My First Tattoo: What and Why

A few years ago a friend asked me, “If you were ever to get a tattoo, what would it be?”

I had never thought of getting a tattoo, but as soon as she posed the question, I knew. “A book with wings,” I said.

And then, a few months ago, I began to realize that I wanted to do it. I know a lot of people with tattoos, but I’d never seen any as beautiful as the ones my friend KiRa has. I contacted her tattoo artist, Phoebe Aceto, and made an appointment.

In preparation, I searched the internet for images of the right kind of book, the right kind of wings, and I sent them to Phoebe, so she could render a design.

So I was going to do this thing. I felt compelled to do it. But I really didn’t know why. I was pretty sure it had something to do with reclaiming my body’s new direction in the world two years after Andy’s death. I also felt it was a way of marking my body with a new kind of beauty at this time in my life, at age 74. I make most of my decisions intuitively, rather than logically, but this one continued to feel both very big and very mysterious.

On August 9 I arrived at Phoebe’s small studio, Here’s to You Tattoo. I told her I was nervous, not about the possible pain but about the permanence of a tattoo. She began to work. It wasn’t painful, just a little scratchy. Soon I was paying close attention to the movements of the needle, trying to guess which parts of the image she was drawing.

Mostly we sat in silence. At one point she asked, “I wonder what the story [of the book] might be.”

I had asked myself the same question several times. Now, all of a sudden I knew.

“I think it’s all I’ve ever written and all I ever will write,” I said.

And in the saying I felt close to tears.

My love of books and my wish that my own writing will continue to take wing after I am gone is now a permanent part of my body.

The Comfort of a Weather Report

I never used to listen to weather reports. When my husband and I first married and lived in Brooklyn, New York, he would wake up first, turn on the radio, and get into the shower. I would get up a few minutes later. Often, as he made breakfast, he’d ask me if I’d heard the weather report. I never had. Even if someone on the radio had made the announcement, it had simply passed me by. My theory was, you looked out the window to see what the weather was and then, if something unexpected happened later in the day—rain, snow, sun—you dealt with it.

But in the past two years, I’ve come to find comfort in weather reports. So much has been alarming and unpredictable during this time: the global Covid pandemic, the state of the American democracy, the failing health and then the death of my husband, the ever-more-tangible advance of climate change. It seems impossible to make plans for next week, let alone a whole year from now.

But then comes the weather report, bearing the gift of reliability. This afternoon, says the forecaster, there will be rain. Tomorrow will be sunny and warm. Even if the predictions do not suit my own personal preference—sun when we could really use some rain, rain on the day of the picnic I want to attend—I feel consoled. I feel as if, in at least one sphere of this scary, mixed-up world, there is, if not certainty, as least a strong likelihood that a particular phenomenon will occur. There will be a future after all, and it will include things happening in the sky that will affect those of us who live in a particular region of the Earth. The weather is impersonal and cares nothing for the health, wealth, or preferences of individuals. It will do what it must do, and we must adjust to accommodate it.

Even knowing full well that climate change is influencing weather patterns all over the world, I am soothed by the knowledge that the weather is and will continue to be alive, insistent, and relevant.

Uh-oh! Is It Safe to Have Fun?

A few months ago, my friend J. and her husband adopted a rescue dog. Finley, who is five years old, has a very troubled past. She was a laboratory dog who was repeatedly impregnated. Then, as soon as her puppies were born, they were taken away from her, so that scientists could study a hereditary disease that she carried.

J. said that when they first got their new dog home, she showed no curiosity at all. She did not respond to affection and was terrified to leave her crate.

I visited my friends last weekend and, though I am not a dog-lover, I felt sorry for this troubled animal. On the second morning of my visit, J. suggested I might like to watch as she took Finley outside for her morning playtime. I stood discreetly in an upstairs window, as my presence on the deck the afternoon before had clearly made the dog nervous. Now she actually wagged her tail after J. had gently coaxed her down the steps to the lawn. When J. tossed her ball, Finley chased after it, picked it up, and then ran back with it. Watching her little legs, so long forced into immobility, as they trotted across the green grass was oddly moving. It was as if Finley was remembering how to be a dog, loved and played with.

