The Dove in the Snow

We have a bird feeder outside our dining room window, and Andy is a devoted bird-nourisher all year long. In the winter he buys 40 pounds of black sunflower seeds and mixed seed each week, and he pays great attention to the ways and habits of the different species who gather.

The birds used to fly into the big picture window, so Andy hung a string of Tibetan prayer flags across the glass to alert them that woods do not lie this way.

A few days ago, the day after we got about a foot of snow, we were having breakfast when a mourning dove flew into the window and fell heavily into the snow. I pulled on my rubber boots and ran out. She had fallen headfirst into the snow and was lying absolutely still. I lifted her out with both hands, and as soon as her head was free, she flapped her wings and tried to get away. I let her go and she hopped a few feet across the snow and just sat there.

I wasn’t sure whether I should give her something warm to sit on, provide water, or what. Andy said we should just leave her to heal herself in her own way. We had seen a blue jay do that a few years earlier. So we did. The dove sat absolutely still for about ten minutes, although we could see her twitch her head and wings slightly every now and then. And then, quite suddenly, she lifted up and flew off.

It was an extraordinary spectacle of patience as the bird just sat while her body simply did what it had to do to readjust.

I keep thinking about the bird, her accident and recovery. I wonder if humans couldn’t do something like this, not only on a physical, but on a metaphysical level as well. What if, when we suffered a disappointment or had a fall, we simply sat and waited in absolute confidence that the body, with time and patience, would do what was necessary to repair us? Of course, we would have to bring to the situation attentiveness to the moment—no worrying about the future, no looking at our watch and wondering when things were going to start to improve. No self-chastising about our stupidity of flying into a window.

I see the mourning doves gathering at the feeder now and hope very much that the wounded bird is among them.

 

What I’m reading

I finished Farewell to the Horse by Ulrich Raulff and now I’m catching up on an article in The New Yorker  about the horrendous nationalism being practiced in India by the prime minister Narendra Modi and his followers. They are targeting Muslims in ways that are absolutely criminal. America under Donald Trump has not reached these depths of outright hatred and genocide, but we are on the path toward it.

Savory Moment

I spent the weekend selling my books at the annual holiday craft fair at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Binghamton (NY), where I am a member. I was seated by a woman selling soaps with natural scents on my left and a woman selling little pillows with fragrant natural plants on my right. Across from me, in front of the window, was a woman selling small watercolors of flowers and a woman selling hand-made glass ornaments. When the sun was low in the sky in the afternoon it lit up the glass. My books sold pretty well, but the experience of being in the company of people who take time to make lovely and creative things was very touching, and I was glad to be part of them.

Upcoming Schedule

Next year my Bali from Within trip (March 2-14, 2020), which I’ve been offering since 2008, will include three stops to find and make beauty at wounded places, which is the focus of my newest book and the organization Radical Joy for Hard Times. Even in Bali, where art, spirituality, and nature are interwoven, the land is hurting. Next year, we’ll visit some of these places with our Balinese guides to bring attention and beauty, for example:

  • a river that’s drying up because of tourist development for hotels and spas
  • a clove forest that has been damaged by the excessive rains of climate change
  • Tanah Lot, one of Bali’s most sacred and scenic temples, slated to be in view of a multi-million dollar hotel and golf course proposed by Donald Trump

Click the link to read more about Bali from Within and download an itinerary.

 

Terry Tempest Williams Teaches the Pause

In the “Savory Moment” segment of my last blog, I wrote about Terry Tempest Williams’s speech at Bioneers last month, in which she talked about the frequencies that geologists had recorded by placing seismometers on Castleton Tower, a rock formation near Moab, Utah. Williams stood quietly at the podium before three thousand people as she played a three-minute segment of the pulse of the rock. (You can hear the recording  on Outside Magazine’s website.)

That “savory moment” has turned into a savory month for me, partly because I was moved to such tears by the voice of the Earth that I had to leave the auditorium afterwards and miss the next couple of speakers. But it also stays with me because of the way Terry Tempest Williams handles the pause.

I first saw her make this bold on-stage magic in 2014, when I was with Judy Todd at the annual Bioneers satellite conference on Whidbey Island, Washington. Besides offering their own programs and workshops, the organizers streamed many of the speakers at the big national San Rafael conference.

