Noticing Fathers and Their Children

Last Saturday I took the bus from my home in northeastern Pennsylvania into New York City to meet my friend Eugene Hughes, who was in town for a few days from London to teach a workshop. As I walked from the subway to the restaurant where we were meeting for brunch, my attention was drawn several times to fathers out and about with their children: a father and two little kids looking in the window of a toystore; a father and daughter, about 9 years old, having an animated conversation about their dog; a father pushing an infant in a stroller. My own father was a workaholic and alcoholic and I never got that kind of time with him, and I am always so touched when I see a father  and his daughter or son casually and comfortably enjoying each other’s company.

Eugene and I had brunch on the Upper West Side, then walked across the park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the David Hockney retrospective. On the way, even as Eugene and I talked intensely, I noticed and admired more fathers and children.

We arrived at the Met and made our way to the exhibition. And then, as I was looking at one of Hockney’s more recent paintings, a large Yorkshire landscape painted on six canvases, the subject of my attention boomeranged back to me! A father and his son, aged about 13, who had also been looking at the painting, approached me.

The father wanted to know if they could ask me a question. Of course, I said. He said that he and his son were having a discussion about whether Hockney had painted each of the six canvases separately and put them together, or whether he’d painted one whole canvas and then cut it up. The son was of the latter opinion.

Together the three of us studied the painting closely and in silence for a few minutes. I told the son that I thought was right, because the foliage from one panel to another didn’t quite match up. We all considered the painting again, more in unison this time, and agreed. They walked on in one direction and I in another.

All morning I had been touched by fathers and children and then a father and child reached out to touch me directly. Such synchronicity is so sweet.

Photo above: A Closer Wind Tunnel, February-March (2006), by David Hockney, now at th Metropolitan Museum, New York City.

Watching Nature Breathe

To me, one of the most engrossing things to get seduced by is what I call “watching nature breathe”. This practice simply entails sitting or standing still, focusing on a place where the stable and the temporal meet, and then just waiting to see what happens.

The possibilities for such enchantments exist all over the place—and not just in the countryside. For example: you can watch the morning sun gently sink over the face of a rock, through the trees in a woodland, or even down the side of your house. You can get absorbed in how a breeze riffles long grasses. You can gaze at a single bough on a tree on a spring day and see what birds and insects come to land in it. You can witness clouds and sky interacting in the windows of a skyscraper.

Here’s a little video I made the other day as I watched nature breathe in the form of water flowing over a patch of ice in a hemlock forest.

8 Tips to Survive Hard Times

I’m a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Binghamton, New York. Once or twice a year, I lead the service. Last Sunday, I did a service called “Creative Endurance.” The sermon was based on the extraordinary voyage of Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 in the schooner Endurance.

The crew set out in August 1914 to sail to Antarctica and then cross the continent. However, their ship was trapped in pack ice and eventually sank. They then had to make their way overland on foot, sail 800 miles in lifeboats, and finally some of the crew hiked over glacial peaks to reach a remote island whaling station. They arrived home in England more than two years after they embarked—and every person survived. (A great book about the journey is The Endurance by Caroline Alexander, which also includes photos by the ship photographer, Frank Hurley.)

On Sunday I told the story about the voyage and then offered 8 Tips for Surviving the Hard Times that I made up from the story:

1. Persist—but not foolishly. The mistake many polar explorers made was pressing on even after they began to suspect it wasn’t safe to do so. Shackleton was determined to protect his crew. That was his first priority. He didn’t achieve his goal, but he lived to try again.

2. An open sea lane is not necessarily a path to freedom. The crew of the Endurance learned that a sea lane would open tantalizingly in the morning sun, only to slam shut again at night when the water froze. When we’re in desperate circumstances, we’re tempted to grab any possible avenue toward freedom. That’s not always a good idea.

3. “Look to the day ahead.” That was Shackleton’s motto. If today isn’t working out so well, start planning how you’ll respond tomorrow.

4. Stay busy—but with meaning. On the Endurance, Shackleton made sure each member of the crew was assigned to do the kinds of jobs best suited to him. Sometimes when we’re having trouble, our anxiety persuades us we’re capable of doing absolutely nothing—or that we have to stay busy every moment of the day. It’s important to do the things that have to be done, but also to do things that are important to do for our sanity—like weed the flower garden, meditate, go to an art exhibit, call a friend.

5. Look for what’s wonderful in others. Shackleton chose his crew not just for their seafaring skills and sense of adventure, but for some uncommon reasons as well. One man remembered how bewildered he was when he came for his interview and Shackleton asked him if he could sing. The captain wanted people on the journey who would bring the best of themselves out, in bad times as well as good ones, and he actively looked for those qualities.

6. Take smart risks. Shackleton made tough decisions that saved lives. He risked staying with the ship. He risked abandoning it. He risked marching ahead. He risked halting the march and setting up a camp. Each risk required a different kind of strategy.

7. Acknowledge when something isn’t working, abandon it, and immediately set a new goal. The day after they had to abandon the sinking Endurance, Shackleton said to the crew: “Ship and stores have gone—so now we’ll go home.” The original plan wasn’t going to be feasible, so they set their sights on a new one.

