The Tattooist of Auschwitz


I hope that writers never stop telling stories of the Holocaust. I have read many, and each time the horror is shocking. Each time I am tempted to turn the page or scan paragraphs describing torture, unspeakable inhumanity, but I read. I only have to read. I do not have to live or re-live it. But we must keep it alive, so thank you Heather Morris for telling this story.

As I read the unfolding story I noticed that I felt less emotion than with some other Holocaust books. Was I developing a weird sort of “compassion fatigue” after reading repeated accounts of abuse and torture? Is this a thing? Perhaps. But I find that with each account I read, the writer offers a light of hope that brings me back. And I noticed this time that it wasn’t the horrors that brought me to tears. It was the glimmer of hope seen in a simple act of kindness.

It is the very, very end of the protagonist Lale’s long journey home after escaping from his imprisonment at the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is spent on every human level, physical, emotional, spiritual, with a single focus. To get home. He finds a train station and uses two coveted diamonds to pay for his passage. He is now eight hours from home by train.

As Lale is heading for the end carriage he is stopped by a call from the stationmaster, who catches up to him and hands him food and a thermos. “It’s just a sandwich the wife made, but the coffee’s hot and strong.”

Taking the food and coffee, Lale’s shoulders sag and he can’t hold back the tears. He looks up to see that the stationmaster also has tears in his eyes as he turns away, heading back to his office.

“Thank you.” He can barely get the words out.

Day breaks as they reach the border with Sloviakia. An official approaches Lale and asks for his papers. Lale rolls up his sleeve to show his only form of identification : 32407.

“I am Slovak,” he says.

“Welcome home.”

It’s very easy, far too easy, for me to forget the balm of kindness on the suffering spirit. It’s far to easy for me to miss the suffering, to simply not see it. The practice of living in the present moment is very popular these days. Which is wonderful when the present moment is filled with sunshine and connection. But it is not quite so easy when the present moment means watching a young woman head into her chemo infusion by herself, no one else there for support. Love is all around us. Yes. So is suffering. Experiencing that present moment and allowing compassionate love to infuse and relieve the suffering, that is the challenge. That is the grace.

Nine Perfect Strangers


I didn’t start crying until page 459. As I read through the story, I didn’t really expect to cry at all. In fact Liane Moriarty brought me right in with her funny (and oh so relatable) characters’ inner dialogues without missing a beat. I always love a story in which I can see myself and chuckle. And yes I guess I also love a story in which I see my grief reflected back to me and let go of yet another bittersweet tear.

Her story of nine perfect strangers brought together at the exquisite wellness retreat center Tranquillum is a funny poke at much of our cultural obsession with health, spiritual transformation and our addictions to everything from Pinterest to Doritos (wait for it).

She nails that experience of the judge-y first meeting through artificial bonding created at a ten-day wellness retreat. (Full disclosure, I am not a stranger to transformational wellness retreats).

I was led into the story by a flippant fifty-something romance writer, Frances, having an existential crisis. The host opened the retreat with the following comments:

I understand that some of you may find this period of silence particularly challenging. I understand, too, that the silence was unexpected. Some of you may be experiencing feelings of frustration and anger right now. You may be thinking: But I didn’t sign up for this! I understand, and to you I say this “Those of you who find the silence th emost challenging will also find it the most rewarding.

To which Frances responds, (internal dialogue, of course) Mmmmm, we’ll see about that.

But I was hooked when Frances was required to relinquish her cell phone.

“It’s time to hand over all your electronic devices,” said Yao….

“No problem.” Frances retrieved her phone from her handbag, switched it off, and handed it to Yao. A not unpleasant feeling of subservience crept over her. It was like being on an airplane once the seat belt sign was turned on and the flight attendants were now in charge of your entire existence.

“Great. Thanks. You’re officially ‘off the grid?” Yao held up her phone. “We’ll keep it safe. Some guests say the digital detox is one of the most enjoyable elements of their time with us. When it’s time to leave, you’ll be saying, ‘Don’t give it back! I don’t want it back!’” He held up his hands to indicate someone waving him away.

Digital Detox. A first-world phenomenon if ever there was one.

And I am sad to say, I related a bit to the younger participant Jessica who struggled to fall asleep without the comfort of a quick scroll through Facebook and Pinterest. She couldn’t shake the feeling that if she didn’t record this moment on her phone then it wasn’t really happening, it didn’t count, it wasn’t real life. She knew that was irrational but she couldn’t help it. She literally felt twitchy without her phone.

Moriarty’s observations are spot on. Nearly all of them. But what I really liked about this book was her exploration into what can happen in people’s lives when the ego is set aside. Her exploration of who is the “real us” and what drives the way that we relate to one another. I liked the way that she made me think about personal transformation, and what is it, really that we are going for? She made me think about the difference between the appearance of calm, peace, tranquility, and the actual experience of same. Do massages and candles, essential oils and fasting, facials and custom-created smoothies bring a lasting tranquility? Or does that actually come from something that most of us don’t really want to experience after all?

I know she is writing about some larger cultural issues, which I would very much like to discuss, but I have to skip that part because if I talked about it, it just might spoil the unfolding tension in the story. So maybe we can talk about it over coffee. It’s tough not to be a spoiler, because her ending made me question it all . And then wanted to embrace it all. Because, like I said, I started crying on page 459 and then I was laughing again, and then I was laughing AND crying at the same time.

The Great Believers


“If we could just be on earth at the same place and same time as everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple. And it’s not.”

I know nothing about being gay in America today. And I knew even less in 1985 when this book opens with the advent of the AIDs epidemic. In 1985 my husband was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. We knew a man named Andy. Andy led a ministry to gay people which I understood, at the time, to be a “pray the gay away” type of ministry. He had “healed” himself and was dedicated to helping others “heal” from what many in our community described as a lifestyle choice outside of God’s will. In 1985 this didn’t settle well with me, as with so many other ideas in the evangelical community.

Many ideas which came from misinformed people making misdirected judgments, most likely out of fear.

So, I want to thank Rebecca Makkai for inviting me into the circle of the gay experience in such a profound way. For inviting me to suspend judgment as I watched a global epidemic play out in the very intimate lives of men and women learning to love themselves and one another in one of the deepest places of human suffering.

Makkai gives us the angst of being gay in the 80’s; the uncovering of a labyrinthine trail of relationships as AIDS testing and diagnostics invites young men to read the dice that have already been tossed. She shows us the journey to self-awareness, the courage of conviction, and the strange dance that gay men had to learn in order to keep their jobs, to stay in families or to leave families, to find and let go of relationships, to blatantly participate in gay community or to cautiously hover around the fringes, straddling the world of gay and straight.

Makkai might not show the entire brutality of a gay experience in America, but she also doesn’t sugar coat the experience. She shows us flagrant sexual paramours and couples committed to monogamy. She shows the culture of the bath house as well as that of the domestic relationship. She also shows the horror each person realizes when they recognize they are a tile in the falling trail of dominoes that seems to have been set up throughout America. It is not a book for the morally squeamish.