At that event, Williams was talking about the importance of rethinking what we know and allowing fresh creativity to rearrange previous patterns. To illustrate, she explained that the German composer Max Richter had become weary of how the beautiful violin concerto that he loved, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” had been trivialized and sentimentalized. And so, he had recomposed it. With that announcement, Williams played the first short movements of Richter’s piece. (And it is stunning; I ordered it myself that same day.) While it was playing, she just stood there, listening, responding gently with her head and then her whole body, glancing over the audience with penetrating but nonjudgmental curiosity. At an event where most of the speakers are so polished, so well-rehearsed, so in command of every sigh, pause, and tear of their performance, Terry Tempest Williams gave over her time on stage to something beautiful that someone else had made. She took that pause and showed no impatience to reclaim her voice, reclaim the microphone, reclaim attention. She was absolutely comfortable to wait in silence. It was a powerful moment I have never forgotten.

I long to stand with such ease and generosity in a great silence.

 

What I’m reading

When I was living in a little stone cottage in England in 1973-74, I used to check out books from a tiny library in the market town of Farringdon, Berkshire, where I bought my meager supply of groceries. One day I discovered a novel by the Australian writer, Patrick White, who had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973. I fell in love with his work and have read all his eleven novels at least once over the years. Currently I’m rereading an early one, The Living and the Dead. What I love about White is that his writing captures, in a way I’ve never encountered in any other author, the emotional, perceptual field between what’s happening on the outside and what’s experienced on the inside. For example (these are from just two pages I was reading this morning):

A 15-year-old girl feeling misunderstood by her family: “Sometimes she went to her room and cried, the luxurious tears of self-pity, pausing for a moment for a footstep that might prolong the reason for dissatisfaction. Time, she felt, would relieve the tyranny. She looked forward, out of the wilderness of fifteen, to a state of emotional independence.”

Her older brother, visiting Germany before beginning university at Cambridge: “It made Elyot choose his words carefully, a wadding to what he wanted to express, out of pure respect for Frau Fiesel’s sensibility. Both physically and mentally she was soft. You felt if you touched her she would sink in, the outer, unresisting flesh, it would sink and never come out again, remain like the dip in an eiderdown. So it made you go warily.”

Savory Moment

For about a month a crew has been working in our little village to install new waterlines under the street. During the past few days, when the temperatures have been below freezing, they’ve been grinding, digging, and patching in front of our house. Yesterday afternoon, Andy and I spontaneously decided to make cookies for them. Half an hour later we had baked a couple dozen oatmeal cookies, which we put in a paper bag and took out to them. They were really happy!

Upcoming Schedule

I’m so excited that my Bali from Within trip next year (March 2-14, 2020) will include three stops to find and make beauty at wounded places, which is the focus of my newest book and the organization, Radical Joy for Hard Times. Ever since our first annual Global Earth Exchange in 2010, our friends in Bali have participated in this day of giving gifts of beauty back to ecologically challenged places. Even in Bali, where art, spirituality, and nature are interwoven, the land is hurting. Next year, we’ll make a pilgrimage of mindfulness to three of those wounded places, for example:

  • a river that’s drying up because of tourist development for hotels and spas
  • a clove forest that has been damaged by the excessive rains of climate change
  • Tanah Lot, one of Bali’s most sacred and scenic temples, slated to be in view of a multi-million dollar hotel and golf course proposed by Donald Trump

Click the link to read more about Bali from Within and download an itinerary.

Paul McCartney, Business Mentor

 

A couple of years ago I wrote a Vast Forward blog about how I’d been watching Anthony Bourdain’s show, “Parts Unknown,” and learning how to have meaningful conversations with strangers. Bourdain’s easygoing, genuinely curious way of talking to people in the many countries whose food he explored really did help me to slice through superficial chatter and engage in interesting dialogue.

I often learn from people I’ll never meet. For example, when I was writing my book, Radical Joy for Hard Times, I read a little book on love by the 19thcentury French writer Stendahl. The feisty, urgent tone of the introduction instantly gave the “voice” I had been seeking for my book.

When I was a teenager and an absolutely devoted Beatlemaniac, I learned from their humor, togetherness, and creativity to quit hiding what I thought of as my own unacceptable weirdness. In cahoots with my friend Carrie, I embarked on outlandish escapades that tore down my isolation and opened me up to my own sense of daring.