But sometimes some noise from the street would alarm her, and she would freeze and look nervously in the direction of the source. She would recall her old instinct that it was necessary to be vigilant at all times, for surely danger lurked

How many times I have done the same thing: paused in the middle of pleasure with the sense that it was somehow unjustifiable. When I was falling in love with my husband, I worried that he would die. When my first book was about to be published, I feared that a catastrophic world event would abort the process. Even at simple moments of relaxation, I have seized up with panic that I was not paying sufficient attention to something imminent and worrisome.

I hope Finley becomes a relaxed and happy dog, able to take walks, sniff out her world, and play with abandon. I hope she’ll cease to rely on those behavioral necessities that her past inflicted on her. And I hope those of us who exhibit our version of “Uh-oh! Is it safe to have fun?” will take encouragement from Finley’s little steps making the progress of play across the green yard and that we, too, will realize, Yes, in this moment I’m fine and nothing more is demanded of me.

Amazingly, we survive

It’s been such a long time since I’ve written here. I get notices that new people have signed up to read the blog, and I feel both happy about that and sad that I am about to disappoint you with my silence!

So… to begin again.

I’ve been thinking about how quickly a human being gets used to the most awful, unimaginable things. My Ukrainian friend Andriy lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine. This formerly lovely city has been under attack by Putin’s troops for weeks. Yet every day Andriy posts several times on Facebook, reporting not only about the horrors that Russian bombs, guns, and human cruelty are inflicting on his country and his own neighborhood, but also about his daily activities: his search for a safer place for his family to stay, the lines he waited in to buy food, his amusement when a Russian soldier tried to break into a building and couldn’t get the door open. He’s living in a war zone… and he’s living. He strikes up conversations, he gets frustrated, he gets angry, he delights at the clumsy failure of the enemy to cause yet more damage.

Also, I think back to the five days in August 2020, between the Friday morning my husband Andy and I learned that he had little time left to live and the Wednesday night when he died . At first we lay on the hospital bed, holding each other, and I felt myself sinking down, down, down into the most terrible pit of darkness and despair I have ever experienced. And yet, over the next few days, we lived with this awful sentence. He drew me a picture of how to turn on the furnace when it got cold. One evening I texted him a photo of the beautiful carrots I’d picked for dinner from his garden. Once he got settled at the hospice facility, where he would spend the last two days of his life, all our attentions were directed toward his dying, yet even then, I did crossword puzzles as I sat by his bed.

We’ve been discussing this question on the online community hub of my organization, Radical Joy for Hard Times. RadJoy members go to wounded places, like a stone quarry or a clearcut forest, to share stories and make a gift of beauty for the place. After the first shock, the place just kind of settles. Its reality makes itself known, the details start to emerge. One member, Julie Johnson wrote, “I find that an ongoing relationship with sorrow that has its own multi-dimensional flow. Like a musical composition. Sometimes it’s very piercing, other times more melancholic. Sometimes it is dampened down, more below the surface. Sometimes it’s tiredness or over-saturation or a resolve to not feel. I can experience pleasure in/of the place at the same time, too, layered in. I guess it’s not really a single tone, in my experience. It’s a mix.”

I think we go through this orchestral medley in our lives all the time. It’s a way of surviving. The psyche responds to emergency because it has to, and then some part of us insists on creating some kind of normalcy. This is no doubt one reason the human psyche has such trouble accepting the reality of climate change. You can’t see it, point to it, hear it—so you forget about it and “go back to normal.”

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian doctor who survived captivity in Auschwitz and the murder of his wife, mother, and brother by the Nazis, tells the story of a man who rushed into the barracks one afternoon and urged the other prisoners to come outside quickly and see the beautiful sunset. “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before,” Frankl wrote.

