The Tattooist of Auschwitz

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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

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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.

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

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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

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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.

Purpose

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? 

Autonomy

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 question...is.. 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.

We Need to Change How We See

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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.

 

A Fall of Marigolds

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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

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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.

The Word Made Flesh

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I have been following Dr. Joe's work, and practicing with his ideas for awhile now.  But when, in this TedX Talk he called it "the word made flesh" bells and whistles went off for me.  Now he's speaking my language...words and spirit.  I've always seen that expression in light of the traditional Christian interpretation that the word was made flesh in the embodiment of Jesus Christ.  And I believe that truth.  But also, here, we see the science of how this works in our own minds, bodies and spirits, as we are created in the image of God.

As I love words, and am always exploring their extraordinary power, I was especially struck by this eloquent explanation.

https://www.facebook.com/DrJoeDispenzaOfficialNewsFanPage/videos/2122965437728839/