“You would look at her and think she’s just like the rest of us,” Dawn Billingslea says of her friend and former colleague Barbara Gulick, “But, she’s not like us at all. She is extraordinary.”
Maybe it’s the kintsukuroi.
Barbara Gulick’s life has been all about bringing people together through language. Barbara began her career in the Peace Corps, where she was the first to assign phonemic letters to an underused language in a remote Panamanian village. When she returned to the United States, she started teaching ESL (English as a second language) in Georgia public school systems, wrote curriculum for high school “Newcomers,” translated for Hispanic parents, and created empowering programs for teenage immigrants. Her most recent job has been that of coaching and training other ESL teachers in the public school system near Asheville, North Carolina.
Dawn taught at one of the schools where Barbara worked and remembers the energy and bravery Barbara brought to each challenge. Now, Barbara brings that same energy and bravery to a different challenge–the challenge of her life. In July of 2018, Barbara experienced stroke-like symptoms and was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme tumor, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
That didn’t stop her before, and has not stopped her now.
Although the cancer attacked the very essence of Barbara’s strengths and interests, she saw it as a learning opportunity and chance for empathy-building. In 2018, when she was recovering from brain surgery, Barbara determinedly took on the challenge of regaining her ability to speak both English and Spanish. Back then, she told Dawn, “Now I know firsthand what these students feel like when they understand and can’t speak.”
Barbara became a patient mentor and volunteered to help Spanish-speakers also living with glioblastoma who were considering the Optune device. It was a challenge, but who better to illustrate what was possible than a language expert who had adapted to new norms of communication?
Which brings us to the kintsukuroi.
This past November, Barbara and her college friend Kim Dulaney embarked on a new project. For years, and especially during the pandemic, the former roommates, picnic partners, and bike-riding pals had enjoyed reading each other’s poetry. A few months ago, they decided to take this experience a step further and share Barbara’s poems in a book. The result is “Barbara’s Golden Repair.” All proceeds from the book are being donated to Inheritance of Hope (IoH), a charity close to Barbara’s heart.
In 2019, Barbara and her daughter Sofia, who was 11 years old at the time, attended the New York City Legacy Retreat® for young families facing the loss of a parent. Since then, Barbara and Sofia have stayed in touch with IoH staff, volunteers, and other families through on-going programming and informal touchpoints. For Barbara, supporting IoH through her poetry was an obvious choice.
The title poem, “Barbara’s Golden Repair” takes its name from the Japanese art form of kintsukuroi, the practice of repairing broken pottery with gold-dusted lacquer. In the process, breakage is accentuated rather than disguised, and reconstruction is celebrated.
Kim, a breast cancer survivor herself, brought more than a love of poetry to the project. A mom and family practice physician, Kim also brought a degree of understanding to this new and deeper chapter in her and Barbara’s friendship.
The poems are all Barbara’s, and although Kim continues to write, her contribution has been in writing the introduction, coordinating layout, writing question prompts, and now in sharing the poems on social media. However, there is one other person whose work is featured prominently–Sofia’s.
A budding photographer, Sofia contributed several photos, many of which are photoshopped impossibilities of gravity defiance. Some feature Sofia and Barbara together, and a couple include their dog. The images capture both simple everyday moments and imaginative moments engineered.
Sofia and Barbara, described by their friends as “a good team,” put their life on display in the book. Little anecdotes and family jokes are sprinkled through the work. Relationships, nature, transformation, and hope are all explored. Living with a terminal illness is mentioned, but the understanding of all sorts of human hardships is universal.
Since poetry has no rules, it is the perfect form for Barbara to express herself even as her language evolves and repairs itself. Kim explains that many of the poems were written in one session with no revisions, “They’re very honest and just flow out of her experience, and I think are very profound for that reason.” Kim also recognizes the value in Barbara’s ability to “hold joy and sorrow in the same room,” as the poems are both lighthearted and joyful yet honest and raw.
Most important, is how Barbara continues to bring people together through her words, and Kim comments that one particularly remarkable gift of these poems is Barbara’s ability to be reflective while validating the present, “It’s amazing that all these poems Barbara came up with, they are out of the current upheaval, tumult, and sadness she is going through.”
Because Barbara has always promoted community, this book is more than just her words to others. She and Kim added space for response on each page, discussion questions in the back, and included QR codes for further knowledge. Kim has taken collaboration between writer and reader a step further by starting a Facebook page where she reads poems and asks others to respond. Through Facebook, Barbara can participate in the conversation as well as see just how far her words are going, which happens to be as near as oncologists’ offices in Virginia and as far as halfway across the world. Several copies are on their way to friends in Japan who offer both support and the same desire to all be more interconnected.
The vessel doesn’t look the same, but with Barbara’s Golden Repair, it still holds the same hopes, dreams, and perhaps even greater potential, “That community-building, hope for a better world, and asking the hard questions. It’s still all there, even though she can’t vocalize it right now,” says Kim.