A few days ago Paul McCartney taught me something. As most Vast Forward readers know, I went to England in September to teach a workshop and took a side trip to Liverpool, where I splurged on a 7-hour private tour of Beatles sites. That trip rekindled my love of the Beatles, and when I got home, I bought Philip Norman’s biography of Paul (see note below in What I’m Reading). I’d forgotten that Paul took such pains to be a good business manager with the Beatles’ Apple Corps and later in his own music business. His insistence on good sense, in fact, was partly what drove the other three away from him; they were content, after Brian Epstein died, to listen to promises instead of reason.

Inspired by Paul, I decided that I, too, could exhibit more business sense than I typically take pains with. Therefore, I drafted an agreement with colleagues with whom I’m about to engage in a big project. I wrote out what I’ll be responsible for and what they’ll be responsible for. I have a tendency to dive into things and figure out the details later, and this approach feels very grounded. Discussions are ongoing, but the first step is most satisfying.

What I’m reading

Paul McCartney: The Life, by Philip Norman. Norman has, fortunately, eliminated all the stories that Beatles fans have heard a hundred times, and more than half of this fat 800-page book is devoted to Paul’s life post-Beatles. Where it misses is in any real attempt to understand its subject’s inner life, which of course is the most interesting.

Savory Moment

At the Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California October 18-20, Terry Tempest Williams was one of the keynote speakers. She talked about a team of geologists who put seismometers on Castleton Tower, a rock formation near Moab, Utah. And, said Williams, “Castleton Tower has a pulse.” She then stood completely still and let the audience hear the frequencies, the voice, of the rock. It was stunning. It turns out that the rock changes its tone depending on temperature, moisture, and the movement of the Earth. The Earth really does speak. I was moved to tears. You can listen to a recording on the Outside Magazine website.

Upcoming Schedule

I’m home for several weeks, for which I’m very glad. It’s been a busy, full, productive summer, and now darkness and winter return. Time to write, think, read, envision, and hang out with Andy.

Stepping into Immran

In his wonderful book, The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane introduces the Celtic word immram, a “wonder-voyage.” These are journeys of passage, “which move easily from the recognizable to the supernatural, fading from known into imagined geographies with minimal indication of transition.”

See What I’m Reading below for more about Macfarlane’s book. What I want to write about now is how captivated I was by this word: immram. At first I thought about the kinds of experiences I and the people I’ve guided have had when we spend time alone in wilderness. At those times, the border between us humans and our busily spinning minds and the natural world around us softens. Our attention is open yet focused, and we can fall easily fall into partnership with the world.

Then I realized that it’s possible to enter the immram at any time, in any place, without any particular preparation. All it takes it the willingness to pause and  fall into fascination.

It happened to me on a walk just this afternoon. I was on the three-mile loop that I often walk. About a third of the walk is on an abandoned railroad bed, now cared for by Rails-to-Trails. There was a lot of work done on the trail last year, and much of the ground is recovering from the interference.

Today, on a patch of gravel and scrub about thirty feet long, I was caught by a dense scattering of mullein plants. These engaging plants live just two years. In the first year they grow a low, sage-green, very fuzzy rosette, and in the second year they send up a single tall stalk dotted with yellow flowers.

The patch of mulleins I encountered today looked like a nursery that someone had carefully planted on chosen ground. They looked like a community of plush beings, cousins to lily pads in a pond. If I’d been a little girl, I would have picked a few leaves and made of them a soft, warm bed for my dolls.

I became engrossed in their singularity, and sat down among them for a while, as they went on living their particular life, soaking up the October late-afternoon sun, their plump leaves resisting most of the breezes the surrounding foliage responded to.

Then I thanked them and left.

Immram.

What I’m reading

As I mentioned above, I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, a marvelous book gifted me by the people who took my workshop in England last month. Macfarlane is a walker in wild landscapes. He walks not to get somewhere, not to notch his belt because he’s attained a certain long distance or a certain high peak. He walks because the places he walks through call to him and then reveal themselves to him in exquisite detail. Here’s a example, from a winter walk through the Wiltshire Downs (very close to where I used to live in the mid-1970s):

“Low light, saturating the landscape with a dull glow that never thickened to a shine but still drew blues from the long-lying snow. Where the chalk showed, it was the yellow of polar-bear fur or an old man’s knees. I found it all bleakly beautiful: the air battened down, the light at its slant. It felt both absurd and wonderful to be moving over this ancient path.”