But she also gives us the gift of retrospect, a view of relationships from 2015, when the few characters who lived through the epidemic have grown into and through adulthood. Which is sometimes a gift and sometimes a curse. But retrospect, especially at the end of one’s life, I suppose, tends to bring the drama of the present moment into a new perspective. The goods and bads, the horrors and shames, the tender moments and the moments of intense rage come together in a mercy and forgiveness born of the sheer vulnerability and letting go that is death. They create a tapestry of experience, which shimmers with the beauty of the total collection of moments.

In the end, what I learned from Rebecca’s beautiful story is that the circumstances of our lives play out in the most unexpected ways and it is never about judgment and punishment. It is about loving those who you end up being on the planet with at any given time.

To Heal


In a rare departure I am stepping away from books this week, to reprint this beautiful post on healing by Jenny Stoecker. Jenny has been a friend of my daughter’s and our family for many years. Her work with international humanitarian and relief organizations has taken her all over the world, to see suffering that is difficult for us to contemplate. In this beautiful post, Jenny brings a bit of humor to the search for healing.

Jenny is also a talented photographer! You can find her blog and information about her work here.


As a cautious (and tall) human I have learned to avoid the edge of cliffs, the side of countertops, stray light fixtures, etc. But accidents are inevitable. Last year I had what I hope will remain the most clutzy injury of my life — I walked into a tree.

To be fair, trees in Southeast Portland pose a danger to all, with their swooping limbs precariously venturing into the middle of sidewalks. I was innocently walking the dog ... while showing my roommate something on my phone, and ran smack into the branch. I walked away with a black eye and a bleeding forehead. After cleaning out the wound and determining I didn't need stitches, I moved awkwardly forward with Steri-Strips and Neosporin in hand, confident that my face would heal itself.

One week later, a piece of bark (oh my gosh, is this bark?!) found its way out of my forehead. When another painfully slow week produced a second, larger piece of bark, I thought, "This has got to be it." My wound closed up, but the swelling did not go down. It was at this point I was pretty sure Voldemort had decided to make my forehead his eighth horcrux.

My wise roommates (medical professionals, don't try this at home kids) said something to the effect of, "That ain't right," and surgically removed a THIRD piece of bark. 

I learned quite quickly that when you consistently have bark coming out of your forehead, metaphors abound. But, I kept coming back to one. 

We cannot heal what we do not address. 

Life is messy. People will let you down. Plans will fail. You'll be hurt physically, mentally, emotionally. We all know this, and we tend to address most issues as they come up. But, there are some issues we bury deep, deep enough to convince ourselves they don't exist. Those issues that, because they don't exist, definitely don't affect us.

In reality, the things we refuse to address or even acknowledge, those are the things that continue to swell. It’s that grudge causing us to refuse to give or accept grace. It’s that insecurity causing us to live out of a place of fear instead of freedom. It’s that unrealistic standard causing us to view love as something that must be earned.

Maybe you feel it whispering as you read this — that thing buried deep below the surface. Chances are, it's not going to heal itself. Sometimes all you need in order to heal is time, but often, at least from what I've seen in my own life, it usually takes time and _____. Time and forgiveness. Time and persistence. Time and truth-telling. Time and bravery.

We must consciously decide to reopen wounds and dig into the darkness. There is work involved in healing — in keeping a wound clean enough to mend. Sometimes, with enough Neosporin/Rosehip Oil/(fill in your hippie cure here), we might not even scar. Other times there will be a scar, but it will come with a story to share, one that might help others to heal in the future. 



I have heard it described by a few authors, this technique of asking readers to consider a truth which they instinctively reject. I heard Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee, share his own technique at a conference. It was several years ago, so I am working from memory, but he spoke about asking readers to see difficult realities as if from the corner of their eye. Not head on. The power of a writer to bring readers face to face with truth can be the writer’s own demise. And of course there is my life theory from Emily Dickinson, to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

In Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver has mastered this trick of the author’s trade. She has somehow managed to capture the angst of our times, help us understand that it is not necessarily unique to our time while simultaneously unsettling my complacency and giving me hope.

All in a delightful cast of characters navigating tumultuous cultural shifts in the microcosm of their personal dramas. Sounds a lot like my life for the past three years. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the book so much.

I don’t want to give away any details of her cleverly constructed plot. But I do want to gloat a bit (as you likely will if you read it) about the many times I exclaimed “I swear I’ve said the exact same thing,” about words and ideas she draws from her characters. I feel as thought Barbara Kingsolver has been listening in on my conversations.

For example, about air travel, the protagonist Willa’s husband complains about a US cross-country flight.

“Iano had returned to the subject of his miserable flight. It was a little maddening but Willa understood she needed to hear this out so he could move on. “It’s over five hours, this flight, and they feed you nothing. I’m crammed into a space the size of a dog kennel, I have to pee, and I’m starving….These airlines are supposed to be transporting humans. They used to do that. Now they don’t. Nobody could fit comfortably in that space. What kind of passenger are they making these airplanes for?”

Right? Haven’t you said something like that?

Or the comments Willa must navigate, delivered by her twenty something left leaning daughter, Tig.

“Plus,” Tig said, “it reminds me to be patient. Seeing all these people that have passed on. I get frustrated sometimes, waiting.”

“For people to die?”

“Yeah. To be honest. The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the nineteen fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they’re applying that to now. It’s just so ridiculous.”

Yes, I have fantasized about the day the old guard will pass the torch (or the torch will be wrestled from their grasping hands). I am encouraged by the women, young and old, coming into leadership in the world. And I remain hopeful that this will make a difference.

Or Willa’s explanation to her husband, after a dispiriting day navigating a healthcare appointment for her father-in-law, with no chance of getting him treatment. Some glitch in health insurance during a major life transition.

“Sweetheart, it’s not your fault. I know you signed up. You did everything you were supposed to do , and it should have been enough. And still we totally and completely struck out. I’m not sure we have any options for Nick.”

“What is this, Iano? It’s like the rules don’t apply anymore. Or we learned one set, and then somebody switched them out.”

When I talk to young parents at the preschool where I work and the conversation turns to having more children the comment is always, “can’t afford it.” When I had my children, our health insurance covered every penny of the cost. Young people now talk about saving for kids. Not a college fund. A fund to pay for pregnancy and delivery. When did it become too expensive to have children?”

Barbara Kingsolver makes me feel heard. She makes me feel less alone in my shock at how much the experience of living has changed since I was a young mother. And she invites me to consider where this all might be going.

Another conversation between Willa and her daughter, Tig.

“The thing is, Mom, the secret of happiness is low expectations.”

“Wow. That’s what I raised you to believe in? Low expectations?”

“What did you want me to believe in?”

“I don’t know. You can be anything you want. Hitch your wagon to a star and all that jazz.”

Tig didn’t smile. “I saw you and Dad doing that, hitching your wagon to the tenure star, and it didn’t look that great to me. You made such a big deal about security that you sacrificed giving us any long-term community.”

“You and Dad did your best. But all the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.”

