Engaging Our Stories with Sue Cunningham

How do we read and engage our own story, and how by reading our own story do we have a lens to read and engage the stories of others? In this episode, Dan and Rachael talk with Sue Cunningham, an Allender Center facilitator as well as a licensed therapist, poet, life/soul coach, and spiritual director. The conversation begins by uncovering how Sue lives into her calling of sitting with others’ stories and being a companion to suffering, then, through a series of questions, they begin to uncover the profound impact of the question “where are you from” in Sue’s life as an Armenian-American woman.

About Sue

With more than 30 years of experience, Sue Cunningham has walked alongside and listened to the stories of countless women and men across the United States and around the world. Sue is committed to discerning God’s movement, providing practical guidance in the present and God’s hope for the future. Her work centers around becoming more human and healing from trauma by engaging stories. She has a private practice, is on staff with The Allender Center, and writes poetry. Sue and her husband John live in Fresno, California, and are the parents of two adult children.

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Episode Transcript

Dan: We have a sweet privilege today to again come back to the category of story. How do we read and engage our own story and how by reading our own story, do we have a better lens for being able to read and engage the stories of others and today? Oh my goodness. We have a delightful person woman who has been involved actually in a number of podcasts before but a number of years ago. But Susan Cunningham, welcome. Thanks for joining us. And what we’d love to do is just to start with an obvious question and that is who are you? We have the privilege of knowing you, but most of our audience does not. Who are you?

Sue: Well, nothing like starting out with my question. That is honestly the question I’ve been trying to figure out my whole life. So it will cover that on this podcast, that will be good enough. But I would hate to have anyone asked me that question is awful. I admit it’s early morning. I no, no, it’s great. It is funny because I do think that is a question that frames me almost every single day, um no matter what I’m doing, the short answer is um I’m a woman who loves to sit with people and share stories and companion suffering people, that’s really my calling and I do that several different ways. I’m a counselor, I’m a life and soul coach and I’m a spiritual director and those are just different ways that I sit with people. Sometimes with words and sometimes without words two not only understand who I am, but to understand who other people are.

Dan: That’s a mouthful. When you think about it, I don’t want to get into definitions, but soul coach, spiritual director therapist like, what are you talking about?

Sue: Well I’m glad you asked because a lot of times people will say to me, oh, aren’t they all the same thing, don’t you just do the same thing? And I’m like, no, they’re very specific and they’re very different. The way I have described it is, you know, a therapist or a counselor is someone who you typically go to with a problem for healing. There’s kind of a sense of, I have something and I want help with sitting with, it’s a little meandering and it’s a little bit of unfolding as you go, you often as we know, start out with the presenting problem and then could very easily end up somewhere on a completely different shore. As a life coach, I think I made up the term soul coach just because at first I wasn’t so comfortable with what a life coach be for me,

Rachael: It does sound very all-encompassing. I understand how that would feel a little, what does that mean?

Sue: Yeah, yeah, so I say soul coach and then some people are probably scared by soul coach, so they’re like I don’t want to soul coach, I just want a life coach. So either way that is a little more directive, it’s like we start out my first question when I sit with people as a counselor therapist is where would you like to start? My first question that I open up within coaching is what are your wins? What are the ways that you are moving in, the directions that you hope and long to go and it’s more directive when we set goals and starting with the winds is so important because it really gives people encouragement that yes, I am growing, I’m changing and I can I can market and um oftentimes saying the wind saying the good things is often way harder for people. They would rather just start with the problems. But that is a very unique way to sit with people and the spiritual direction is a companion basically in prayer. It’s in, it focuses on their life with God. So whereas in the therapeutic relationship, we talk about the therapeutic alliance, well in the spiritual direction context we talk about the alliance with God and facilitating that alliance with God as a spiritual director. It’s a misnomer. I don’t direct anything but I listen and I am a companion.

Dan: It’s lovely. Again, it’s there’s a clarity and yet there’s a lot of overlap in all worlds which means you get to be you no matter what hat you put on and the hat matters. Oh the hat really matters. But the head that is being put on has a kind of, well we’ll just say core to your work. You know, I know from many interactions with you that you’ve been asked the question, where are you from? And let me just say it’s been a loaded question and I’d love for you to take that as a beginning point to just sort of open us to your story.

Sue: You know, it’s a funny question because people used to ask me that and I was born in San Francisco and I just say I’m from San Francisco and I could tell that like that wasn’t really what they meant. It wasn’t really the answer. I think people, when they look at me, they can tell that I have a cultural identity, they don’t necessarily know what it is, but they know it’s, they know I’m something and you know, I grew up in a very, you know, diverse city like San Francisco, where a lot of, there’s just so many different kinds of people. And so it was, it’s in some ways moving away from that area, opened up the question even more. So when I lived in the Midwest or when I lived in Central Virginia, it was much more of a question of, we don’t really understand how to place you because we can tell by your looks that there’s something about you that’s a little different. But we can’t really tell. And so that has been a question that I’ve struggled with. I’m Armenian-American. And so I have a look that you can tell.

