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Ways of Seeing: Sas Carey, “Original way was best for Mitchell”

This year’s Women Who Change the World Award, sponsored by Womensafe,  has gone to Cheryl Mitchell. I first met Cheryl in her office at Mary Johnson Day Care Center to discuss my now 48-year-old daughter attending the program. Beside Cheryl’s chair and part way under her desk was her baby son sleeping in a cradle. In the late 1990s, I wrote this story about her.
Cheryl Mitchell is a barefoot angel tiptoeing lightly upon the earth. She only touches the ground with her feet occasionally, mostly gliding over it. She doesn’t need anything — praise or heat or food. Summer and winter, she wears a sundress and no shoes. When she comes late to Quaker meeting, the door closes so quietly, I can’t tell if I imagined it, or really feel the gentle breeze as she sits beside me. With my eyes closed, I know her perfume, one of the only perfumes that I like, as it wafts toward me. Then her energy fills the room. Hers is not ego energy, making her self-important. Hers is the conduit for all energy which joins in making each individual feel more of his or her own inner light.
The tone of her voice is humble and gentle. The words, though are directly from her heart and knowledgeable from her head. They are simple — very, very simple. But she is not only a speaker of truth, her small hands mold the fabric of families in Vermont, creating important statistics like the lowest pregnancy rate, the least abuse, the best children’s programs. Cheryl was the guiding force for the Addison County Parent Child Center and formed much of the state’s family policy. From her come models for children’s programs to be used nationally and internationally. There is no need to mention these things to her, though. She will just change the subject — honoring, supporting and encouraging you.
When Cheryl was asked by Vermont Governor Howard Dean to be the deputy secretary of the Agency of Human Services, I told her she needed shoes. “How can you be in Montpelier, second in a state agency and not wear shoes?” I asked. “And you need clothes, too,” I added. “I mean wool and silk and rayon, not sundresses. You need to clean up your act.”
“Okay,” she said, gasping and nodding her head, ready to do the right thing. “Tell me what to do.”
“We’ll go to secondhand stores,” I answered. So, Cheryl and I went to consignment shops in Middlebury. We went to consignment shops in Burlington. She tried on clothes and clothes and clothes. As she tried on an off-white rayon blouse and red wool skirt in a tight dressing room in Burlington, I nodded my head, “Yes.”
She checked in the mirror. “I look like a grown up,” she said, as if that was the worst thing she could be.
“Those will do,” I told her, in my bossy older sister way.
She bought those grown-up clothes and others like them and started her new job. She wore them the first week with high-heeled shows she had for dancing. But slowly, slowly over the months, she changed back. At first she took off the heels when she was sitting at her giant desk. Next she tried a few barefoot steps across the plush carpet of her big office. By spring, she wore cotton dresses with sleeves and sandals. And by summer, she was back in sundresses and bare feet.
In new age language there is something called “grounding.” It is easier to connect with the earth with bare feet. In psychology there is a technique where you match the posture and movements of clients to understand them better. Whatever it is, Cheryl — in her sundresses and bare feet — understands the needs of children and families and models it for all of us. Because of this, we live in a better world.
Sas Carey directs the non-for-profit Nomadicare. “Migration,”her latest documentary film about Mongolian nomads, will be shown at the Marquis Theater in Middlebury April 3-5.

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