The human spirit wants to live! And will find a way to do so as long and stubbornly as possible.

(Photo above: Fireweed growing in front of a dead spruce tree, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. Photo by Trebbe Johnson)

Practicing Ecolomy

The house is the foundation of two of our most important concepts. The Greek word oikos, meaning house, roots both ecology and economy. Economy, stripped down to its parts, actually means “household management,” whereas ecology means “study of the house.” In my current life, I am managing and studying my own house. In other words, I am practicing “ecolomy”

In last March of this year, seven months after my husband died, I moved out of the large house in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, where we had lived for 32 years, and into a small house on an acre of land in Ithaca, New York. Even though  I still find that every day is a sad and dreary slog without my Andy, I am loving building a relationship with my house.

Andy was a saver of all things. He thought scraps of lumber, old typesetting books, tax returns from the 70s, and free pens from the bank might come in handy some day. Sometimes they did, but usually they didn’t, and it took me months to clear out our old house. Now, not only do all my things have a purpose, they also have their own places, where they can associate with other things that they might like or learn something from. Dusting and tidying are fresh exercises, because I am administering to objects and spaces instead of getting annoyed, as I used to, because there were too many objects occupying too little space.

I have preserved some valued customs from Andy’s and my life together. For example, I have books in every room of the house. I also have at least one of the Valentines that Andy made me every year for 40 years in every room. But I’ve also made alterations. I took the TV to the Re-use center and haven’t missed it at all. In the guest room, which I have renamed the Friends’ Room, I framed photographs of people I love who I hope will come and visit.

Sometimes I worry that I acted precipitously by buying a house so soon after Andy’s death, especially since I haven’t sold our old house and I’m currently paying the expenses for both. A few of my friends also thought I was being unwise. Yet this new article in Parabola, “Kissed by Fire,” I interweave Andy’s cremation with the enduring myth of the goddess Isis as she simultaneously mourns her beloved and conjures immortality for an infant. The juxtaposition reminds us that we need to live, create, and manage both our physical and emotional houses, not just after a period of grief, but during it. It’s the practice of Ecolomy.

(Photo above: my office in my new house, looking into the living room)


Sorrow, Amazement, and My Wedding Ring

The other day I read that Carl Jung had at first believed that the psyche, the human soul or spirit, exists inside the body, but that he later became convinced that it is actually outside the body. This notion excited me. A relentless spiritual seeker, I’m always looking for ways and practices to penetrate the veil that usually hovers before me and the Great Mystery we can never know but that religions round the world attempt to identify and become closer to.

My psyche gave me a big gift the other day.

Andy’s and my wedding rings were made especially for us by a Navajo (Dineh, as they refer to themselves) silversmith, Thomas Begay, whom I sought out during the years that I was writing about a spiritual and cultural issue affecting the Dineh and Hopi. After Andy died last August, I told the funeral director to cremate him with his ring on. It seemed appropriate that this symbol of our immensely loving union be transformed along with his body. But since I moved to Ithaca, New York in March, my own ring has become very tarnished in the sulphurous water, so last week I took it to a local jeweler who said she could clean it. She had warned that she would have to cut it off first, since I could no longer get it over my knuckle, but that she would then resize it. I assumed that all this would happen at once.

No. The jeweler began by telling me she didn’t like silver, because it tarnishes. She then suggested it wasn’t the water that was darkening it, but sweat from my hands or perfume. She sawed my ring off and then told me I would have to wait six to eight weeks for my finger to plump back up where the ring had compressed it. I was devastated.

I drove home with my cut wedding ring in my pocket, sobbing, “What have I done? What have I done?”

I determined not to return to that nasty jeweler. A few days later, I noticed a jeweler at the farmer’s market and asked her if she could resize my ring. She told me she didn’t do soldering and suggested I contact a jeweler named David Huffman in Cortland, New York, about half an hour from Ithaca. I phoned him and he said he could fix my ring, so I brought it to him.