Dan: But even sometimes people don’t even understand what Armenian is or how to even say it, or if it’s you know, Arminian, so it can be like a very confusing thing for, let’s clarify that are Armenians. Arminians.

Sue: No, typically not. But yeah, Arminian is like a theological construct and Armenian is a cultural, you know, people.

Dan: I’m curious what that question has evoked in you over the years, particularly in context, like the Midwest or Virginia, etcetera.

Sue: Yeah, I mean at times it would really annoy me and frustrate me and also caused them insecurity, like what is it about my face and who I am that you asked me that the other thing about questions like that is people will also at the same time I will get questions like where are you from, I would also get people randomly coming up to me um telling me that they think they know me, that they’ve seen me before, they asked me if I’m on a tv show, you know, because I went to college in Southern California and so I’d have this really paradoxical experience of where you from and oh, I know you, I’ve seen you before, you remind me of you look exactly like someone and you know, on tv and so that sort of confusion and insecurity and also curiosity um has been um just kind of in that, in the low-grade sense of who I am and how I move in the world a lot of times just pushing it down because I couldn’t necessarily didn’t know how to address and deal with what does my look evoking people.

Dan: So you’re in a bind. You know, the way you’ve described it is at one level you’re unusual, your face, your skin, your hair doesn’t quite fit the white normative categories. Yet there’s also a certain degree to which all of us want to be noticed and yet to be in the bind in that way. It just feels crazy-making.

Sue: Yeah, it is and you know, I think that could be sort of a theme of um my story and uh you know, maybe other remains, you know, would relate to this as well, maybe other ethnic groups would relate to this, this idea that I am, I want to be seen and I don’t want to be seen. Like I’m so anxious about being hidden and not being able to be to be known. But then also the thought of not being hidden and being exposed is also anxiety-producing.

Dan: So there’s really a sense of and you know, with different, you know, having a different heritage that I want to be different and I am different and there’s no getting around that, but also I want to fit in and I want proximity to the main culture and to be accepted in all the ways, you know that people want to be accepted, but it’s a bind that I hear many people who bear an ethnicity outside of the typical category of white feel and that you’re exotic, that’s the question that comes where you from. How do I place you? And within that there’s the bind of an exotic, there’s often the erotic and then there’s the misuse, and then so again back to just the fact you’ve lived with a lot of tension not only in the white dominant culture, but my sense would be your life trajectory would have some degree of tension even within your own Armenian world.

Sue: Yeah, there’s just this layered sort of paradox of your trying to be like this proximity to whiteness. I never even occurred to me that I guess I knew I wasn’t white, but I also, I mean I never thought that I was, but I was always trying to be, but I never even realized that I was trying to be um until you know, pretty recently with more conversations. But yeah, this whole idea of like the immigrant experience where you’re trying to find your way and make your way in a new country in a new place. My grandparents all for my grandparents came um In up to the time and right after the what’s called the Armenian genocide in 1915. And their whole, you know, their whole thought was to work hard and make it in America and as their you know grandchildren, you know, that was our, that was our task to, so the thought of not becoming, you know, as assimilated as possible. Just wasn’t even a factor. I mean my name Susan is you know, cut short to pursue in a lot of places because that’s how I grew up because my maiden name, my last name was really long and hard to say. And so I had to have a one-syllable first name with this idea that we’re going to fit in very American names but with a very Armenian last name, that is kind of this concept of you’re going to try to fit in but you’re going to always know you never actually will. And that kind of bind that kind of paradox is very layered in my story too well.

Rachael: And I think that’s such an interesting thing that would be helpful for so many of us to really begin to understand because we’re talking about a category of whiteness which actually came to be a social and systemic construct. Like I think about my family coming from Italy and when the Italians first came to the United States um they did not have the same access to rights. And there was a very similar a clear understanding in order to have access to land to political power. You need to be able to fit into this category of whiteness. And we have a series of Supreme Court cases where people are saying, hey I fit that. Like I need to be able to hold onto my land and an entire ethnic group. Erasing identity. Erasing the things that make them particular like language names so that there can be an assimilation not just to fit into uh you know, oh I want to be a part of some abstract thing but to have genuine access to land to a away to participate. And I think that can be really confusing for people when we talk about because there’s a racial identity of white, but even white people have ethnic identities that they often don’t have connection to. So, and I and correct me if I’m wrong, so because I could be wrong here, but I know for the Armenian people um I think they came to be categorized under the racial identity of whiteness.