Sometimes Macfarlane walks with friends, often he walks alone. He hauls out his sleeping bag at night and stretches out among ancient firs, on the peaks of hills, beneath the arc of the sky. He is humble and curious. I love this book. I can’t wait to read his new one, Underland, which Terry Tempest Williams raved about in a New York Times book review last summer.

Savory Moment

The savory moment was Andy’s doctor coming to his hospital bed last Monday and telling us that his surgical biopsy revealed absolutely no malignancy whatsoever. Andy was lying there in the bed, chatting away as if this news was nothing special, while I, standing at his side, could hardly hold myself up on legs rubbery and shimmering with relief.


Upcoming Schedule

October 18-21 is the 30th anniversary of the amazing Bioneers Conference, the event that brings together innovators in the world of planetary sustainability from many different fields. I’m delighted to be doing another workshop there with Polly Howells, The Ground Beneath Our Hearts. In this workshop, we explore how surviving—and actually thriving—in hard times means holding the balance between the two deep and valid emotions of grief and beauty. We’ll offer a simple practice for staying connected with the places we care about during hard times.  I’ll also be doing a signing of my book, Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places.

I accept being uncomfortable

At a dinner party recently I was hit with yet another blinding flash of the obvious about white privilege. I was talking to the man siting next to me about how we choose to exercise. He said he likes to work out on the treadmill in his home. I said I prefer talking walks. I mentioned that the neighborhood he lives in has lots of interesting places to walk.

“That’s true. But I have to be a little bit careful,” he said, “because I’m black.”

Oh. I got it. White privilege is assuming you can walk safely and unchallenged through your neighborhood.

When I first heard of white privilege a few years ago, I misunderstood it. I thought it had to do with believing that, as a white person, you’re superior in some way. But then I began to see that what it really means is taking for granted that you will, in very many circumstances, be assumed to be harmless, whereas, if  you’re black in the same circumstances, you could easily be assumed to be dangerous.

I’m eager to learn about white privilege and what it’s meant in my life, because I realize that until white people recognize the advantages they’ve taken for granted about how they’re perceived, the deep racial scars of this country can never be healed. That means I have to be open to being teachable. I can’t hold onto any old ideas I might have that my attitudes and behavior are unimpeachable. I have to be okay with being uncomfortable now and then as I grasp realities I’ve taken for granted—and that a person of color has rarely had the privilege of taking for granted. I have to imagine how my world and my life would be different if my soul inhabited skin of a different color.

What I’m reading

Speaking of white privilege… I am also noticing it more in things I read and watch. I’ve been reading John McPhee’s new book, The Patch, a collection of pieces he’s written over the years but never published. One story is about a time when he locked his keys in his car in New York City. He rummaged around in a trash can until he found a piece of wire, which he then stuck through the siding in the door and maneuvered around in an effort to pull up the lock (it was in the time when doors locked with buttons you pushed down). Two police officers came by and actually helped him get into his own car. McPhee marveled at that assumption of his innocence. And I thought, Well, it would have been a lot different if he’d been black.

That aside, I recommend this book. I love McPhee’s writing, which I discovered when he used to write very long articles for The New Yorker about geology. I’ve read McPhee on topics I don’t much care about like oranges and golf, whereas I’d skip lesser authors covering subjects that enthrall me.

Savory Moment

I was in England last month to lead a workshop in Kent, near London. Before that, I spent a couple of days in Liverpool, making a pilgrimage to the hallowed ground of The Beatles, whom I have wildly loved for 55 years. I took a 7-hour private tour of all the great Beatles sites, and the most outstanding of all was the Woolton Church Hall, where John and Paul met in 1956. Here history was made!


Upcoming Schedule

October 18-21 is the 30th anniversary of the amazing Bioneers Conference, the event that brings together innovators in the world of planetary sustainability from many different fields. I’m delighted to be doing another workshop there with Polly Howells, The Ground Beneath Our Hearts. In this workshop, we explore how surviving—and actually thriving—in hard times means holding the balance between the two deep and valid emotions of grief and beauty. We’ll offer a simple practice for staying connected with the places we care about during hard times.  I’ll also be doing a signing of my book, Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places.