Huffman’s shop is small and a little cluttered, and he was bent over a dissected watch on a small table. Nobody else was in the shop, so we got into a conversation. He told me that many people don’t appreciate how intricate a craft silversmithing is. He described how the designs are incised directly into the silver. I then told him the story of our wedding rings and how they’d been made by a Navajo silversmith named Thomas Begay.

“I know Thomas Begay,” he said.

It turns out that he and Thomas had been among a group of jewelers who had gathered on the Anishinaabe reservation in Canada about thirty years ago to share their work.

He said he would repair my ring in a few days and measured my finger then and there. I walked out of the shop ecstatic.

“What are the chances?” I said to myself over and over as I walked to my car: a jeweler in a small town in New York knows the Dineh man in eastern Arizona who created Andy’s and my wedding rings more than thirty-five years ago!

Tomorrow I will pick up my ring. And I feel that, if Jung is right about the psyche, then that is a part of ourselves that is always seeking to connect us with the great mystery, whether that mystery is intuition, nature, other people, or the force sometimes known as God.

I can’t wait to go back to the jeweler at the farmer’s market and tell her this story.

(Photo above: Andy & me in Death Valley, 2003. You can see his wedding ring.)

My Relationships with Things

Years ago, when I was guiding a wilderness rites of passage program in the Utah Canyonlands, our assistant, Joe, became distraught because he had lost his favorite pen after spending the afternoon writing in his journal in some scenic spot. The participants were out on their three-day solos in the wilderness, and Joe spent hours the following day searching for his pen. “It’s out there somewhere,” he worried, “alone and afraid in the dark.” Finally, after one search, he returned to base camp holding the pen aloft before him like a flag of triumph. He had rescued it from a sad fate, and both were happy again.

I could so relate to his woe and his jubilation. I’m the same way with Things. They are personalities, all of them. Some are friendly and graceful, some stubborn and uncooperative. Some are sweet, others unforgiving. The other day I was afraid I’d given away my favorite spoon when I took a whole drawer of Andy’s and my flatware to Goodwill. When I found it, I greeted it and, yes, kissed it hello.

These days, as I get settled into my new home in Ithaca, New York, two weeks after moving from rural northeastern Pennsylvania, I am also thinking about the Things of mine, and especially of Andy’s, that I chose to bring with me and the ones I gave away. My husband was an artist, a lover of tools, and a saver of just about everything. He knew my conviction about the personality of Things, but he didn’t share it. He did have a fondness for his Things, but he saved them because he thought he might need them one day. This was especially true of his tools. He also loved the aesthetics of tools—how they were shaped, especially the old ones, to do what was required and to be held comfortably in the hand. There were many times when something broke, and he would go into his large, messy studio and come up with exactly the right little screw or piece of molding or tiny screwdriver to fix it.

In the many months that led up to my move, even before I started looking at houses, I spent countless painful hours going through Andy’s things—giving some away to friends or his kids, passing some along to a friend who is trying to sell them on eBay, dispersing others to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, the recycling center, the paper shredder… or the trash. The tools were the most stern and critical of my packing angst; they would be treated with respect and taken to my new home.

Now I am in my new, much smaller house and the basement is filled with tools. I don’t know the purpose of half of them, and I’ll likely never use most. Seven screwdrivers? Nine kinds of files? I took them with me not just because the tools insisted, but, really, because my brain was operating under a faulty equation:

Andy loved his tools.
I love Andy.
Therefore I must love his tools.

In their new location, the tools do not seem nearly as bossy and demanding as they did in Andy’s studio. There they insisted on being cared for by me for the rest of my life. Here they seem, frankly, like unwelcome guests. So, after I get my home arranged for me, I must see about arranging a new home for them.