Sue: Yes, it was there were two court cases because this is so interesting, like there were people that didn’t want, you know that I think it was the government even that was saying that you’re not white because Armenia is in between Europe and Asia. And so the big fight was they considered like European, are they considered Asian and like the ways that people figured that out was really very blurry and very messy. So there was a couple of court cases where Armenians are in court trying to prove that they are considered white so that they could have the land and because it was like if you had the land then you could make a way for your family and if not, and that you know what that also did, which I think is really important is it pit ethnic minorities against each other. And so you have, you know, Armenians trying to prove that they’re not Asian and because and so the pitting against I think is such you know, uh it’s a dark thing for minorities to try and like in that proximity to this whiteness culture, try and push other people down to get up for survival and um and you’re right, so with about the economics and the land, I mean my grandfather was actually paid for his work in land. So I mean when would that ever happen? But the land even that I’m living on right now, my grandfather earned and that was privileged that he could actually own that land.

Rachael: And so it’s a very complex, really complex thing and I think part of why I bring that up is because we have to start thinking in those complex ways because although your family legally was grafted into The system of whiteness that gave certain people access, we just spent 10 minutes talking about, but that’s not, you don’t get to just be white and how people perceive you and how they engage you. And I think that that is also part of the bind that dan is naming that you’re naming and the confusion of that. So it makes sense when you say I didn’t even really know it didn’t occur to me like how you could also think of course I am or but in the same breath think, but I’m not and I want to be. So how do I, how do I have a name that there’s something more simple and that I think is well I think it’s pretty wicked. And it’s a reality so many people are swimming in and that becomes very hard to name, especially in our current world today um because people are scared and because people don’t actually want to know other human beings and know something of their story. So I’m grateful, I’m grateful that you’re allowing us even here to bear something of your face and your name and your family.

Sue: Thank you. Yeah, I feel I feel so much honor to my grandparents and parents because they like even my like you were saying Rachael um the acceptance factor wasn’t there? Because for some of the very same reasons, I imagine now people are afraid to accept more diverse populations and give people access to you know, things that would give them more economic stability because Armenians were, you couldn’t buy property in certain places and were disparaged and called names William Saroyan, you know, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, he writes a lot about um what life was like in Fresno is an army and how he was really discriminated against by teachers and people in the community.

Dan: And so when you add all that in the reality of the uh the holocaust to the genocide and I love for you just to make sure our audience knows what the Armenian people have endured. It’s only reason that our government actually named Biden named for the very first time a matter of months ago, the reality that in Turkey. I use the word holocaust, I get the word genocide. But the in one sense the first significant clear holocaust occurred with the Armenian people. So how does that factor in both to the Armenian people? But also to your story?

Sue: Yeah. So the Armenian people were a minority group in Turkey and typically they got along, well my family I think was in business with, you know, Turkish people, it was just any minority living in. And there were tensions for sure. But in 1915, although there were conflicts definitely before then. But in 1915, the government set out a very articulated plan to destroy the Armenian people. And what they did is they just literally one night rounded up like all of the intellectuals, the poets, the artists, all the people of influence and took them away and murdered them. And then they began a march um through the Syrian desert. Like to basically kill and did kill a million and a half Armenians. And so that Armenians are spread out. It’s called the diaspora. They’re spread out through the entire world.

Dan: So the world has known about the Armenian genocide. It’s just that for political reasons, I think that the United States like like has not officially the Senate, the House did acknowledge it earlier, but to have widen actually say yes, this happened and we are naming it without, you know this sense that in previous administrations, they’ll talk about it. But they won’t actually say it because of the political ramifications of Turkey and what it would mean because Turkey denies that it happened. I mean they say that people were killed but they say it was like a civil war and it was you know, losses on both sides. They don’t say that it was a genocide. Which even Hitler um is quoted as saying, you know before that the Jewish holocaust think like No one talks about what happened to the Armenians so we can get away with this. And that’s why it is important to name history and to name what did happen to grow and to learn and to face the darkness and then it, I know it’s just such a personal question but how has it affected you do a lot of wondering and mostly internal like I think that you know that’s part of a trauma response.

Sue: You know, you can have a bite. Kind of like my trauma response has typically been freeze which is I just kind of try and get small and stay where I am and go inward and try and just hide inwardly. But that only works for so long. And so it’s been my stories that have been. And I have found that even in the darkest places um there is there is mystery and there is hope and I see God. And so like I think about my grandparents a lot and I wrote a poem um that I could share about um really from my grandmother’s perspective really couldn’t share or will share I’ll share it and then maybe we can talk about it a little bit.

Dan: Can I also add that you are a professional poet along with a number of other um find names? But yes that would be such an honor to have you read your work.