Perhaps all the rules have, indeed, changed. But perhaps not. Yet, I love Barbara Kingsolver because I never close a cover on her books feeling hopeless. By the very nature of her story line, the characters she researches and brings into the light, the history that she brings forward into my present, reminds me that human beings are nothing if not resilient. That transition is not without casualties, change is not without suffering, but I am reminded that I can still embrace our ability to adapt. At least that’s what I read. But I’m not sure that’s what she intended. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

Life Itself


Life itself will bring you to your knees….but you probably already knew that. And I don’t want to spoil this poignant movie for you by giving you the rest of the beautiful quote that you will hear if you decide to hang in there until the end.

One of my minor joys in life is recommending a movie or book to someone who I know will get it the same way that I did. Who will laugh in the same place and cringe at the same scenes, and grieve with the characters the same way that I do. Usually it’s one of my kids. So at Christmas dinner this year, as we all shared our opinion on best movie of the year I insisted that everyone watch “Life Itself.”

Side note, I also have a high tolerance for grief, anger, malice, the darker or more painful aspects of human nature that a movie can offer, if they leads to a redemption at the end. I don’t mean happily ever after. By redemption I mean that in some way the protagonist finds change, transformation, hope as a result of their role in the story.

My daughter texted me the day after Christmas to let me know she was watching it. I turned it on for the second time, knowing I would be about 30 minutes behind her. It was like Thanksgiving food. Better the second time when the sense are more settled and can enjoy the flavors.

I almost felt the text coming before it did. “OK I have 20 minutes left and so far nothing redemptive. How can you watch this? It is sooooo sad,” she texted.

“Wait for it,” I texted back.

For the movie, like life, rewards us for staying in the story. Ten minutes later another text. “How can you watch this and not cry your eyes out?” I did cry my eyes out, I texted back.

The message I took away from the movie (among the many that it offered) is that life is so much deeper and richer and larger than we can see when we engage only with our suffering. And that my role when I find myself on my knees is simply to stay in the story, whatever it may present to me. And to bring to the story whatever I am there to bring. And to trust that the deep familial roots of those who came before me, and the strong wings of those who will follow me, will continue to weave into the fabric of the tapestry a redemption that I could not see from that small painful place where I collapsed.

For my story neither starts nor ends with my life, though I often think it does. And in the darkest hours of suffering, when it feels as though life has surely crumbled at my feet beyond any hope of repair, I must stay. And sometimes just watch and wait. And see what will happen. Because what we think is the end is never really the end. And Life Itself will surprise us.

Circe and STEM


“I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”

Glenn Holland, in Mr. Holland’s Opus

Just when I thought the Greek Gods and perhaps mythology itself had run its course, a woman steps in to help me re-imagine the legend of Odysseus yet again. Madeline Miller quickly surprised me by sweeping me up into the story of a greek goddess who had been little more than a footnote in the epic mythological tale of Odysseus, the template for the hero’s journey. In this story Miller crafted a compelling allegory for the feminine hero’s journey in the Goddess Circe. Miller shows us the father/daughter struggle between protection and freedom, the mother/son struggle between holding on and letting go, the feminine struggle for power and safety.

Miller led me into a world of Greek mythology both real and mythological. She painted believable relationships between gods and mortals. She balanced the worlds of Gods and mortals in a way that invited me to be present there. I felt acutely the pain of Deadalus losing his son Icarus because he did not warn him against flying to close to the sun. I felt horror at the conception and birth of the Minotaur. I felt rage and defiance as the Gods played out their drama without regard for mortal consequences. I felt empowered as Circe cast her spells for protection. I felt sisterhood as I watched her grow in wisdom through the heartache of making impossible choices.

In short, I reawakened to the wisdom of Greek mythology. Circe’s experiences with family, with exile, with motherhood, helped me to reflect on my own experiences and choices. I found, in Circe, a woman to relate to, in all of her splendor and failure. As a goddess, she may have known the unthinkable gift of immortality, but she knew the curse of it as well.

And immediately closing the back cover of the book, I felt sad about the potential loss of these myths as part of our children’s academic training. I thought of the school system’s popular STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) program and our culture’s near obsession with grooming young people toward careers in those fields. I thought of the first programs to be sacrificed under the chopping blocks of budget cuts, the arts, communication and humanities. When I ask my own children if they know who Odysseus was and the story of the Iliad, they have a vague recollection of the classic titles. Scant knowledge of the stories or their meaning.

And yet, our children will not be scared off from mythology. I grieve that they will not find it in their schools. But I have hope that they embrace stories of their own gods and godesses. They find them in popular culture. The cult following of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and more recently Game of Thrones, shows me how thirsty our children are for stories and archetypes to understand their world. Stories that invite them to see the true experience of humanity within themselves by watching it play out in characters in books and on the screen.

What they lose in this math/science/tech emphasis, unfortunately, is the wisdom of teachers who help them interpret the stories. Our educational system tells them that stories are not an important part of their life. That all they need to know to understand living can be found in the study of science, technology, engineering, math. How will our children learn to feel? And how will they learn to befriend their own experience as common among humanity? How will they learn to experience love, and loss, victory and failure, creation and destruction? Myth and story are the age old tools for that type of exploration toward wisdom. Communication and literacy are the avenues through which these truths are shared.

Our children will not allow us to rob them of their mythology. But neither will they have the wisdom good teachers could bring to the process of understanding themselves in the world.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking


I am a closet introvert.

I was voted "friendliest" in my high school graduating class of 400.  When I  participated in the high school Junior Miss pageant, no one commented on the performance of my endlessly rehearsed piano piece played in the talent section. But many people commented on how natural I looked on stage as I thanked the pageant producers and handed out flowers to our coaches. By eighteen I had carefully observed and adopted the survival skills of extroversion.  I went on to major in journalism in college, become a reporter, then a trainer and finally the executive director of a marketing certification program.

Answers to the Meyers-Briggs personality test landed me squarely in the "extrovert" category. 

It took me awhile to figure out that my leaning toward extroversion came to me as a survival skill in an extroverted world.  Susan Cain's book gave me courage to believe I will not only survive, but thrive, as I continue to unleash my introverted self.

Though I found the entire book to be thoughtful, well researched and inspirational, the section about "highly sensitive" people showed me that what Western culture considers a weakness, should, instead, be considered a strength.

Cain tells the story of a psychologist who was described by an associate as "highly sensitive." "It was as if these two words described her mysterious failing."

I feel that way all the time. People who know me always tell me that "I'm too sensitive." I believed them for a long time and tried to toughen up my hide. But in all situations, that approach made me miserable and unsatisfied.

The psychologist Cain wrote about decided to explore the inner lives of thirty-nine people who described themselves as being either introverted or easily overwhelmed by stimulation. Says Cain, "She asked them about the movies they liked, their first memories, relationships with parents, friendships, love lives, creative activities, philosophical and religious views. Based on the interviews she created a voluminous questionnaire that she gave to several large groups of people. Then she boiled their responses down to a constellation of twenty-seven attributes. She named people who embodied these attributes "highly sensitives." 

Here's a few of the insights her researched showed.  The highly sensitive tend to:

be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic

dislike small talk

describe themselves as creative or intuitive

dream vividly and can often recall their dreams the next day

love music, nature, art, physical beauty

feel exceptionally strong emotions

process information about their environments unusually deeply

be highly empathic (as if they have thinner boundaries separating them from other people's emotions)

It's taken many years for me to recognize and trust these aspects of my personality. But it changed my life. I stopped apologizing for my penchant to stay home and read a book, or write, or knit, or paint. I learned that the experiences which I find most fulfilling and interesting require a great deal of solitude. I learned to feel lonely and to enjoy that loneliness for what it allowed me to create. I learned the satisfaction of simply listening to my own reactions to the world, my expressions and creations.