8. Know when it’s time for a treat. On February 29, 1916, in honor of Leap Year Day, the Endurance crew was treated to three full meals and a hot drink. When we’re suffering, we think we don’t deserve treats, but that’s when we need them most of all. They can be simple, spontaneous, inexpensive—but they can provide a few minutes of joy in a tough time.

Photo of ice: Steven Kazlowski / Barcroft

The difference between listening and hearing

I know a lot of people who are smart, funny, creative, and in many ways fascinating and who simply don’t know how to have a conversation. It’s a situation I find quite painful.

Here’s what happens: When I toss out a story, idea, or opinion to them, it seems simply to drop at their feet. They don’t even try to pick it up. Often, after I have tossed that conversational ball, there’s an awkward pause as the other person considers what to say next. Then, unless I fill the chasm of silence, they will just carry on with what they want to say, and it usually has nothing whatsoever to do with my offering.

These people are hearing, but not listening. Listening is a game of catch. I say something and then you respond. Then I respond to you. It’s actually pretty easy. Here are a few tips I myself have picked up over the years from the great listeners I know:

1—When the other person is talking, look for enticing little tidbits you’d like to know more about and then ask them about that. There’s always something.
2—Listen for a  point of view that you agree with or disagree with, then venture that.
3—Mirror back to the other person what you hear. This does not mean analyzing what they say or giving advice. It just means letting them know you’ve really heard them.
4—Pay attention to how something they say elides with something that arises in you… and when you speak, pointedly make the connection.

In a great conversation, the people engaged lose themselves in the ocean of topics and ideas. You hop on one and ride it for a while to see where it goes, and eventually it slides up close to another topic that you can ride for a while.

Where is the environment anyhow?

In my article, “You Are Now Entering the Environment,” just out in the new issue of Minding Nature, I question what, exactly that word—that massive, amorphous place—means to us:

Several years ago The New Yorker published a cartoon that showed two people in a car turning their heads in bewilderment toward a roadside sign that reads: “You are now entering the environment.” Now entering? Where were we before? Surely the environment is all around us. Or is it? Like any good joke, this one has a bite that’s sharp enough to leave an aftertaste. What is the environment anyway? Is it a synonym for nature? Are you more likely to find it where there’s plenty of nature to enjoy or where nature is under threat? Can you get out of the city and spend a Saturday hiking in the environment? Or is the environment that place over there, the one that’s having a lot of trouble nobody quite knows how to fix?

To explore these questions, I talk about the environment as predator and as prey… how looking out the back window of the car as a child taught me about the meaning of “environment”… the many environments we absorb and are absorbed by every day, and other conundrums!

To read the article, click here.

Love, Actually is in the hospital

I love the movie Love, Actually. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a British film made in 2003 that ties together about a dozen love stories. Some of the stories are sad, some fantastical, some funny. They all braid together with chance encounters, great music, and fabulous actors.

The beginning and end of the movie takes place in Heathrow airport. We watch people greeting one another in the arrivals hall. It’s touching enough to get you weeping before the actual story has even started—so many lovers and parents and friends embracing one another after an absence. The love is palpable.

Recently, I’ve noticed another place where love is palpable—the hospital. In the past six or seven months, I’ve spent entirely too much time in hospital waiting rooms, while my husband has been treated for a kidney infection, severe back pain, and bladder cancer (he’s doing much better now). And I’ve felt a lot of empathy with the other people waiting for news of their loves ones.

While they wait, family members talk softly together. Individuals scroll and tap their phones. Some people read. Almost no one watches the TV that’s on in all too many of these places. But the moments when you see the love is every time the door opens and a doctor comes in. Everyone in the room looks up, wondering—Is this for me? Is this about the one I love? Oh my god, what will be the news for us?

In an airport, you see people joyful in the moment of reconnecting with love. In the hospital waiting room, people are standing on the brink between a future of health and easy companionship with the one they love or sickness and perhaps onerous care-taking.  In an airport, what you await impatiently is the moment of joy. In a hospital, what you await impatiently is a message that could bring either great joy or great grief.

In the hospital, too, as they say in the movie, “Love, actually, really is all around.”

Try this in your own driveway


The next time you go out to your car on a freezing morning and you have a few extra minutes, try playing this little game with the elements.

Instead of scraping the ice off the windshield right away, while the car warms up, just sit inside the car and watch the spectacle of melting ice. Turn the heater on full blast, aim it toward the windshield, then sit back. You might want to sip a cup of coffee as you attend to this phenomenon. But do watch. Don’t be tempted to read or check your messages on your phone. This experiment is best when you’re paying full attention.

After what seems like an endless spell of waiting with nothing happening, when you’re just about to give up and slam back outside with your scraper and get this thing done right already… Just then you will notice that a slight shift is taking place in the ice barricade. It appears as a dim arc spreading across the bottom of the windshield. This arc slowly becomes lighter and thinner, and finally you will start to see the ice crystals melting in the path of the heat. They soften, they drip. Some of them catch hold of other ice particles and drift down the window like a collusion of raindrops. Others loosen their hold on the mass and float upward. You can watch the borders of the ice field slowly withdraw and the outside world slowly become known. Ice and heat, clarity and obfuscation, nature and technology.