(Photo above: a few of Andy’s tools, awaiting their positions in my new home.)


Recently I was asked to write a testimonial for a book about pilgrimage. It’s by James E. Mills, and it’s called Pilgrimage Pathways for the United States. The author contacted me because he had read my most recent book, but what he didn’t know is that I am a major believer in and conjurer of pilgrimage opportunities.

Mills includes many definitions of pilgrimage, but doesn’t narrow it down to one. Personally, I’d say it’s a journey one makes to a place that has special meaning unto itself and, so the journeyer expects, will have meaning also for her.

One important pilgrimage I made was to Greece in 1981. I was writing a novel about Medea (not very good; fortunately never published), and I wanted to visit all the places she and Jason and the Argonauts had spent time in. My guidebook was Pausanius’ Guide to Greece, written in the second century AD. That book actually did work in Greece, where so much of what’s ancient remains.

In 2019 I made a pilgrimage I’d looked forward to for more than fifty years. I went to Liverpool. I spent several hours in the Beatles Museum and the following day took a seven-hour private tour to all the boys’ homes, schools, and hangouts. The photo above is me at St. Peter’s Church, where John’s group, the Quarrymen, was playing for a village fete in 1957. Paul’s friend Ivan Vaughn brought him along especially to meet John. For me going to Liverpool was like going to Lourdes would be to a religious person. It was an opportunity to walk the sidewalks of those individuals, and the four of them collectively, who had changed my life—to see the bricks and trees and shops, the Penny Lane roundabout, and even the drainpipe that teenaged Paul used to shimmy up when he returned home late at night after a gig.


A pilgrimage makes a place real in a new way. You go with intent, but the pilgrimage demands that you leave your intent in the wings and just wait and see what’s going to happen. When you reach a pilgrimage site, you don’t just glance and leave. You gaze. You attend. You listen. You remember and envision.

My organization, Radical Joy for Hard Times, also recommends visits that are a bit like pilgrimages. We urge people to go places they love that have been damaged and spend time there, sharing stories, getting to know the place as it is now, and making a simple gift of beauty for it. This simple practice reminds people that they remain profoundly connected with the places in their lives, even when something drastic has happened to those places. Usually, they leave loving the place in an entirely new way and feeling empowered themselves.

What pilgrimages have you made—or want to make?



Fighting with the Storm

It’s been months since I last wrote this blog. In that time, coronavirus has made us all realize the immediacy of our mortality. In the U.S., we’ve witnessed millions of followers of the President of the United States so convinced that a fair election had been unfair to him that they followed his bidding to storm the Capitol Building and deny the rightful transition of power.

For me, the greatest loss of all has been the death of my husband, Andy Gardner, from cancer on August 12.

But I like writing this blog. It helps me to think clearly and, I’ve been told, it helps others to think clearly as well. So—I’m returning. Thank you for being here. Really. I promise to post more regularly.

Rilke writes:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Man Watching,” trans. Robert Bly)

After my husband’s death, I, too, was beaten back into life by a storm.

Andy and I always used to say that, if the other one died, we wouldn’t want to keep on living. But about a week and a half after he died I realized that I did want to live. Desperately.

I was out mowing the lawn when the sky darkened and the wind began to blow furiously. Leaves and twigs hurled themselves out of the trees to twirl in the air. Since our house is the last one in the village before the countryside opens up, we often lose power in severe storms, and it seemed likely that that could happen in the storm now shaping up. I finished mowing the lawn and had just gone inside when, sure enough, the lights flickered and faded, the old refrigerator gave a last choking gasp, and the house settled into premature silence and darkness. I went upstairs to take a shower before the hot water cooled, and afterwards I went into the bedroom and sat on the bed. Through the windows I could see the rain driving almost horizontally from the west, the wind whipping the tops of the trees back and forth. And suddenly, the violence of the tempest mirrored my own violent anguish so sharply that I felt I must be on the verge of death myself, for I could not possibly live much longer with such pain. It seemed that grief itself was about to extinguish my own life, just as the storm had shut off the power in our house.