I have accepted the freedom and discovered the benefits of invisibility.

Introverts have such a well-honed negative reputation as bores. And yet, they might be the most interesting people in the room. Whether in a classroom of children, a family meal, or a boardroom of executives, the extroverts will be heard, but the introverts will likely have the truly thought-provoking ideas.

Like Susan Cain's. But will it be only introverts who read her book?

Being Mortal


About a month ago my mother had a doctor's appointment because she was feeling fatigued. Actually, she had a cluster of symptoms. It was difficult even for the doctor to tell whether they were related or not. We went to the doctor's office for an exam and then, as directed, over the the lab to have blood drawn, then on to the hospital for a CAT scan.

The PA called the next day with the results. Inconclusive, she said, could we go back to the lab and have blood drawn again and then come to her office later that afternoon.

Thus began three weeks of diagnostic tests which ended with two days in the hospital, with apparently, little effect, except to lift her hemoglobin levels to within AMA standards.

That same week a friend gave me Atul Gawande's book and I read it in a weekend. It seemed to be tracking with my mother's life and raised so many issues for me about her health, her well-being, and the heart wrenching challenges of making quality of life and length of life decisions.

In this book, Gawande took me beyond the apparent concerns of aging such as daily living skills and socialization. He peers one step deeper into the soul to take a look at what makes life, at any age, but particularly toward the end, have a quality and a meaning. 

I ponder how to best support my mom. I ponder what type of medical intervention is necessary. My mother has always been conscientious about her health. I have memories, when I could not have been more than four or five, of lying on the floor with her doing excerises to the Jack LaLane show on TV. She always ate well and exercised. The only medications she took were for short term issues.

It's a slippery slope," she'd warn me about medication. "You start on one, and then you need another one for the side effects and down you go," she would say. We didn't know she was being prophetic. After a minor heart attack she was prescribed a blood thinner. But the blood thinner caused irritation to her stomach lining so she was prescribed another medication to lower her stomach acid. And so it begins....

A friend just told me that when his brother, asked him to help with his mother's care, he learned that she was on seventeen medications.  To me, that's absurd. I ponder the question, with each appointment and hospital stay, will this improve her quality of life? 

Here's a few more things that Gawande is helping me think about.


If psychology is right and having purpose can be one of the most meaningful aspects of life, how do I help her continue to find purpose in her days when her functioning continues to be limited? And how do I have that conversation with a woman for whom purpose has always been husband and family? Her husband has passed, and her expansive family is without need of her participation (much). 

"In 1998, a Harvard philosopher named Josiah Royce wrote a book with the title The Philosophy of Loyalty. Royce was not concerned with the trials of aging.  But he was concerned with a puzzle that is fundamental to anyone contemplating his or her mortality.

"Royce wanted to understand why simply existing - why being merely housed and fed and safe and alive - seems empty and meaningless to us. What more is it that we need in order to feel that life is worthwhile?

"The answer, he believed, is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was, to him, an intrinsic human need.  The cause could be large (family, country, principle) or small (a building project, the care of a pet). The important thing was that in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning."

My mother has, to date, enjoyed exercise class and Bible study and her weekly routine and housekeeping. But as her capacity for activity decreases, can I help her to define her purpose? 


My mother likes her routine at least as much as the next senior. She likes to be in control of what and when she eats. She likes to go to sleep when she wants to and wake up when she wants to and have her hair cut and colored regularly. She has created a perfect square mile radius from her home that she drives which includes her church, the grocery store, her physician, her hair salon and her exercise club.  It works. But lately she's been asking me to take her to doctor's appointments. She doesn't always understand everything they tell her. 

Gawande points out our inherent  dependence on others and that the amount of freedom you have in your life is not the  measure of the worth of your life.  And yet, he says...

"The late, great philosopher Ronald Dworkin recognized that there is a second, more compelling sense of autonomy.  Whatever the limits and travails we face, we want to retain the autonomy - the freedom - to be the authors of our lives.  This is the very marrow of being human. As Dworkin wrote in his ...essay on the subject, 'The value of autonomy...lies in the scheme of responsibility it creates: autonomy makes each of us responsible for shaping his own life according to some coherent and distinctive sense of character, conviction, and interest.  It allows us to lead our own lives rather than be led along them, so that each of us can be, to the extend such a scheme of rights can make this possible, what he has made of himself.'

"All we ask," suggests Gawande, " is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story."

But there have to be compromises. Yes, mom can still make her own doctor's appointments, but I can't twist my schedule around to fit the doctors' schedules. Instead, I give her a list of dates that I am available (much easier that a list of dates that I am not available), and we communicate. As best we can.  The challenge that I see is to allow us both to  have our autonomy as much as possible as we work out this new interdependent normal.

Safety V Quality

What is the balance, I ask daily, of safety and happiness for my mom? Perhaps she would be safer in an independent living situation where people kept and eye on her and she could make choices about cooking and socializing that were more accessible to her. But would she be happy?  Gawande says "so this is the way it unfolds...our elderly are left with a controlled and supervised institutional existence, a medically designed answer to unfixable problems a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about."

At what point would that be my mom's choice? Would it ever be her choice? And how do we make decisions that balance safety concerns with quality of life issues?

Moments and Memories

The quality of life piece doesn't have to be complicated. Most seniors, marketing aside, aren't looking for exotic trips and entrepreneurial opportunities. "As our time winds down," Gawande says, "we all seek comfort in simple pleasures - companionship, everyday routines, the taste of good food, the warmths of sunlight on our faces. We become less interested in the rewards of achieving and accumulating, and more interested in the rewards of simply being.  Yet while we may feel less ambitious, we also become concerned for our legacy.  And we have a deep need to identify purposes outside ourselves that make living feel meaningful and worthwhile."

Maybe that's why I see $5 checks written out to the March of Dimes, or a cancer foundation when I balance her checkbook. She wants to feel like she is still contributing.

People with serious illnesses, he says, have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives.  Surveys find that their top concerns include avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete. Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars....the how can we build a health care system that will actually help people achieve what's most important to them at the end of their lives?"

So, given the realities of the health care system that we have, and the opportunities that medicare affords my mother to access that health care system, the question I ponder is, what will be the best way to keep it all in balance? To assure that she has the assistance her body needs, without over taxing her mind and spirit in the process?

I was speaking to my mom's PA at one appointment about these complexities and she looked at me and said, "I know. I don't envy you."

Atul Gawande, thank you for your honest and soul-filled exploration of these questions for which we have no answers; for which we must go courageously forward and invent solutions, holding our hearts and those of our loved ones in our very clumsy and ill-equipped hands.

WAR & Love


I never imagined myself reading a book about war.  When I read books with battle scenes I typically skip over the gruesome details. But I was having dinner with my nephew, who had recently returned from a deployment as a physician in Kuwait and our conversation turned to the complexities of war.

