En route

Tomorrow morning I leave for Shanghai, where I’ll be leading a workshop for the China office of ArtGym, a company founded by my good friend and colleague, Eugene Hughes—all about developing real creativity in the business world and taking the plunge not just to rise in the corporation, but to make a real difference in the world.

It’s a long flight—15+ hours. Fortunately, I love to fly. I regard plane trips as marvelous adventures that have the added benefit of landing you in a place away from the familiar (or else back home) that you then get to explore. When I get on a plane, I’m equipped with a good book, a crossword puzzle or two, a Parabola Magazine, a cashmere shawl for comfort, and my own down travel pillow. I always get a window seat, and I spend at least as much time looking out as looking down (or across at the screen).

Here are just a few of the amazing things I’ve seen from the window of a plane:

  • the ice of Greenland
  • a full moon shining on the snowy Himalayan Mountains
  • an aurora borealis that waved and rippled for almost an hour
  • the Gobi Desert
  • the Black and Caspian Seas looking exactly as they did in the geography books I had as a kid
  • the place where Ganges and Yamana River meet.

See you when I get back!

What I’m Reading

Instead of writing about what I’m reading, I want to recommend a “This American Life” show that I listened to the other day. This episode is called “How I Got Into College,” and the story that captivated me is “My Ames is True.” It’s about a young Bosnian boy who steals a library book when he and his family flee to the U.S. during the 1990s war. He credits this book and what happens to him because of it with changing his life. The story is not just about the book and the boy but about his particular outlook on life. Fascinating.


News & Links

My new book comes is officially out a week from tomorrow! You can pre-order here. Today did a great interview with Dean Spillane Walker of Living Resilience, colleague of those fierce gazers into grief, Carolyn Baker and Francis Weller. It was a great conversation, not an interview that follows a prepared list of questions. Will post the link when it’s available.


 A Savory Moment

I live about 45 minutes north of the city of Scranton and have always viewed it as a rather tired place. It had its greatness in the beginning of the 20thcentury, but with the decline of coal mining in surrounding areas, it, too, has declined. The other night, my husband and I met friends of ours there to try a new restaurant. The restaurant was mediocre and the noise level was torturous, so we decided to walk over to a coffee shop and clear our minds and have a real conversation. It was a gorgeous night, perfect late-summer weather, and as we walked the several blocks to the coffee shop, twilight was just turning to night. There were pink balloons and pink items in storefronts because the city had just that morning sponsored a run to support breast cancer research. Andy and our friend Jake walked ahead, while Jo and I ambled behind with her old dog, who was enjoying sniffing her way along the sidewalks. We paused to look across a public square at the rear facades of a whole row of lovely old buildings. At that moment, in that spell of evening and gentle weather and a city that did some good work that morning, I kind of fell in love with Scranton. It was as if I had never really seen her before. The next day Jo sent me a photo she took of those buildings. I told her about my falling-in-love, and she said that had happened for her, too.


Extraordinary, Unusual, Mad, Etc: Great Gifts

The literary deconstructionist Jacques Derrida once defined the best gifts as “the extraordinary, the unusual, the strange, the extravagant, the absurd, the mad.”

I love that! Gifts are not supposed to be practical. They’re supposed to say something special about the giver, the recipient, and the relationship between them. They speak—both loudly and intimately—of something those two people share. Some people are really hard to give gifts to; nothing ever seems right for them. Others are easy. My brother, for example, loved presents I’d make for him, and his wish for such gifts always inspired me to create all kinds of special things for his birthday and Christmas.

One of the best, most extravagant, maddest gifts I ever received was from Carrie Pandis, a woman I’ve been friends with since we were sophomores in high school and both in love with the Beatles and English literature. Several times when we were in high school, we gave each other the newest Beatles album for Christmas. But a few years ago, she gave me a great gift I myself never even came close to.

She told me about it later on. She had gone to a Paul McCartney concert in Omaha, where we both grew up and where she still lives. The audience was much different now, she said, than it had been in the 60s, when we saw the Beatles perform live. Now, you could actually hear the music. Moreover, between songs, Paul would chat with the audience, and then, too, the theatre was quiet enough so people could hear.

When Paul paused in his comments, Carrie saw her opportunity.

“I love you, Paul!” she shouted.

And then, she added, “Trebbe Johnson loves you, too!”

What a gift was that! She not only shared her own feelings in a space that not many people would dare to intrude upon, but she further commandeered that space to include me as well.

What extraordinary, unusual, strange, extravagant, absurd, mad gift that you’ve received has made a lasting impression? If you describe it a bit in the Comments below, others will be able to share in your delight!

(Photo above: Carrie & Trebbe, senior year, Brownell Hall, Omaha, 1966)

I meet the monster trucks

Last week, I entered a strange world and had some fun there.

The setting was the Harford Fair, held annually in my county. I had completed one of my stints at our booth for SCAN (Susquehanna Clean Air Network), a citizens action group I’ve been actively involved with for the past two years.

After my replacement arrived, I spent some time wandering around the fair. I did the kinds of things I’d usually do: ate some homemade fudge, admired the rabbits, got engaged with the mysterious lives of goats and sheep, listened to a bluegrass band.

Then I became curious about some mega-noise emanating from the arena and went over to see what was going on. It was a monster truck rally.

I’d never been to one. I’d never even heard of monster trucks. But there they were: the bodies of pick-up trucks and even one school bus mounted with elevated suspension on enormous tires. One at a time, these bizarre vehicles roared out from their place among a line of others. At full speed they careened over the tops of ordinary cars, flattened on purpose or from repeated batterings, to land with a great bounce on their mammoth tires. With an excess of engine noise, they also had to round a hairpin turn. Some of them almost tipped over at this point, to the anxious delight of the crowd.

Looking around at the audience, I thought: I really don’t belong here. I imagined standing in front of the crowd and telling them a bit about myself: liberal, mystic atheist, literary snob, enthusiastic communicator with the natural world. No doubt they would laugh.

But I didn’t want to leave. The spectacle gripped me. Watching those amped-up trucks bounce and teeter on their huge tires was a sport whose rules clarified with each melodramatic run. The crowd knew all the innuendos of the game, but even I, after a while, could judge which trucks performed best.

My feeling of being an interloper never left. I remembered the time I spent in the late 80s and early 90s on Navajo-Hopi lands, writing about a land issue that was affecting both tribes. I got used to feeling strange and out of place there—an Anglo who showed up in all kinds of places and asked a lot of questions. I got comfortable being an outsider.

That’s how I felt at the rally. I was a stranger but, like everyone else, I was immersed in the thing. I won’t go so far as to say I was cheering or groaning with the way things were going, but I was part of the crowd of monster truck watchers. I was a stranger in a land that didn’t mind having me there at all.

What I’m Reading

I have to admit I gave up on the last chapter of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. I love philosophy, but semiology and deconstructionism, the endless paring down of something into infinitely small parts, frustrates me. I picked up a book of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose alliteration and onomatopoeia make you want to sing each poem like a song. For example (from “Inversnaid”):

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

A Savory Moment

A young girl at the fair, about 14, sitting in a pen with three of her goats at about 8:00 at night. One of the goats rests its head on her lap. She stares dreamily into the distance as she strokes it behind the ears.

News & Links

An excerpt from my new book, in the Bioneers blog.

Fracking Quilts

When I heard that my friend, Virginia “Gina” Kellogg, a life coach, co-founder of Leadership That Works, and quilt artist, is starting a new project called Journal Quilting, I decided to repost an article I wrote several years ago in my previous newsletter. Quilting your fears, your longing, your visions is a powerful way to clarify and sync with your own emotions, and in the process you create something meaningful and beautiful.

Gina began quilting in 2006, as a way of expressing her deep grief after her brother died. Since then she has created dozens of what she calls “journal quilts,” works in fabric that are creative responses to emotional states. A few years ago, when gas fracking came to northeastern Pennsylvania, she decided to share what she has learned with others.

As most people know by now, fracking is short for hydrofracking, a technique that entails blasting a mixture of sand, water, and chemicals deep into the Earth to release natural gas. In 2008, the industry invaded our quiet, rural area with noise, light pollution, contaminated water wells, exploding gas wells, fissured roads, and leaks in pipelines. It has also caused physical, psychological, and social damage to individuals, families, and communities. Five women accepted Gina’s offer to explore their feelings through the process of making a small quilt.

Meeting on a Friday night at Gina’s house, we began by choosing a square of fabric from one of the antique quilts that Gina collects. We used that piece as the seed for the rest of the quilt. In my quilt, pictured above, the seed pieces are the jagged green shapes that represent the fracking penetrating the land.

Gina has an enormous collection of fabrics that we could choose from to build our quilts. As we worked, she was there to answer questions and provide guidance, but as she frequently emphasized, the point was not to make a “good” quilt, but to express our deep feelings . When we got stuck, she urged us to pick a fabric we “hated or would never consider using.” An essential part of the process was to “frack” our quilts themselves—cut them up—after we had gotten the design just the way we wanted it. Although most of us felt some reluctance to do so, slicing through the design helped us to realize that we did not have to hold on to what we were attached to.

