost. We cried, w e wailed. At the end of the service we handed out little packets of her ashes for her gardener friends for their gardens. We dug her grave with shovels, put in her remaining ashes and bloody clothes, and using our hands, put the dirt back.
Elaine’s funeral was designed to be very forthright and emotionally expressive. Friends, family, and I took turns telling what we had loved in her and what we had lost. We cried, we wailed. At the end of the service we handed out little packets of her ashes for her gardener friends for their gardens. We dug her grave with shovels, put in her remaining ashes and bloody clothes, and using our hands, put the dirt back.
A year later many of us gathered again to place a gravestone—a collaborative work of art by the extended family. We started with words by pottery friend Trudy Woods and gardening colleague Nancy Rausch—which the family edited, and my mother adapted a vine design from one of her father’s. The white granite is part of the Sierra Nevada where backpacking trips deepened our love.
Friends and Family
Mother and Dad stayed two weeks taking care of me as though I were a needy child—which I really was for a while. My parents helped me bridge the financial gap left by loss of my business partner, which Elaine was—enabling me to focus on a long-term recovery instead of having to just struggle to get by.
Dozens of friends hugged me, fed me, listened to my troubles, massaged me. I tried to lean on enough different people to not wear out my welcome.
Mike and Trudy Woods took me in to live with them part time—Trudy and I worked together in the Lower Columbia College art department and also in the cooperatively run Broadway Gallery. They provided a family and home for me for several days each week. Often this family was enriched by the presence of Sandy Brown or Irina Kabatskaya (now Albig), two young women Mike and Trudy welcomed into their home and treated as daughters. Mike and I played music together in the evenings. They remain best friends, and Mike was Best Man at our wedding.
Counseling and Diary
It was wonderful to have a counselor who had helped Elaine and me a few years earlier, so he knew our marriage, and what I had lost. Walter Collins and I could get right to work with my feelings and experiences. His wife Barbara Coffman, a massage therapist and also a counselor, used magical hands to help release difficult feelings that I was holding in my body. During an especially intense workshop they were assisted by Dana Anderson, another person magical at helping people feel sense possibilities and connections that are normally inaccessible.
I find that I tend to repeat thoughts, to get stuck going over the same ground, often generating more heat than light. By writing out my thoughts and feelings I clarified them and freed myself to move on to a subsequent stage. I wrote several hundred thousand words.
I cried, screamed, pounded pillows to exhaustion. Over and over again until I had been so angry so much that I knew from the inside that I had felt it all. Such anger couldn’t fix anything in my life. My anger hurt me and could destroy me. I learned to withdraw energy from it.
When I’m angry—
• I forget to do things I’ve planned
• I overlook opportunities
• I break things clumsily
• I snarl at people
• I hurt my stomach with indigestion
• I get toothaches from clenching my jaws
• I pull muscles in my back and neck
In other words, when I’m angry I feel bad, I perceive less, and I operate clumsily. In anger I my awareness is deadened, I Do I need any more motivation to let go of anger? Do I have a right to my anger? Of course! Do I gain by pumping energy into that righteous anger or do I lose?
I honor my anger initially, it alerts me to a problem, here are actions/behavior to reject, here are hurts and losses to acknowledge and fully experience.
Then I honor my life by withdrawing energy from anger and putting it into living, a technique learned in meditation.
Another method I use when I am overcome by anger, is to to look behind my anger for fear, to look within my fear for hurt, then to look for acceptance and eventually for compassion. I often don’t make it through all five steps, but even going one or two steps and feeling fear or hurt.
P.S. If I have a lot to say about anger it’s because I have a lot of experience with it, I’m not the least bit saintly.words.
I started out with feelings of cruel anger towards the other driver. Acting them out would have totally violated my own values. It was a great relief to me to know that the Prosecutor and Court would figure out what to do to her, I could let go of that. [The drunken driver] gave me a great gift when she accepted reality and pled guilty to vehicular homicide instead of contesting it.
Victim Impact Statement for the Court. I wrote my heart out, experiencing and expressing what Elaine had lost, what the community lost, and what I lost. I was very specific and thorough. My Victim Impact Statement may be the most powerful few pages I had ever written. Once done, I felt free to move on.