Oh, to run out of gas

Last weekend, six members of our nature preserve stewardship committee met at the preserve to do some trail grooming. We split off into three separate groups, each heading off to a different trail. One woman, Dorrie, and I took what’s called the White Trail. She had a weed-whacker for trimming the trail, and I had a small can of white paint to brighten up the markers on the trees.

Marking thin white stripes on trees, so the next mark is visible from the one you’re at is a lot less time-consuming than swinging a heavy, gas-powered machine back and forth to cut low vegetation. I got to the place where the White Trail meets the Blue Trail, which is where Dorrie and I had agreed to stop. And then, because I had long since ceased to hear the roar of her weed-whacker, I decided not to wait for her, but to turn around and paint the other side of the trees as well, for anyone hiking from the opposite direction.

After several minutes, I met up with Dorrie. (She was covered in flecks of grass, and she told me I was covered in paint.) She told me she was going to have to stop soon, because she was just about out of gas. But, since I was far from running out of paint, I went ahead and marked trees all the way up to the trailhead.

When I met up with Dorrie again, I told her I couldn’t help wishing that there were more tasks in life when you knew you were finished simply because you ran out of gas or some other obvious sign of conclusion. As someone who’s been self-employed for more than forty years, I never know when to stop. When one thing is finished, I plunge on to the next one.

I wish my computer would run out of gas now and then.

 

What I’m reading

I’m almost finished rereading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. which I read enthusiastically when I was sixteen. It really is a man’s book, something I didn’t know when I was a teenager, because so much literature was written by men about men. I’m looking forward to reading Glenn Albrecht’s new book, Earth Emotions, about the human response to nature in its wholeness and its brokenness.

Savory Moment

I was enchanted during a walk the other day by the behavior of animals in a large pasture at a neighboring farm. The cows munched and stared at me. Two horses ignored me and one came trotting over to say hello. A donkey was making its way along a patch of grass and couldn’t be bothered with anything else. And a flock of sandpiper-ish birds rattled up from a bordering bush and screamed chu-chu-chu across the sky.

Upcoming Schedule

July 12-14 I’ll once again be part of an incredible literary event in this rural corner of Pennsylvania. It’s called The Gathering and in the past 12 it’s featured writers like Diane Ackerman, Tracy K. Smith, and Salman Rushdie. This year the theme is “Refugees and Immigrants” Who are They and Who am I?” I’ll be leading an experiential (writing and solo walking) called “Moving with the Ancestors.”

“How to end a friendship.” Really?

In an article in the New York Times Review section last Sunday, Lauren Mechling wrote about “How to End a Friendship.” In it she describes the day she was having a phone conversation with her best friend of many years. Suddenly the friend interrupted to say that she had to take another call and would ring right back. She didn’t. Not then, not ever. Mechling was hurt and baffled and tried repeatedly to find out what was wrong, but was never able to.

As I was reading this, I was feeling sympathy for Mechling. I’ve had that experience of a friend suddenly disappearing, and I’ve taken it hard.

But then she comes to this startling conclusion: “[O]ften, there’s no accounting for a friendship’s demise. The atmosphere changes; a sense of duty creeps in. Conversations that were once freewheeling shift into that less than enjoyable territory of ‘catching up.’ Soon you realize social media is the only thing keeping a no-longer-friendship on life support.”

Really? It’s okay for a close friendship to simply wither and die because one of the friends wants it to? In my opinion, Mechling’s friend acted cruelly by shutting her out without any explanation. That boredom or just a yen to move could be justifiable grounds for severing a friendship seems horrible to me.

But I’ve been aware that I take friendships personally, maybe too personally. If someone is a friend at one point in my life, she or he is a friend forever. And when someone suddenly drops out of my life, I’ve tried—at times to excess—to wrest them back. Once I tried for three years to repair a friendship, convinced that if my friend and I could only sit down together and each take responsibility for what had gone wrong, we could resolve a minor (in my opinion) rift. Nope. He never reciprocated and I finally gave up. Recently, a woman who’s been my friend for almost forty years and who has a chronic illness failed to return my phone calls and emails. Increasingly afraid that she might be in the last stage of illness, I made increasingly urgent efforts to get in touch with her. Finally, she wrote a curt email saying that there was a lot going on in her life right now and “you’re not at the top of my things to deal with.” I felt deeply wounded.