"If you want to know what war is really like, read Sebastian Junger's book WAR," he said. My nephew is a reflective observer of life so I thought I would give it a try.

I couldn't put it down. Because Sebastian Junger helped me to see the very human side of war. It's easy to keep the realities of war at more than arm's length, living here in the United States. It's easy to think about war as a relatively abstract concept.

This book didn't allow me to do that any more. Junger showed me what goes on in the hearts and minds of soldiers, mostly young men, confronting death on a daily basis. I felt as though he could have been writing about my nephew, or my son, he took such care with capturing their humanity. 

"War," says Junger, "is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter.  Combat is the smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men."

Junger, better known for his book The Perfect Storm spent the better part of a fifteen month deployment in the Korengal Valley, considered the most dangerous zone in Afghanistan in 2008. This is no "hail the conquering hero" view of this war. It's a story of the psycho-emotional experience of war, told, not in dusty interviews but in action and discourse, observed in real time.

And I will never look at war the same way again.

It made me stop and ponder how soldiers psycho-emotionally manage the experience. There is a respect I have for the soldier's experience. I wouldn't presume to even imagine how they process the trauma. Nor would I presume that it is anything but an individual experience; different for each person. But I was fascinated to read in Junger's book an account of how, in the deeply confusing and conflicting nature of war, true heroism is birthed from the love these warrior's shared.

I am always curious and attracted to ways that love makes itself known in this world. Especially in the most brutal of human suffering. And Junger had the audacity to title the final section of his book "Love." To suggest that love not only existed in war but shaped the way humans experienced war. 

"The coward's fear of death stems in large part from his incapacity to love anything but his own body.  The inability to participate in others' lives stands in the way of his developing any inner resources sufficient to overcome the terror of death." - J. Glenn Gary, The Warriors

What I gather, here, is a truth about love. About how love looks in the face of death. Gary says that a coward is a coward because he is unable to love. That rings true to me. And Junger says that when you get a team of men together in a small group, and they face the risks and challenges of war, some of them begin to love each other. It may not look like love as we expect it to look. The "hazing" ritual of beating up new recruits or officers when they arrived at the outpost may not have looked like love. But the ritual showed much about how the men both respected one another, had a bit of fun, and took the physical challenges with dead seriousness.

They also began to love the tribe they created in a very short period of time. They create their own tribal love where the protection of the platoon matters more than the protection of their own body. And when they return from war, it is the tribe that they most miss, that they most long for.

This debunks a lot of what I thought about courage and faith. I make the assumption that when a person is willing to sacrifice their life for a greater cause it is because they have faith that their life will continue in spirit. But it doesn't appear that it was faith in God that motivated this love, so much as faith in their tribe. Faith in each other.

"The nearly narcotic effect of a tightly knit group might have made faith superfluous.  The platoon was the faith, a greater cause that, if you focused on it entirely, made your fears go away.  It was an anesthetic that left you aware of what was happening but strangely fatalistic about the outcome. As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with.  Cowardice lingered forever."

"The defense of the tribe," Junger says later, is an insanely compelling idea, and once you've been exposed to it, there's almost nothing else you'd rather do. The only reason anyone was alive at (and he names several high-risk outposts) was because every man up there was willing to die defending it."

"Collective defense can be so compelling - so addictive, in fact - that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place."

At one point in the book Junger ponders with a soldier about the Godless nature of the Korengal Valley. We always seem to say that God is absent in the face of great suffering. But I say, Religion may not have been present in that valley, but God was there. God existed in every breath of love that the soldiers shared. God existed when a man fell to his knees in grief at the site of dead friend and his platoon was there to comfort him. Jesus knew something of this when he said "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for a friend." Junger showed me how these soldiers tasted the real stuff.

It's Going to Be Okay


It struck me this morning that each generation seems to have it's ways of keeping life from happening to us. For my grandparents' generation it was entering in to an unavoidable horror during WWI through service and community. For my parents, it was creating the perfect life in the suburbs according to Leave It To Beaver and The Dick VanDyke Show. For kids in the 70's it was a hippy scene of young adults disillusioned by that perfect life. For my generation it was embracing a new level of success dressed in business suits and caling ourselves yuppies.

And for my kids, I realized as I read Nora McInerny Purmort's book, it is pop culture and social media. Because when I started reading her book I was surprised and a bit discouraged at her flippant humor. One of the back cover blurbs says that she is the next generation's Anne Lamott and I said to myself, "you're no Anne Lamott, dear." 

But then I kept reading. I started laughing. And I kept reading. And then I started crying. Crying a bit from relief. Because I guess I have feared, as I'm sure that generations of parents do, that this deep dive into distraction that my children's generation chose, would keep them from really living. From becoming adults and engaging in the full spectrum of life. I feared that this next generation would spend their lives binge watching Netflix specials, experiencing life only through the dramatic stories of other people, and believing they need to create that same drama and closure cycle for themselves.

I am sorry to say that I am encouraged that life doesn't seem to be letting them do that. And Nora's story is living proof. (As are the stories of my own dear children). They might spend their time binge watching weird TV (it all seems pretty weird to me) and as my daughter tells me eating avocado toast for brunch at chic restaurants but they are still being called to live life. Maybe yanked out of their over-structured cozy childhoods into events for which there is no rubric. (I earned the right to say that because I was one of the parents who created that cozy childhood for her kids).

And so, I have found that this thirty-something millennial and I have a shared experience and that is widowhood. And I have found her honesty in trying to navigate these waters has made so much of my journey okay. Not because I think I did it better. But because she makes me feel okay about doing it the way that I am doing it.

And now, as I experienced the second anniversary of Roy's death yesterday (two days after my birthday...and come to realize that it will, for the rest of my life, occur two days after my birthday) I am struck by the chapter titled Lean In. Nora tells the story of seeing a psychic and hearing from her husband that she should make a list of things she still needed help with.

Yes I do believe that those we love and  lost long to help us with this struggle. Roy has been so very present with me many times during these past two years, always the best Roy, always comforting and strong and sometimes funny.

Nora goes on to say that she DID create a list and on it was the need to find a new place to live and someone to rent their house.  Here's here story:

"The first house I looked at with a realtor seemed perfect, and then I got to the kitchen. The fridge was free of the debris a normal family fridge is covered in: save-the-dates and finger paintings and free magnets from your local pizza shop. There was just one little piece of paper, the prayer card from Aaron's funeral, telling me, "It's Going to Be Okay."

After investigating the rest of the property, I found a wedding photo and saw that the bride was a classmate from grade school."

You'll have to read the book to get the rest of the story.

That's how I'm feeling this year. Like the prayer card on the fridge and the title of the final chapter in her book. It's going to be okay.

I look at my kids and myself and our newly formed family who have, (quoted from This is Us) earned our saber swords. I look at us finding new jobs and taking care of each other and crying and laughing together and doing the awkward family stuff that Nora describes. I see us creating our own holidays and "holy days" which are often separate things and being there for each other and I can say with conviction, WE ARE OK.



milk and honey


The woman who recommended this book to our group told us, on the day we discussed it, that she worried for the entire month that she had made a mistake. What if they judge me? she asked herself. "What if they hate it?" "What if they find it disturbing?"