Mediation and the Question of Forgiveness
An Artist’s Approach
Artwork played a major role in my healing process, and exhibit of art contributed substantially to community health. Art was a more effective tool for me because I also had the support of many other aspects of healing.
In coping with my wife’s death, I used many methods that I have learned and practiced in my work and play in the arts:
• Uncover thoughts and feelings from beneath the surface, probing as deeply as possible, to discover more than the common ones.
• Express my ideas forthrightly and fearlessly.
• Use good craftsmanship so that others will want to pay attention.
• Follow the process—actually making something stimulates my thoughts to go further, to think of the next things to make.
• Reach out to an audience. Artwork is a gift of human passion, a gift from the artist to an audience. The audience completes the work by receiving it into their being.
In my healing story I have benefitted from both the giving and the receiving roles, in many media:
• Visual, which is my profession, as a producer—and yet also as a receiver who gained strength from many other peoples’ works.
• Theater, in the funeral, in which I was both giver and receiver.
• Writing, which for me has been a largely private activity, but one still enriched by an artist’s approach.
• Music, in which I have been mainly a recipient, an amateur performer.
Artwork About Elaine’s Death.
I made two collages. Drunk Driver’s Target shows a vivacious picture of Elaine working on pottery, with a big red target painted over her. Autopsy shows Elaine looking very well, then the ten pages of her autopsy report, detailing her destruction organ by organ, and finally a picture of her dead, bloody face—the last veiled with a black bridal lace, so the viewer can choose whether to lift the veil and look, or not. I showed these at the Lower Columbia College Faculty Show in 1994. A major newspaper article was written about them, and the show was very well attended. The pieces were discussed in letters to the editor and in a comment book at the show. They got a lot of people thinking. And they expressed things others had felt but not said.
I feel satisfied to have made the pieces, but did not want to make to make more about loss and destruction, did not want to exhibit more about loss and destruction, I became more interested in using my art as a health-building tool.
To keep my balance in the emotional turmoil of my loss and ensuing life adjustments, I relied heavily on my strong sense of connectedness of life and physical energies in the universe, and of the sacredness of people’s engagement to that, both as individuals and within communities—something I think of as “spiritual humanism.” I believe that most strong spiritual or religious beliefs would be similarly valuable—at least those involving substantial love, generosity, and commitment to life on this earth.
My path went through different territory than most people’s, starting with a childhood in a family steeped in intellectual analysis oriented towards practical application, always informed with the values of generous love and peace-making from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Next I added very personal epiphanies. In the Mojave desert I learned to feel the shape of the earth and its motions. While studying science at Berkeley I learned to feel myself made up of atoms interacting through chemistry and quantum mechanics. Also at Berkeley I learned to accommodate both the ineluctable truths of mathematical logic and the stunning theorems establishing limits to the knowability and completeness of mathematical knowledge. Later I encountered Yoga thought and Buddhism, learning from them about control of awareness and state of mind—a nice follow up to the classical western philosophy I had studied in college. In a lifetime working in art, I have learned the malleability of perception, and learned how to access a state of awareness in which all is connected, vivid in intense detail and in encompassing breadth—which everywhere it looks sees “this too is a face of the divine.” I know all of this is outside of the box for most people—I don’t ask that my synthesis works for you, I only ask that you accept that it works for me.
Spiritual Basis for Restorative Justice: Many different spiritual beliefs and disbeliefs came together in our mediation and restorative justice case, and we worked together very well—though we tell the story very differently. For instance, Peter and Kathleen are atheistic Unitarian Universalists. Betty is very Jewish and Marty quietly so. [The drunken driver] is Baptist. And I have my spiritual humanism. Each of these world views provided substantial support for restorative justice. I suspect the process was richer and more successful because of the fullness of perspectives which we brought to it.
So Many Things Helped
Insurance Money really does help. The fondest dream of my life was taken from me. Substantial settlements allowed me to pursue long-term goals without worrying about the moment’s expenses. I was given the means to live in pursuit of other dreams.