It’s a visual concerto.


Plungers & Toe-dippers


My husband thinks you can divide people into two categories: plungers and toe-dippers. He defines himself as a toe-dipper. He doesn’t like to act precipitously. He prefers to consider his choices carefully and use reason and projected consequences to determine the one that’s right for him. Presented with an invitation to do something new and perhaps a little strange, his immediate tendency is to say no.

I’m just the opposite. The time between the appearance of something new and beguiling in my life and my leap to embrace it could be counted in nanoseconds. I act spontaneously, some would say impulsively. If I don’t fully understand all the ramifications of one of life’s invitations that I’m allured to, I’ll say yes now, with the promise to myself that I’ll resolve any difficulties when and if they arise.

Andy and I often get impatient with each other over our individual proclivities. Nevertheless, over the years, we’ve learned from each other. If he’d listened to me 30 years ago, when we were looking for a home in the country, we might have ended up moving into a collapsing barn without plumbing, albeit with a beautiful landscape. If I’d only listened to him, we’d have missed exploring some amazing places in the world, like South Africa and Bali. Also, in my work with Radical Joy for Hard Times now, I’m blessed to be working with a board president who is constantly (and gently) holding me down and back from making intemperate decisions. (Thank you, Joanne!)

I think the world needs both types of people, and it’s great when our own kind finds and balances with someone of the other kind. Sometimes we need to recognize that some person, place, or event is a unique opportunity and that to delay embracing it is to stay stuck where we are instead of risking some bold new future. Sometimes we need to put on the brakes, lest a rash decision threaten our finances, our friendships, our careers.

What about you? Are you a plunger or a toe-dipper? Are you satisfied with your customary response to the world? How about your partners or your children? What are they like and how do you balance you way with theirs?

My new best friend?


From 7th grade through 12th, I had a best friend. Annie Batchelder and I hung out together at school every day. We whispered and giggled in study hall until the librarian separated us. Then we learned sign language, so we could communicate from opposite tables. We talked to each other on the phone every single night. Often, I spent the night at her house.

After my sophomore year in college, my mother moved from Omaha, where I had grown up, back to her native Connecticut. Annie and I lost touch for many years. When I finally made a visit back to Omaha 26 years later, we were both nervous, for our lives, our politics, and our professional paths had diverged widely. But as soon as we walked out of the airport and got into her car, it was as if two embers touched and burst into flame. We talked on and on for days, ranging from one subject to another, as fascinated as ever with each other’s lives. We’ve stayed in touch ever since, if infrequently.

I think that, for the past 40 years, I’ve been looking for a new best friend. Every time I meet an interesting new woman, I have the same reaction that some people have when they’re eyeing the field for a prospective mate: Is this the one?

It’s never quite worked out that way. I have many very dear friends throughout the U.S. and in several other countries, but there’s no one I talk to every day (nor would I really want to), no one with whom I share a conviction that we know each other better than anyone else does (though my friends and I are very open and honest with each other).

Of course, I’m also a different person from who I was in Omaha. There I was a misfit—a scholarship student living in a duplex with my divorced mother, when the other kids in my school came from wealthy two-parent families. My best friend, along with her family and home, which I adored, were my refuge. I’m no longer frantically treading water as I try to paddle toward some (any!) shore.

Still, part of me longs for the regularity, the dependability of a best friend. I’d like to know who I’d automatically call in case of an emergency. I’d like to truly feel at home in another person’s house. I’d like to giggle with someone again.

I think I’ll call Annie and see what she’s up to.

Photo above: Annie (r) and me, senior year in high school, Brownell Hall, Omaha, Nebraska.

The foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart


A friend was telling me the other day that the recent sadnesses in his own life (the death of his best friend, a cancer diagnosis for him) had torn open his heart to the sadnesses of people everywhere, known and unknown. He feels overwhelmed, he said, and he doesn’t think he can stand to care so deeply.

Gently I told him that such breaches into a more oceanic compassion are good things. They drag us out of preoccupation with our own problems and heartaches and surround us with other living beings. We see, then, that we are not alone, that suffering is a great wave that constantly rolls in and out of the living world, and we ourselves are no better or worse or different from any other. Even though it seems our heart will break from such immensity, it is actually through the cracks that beauty, kindness, and even joy can flow.

There is a poem by W.B. Yeats that has guided me ever since I first encountered it as a senior in high school. It is called “The Circus Animals Desertion,” and it ends with these lines:

Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Whenever my heart is broken, when I feel at the end of my rope, when I am sure I’ll never recover from this particular blow, I remember those lines and they tell me that I am in the one right place, the only place I need to be in order to recover.
The rag-and-bone shop is a place that sells the oldest, most threadbare of materials that no one wants anymore. When we’re stuck there, we find there’s no door, no escape. The ladder of distraction and diversion is gone. In Yeats’s poem, that place is the heart. And there is no way out of that moldy, dank place except by surrendering to the sorrow until a new ladder materializes out of the suffering.