“Enlarge your tent and extend its walls without constraint. Lengthen the cords and drive the stakes deep so there is space to welcome everyone.”
— Isaiah 54:2
I never thought I’d be writing a tribute to my dear friend, mentor, and teacher, Tammy Neilson. Her abrupt death, at 46, after a successful routine surgery, sent shockwaves throughout our community. As I absorb how it’s possible that such a vibrant life could be taken so soon, I look to images and words that capture the impact she’s had on my life over the last decade. Neither Tammy nor I were religious people but the above passage from the Hebrew Bible kept coming up again and again.
Tammy had a heart that was big enough for everyone. It was expansive, both in the way she loved and in her relentless passion for making the world a better place. She was a kaleidoscope rich in colour and texture, always striving to encourage a tapestry of possibilities in others.
The tent metaphor represents how Tammy welcomed others. She always made them feel welcome. Welcome under her tent — whether it was in her women’s circles, her coaching classes, her home, or her multi-faceted community. There was room for everyone, regardless of ability, faith, race, gender, or class. Tammy was the epitome of acceptance and the champion of diversity. She had a gift for unearthing nuggets of wisdom, the kernels of truth, and the gems of possibility and connection. I’ve never met anyone so skilled at meeting people at life’s thresholds and midwifing them to birthing their truest self.
Tammy taught me that anything is possible if I pushed on the borders that were holding me back. She never stopped believing in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. And that was often.
She helped me find a way when I thought there was no way. She held a lantern up to my shadow side and became a mirror of my potential. After finally leaving a constricting, administrative job, I’ll never forget her telling me “welcome to the next chapter of your life.” It was her voice I heard when I took those first vulnerable steps into facilitation and group leadership. After pushing me out of the nest (even while I was kicking and screaming), she accompanied me in starting my own business and cheered me on as I met challenge after challenge that propelled me out of bounds of what I thought was possible.
Whenever I thought there was a limit to our working together, Tammy opened the tent even wider. We talked about collaborating as colleagues and last fall, she invited me to join the transformational coaching group she trained to continue my development and make new connections. The last time I saw her was at one of these network meetings. Tammy was at her strongest, teaching and guiding us, encouraging us to go deeper into our coaching roles. We learned together and celebrated each other on a common path that started by a woman who believed in the potential of each one of us. I was particularly moved by how welcome I felt by this group who had been on their own learning path together for almost a year. In widening the tent for me, they made me feel valued as someone who could make a contribution.
While the tent may be darker in her absence it is also more open to receive and bless others. Tammy Nielson’s flame was extinguished at its brightest point leaving the sparks and afterglow for others to absorb and bask in. Her wisdom lives in the people whose lives she touched. Her legacy is in the seeds she planted in so many hearts and minds that will grow strong because there is a little piece of her inside them