My quilt is called, “They are Piercing the Earth, and All, All, All Is Falling into the Cracks.” The yellow and orange shapes represent the hilly landscape in this area and the towns and farms nestled in it. The fracking is cutting deep into the Earth, and the villages are collapsing. The large striped “crack” that runs from top to bottom symbolizes the extent of the fracking, which fractures not only the Earth but families and communities as well. The circular part on the lower right is still a bit of a mystery. It seems to token life and growth and wholeness, even at the depths, when everything around you seems to be irreparably broken.

All of us felt transformed by this experience. We were able to express feelings about the gas drilling that we had been unable to articulate in any other way. Sharing our stories about both our experiences with the gas drilling and, as we moved through the process, the design of our quilts, made each of us feel less alone. And by transforming fear, grief, and anger into a creative act, we became empowered and ceased to be victims of an overpowering force.

I am looking forward to Gina’s upcoming Journal Quilting project.

Bobbing and Sinking with Everyone Else

While meditating the other day, I had an image of all us humans in the world bobbing like tiny corks in an immense ocean. Sometimes stormy skies loured overhead and a sudden wave would sweep in and shove some of the corks under the water. Sometimes the sun shone, the surf was gentle, and the little corks floated easily on the surface of the sea. At any given time, some corks would be inundated, while others would be lofted up.

And, really, so it is. Think of the bobbing and sinking going on these days among your own circle of loved ones and friends. Right now I know a woman who is likely to die within the next year of a malignant brain tumor. I have another friend who’s feeling on top of the world because he has a best-selling book and lots of invitations from prestigious places to speak and present. I know one couple who had a healthy baby a few months ago and another couple whose baby was born with significant disabilities. Sometimes whole communities are swept under—the Rohinga in Burma, the residents of Flint who are still struggling to get clean water, the many people in the western U.S. who have lost their homes to wildfire.

At any given time, some of us are bobbing happily in the sun and some of us are barely managing to stay afloat. And it can all change tomorrow.

There are those who believe that “whatever happens is for the best.” Others claim that everything occurs according to God’s will. Or they tell you that, if you’re having difficulty doing something, it’s because the universe doesn’t want you to do it.

I don’t believe it. Stuff happens. Calamity strikes and you either get in the way or you don’t. One person in the stadium catches the fly ball and another person gets conked in the head with it. Of course, to a certain extent my behavior dictates what happens to me (I’m more likely to get into a car accident if I’m texting than if I keep my full attention on the road), but often I simply get in the crossfire of chance forces.

I actually find that unbidden image of the corks comforting. It reminds me that I’m just one among many trying to stay afloat and keep an eye on those I love in hopes that they’ll keep floating, too. The cork image reminds me that hazard and delight can push us under the ocean or lob us up to the top of the wave. It reminds me of the fickleness of life and the amazing stubbornness and beauty of people and all of nature.


What I’m Reading

I first read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, when I was 23 years old. Here the French philosopher digs beneath the surface of all kinds of things we typically take for granted, like why magazine articles about professional women always have to mention how many children they have or what travel guides are really trying to get you to see and do when you’re on vacation. I was fascinated with it. Those short pieces, usually just three or four pages each, made me look anew at the ordinary things in my life. Recently I decided to read the book again, and I find it just as fascinating now, more than forty years later. The essays were written in the 1950s, and many of the subjects Barthes deconstructs will be either unknown or but vaguely familiar to modern readers. However, the phenomena Barthes probes remind you of all kinds of contemporary things where you might find meaning and intention if you’re willing to look. You might ponder, for example, how drivers behave when they wait in traffic, the patterns newscasters employ to relate different kinds of stories, and how tourists regard themselves and their place in the world when they travel. It’s not easy reading, but it’s deeply engaging and thought provoking.

A Savory Moment

Since my husband’s back pain and, recently, recovery from back surgery has prevented him from doing a lot of the work on our 5 ½-acres of land, I’ve taken over many of the tasks. One of them is mowing the lawn. I’ve discovered that I really like this job. It’s aerobic, it requires force and pushing (forms of exertion I find satisfying), and as I do it I see clear evidence behind and around me that it’s working. The grass is getting cut. After I’ve finished mowing, I put the lawn mower away, and then I like to sit outside on a chair. At first my body is like the lawn mower: revved up and on the move even though it’s now at rest. Gradually I start to cool down. My heartrate slows. The slightest breeze soothes like a silk cloth. The sounds of the birds, the crickets, the windchimes begin to reassert themselves. I cease to be a hot engine pushing through the world and become instead a piece of life that the world gently brushes.