I realized that I didn’t want to go. “I want to live!” I wailed. “I want to live! Show me,” I pleaded with whatever greater force might hear and intervene, “show me how to survive this!”

I think that at that moment my grief was so intense that I felt it was trying to kill me. And I rebelled! The grief did not diminish after that unexpected rendezvous with my own fierce consciousness, but I did realize that I would survive. And that I would be okay, even while in the midst of the grief. My declaration to the cosmos that I wanted to live gave me the courage to stick with the suffering as much I had to in order to come out on the other side.

Six months have now passed. I still can’t say the grief has abated, but it is less violent now. Less like a storm, more like a drought. Life is filled with amazing teachers. I am grateful to the storm for forcing me to choose life.

(Photo by Greg Redfern, WTOP News)


What are We Smiling for?

In my last blog, I wrote about Andi Olsen’s short video, Where the Smiling Ends,” and how it made me feel as if I had been granted the brief, momentary gift of seeing people’s souls shimmering within their anonymous bodies.

Ever since I wrote that, I’ve been thinking about smiling in other contexts. For example, in February, I was part of an extraordinary delegation of spiritual leaders, peace activists, and ecologists traveling in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Whenever we reached a new stop, people would gather together in small groups and have somebody take their picture. Throughout the journey and afterward these photos kept popping up on social media.

Over and over I found myself baffled by this impulse to group and smile. Sometimes it actually seemed inappropriate. Why, for instance, were we organizing ourselves in this way as soon as we stepped out of the bus at Mt. Nebo, the legendary summit from which Moses is said to have stared out over the valley and the Jordan River to see the Promised Land that God had forbidden him ever to enter? Wouldn’t simply gazing in sympathy or even bending down to touch the soil be a more heartfelt response for us?

Why, when you came to think of it, would we even want to pose for a photograph at such a place? To show people at home that we had spent time at a famous place with likable people? We were a very diverse and compatible group. Maybe our photo-ops were an unconscious way of indicating that these places, some associated with all three Abrahamic religions, some of special importance to either Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, could be touched and honored by people of diverse faiths? Or is having your picture taken at a famous place and smiling happily for it simply an act so engrained in our psyches that we don’t question it? (Not that I didn’t participate. Here’s a group photo I myself happily joined at Mt. Nebo.)

I’m still wondering.

What do you think?

What I’m reading—and more about smiling

After finishing Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody, I picked up her second memoir, Almost There. It’s shorter and more loosely organized and, frankly, I’m finding it a little thin, as books authors write as follow-ups to their previous bestsellers often are. Nevertheless, I perked up when I read what she had to say about smiling when she visited the September 11 shrine at the site of the World Trade Towers and looked at the photographs of those who had been killed:

“…[H]ow happy the missing looked. No one had ever posed for a photo appropriate to being missing. Ordinary people are photographed when they are rejoicing, and here they were, beaming in tuxedos from behind littered restaurant tables, poised in bathing suits to dive from a jetty, standing proudly behind a bar mitzvah boy, coy in a bridesmaid’s satin dress. Every single one of them was smiling.”

Which photo of you or of me will be the one to depict our life after we’re dead? 

Savory Moment

I love to dance. Not having any dance opportunities available where I live, or even within a reasonable drive’s distance, has been one of the hardest things about leaving New York. A few days ago a friend of mine told me about Soul Motion, an on-line dance session with Michael Skelton that she participates in every Sunday. I joined for the first time last week, and it was a dream come true—an hour and a half of dance to great music with lots of variation, occasional gentle but deep guidance by the facilitator, and time afterwards for sharing responses. Cost is your choice, from $5-$20. You dance in your own home with more than a hundred people from around the world dancing in their own homes. And it’s live. I hope that other dancing fools among my readers will join me! Here’s the link: