A Night to Shine: Unmasking Mental Health

A talk given for Lake Region Hospital’s Fundraising Gala: “A Night to Shine: Unmasking Mental Health” on November 21, 2020, Proceeds for the event went in large part to the Jordan Matthew Tommerdahl Scholarship Fund. You can donate to the fund here.

My talk was in honor of in in love towards Jordan Matthew Tommerdahl: 12/9/1992 – 11/27/2019.

You can read more about Jordan and my funeral meditation for him here.

Here’s a video that I pre-recorded just in case the virtual event had any technical issues. You can also read the transcript below.


You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

A Night to Shine: Unmasking Mental Illness*

*Please note: In speaking of unmasking the stigmas surrounding mental illness, when I reference “taking off our masks”, I am referring to the invitation to remove the socially acceptable, cleaned-up versions of ourselves that we put on in order to prevent our struggles from being seen. As it relates to actual masks designed to protect us and our neighbors from the spread of COVID-19, please keep yours on and continue to Mask up, Minnesota. 


You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

An excerpt from “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver

December 4, 2020 was a crisp winter day, warmed by a knowing sun. Together, Jordan Tommerdahls’ parents (Kay and Stu), family (including sister Sarah with Ty and Owen, brothers Javonte and Paul along with Kelly and Summer, Colton, and Larkyn, Grandma Sandy and others), along with his girlfriend Taylor, the Island Guys, and so many dear friends all gathered at his graveside to bury his body. Placed appropriately right on the edge of the woods and wetland, I found myself turning to the woods and the trees and sky during his graveside ceremony. As I listened to the wind, I heard Jordan’s laughter, and when a flock of wild geese rose into flight… tears gathered in my eyes as I smiled to myself and whispered: “fly free dear brother,” while I spoke Mary Oliver’s words to Jordan and the geese with whom his spirit was dancing and flying.

I suppose this is why in anticipation of today, I found myself returning to the words of poet Mary Oliver in “Wild Geese,” for in many ways Mary and Jordan are and were kindred spirits. Lovers of nature and life, with the ability to see the beauty and simplicity in the wonder of all living things; people who knew what it was to live without pretense, without masks, and without socks to prevent one from feeling the ground beneath one’s feet. People who have inspired us to live alive and to love with reckless abandon.

And in truth, it is because of these memories and the connection between Mary and Jordan that I began with Mary’s words from “Wild Geese”… “You do not have to be good, you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” But it is also because I think this poem speaks to all of us gathered tonight to speak of mental illness on this “Night to Shine.” For as the poem continues: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Tonight I ask that you consider the invitation: ­­­ that mental health and the struggle to stay upright in a world that is so often designed to take us out— this is not something that is blighted upon some of us…no, this struggle and despair, and pain is something that all of our stories reveal. 

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

On a lot of levels, I get why we have cultural stigmas—they are part of our very human condition. We struggle to make sense of illness, and so often we have been tutored to fear our own suffering and struggle and illness and pain. But if we are going to reduce the stigma about mental illness, it requires of us a necessary journey to admitting that there is no us (the healthy ones) and them (the sick). No, the human condition of shallow breathing, mind wrecked by grief and trauma, reaching for wholeness and longing for love to save us…this is the human condition. This is our condition.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

For when we can’t turn with love and compassion to the wounds our own bodies bear witness to, when we cannot speak of the despair we each hold, we then scapegoat others, externalizing the pain that we don’t know how to tend to in ourselves. Let me give a very present-day example of what I mean by this: When I consider our wildly divergent responses to COVID-19 I am struck by how the reality that much of our refusal to admit its horror, to grieve the losses of our daily rhythms and holiday routines is because so many of us are barely holding on. We, like addicts in need of the next hit of activity, white knuckle our lives in terror of what the silence and the pain might do to us. As if our refusal to turn toward the truth makes it any less real. And yet, we humans are wired to do this as our way to survive.

Hear me, I don’t say this to shame any of us…I mean, I’m human too and I do the same things. I have good reasons why my personality is larger than life, I have reasons why I am always busy and achieving…my denial and overperformance is tied to the pain and grief I carry in my story; it’s about my own deep longing to be seen and belong. It’s my running away as fast as I can from the demons who tell me I am not and will never be enough.

So tonight, as we seek to unmask the stigmas surrounding mental illness, I want to echo Mary Oliver’s words- “You do not have to be good, you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours and I will tell you mine.” For the invitation to unmask the stigmas about mental health is the call of love to each of us to take off our own masks and share our despair one with another…to let the soft animals of our bodies love what they love. To cease walking for hundreds of miles through the desert on our knees, repenting.