The antlered man and the beautiful animals


This beautiful image is from a silver cauldron, the Gudestrup Cauldron, found at the end of the 19thcentury in a peat bog in Denmark. I discovered it on the internet a few days ago when I was researching the Underworld for an article I’m writing, and I’m captivated by it.

One side of the cauldron shows a man, sitting cross-legged. He has antlers on his head, just like those of the stag to his right (our left). Also to his right is a long-horned sheep. To his left right are a boar, a dog, a snake, and an unidentifiable other animal departing to another side of the cauldron. The man and animals seem to be allies, or at least they inhabit the same realm comfortably together.

Though it was found in Denmark, the cauldron, dating from about 150 BCE, is believed not to have been made there, but in a Gallic land, possibly Ireland, where silversmiths, artists, and believers in the World beyond the known world would have been familiar with this imagery. In Irish myths Cernunnos, horned like the figure in this cauldron, was the god of fertility, animals, life, wealth, and the underworld.

Most of us think of death and the Underworld being the end of life and fertility. But in the myths of many cultures, the goddess was associated with both the moist, black, mysterious chasms of fertility and with death, for the Earth both took life and gave life, seemingly at random. It’s interesting that this figure is masculine, for men are not typically associated with fertility. When the Greek god of the Underworld, Hades, wanted life beside him, he abducted the young woman Persephone. (She was picking flowers when he grabbed her.) He could not generate that life, that blossoming on his own.

In modern psychology, the Underworld and fertility are passionate, if uneasy, partners. The Jungian writer Christine Downing, among others, has written that a descent to the psychic underworld can result in new openings of creativity.

In my own life, I find that times of chaos so thoroughly rip me open that I see the world in a new way. I have more compassion for other people. My actions become more significant; nothing seems accidental or unimportant.

What I’m Reading

Ever since I started reading Look at Me by Jennifer Egan a few days ago, I have been grabbing every conceivable available moment to open it and read it. Breakfast! My heart leaps with anticipation! I can get in maybe 10 minutes of reading! A visit to the lawyer’s office: maybe he’ll be late and I can read for a few minutes. This book is about four interwoven characters: a model whose face is changed by a terrible car accident, a teenage girl who misunderstands the clues of the world as she looks for depth and connection, a private eye trying to stay sober, and a mysterious man of many disguises with a massive grudge against America. It’s about identity, secrets, need, and appearance. And Egan is a powerful writer.

A Savory Moment

The west is burning. The rainy season in Bali has lasted for over a year. Europe’s in a heat wave. And here in Pennsylvania, we have been having torrential rains all summer. Creeks are flooding, stones racing over the road on the backs of muddy streams. The other day, when one of those storms ended, I went to the nature preserve a mile from our house. It’s a wetland area, and the sound of water rushing was everywhere: deep, shallow, trickles, roars. The trails had turned into rivulets. After sloshing and exploring around for a while, I sat on a damp log and just waited for the world around me to assert itself. A spider crawled down the trunk of a sapling beech tree. The waters kept running. Breezes shook raindrops off the trees. And gradually, the late summer insects started chirring and cheeping after they had fallen silent at my approach. The place had forgotten about me. What a relief to be there for that!

Forcing myself to look

Our little village of 283 people has been having a big problem this year with feral cats. Now, I am a cat lover, but these wild cats poop in the garden, kill the birds, and breed more cats that do the same. Recently, they’ve broken several of the pots in Andy’s kiln shed. At first, we tried to give some of them to the Humane Society, but the woman who answered the phone said they have a waiting list.

So last week Andy and I bought a Havahart trap, and so far we have relocated four cats to a woodland area on the other side of the Susquehanna River 9 miles away.

It’s hard to do. I have to remind myself that they’re already wild. They are not housecats. They fend for themselves and eat only what they catch. We’re only moving them from one outdoor habitat to another. But I always make sure I really look at each cat sitting there in the cage, allowing myself to take in how cute and appealing it is. When Andy advised me to quit torturing myself by doing that, I told him I have to. I have to do it, so I don’t override my compassion for these animals with a blunt sense of necessity.

This morning, as we delivered yet another cat to its new wilderness, I thought about a conversation I had with my friend Alison, when we met for brunch last Saturday morning. We were talking about the immense heartache that America is perpetrating by separating children and parents who try to cross into this country over the Mexican border.