But as time went on, I realized that I’ve got to be more accepting of my friends’ view of friendship. I think Lauren Mechling’s friend should have been honest enough to tell her why she didn’t want to stay in touch. But I realize not everyone can do that. I also have to accept that that, when the signs are clear that the other person is simply no longer interested, I need to let go, and a lot sooner than I have in the past.

I’d love to know about your experiences with friendship and I’ll bet other readers of this blog would too. Please post in the COMMENTS section below.

What I’m reading

I’m rereading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I saw it in the Strand Bookstore recently and decided to buy it. I remember my experience of reading it the first time much more vividly than I remember the novel itself. I was 16 and living in Omaha. It was summertime. Thanks to my wonderful English teacher of the year before, I was beginning to distinguish real literature from simply reading, which I had done avidly all my life. And now I finally had my own room. I would sit up there on my bed for hours during that summer, reading Steinbeck and feeling extremely proud of myself that I was able to grasp the mythological and biblical themes he was recasting. Now I find the book sexist and a bit obvious in its symbolism. But it’s summertime and it’s still a good story.

Savory Moment

The young man who is painting our house came over in the rain last week to start washing it with the power washer. There was a nest of baby catbirds in a bush by one corner and I asked Mike to cover it with a tarp before he started spraying in that area. An hour or so later, I looked out to see him very gently and conscientiously arranging the tarp over the busy, leaving space on one side for the mother to fly in and out. There is something so moving about catching a person unawares when they are in the midst of doing something kindly.

Upcoming Schedule

July 12-14 I’ll once again be part of an incredible literary event in this rural corner of Pennsylvania. It’s called The Gathering and in the past 12 it’s featured writers like Diane Ackerman, Tracy K. Smith, and Salman Rushdie. This year the theme is “Refugees and Immigrants” Who are They and Who am I?” I’ll be leading an experiential (writing and solo walking) called “Moving with the Ancestors.”

 

 

Go ahead and say it!

I grew up in an alcoholic household, which meant that promises were suspicious and expressions of opinion often unwelcome. When my father, sunk in remorse for the breakage, the violence against my mother, the shouting and blaming he’d caused the night before, swore he would never drink again, I knew, by the time I was nine or ten, that the future was likely to be as bad as, or worse than, the past. I told myself that I would hold onto the truth about my family, even though no one else seemed able to.

Though I grew up trusting myself, it took me many years before I had any confidence that what I saw or believed would be of any value to others. For much of that time, I was afraid that what I perceived might be considered rude, risky, or crazy.

So, the other day in the supermarket, when I saw a striking woman whose appearance gave away something of her recent experience, I wondered if I should speak. She was probably in her mid-fifties, and she wore leggings, a tunic, a colorful scarf, and long, dangling earrings. She was distinctive, and not just because of how she dressed or how erect was her bearing. Her head was bald, and she had no eyebrows. I’ve known enough friends and loved ones with that look to know it probably meant cancer and its awful treatment.

I also know that many people, including close friends, are often reluctant to ask questions of someone who is ill or even to suggest in any way that they’re aware that  illness is a huge, constantly looming presence in the other person’s life. Would it be rude, I thought, to say something to this woman that would acknowledge, indeed blatantly refer to, the fact that she was probably having chemotherapy? Should I dare?

I walked up to her and said, “It’s not everyone who manages to look gorgeous and elegant when she has no hair, but you’ve managed to pull it off!”

She told me it was her first day out without a hat, and that this was her second experience with chemotherapy. She said she was trying to get out into the world and not hide away. And she was grateful for what I had told her.

This small connection affirms for me a tenet of life I try to act on: If it even just slightly occurs to you to do something kind for someone… act on the impulse!

 

What about Easter?

Today is Easter and I am thinking not so much about what that holiday/holy day means as about what religious symbolism in general can mean.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a good friend who has a remarkable sense of ceremony and symbolism. Although she doesn’t identify herself as a Christian, and in fact regularly meditates at a Buddhist zendo, she is intrigued with the Christian mystery stories. Yesterday, she was telling me how she observes the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, a time she finds deeply meaningful on both the psychological and spiritual levels. For example, on the night of Good Friday, she attends a vigil at a cathedral, sitting in the contemplative silence of waiting during the threshold time after Jesus is killed and before he rises. On Easter, she invites friends to join her in celebrating the new life that is the promise of this day by making small animals and other figures out of clay and natural materials and creating a little village by the brook that runs through her back garden.