For as we do this, as we name our despair, as we risk the terror of letting love and see and heal us, we are opened to love and can drop the need to stigmatize the overflow of struggle which is manifest in those of us who are most struggling. And in so doing, by caring for our own pain, we can then move toward one another in love for we know that there is no “other,” there is no “us” and “them”, there is just us… one community of all of us beautifully frail and wonderful humans who are broken and yet held and healed and cared for in and by love.

As the poem continues…

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile, we are called to drop our own masks, to come out from behind them, and to foster safe and supportive spaces where others can do likewise. For mental illness, as I said at Jordan’s funeral, is just like any other illness. Think of cancer- to hear the word itself causes fear, and yet we know that some kinds of cancer are more livable than others– “Stage 2 melanoma” is far different to hear than “Stage 4 pancreas cancer.” 

So let me be clear: mental illness, like any other kind of illness, isn’t anyone’s fault. Some of us here in this virtual room will get and/or are living right now with mental health illness of one form or another due to trauma, grief, pain, or other wirings of our brain…and through medication, therapy, and other supports we are and will be able to live and flourish even when and as we struggle…even as sometimes the illness is so deep just like stage four pancreas cancer that people die from their illness as did our dear brother Jordan. 

And if we want to reduce the stigma, we both need to admit that we each struggle as we hold grief and despair in our stories—for we reduce stigma by coming out from behind our masks—and we also reduce the stigma against mental illness by normalizing mental health as a category of illness like the others we have learned and are likewise learning to embrace…

For mental health has nothing to do with categories of sin, selfishness, or morality. None of us blame people for health conditions that they cannot help, right? Not a one of us would dare blame a person for dying from cancer, right? Right. Likewise, to end the stigma about mental health asks us to see mental illness as just another category of health that can and often does affect any one of us. And our response to this illness, just like any others ought to be to love, to support, to make casseroles and buy grub hub certificates, and to advocate so that our health care system can have the resources it needs to show up and care for mental illness just as it does for heart issues, broken bones, or cancers. Mary, again invites: 

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Meanwhile, here we are, a gathered people. Do you know what— in a world that is torn apart by political divisions and riven through with the rage of undealt with trauma and grief, we are a people who have chosen to show up, to love, and to say, “We believe in and hope for a world of the possible. A world in which stigma doesn’t have to be the only fact of our world. A world where the helpers and the lovers and the friends and the community remembers… remembers that we are the hope and the possibility of another way of being human. A world where we refuse the categories of us and them. A world in which neighbors show up for one another. A world in which medicine is for our healing.” And I want to pause to name this and to honor you, my friends…for this (gesture to gathered group) THIS is how the change comes, this is how stigmas end, this is how healing comes. It comes through people who have said, “No!” to the status quo and instead say, “Yes!” to the dreams of possible things. Your showing up tonight is an act of loving resistance and in so doing you carry on Jordan’s legacy: To be a people who invite everyone in. To be a people who believe in smiles and joy and that there are no enemies, only those who don’t yet know they are friends. To come tonight is to say that you affirm that love is a healing balm and the most powerful force in the world. 

Your presence affirms a belief that at the end of all things, that as we face the pain and struggle and the despair, we take up the call not to be good or to put on masks to insulate ourselves by pretending we’re fine, just fine… but to refuse the idea that we need a scapegoat because we are too afraid to turn towards our own pain, but it is a remember to return to the edge of the field and to enter the wild, to come the woods and wetland with curiosity and abandon, and to fly high on the wings of the wild geese, to come home again to one another and to ourselves. To take off our masks and socks and to come together so we might build another world where the masks melt away and we can all live love, unafraid. 

This to me is the truth of Jordan’s death and the call of his life. This is the night to shine our lights: to take the masks off, to take off our socks and walk barefooted into the woods alive and to fly…together as a part of this one family, supporting one another and remembering (Mary, once again):

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Might we give generously tonight, remembering we are all a part of this beautiful world together. To love and to care without masks of ego protection. Meet me on the edge of the woods and let us fly together and create a world that cares for all of us. Thank you for your presence, your generosity, and most of all…thanks for believing that together we will create a world with love enough for us all. With gratitude to Jordan and to Mary- may you fly freely, we’ve got you.

Together we will end the stigma about mental health.

Together we will shine the light.

Together we will build a safe home for all of us.


*Note: I wrote this while listening to music, which aided me in trying connecting with the world that Jordan believed in. I found a wonderful playlist on Spotify that you might also enjoy called “Wild Geese”. We are all so much more connected than we realize and can touch each other’s lives though we have never met.

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