Sue: Mhm This is called “In the cards.” I never want to go back to the old country, my eyes twinkle now magnified behind thick pink glasses. I played cards with my grandson, hear myself chuckle and chair with wooden arms letting him beat me with the jack of clubs. I passed through Ellis Island a brand new self-drawn from a full deck. My granddaughter plays with no strategy When I see her spadework, I let her win a round or two just to watch her shy smile, diamonds dealt, thrown down, shuffled hearts like secrets held close to my breast. The risky moves I gambled to stay alive. How bravely I played each hand the enormous fortune I brought home.

Dan: I have a hard time responding um knowing something of your story that’s a poem I’ve not heard, I’ve been privileged to hear a lot of your poetry but that sense of honor, oh my gosh, righteous honor, thank you.

Sue: The first line I never want to go back to the old country is something that my grandmother would say. And it’s that paradox of like you’ve experienced what they would call a massacre, you know, became genocide. You’ve experienced the worst thing. You know, so much of her family killed. But not all her family, like she had three brothers that came over. Like it’s so mysterious and she would say, I never want to go back like she loved America. And so that that idea of I never want to go back to the old country just has intrigued me and it still intrigues me. It’s that mystery of the worst thing that ever could happen to you that turns out to be something that you wouldn’t trade. Like it’s really complicated and the risks and the bravery she had.

Rachael: Well, and I also think you’ve captured so well and it’s clear this is an inheritance you experience from her um that her fight and her courage was not just for her. That there was there were dreams gifts she wanted to give to you to your parents, to your, you know like that you can you really capture that in this poem. And what that means when um we already have imagination that we don’t just fight for ourselves that we don’t just take risks and have to play. I mean, I just think so you are an incredible storyteller through poetry. And um I feel like we got a glimpse of your grandmother. I can kind of picture her that chair. I can picture you. I feel like we get a glimpse of you as well. And the sense of the gamble, this is, I mean the risk of their departure. And the dilemmas, you don’t really know much from your family because of that deep commitment to escape trauma by not talking about it. But on the other hand, you have a sense of what level of risk was involved in terms of this wasn’t just a walk through a desert, to a new survival. There were risks in the process. So as you, as you write such brilliant words, I’m just so curious if we can just kind of move to that question, how is the shaped how you engage the stories of those that you do soul care with direction with therapy with or just basically how you live as a human being with other people’s stories?

Sue: Yeah. I’m so, I’m so interested. I’m so intrigued and I’m typically not afraid of darkness and suffering. I really find a lot of strangely a lot of beauty and a lot of hope there and I very much um like I want to know like the easy answers don’t satisfy me. And so I love to go kind of to the death and um and find and find what’s there and when I sit with people, I find out they want someone to go with them. Like I when I, when I’m with people, they may not know that they even have a story, they may not, or they might have a sense of it, but they don’t want to talk about it a lot of times I sit with people and they say like I’m sure they say to both of you, I’ve never told anyone this before because you need like you need an empathetic place, you need a safe space. And Armenians have wanted to be safe, you know, more than anything to survive, to be safe and not just to be safe but to flourish. And I think I really have that idea of, I really want two create a place where people can flourish and so I have an enormous imagination and so I have an imagination for people maybe even more than they do for themselves or for the work that can come the fruit that can come from looking at stories and their stories um for who they can be. Armenians have this really great um sense of a lot of joy even in the midst of a lot of heartache and um I have a poem that I can just read about that um that well we’ll kind of say how I view story and how I view my, my way of being with people, it’s called how to be Armenian, how to be Armenian hang your rich brown hair, like notes suspended on a staff rooted in mid air between Europe and Asia, minor notes bounce and bring folk back to life, lift your chin, listen to the music held in your almond eyes. Proud knows thick brows ready to break into the line dance where you belong, beats repeats food, doom, big clarinet melodies climb like our wrists rise. Tradition grounds, calls up down cooked pinkies, side by side tight like pomegranate seeds. Let these tangy secrets burst. What do you know that? No one tells you, you are already beautiful, happy and sad all the time.

Dan: Again in the presence of such beauty and power and also heartache. I will speak, but I feel wordless and the sensuality, the life-giving presence, It is resurrection power and to hold that and to say um, on our behalf uh, in the calendar center, but vastly beyond. Thank you for holding so much ambivalence for not freezing, but in the midst of owning your own trauma response. You are a voice, you are woman with words and a life and a story and a people and in that uh you invite us all to something of our own life and story. And though I can never be Armenian, I don’t want to take your culture, but I can join you enjoy and in heartache and therefore re-enter my own story and ethnicity and call forth the question of what does it mean for me to be me. So thank you, thank you for your life and what you bring and what you offer, thank you, Sue, thank you,

Sue: Thank you Dan and thank you Rachael for being such a safe space to uh share about my life and I just have to say Dan, I don’t know if you know but my maiden name in Armenian means resurrection, so for you to say yes, so for you to say that you, that’s the joy of the resurrection is just like such a, such a sweet naming and um an awareness and naming of the secret and telling it.