Job. I was teaching photography part time at Lower Columbia College. It was so wonderful to have a job I could thrive in for a few days a week, just to have some normal, healthy life. In the following year my students produced the most significant and boldest work ever done in my class, inspired in part by my collages on drunk driving.
Elaine Myers Garden Company. Elaine left a fledgling business making garden bed covers to extend vegetable garden seasons by protecting them from cold weather. It has been very fulfilling to continue Elaine’s dream working side by side with a wonderful business associate.
Music and Dance. I found sensual and emotional satisfaction, and the pleasures of sensitive teamwork, playing violin and viola with friends, or just by myself. Taking up contra dancing was pretty great, too.
I have come to experience in myself and in people close to me, that by attention to what and how we think, to what thoughts we encourage and put energy into and which we discourage and withdraw energy from, that we can influence our consciousness. We can influence what comes to our attention and what does not, even what our feelings are—especially what color of light floods the stage of our dramas.
Editing my thoughts. When I’m off-balance emotionally and say something hurtful to myself or others, by observing what I’m thinking, I can invent a replacement thought which fits my values better. For instance, “Life wasn’t supposed to go this way” puts me in a whiny sour mood. “I never expected it to go this way” helps me feel in charge of my attitude while still acknowledging my hurt and sadness. With repeated practice such new replacement thoughts become patterns and the basis for emotions. Here are some more examples:
“I want Elaine” asks to be told “No, you can’t have her, she’s dead.” Instead, by saying “I miss Elaine” I invite validation like “Yes, that sounds realistic.” Or I can say “I want myself,” always a healthy goal, or “I want to remember Elaine lovingly” another great idea.
If in anger I burst out with “Fuck everybody, I hate the world,” I can replace that with “I’ve been really hurt,” and, looking at something beautiful, continue “What beautiful ____. I do love this world, I love being alive.”
For a while I’d catch myself saying “I’m broken hearted”. I didn’t want to take the chance that my body would take that literally and actually produce a physically broken heart. So I’d replace it with “I’ve been badly hurt and I’m lonely, my heart is strong and loving.”
Every morning at the end of my shower, I say a prayer of gratitude, standing still with my hands together as if to say “namaste,” I say “I am grateful for my health. I am grateful for my physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health.” I said that all the years that I was single. Now that I am married, it’s “I am grateful for us, for my life with Alexandra. I am grateful for our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health. I am thankful that we have each other.”
When I left Berkeley, with years of education in the family home and formal schools, and two degrees behind me, I had great intellectual depth but very little awareness of my own consciousness and of possible alternatives. I had looked in the mirror just enough to suspect that if I met me, that I wouldn’t like myself. That problem opened my mind to future change and growth.
• Robert Gilman, a Berkeley dormitory friend and later founder of In Context, introduced me to yoga thought and awareness and control of one’s state of mind.
• Then Peter Serrell—and his daughter, my wife, Elaine—got me thinking about and reading books about communications patterns and how to change them to influence one’s own thoughts and feelings—as well as responses of others.
• Sebastian Collupy taught me the dialectic for replacing un-welcome, negative thoughts with more constructive alternatives.• Elaine and I went to Warriors of the Heart workshops with Danaan Parry and his Earthstewards organization, to learn many aspects of conflict resolution, including an aikido model for engaging and transforming hostile energy, a transformative question in the midst of conflict “What is the loving thing to do?”, and reassurance that “the center of the conflict is the safest place to be.”
• Walter Collins reinforced all of this and helped me have the steadiness to apply it, and helped me learn more about being aware of, expressing, and releasing emotions.
• While preparing to lead a reform of policy making procedures at the Washington Public Utility Districts' Association I studied both business leadership and political science books: Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes, Irving Janis’ Group Think, and Jane Mansbridge’s Beyond Adversary Democracy. Then the PUD Association hired Washington State University professors Kelsey Gray and Dwight Pace to teach us consensus techniques. For many subsequent years I was chair of a committee to write consensus resolutions—polices that every Commissioner could live with. Several ideas, and techniques for implementing them, stand out: learning enough about each other’s situations to invent a way to meet everybody’s needs, and using words and concerns from as many as possible, so that everyone feels ownership in the result.