And I understood her trepidation. I applaud her for recommending it. I think it was a very vulnerable action to do so. It's my daughter Katie's book group, recently formed. Katie and I have taken to briefly discussing the books prior to the group. We had both put off reading this one, not for any particular reason; maybe because it was poetry instead of prose. So I bought it and read it in less than an hour.

Immediately after reading the first section I quickly texted her to warn her that it was really intense. (Even though she was at work, hadn't yet purchased the book, and wasn't likely to dip into it in the next, say several hours). That's how intense I found the first section. And yes, disturbing.

As a mother I didn't want her to read it at all. It was full of descriptions of things that I hoped my daughter would never have to know about. Of course that's completely unrealistic in this world, especially as my daughter recently turned 29. 

But then I finished the book. And again, immediately,  I texted her to just keep reading. To not stop after the first section. Because, while the poetry is raw with pain and suffering, a shocking loss of innocence and a graphic portrayal of things that most of us would rather just not discuss, the work of art in its entirety is truth. It is an honest and simple description of an arc of human suffering and healing.

It is at the same time horrifying, and hopeful, painful and optimistic. It contains the infinite experience of suffering and self-love in 200 pages and a handful of line drawings.

How did she do that? Here's how author rupi kaur describes it:

this is the journey of

surviving through poetry

this is the blood sweat tears

of twenty-one years

this is my heart

in your hands

this is

the hurting

the loving

the breaking

the healing

And to me, her words are courage. Courage to explore the experience of losing yourself in love, and then finding yourself again.

Rupi at 21, me at 59. For when the object of our love leaves, it does not really matter whether the love as been for 35 weeks or 35 months or 35 years. To love deeply is to make a soul investment in another person. And when that connection comes to an end, there is the growing into a new self, redefined, recreated, loved, cherished and discovered.  She says,

losing you

was the becoming

of myself

Yes, another becoming. As for her, I imagine, there will be so many more. As for me, there have been so many before, and will continue to be. I heard an interview with actor Christopher Plummer (88 years old) who was up for an Academy Award this year. He talked about noticing that he reinvented himself about every ten years. Every ten years he was willing to let go of some things and bring in some new things. It sounds like such a good idea when it's a successful actor talking about it.

But when it's me, here in the details of the every day, the emotion of the shedding, the shock of the letting go, the fear of trusting in that new thing, it doesn't appear quite as attractive. But it is. That is life. The birthing, nurturing, growing, releasing, letting go, and dying. And then the birthing....and on and on.

So beautifully and honestly portrayed in this collection.

We Need to Change How We See


The most compelling scene in this movie is the school principal confronting a pair of disgruntled parents with, "Maybe what we need to change is not how he looks.  Maybe what we need to change is how we see."

This inspiring story is packed full of archetypes and important messages about love, acceptance, self-image and community. While there was a great deal to watch in the relationships between the protagonist, Auggie, and the children he interacted with at his new school, I found myself closely watching something else.  The adults in his life.  And I was delighted to see some very hopeful male archetypes. Father, teacher, mentor, friend, all offering a refreshingly quiet yet courageous style of masculine empowerment.

In the father, played by Owen Wilson, I saw the vulnerability of a man whose heart ached for the suffering of his son. I saw a man who wanted his son to be "normal", happy, empowered. I also saw a man who was learning how to find acceptance, courage, self-love, a sense of humor and even playfulness in the face of that heartache as he helped his son navigate a new and less than friendly world. I saw a man who wanted his son to see that the world was much larger and full of potential than the narrow-minded people he would encounter.

In his teacher, a former Wall-Street trader, I saw a man who was no stranger to the pain of discrimination. He encouraged Auggie to participate in class, and noticed the subtle nuances of exclusion that needed to be addressed and overcome for this child.  He didn't make Auggie a "school issue" by creating a scene or pressing a point.  Instead he became Auggie's quiet champion, gently reminding him, and his classmates, that he is included. That he is an important and valued part of his class.

In the school principal, I saw a mentor who dealt with the larger issues around supporting (and protecting) Auggie. In a shocking scene, the principal confronts the parents of a bullying child. Among other things, the child had brought a copy of the recent class photo to school. The photo had been digitally altered to exclude Auggie. His mother had done it. The combination of rage and frustration in the principal's face at seeing the cruelty of this was poignant, but what he said was even more so. "Maybe we don't need to change how he looks, maybe we need to change how we see."

And finally, Auggie's best friend, who encountered his own challenges as a scholarship kid in a private school. I saw his heroics as he learned to see the affects his behavior had on his friend, on himself, and on his community. He was able to find and keep his compassionate heart as it was newly opening to life's challenges.

There were no dramatic plot twists, no explosions, no arrests, or fires or major psychological turns.  Just the daily subtle nuances of pain, discrimination, and choice. And somehow, this writer helped me to feel compassion for all of the characters. Not just for Auggie and his family and their individual struggles. But also for the wounded parents who were trying to manage a wounded and bullying child. The confused fifth-graders who were trying to figure out their place in the world. The adults who should have, but for the most part didn't really have any better handle on how to deal with this situation than the children.

And no, I did not miss the point that the real hero of this story was Auggie, because HE was the one who invited us to make these choices. This amazing and delightful and very real young man offered us the invitations to make our own choices about acceptance, friendship and community. He led the way.

I was encouraged by these characters because they made larger than life the possibility of changing how we see. How kind, funny, compassionate men can literally change the world. They certainly changed Auggie's world.

Here's a video from another man who is helping us to see new ways to embody masculinity. How gentle love and compassion can be a powerful force.


Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Cinnamon and Gunpowder.jpg

"Since childhood I have had trouble imagining heaven, for, I'll say it, the descriptions have always disappointed...All my life, I have secretly searched for a credible glimpse of eternal bliss, in fern-floored groves, in echoing cathedrals, and in the iridescent surface of a perfect stock.  Had anyone told me I would have found it upon a pirate ship, I would have struck them down with a ladle. To these imagined persons, I offer an apology."

I never expected to find such lovely prose in a novel about a cook captured by a pirate and forced to prepare for her a series of gourmet meals. As a writer, I'm a bit jealous. What a clever concept! The play of the raw primitive life of a pirate against the nuanced blending of the flavors of sea and spice. One expects a harsh swashbuckling woman as the pirate and an angry unyielding bumbler as the captured cook. But in this lovely story, Eli Brown gives us characters rich with depth and the search for love and beauty.

For I have been learning that heaven is rarely where I think I am going to find it. I am finding heaven in the upturned eyes of a trusting one-year-old, the warm hug of an understanding friend, the words that flow from my hand to the paper, or the keyboard. Because it's getting more real to me that heaven is not a place, but a state of being. I think that's what Jesus meant when he tried to get us to see that the Kingdom of God is within us.

I have, since Roy died, been reflecting a great deal on the many many moments of love between us that I took for granted. I often climbed into bed at night, so exhausted, that I left the light on over the sink where I had been brushing my teeth. He'd look up from his book and say "wanna get that light?" Every time. Like it was the first time it happened, and he was just casually suggesting I turn it off. If the roles were reversed I probably would have been saying, 'geez Roy, every night! Can't you remember to turn the light off before you get into bed?" But that wasn't Roy's way. 'Wanna get that light?' Those little gestures speak love.

I suppose that is a natural part of grieving. I see more clearly now how being in a relationship with someone in our human bodies with all the demands of surviving and thriving can cloud over even the deepest love. It gets murky. Sometimes it gets muddy. Sometimes it's downright quicksand. I let that happen. I'm not beating myself up. I suppose we all let that happen in many ways, and that I continue to let that happen in other relationships.

But when that earthy human nature of the relationship is stripped away, I feel like I am left not with the arguments and childish behavior, but with the millions of sweet and tender moments of love that passed between us in 35 years. And the millions that I probably missed. For heaven was not where I expected it to be. I get it when people say 'if I could just have one more day.' The desire to just get one more moment of that pure connection. 'I won't miss it this time. Really I promise.' But of course I would. It's just being human.

The cook in Brown's novel expressed this for me so eloquently as he nursed his captor back from a near deadly battle on the sea.

"The bowl of rabbit broth I carried to Mabbot's cabin was a forgiveness and a plea for forgiveness, an acknowledgement that this blood is shared universally. With this meal I surrendered to the mystery of my days and vowed never to look askance at love of any kind, nor to defy it. For the world is a far more expansive and mystifying place than can be said."

And that is a gift I have been given in Roy's death. To simply desire to be more aware of love of any kind, and to never look askance when it is offered. The gentle cook had lost his wife to childbirth shortly before he was captured. He and his captor shared an unexpected experience of grief for those they loved and could not save. And he says of his wife:

"As for Elizabeth, if she knows anything, she knows that she lives in the purest parts of my heart...

I can't imagine a better way to express this truth. That Roy now lives in the purest parts of my heart. That our love is changed and refined in ways that I could never have imagined. This is heaven. How could it not be?

Learning to Eat Again


Yesterday, Katie read this excerpt to me from Joe Biden's Biden's book:

"One thing I have grown especially attuned to over the years is just how many people are quietly and uncomplainingly suffering psychic and emotional pain at any given time.  Consider the simple fact that as I sped along a highway at the far edge of America in the last few days of 2014, more than two and a half million of our fellow citizens had perished in the single year.  A fifth of those people had died of cancer, which meant they had likely suffered long, harrowing, and painful deaths as their families looked on feeling helpless. A population twice the size of my hometown of Wilmington had died in some form of accident.  Here and healthy one day; gone forever the next."

He goes on... he talks about the number that died from suicide, alcohol and drugs, gun shots and accidents.  The big picture is overwhelming and hard to grasp.  But it's important to remember.  Each time I step out my door, I am likely to encounter someone who is suffering, who needs grace or mercy or compassion.

But the place where I relate to the pain and suffering is in the individual stories, whether real or dramatized.  That's why I like Grey's Anatomy.  I know I'll lose some folks here, that's OK, but I think Shonda Rhimes gets it.  The surgery story is such a beautiful analogy for the spiritual life. Well, of course it is, the body is the container of that spirit in every fiber and cell.  So she shows us, in minute detail, the anatomy of the body as a reflection of the spirit on the journey.

I've been sick.  Ugh.  (And, yes, the irony is not lost on me that my body is reflecting my spirit continuing to struggle back into balance). And I've been binge watching Grey's to catch up for the 2 seasons I didn't watch after Roy died.  Way tooooo intense.  And, also yesterday I watched season 13, a later episode, not sure the number, where (spoiler alert) Maggie's mom died.  Yes, it was cathartic.  But more importantly for me, it made me see that my inability to function after Roy's death was not some weakness in my character, or psyche, or spirit, but a universal response to shock and grief.


It was the scene at the end of the episode where we see Maggie sitting at the dining room table in front of a half-eaten pan of lasagna that she had made with her mother. The fork is in her hand but she is not eating.  She is staring, like she's not quite sure what to do with the fork.  I get that.  Then Meredith and Amelia come home and see her. They walk to the table and sit beside her.  Then Meredith takes a bite.  Then Amelia takes a bite. No one says a word.  Then Maggie seems to get it and the three of them take a bite together.

That is so very real for me. Being in such a state of overwhelm and confusion that even the autonomic functions seem to have collapsed and abandoned me. And her friends, they knew. They just came and sat next to her. And showed her how to eat again.  They didn't come in and say, Oh, good Maggie, you need to eat.  Glad to see you're feeling like eating. They didn't say anything.

They just sat next to her and taught her how to eat again. And I am so very grateful for the people who came and sat with me. You all know who you are. Well, maybe some of you don't. Because sometimes, the smallest gestures have great magnitude.

On any given day, when I walk out the door, there will be people I encounter who are learning to eat again.  Knowing this, I try to go more gently into the world.

If She Went On, It Would Have to Be By Herself


I am beginning to open to the possibility that maybe this is how the second half of my life is meant to go. Time and space to think and process and ponder thoughts and ideas. And as I have been pondering this, I encountered this beautiful passage from Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass.

"If she went on, it would have to be by herself."  The protagonist, Lyra, has been on a hero's journey through a treacherous, frigid landscape, escorted in the final legs by a strong and comforting giant polar bear. But, finally, they encounter an ice bridge over a great dark chasm, cracked to the point of being able to hold very little weight.  Lyra's, perhaps, but certainly not that of the bear. 

I am there.  At that part of my journey where I realize if I am to go on, now, it will be by myself. It is not a bad place, but this realization does not come without it's terror and angst.

"I got to go across," Lyra says. "Thank you for all you done. I don't know what's going to happen when I get to him. We might all die, whether I get to him or not. But if I come back, I'll come and see you to thank you properly..."

She laid a hand on his head. He let it lie there and nodded gently.

"Goodbye, Lyra Silvertongue," he said."

And as I read this the tears started to flow and I saw Roy standing clearly nodding to me that it is fine and good for me to move forward on my path.

"Her heart thumping painfully with love, she turned away and set her foot on the bridge. The snow creaked under her...step after step she took and wondered with every step whether it would be better to run swiftly and leap for the other side or go slowly as she was doing and tread as lightly as possible. Halfway across there came another loud creak from the snow, a piece fell off and tumbled into the abyss and the bridge settled down another few inches against the crack. She stood perfectly still."

Coming out of grief feels like that. Inching onto an uncertain bridge suspended over an abyss of the unknown with no guarantee for the next step. But the next sentence grabbed me with its truth:

"The bridge held." 

THE BRIDGE HELD!!!! Yes yes yes! I have taken many of those tentative steps in this last year, not knowing if and/or how the bridge would hold. It has creaked beneath my weary feet. But the bridge has held.

"She took another step, then another, and then she felt something settling down below her feet and leaped for the far side with all her strength. She landed belly-down in the snow as the entire length of the bridge fell into the crevasse with a soft whoosh behind her...

"After a minute she opened her eyes and crawled up away from the edge. There was no way back.

"She stood and raised her hand to the watching bear. Iorek Byrnison stood on his hind legs to acknowledge her and then turned and made off down the mountain in a swift run to help his subjects in battle...

"Lyra was alone."

I see you there, Roy, raising your hand to me, encouraging me that the bridge has held and I have made it across. And I can go forward on my own. I see you making off down the mountain in a swift run of joy toward the eternal and infinite experience of love.

"Lyra looked up at the blazing sky. She was aware of how small they comparison with the  majesty and vastness of the universe and of how little they knew in comparison with the profound mysteries above them."

"She turned away. Behind them lay pain and death and fear; ahead of them lay doubt and danger and fathomless mysteries. But they weren't alone [after all]."

This is why I love story. Because of the way others' stories inform my own experience. I know this feeling. I know the feeling of the bridge holding, and the feeling of something settling down below my feet so that I can not just step, but leap forward. I know the feeling of landing on something sure and solid, even though it be a belly-flop. I know the stinging truth that there is no way back. And I know the feeling of being alone and being OK. And then of trusting in the fathomless mysteries among which I am not alone at all.



'Tis a fearful thing to love

what death can touch

A fearful thing

to love, to hope, to


to be

And oh, to lose

A thing for fools, this

And a holy thing,

A holy thing

to love

For your life has lived in me

Your laugh once lifted me

Your word was gift to me

To remember this brings painful joy

Tis a human thing


a holy thing, to love

what death has touched

~ Yehuda Halevi

Grief woke me early this morning and sat next to me as I rolled pom poms. Grief, woven through my fingers as I wrapped gifts and tied bows. Grief, sprinkling into the bowl as I mixed the cookie batter. Grief still with me, finally pouring out in the tears that sit and wait in my heart for the gentle touch that releases them...the thought, the picture the memory.  

I felt so confident, going into the season, that grief has been gently tamed and put to its place, like a horse that has been gently broken. Taken from the frenzy of fear and pain and the desire to flea and gently brought down to the dust. Listening to my words, learning to trust, allowing me the rein, allowing me to raise it again, gently trusting that I can love and control it. And then, it reminds me, yet again, that though I have tamed it to my purpose it remains the powerful and stronger animal that has only, by trust, submitted to my will, to my wishes and desires.

I do not let it take over. I know now how to better manage the power of this beast. And yet, on days like today, it is there to remind me. I have a new experience to be with, to live with, to allow its space and room so that it can move freely with me, in a rhythm. And I can trust that I can move freely with it.

And the relationship becomes a friend to me. Teaching me as I give it space, but serving me only as I am able to be present with it - to see the nurturing possibility - the give and take. 

For should I enclose it in a confined space where it cannot move and breathe and be in my life, it will no longer serve me, but fight me, work against me and we will not continue in love any longer. And we would not make our peace. But instead, by heeding its gentle approaches, its reminders, its painful presence and allowing it room, we are able to serve each other, to learn and grow and become that Divine dance that plays with us both.



A Fall of Marigolds


Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

~John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

"Ode on a Grecian Urn is about expectation and fulfillment...sometimes the expectation is better than the fulfillment...'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.' Keats is saying what you can still dream about is often sweeter than reality."

In this beautifully woven story, Susan Meissner takes us on a journey of expectation, longing, loss and healing. And interweaves this lovely idea about John Keats' famous poem.  

For the first time in many many years I am observing the season of Advent. This year for me it encompasses that matrix of emotions portrayed in Meissner's characters. But I am most enthralled with the idea of expectation. During this quiet and darkened season, counting down the days until Christmas, I get to experience expectation in my material world that so captures spiritual experience.

And I have been struck by the rhythm of our holidays. Of how we end a season of growth with our national holiday of Thanksgiving. How that time is available to me to express gratitude for what has transpired, what I have learned, how I have been sustained, nurtured, protected and loved. The abundance of hopes recognized and labors rewarded in the symbol of harvest.

And then, immediately, I am set upon this sweet season of expectation. A season of dreaming, of longing, of trusting as the year draws to a close. I see this metaphorically; how it can define any season in history, in life in our time/space continuum drawing to a close and ushering in this time of dreaming, longing and expectation. How this leads us to a new place.

Hold fast to your dreams, says Langston Hughes, for if dreams die, life is but a broken winged bird who cannot fly.

This is a beautiful gift. As the season of Advent leads us to a sweet day of longings fulfilled, wrapped in packages with strings and bows, my spiritual seasons of dreaming and longing lead me to pursuit what is yet to be born. Yes, Christmas morning can have its disappointments, as the fulfillment may not be as sweet as the expectation. And seasons in my life may have their disappointments as it can seem impossible for the beauty of the expectations in my deepest longings to be fulfilled. But what is sweeter, asks Keats? The longing or the fulfillment? When I experience the longing, I am drawn to that which is calling me. That fulfillment in love. I don't think we can really know that fully in our material experience. But I am beginning to see that the longing, the pursuit, the dreaming is the stuff that gives meaning to my life.  





A Christmas Carol


When my kids were young we used to take a family field trip to Denver every year.  We went to the Tabor Center to see the same jolly Santa with the real belly, real beard, and a sparkle in his eyes.  One year a film crew from a Denver news channel was interviewing people about Christmas Traditions.  I was so excited when he approached us.  He asked whether we knew what The Nutcracker Suite was.  Oh, I thought, I've got this one!  I gushed about the ballet, Christmas tradition, how our family made it a special event to include it in some form in our Christmas every year.  I am sure my kids were looking at me aghast wondering what I was talking about.

That evening we excitedly watched the news to see if our interview was included in the story.  I was pretty confident.  After all I had painted a pretty good picture of a family wrapped in Christmas tradition.

My heart sunk when I heard the story.  The reporter's spin was that people don't really participate in those old Christmas traditions, and in fact most people didn't even know what the Nutcracker Suite was.  I guess he was trying to do a Jay Leno man on the street interview.  Several young couples were featured with puzzled looks on their faces as they tried to place the mysterious ballet.

Yes, I love Christmas tradition.  I love the Nutcracker Suite and Christmas Choirs, and yes, every single version of A Christmas Carol.

Katie selected it for her book group this month and I realized that I had seen many many versions of the story, but could not recall having actually read it in Dickens' words.  A literature major. Shameful.

So I got a version from the library and spent Thanksgiving weekend with Scrooge and his ghosts. I saw something in the reading this time that I had never seen in the movie or theater versions. The first ghost Scrooge encountered, the ghost of Christmas Past, was helping Scrooge review his wounded child.  Yes Scrooge was an awful stingy and cranky guy.  But it was created by his pain. And in order to heal his pain, he had to go back and look at what had caused it.  Maybe because I have been having that experience as I have been moving through the grief process I especially identified with Scrooge this time around. Stingy, fearful, angry, unable to embrace joy.

I see those parts of me.  But I also see what the ghosts were able to help Scrooge do.  The gift of Christmas!  To see and love all of those parts of himself and be free of the pain.  In one night he let it all go and embraced joy, abundance, charity, hope.  He began to feel compassion and pain, even grief.

Oh, Charles Dickens, you clever man.

Because that is the true gift of Christmas.  To see all of myself with love and compassion.  To forgive myself and accept the love that is so abundantly available to me.  To open my heart to peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness.  For that is a new type of journey.