Many people who profess to be spiritual seekers and who enthusiastically study Buddhism and indigenous spirituality reject Christianity. I suppose that’s partly because evangelical proselytizing is so annoying—the people who stop you on the street or come to your door and try to convince you you’re going to hell if you don’t embrace Jesus. But, really, that’s condemning the many for the few.

I don’t consider myself a Christian either, though I was brought up in the Episcopal Church. However, I’ve always been a seeker after paths of mystery, transcendence, and connection with the potent and animistic world beyond the world of the everyday. For that reason I love the ceremonies and the search for meaning in many religions, from Navajo to Yoruba, Hindu to Aboriginal. When I was in elementary school, I envied my Jewish friend Marilyn because of all the rich and meaningful ceremonies her family participated in at holidays. To me, my church services were pale and dull compared to Judaism.

And I confess that I have tended to ignore Christianity for years—taking a sort of, Yeah, yeah, I know all about that already attitude. My friend’s description of her deep and personal observance of Easter touched me and I’ve been thinking all day about how I might get reacquainted with Christianity on a different, more meaningful level. individual and culture psyche.

What not to say to loved ones if they’re ill. What to forgive if it’s you who’s ill.

About fifteen years ago, some colleagues and I created a program called Facing the Mystery, for people with life-altering illnesses. The people who participated  were living with all kinds of illnesses, from cancer to MS to a rare bone disease. But they all had in common two complaints:

  1. You’re always waiting—for tests, for diagnoses, for results.
  2. Your friends sometimes abandon you. Often they don’t know how to treat you.

Here are some other things I’ve learned about being ill and being the friend of someone who’s ill.

If your loved one or friend is ill: The people in our program and others I know who have struggled with serious illnesses really dislike it when their friends, in innocence, say certain things that only made them feel worse. Just the other day, for example, a friend of mine, in remission from breast cancer, was explaining how irritating it was when, during the time she was going through treatment, people would whisper to her as if she were a child, asking her with exaggerated tenderness how she was doing. As if the very question would harm her. Your friends who are ill also really dislike being told they don’t look sick or hearing stories about other friends of yours who have died from what they have. Take a look at this Guardian article for other suggestions for how not to talk to sick friends.

If you’re ill. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that people who are ill don’t treat their well-meaning if occasionally clueless friends very compassionately. If you’re ill and one of your friends makes a remark that annoys you, keep this in mind: Some people are merely being polite and want to get away from the direness of your situation as fast as they can. But there are others who really love you. They recognize that you’re standing on a threshold between life and death that so far, fortunately, has eluded them, and they know they’re going to be miserable in conversing in that language of the threshold. They feel awkward. But, yes, they really care about you, so please don’t be harsh with them if they make a mistake.

What I’m reading

Rereading Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. Originally published in 1947, it is a novel in which alcoholism rules one man’s marriage, his career, his friendship—more specifically, it rules his moments. He argues with alcoholism, tries to convince himself he’s on top of it, falls prey to it. Lowry himself died of alcoholism. The brilliance of the book is in the prose, which is less about alcohol than an expression, line by line, of a mind entrapped by it. Makes me very glad to be a non-drinker for many years.

Savory Moment

The first snowdrops have arrived. Every year, every time I see them I am amazed by their stamina, their ability to hold out for another year of all kinds of weather, only to push through the dried leaves. When I first see them I conduct a ritual, begun in the spring of 1974, when I was living alone in an old stone cottage in England. I get down on my hands and knees and inhale their cool, sweet scent.

Other News

(If you read my Facebook post the other day, forgive me, this is a repeat!) My new book has come out as an audiobook! This would be good news for any author, but for me it has special meaning. From 1985 to about 2010, I abridged hundreds of audiobooks for top publishers. I abridged a book by the Dalai Lama while waiting in a super-secure car park at the Edinburgh airport a few days after the September 11 attacks. I abridged a bio of Andrew Jackson while sitting on the rim of a remote canyon in Utah, guiding a wilderness program. I abridged a book by Salman Rushdie who didn’t want to be abridged… and got a message from the producer that “Trebbe, Salman loved the abridgment!” I abridged about a dozen Star Wars books. I abridged good books, awful books, and lots of forgettable books. It was great work and my clients at the publishing houses were wonderful. So I am super thrilled to have an audiobook of my own!!