• In my experience, Everyone has a part of the truth, and no one has all of the truth. It’s worth it to build a community truth bigger and more workable than any our individual truths.
• Elaine found Barbara DeAngelis’ books and many others, and was a full partner in these journeys.
It has been many years since I’ve heard news of Mary, and that last news was of continuing struggle in her life. I know that her life and her family may not have been salvaged, though I still hope they were. I still feel very sure that her mediation with Elaine’s family and her presentations in the community were effective for the family and the community. Perhaps that’s all that was realistic.
Something In Me Was Lost the night my wife died, even though I was physically safe, the man I had been came to an end. Certain energies were gone, even some that superficially didn’t seem directly dependent on Elaine. My main photographic work had been in ancient forest remnants, making black and white prints. That stopped. I could not continue it. I had no desire to. Finis.
Photographing Butterflies & Forests. In 1994 I was ready to begin ambitious photographic work again. But I still could not pick up where I had left off: Needing different energies, I undertook work with very different methods than I had used before. I took up a highly mobile, spontaneous Canon 35mm instead of the “tripod and meditation” Hasselblad I once used, and worked in color instead of in black and white. A year later I settled on a major new project: Butterflies. Perhaps their beauty, their mythological (Greek) association with Psyche, and their thought-provoking metamorphosis entrained my soul. I also went back into the forests, this time in 35mm color.
I photograph butterflies and forests because I am in love with them and with light. I want to help other people fall in love with them and begin to care about them. Having such a project helped me turn towards my present and future, letting my painful past slip from the present into my history book. These projects gave me goals to work for and also great sensual and emotional satisfactions from my moments of success.
In 1998, after five years alone, I wrote: “Most of the time I feel very well. I live a privileged life in pursuit of my dreams; working, yes, but at two small businesses I do as much for love as for the potential of earnings. Much of my time goes into professional and amateur arts. I have had some lovely times with women friends, though I have not established a permanent relationship. I don’t have to cry very often now or for very long, though I suspect I will never quite reach the end of my tears for Elaine. I have lost an innocence in which simply being together with my soul-mate made the world just right. Most days being alone hits me hard for a moment—often triggered by coming across something I want to share—by now it’s about my life, and only very occasionally specifically about Elaine. I hurt for a moment, and then step forward into my new life.”
In 1999, I have come to totally accept what happened to me, my life plans, and my life—along with continuing to abhor what was done to Elaine—there’s no need to ever accept that.
By the year 2001, my life is totally transformed: I have found a woman who is just right for me, and we have been married for a year and a half. Alexandra is a fine choral conductor and pianist—we met as I played under her baton. She understands art and the process of performing or making it. I have moved into her home and put my old one and the Elaine Myers Garden company on the market. We are delighted to have a brand new 15 year old daughter—an exchange student from Russia. We play chamber music most weeks. I continue to build momentum in the new chapter of my photographic art. Life is good.
Early in my widowhood when I was just beginning to move beyond suffering, Dell Gossett gave me a phrase “To gladly accept opportunities I would never have willingly chosen”. With Elaine’s death many doors were closed to me, doors along my expected life path. In the next few years other doors, some of them quite wonderful, were opened—and I have gladly walked through them:
• A community better suited to my interests such as performing classical music,
• a location closer to more friends and suppliers,
• the opportunity to leave behind some of the messes, failures, awkwardnesses of my earlier years,
• the opportunity to become known as who I am now rather than remaining pigeonholed as who I was twenty or thirty years ago as a young man, when many people in my previous community took their first impressions of me,
• and finally, there are some things I like better about my second marriage, and about the person I am able to be within that marriage.
Even while acknowledging the major disaster of losing my first wife, I feel that I have been a very lucky man, fortunate in circumstance and blessed with strong, wise, and loving family, friends and associates. If I have had anything to give to the world, it is simply a reflection of how much has been given to me. “The gift must always move.”
The best preparation for death is the same as the best preparation for life: Love as well as you can. Love yourself, love other people, love the earth and all life.
— David Lee Myers, 1994 through 2011