“They are shutting down their own ability to feel compassion,” Alison said. “They say they have to do it because it’s the law, but they refuse to look into their own hearts and see that it’s wrong—and that they themselves might have feelings of sadness and regret for what they’re doing. They are causing trauma for these children for the rest of their lives, even if they do end up being reunited with their parents—and that’s not at all guaranteed.”

It’s as tough to see (a) some sweetness in that which is painful as it is to see (b) what’s painful in something sweet. Examples: (a)—taking a good look at the caged pussycat you’re about to cart off to a strange location and (b)—acknowledging that you’re abetting in the release of a big load of carbon into the air when you go off on your dream vacation to Venice.

However, if we can hold the balance between the sweet and the sour, the beautiful and the ugly, the sad and the joyous, as if they were two fragile bowls we can hold, one in the palm of each hand, then we uphold our own humanity, our ability to feel, to be real. By being as honest with ourselves as possible about what we do and experience in the world, we can make decisions with our eyes wide open.

What I’m Reading

“Losing Earth,” an investigative report by Nathaniel Rich that fills the entire New York Times magazine of Sunday, August 5. It’s a heartbreaking story that focuses on the decade between 1979 and 1989, when politicians, scientists, and activists recognized the immensity of the problem of a warming planet and tried to do something to halt it before it was too late. It shows that we as a nation did not just slide mindlessly into the calamity that is now upon us—but how greed and self-interest prevented the right thing from being done. With aerial photos by George Steinmetz of how climate change is wreaking havoc on several areas around the world.

A Savory Moment

Sunday afternoon. A hot day. I am in the backyard with a large plastic container, picking blueberries from the bushes. Occasionally I eat one, and if I space the tastes out just right, I get a serial flavor from each that begins with tartness and then turns sweet. On the grass at my feet is a piece of paper I’ve printed out. “Are those your instructions?” Andy teases, coming outside. I tell him it’s a sonnet of Shakespeare that I’m memorizing. It begins:

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, mur’drous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight….

Why this poem? Simply because the language is hot, fruity, and delicious.

I love my little black desk

Here’s a passage from Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch that caught my attention:

Why is it so necessary at certain times to say: “I loved that”? I loved some blues, an image in the street, a poor dry river in the north. Giving testimony, fighting against the nothingness that will sweep us all away.

Thinking about loving things made me think of my little black desk, which has been with me for 47 years.

I found it in a bathtub. My first job out of college was working as a personal assistant to Erich Segal, then wildly popular for his tearjerker novel, Love Story. When I moved to Cambridge, Mass., where he was living, I visited a realtor to look for an apartment in the Harvard Square area. In one of the apartments he showed me was this sweet little black desk standing in the bathtub. It was no antique, there was nothing elaborate about the construction, and it wasn’t varnished, just painted black. But it had little cubbyholes to put things in and a drawer underneath the hinged top. And I needed a desk.

I ended up taking another apartment that the realtor showed me that day, but as I was moving in, I called him and asked him if I could have the little black desk. He said yes. I went over and got it and carried it myself the few blocks to my new place. It’s been with me ever since.

This little desk has supported my writing of poems, essays, multimedia scripts, checks for my bills, love letters, notes from business calls, and books published and not published. It’s lived in two apartments in Cambridge, five in New York City, and now it resides here in northeastern Pennsylvania.

I have two other desks in my office now, but the little black desk holds the position of prime importance, right by the window overlooking the garden.

It is important to love things and to gaze at them fondly, perhaps stroke them now and then with gratitude for their enduring presence in your life.

What things do you love?

What I’m Reading

Still reading Hopscotch (Cortazar; see above). Since the book “hopscotches” around in a non-chronological (though anything but random) order among the chapters (146-29-107-113-30), you never know exactly how many pages you’ve read. Moreover, you’re never sure, how each chapter links up with the ones before and after. You have to think about it, with your intuition and sense of play as well as with your intellect. Sometimes the narrative is clear, other times you have to search for the transition, the underlying current. I wish I could have written this book.

A Savory Moment

Andy and I had dinner on Saturday with two friends who live most of the year in London but spend a couple of summer months in their house on a nearby lake. Each year the lake has a special Lake Day for residents that concludes with fireworks. This moment occurred on the dock of our friends, with whom we’d just had a great dinner. It was a chilly night, and the four of us were  sitting on plastic chairs bundled up in fluffy afghans, talking about an ancient site in Turkey that we’d all visited a few years ago. As we talked, we looked across the lake, its water the color of tarnished silver, awaiting the fireworks that would appear from a dark hill on the far shore. I  was thinking of how the bang of the celebrations would disturb birds and animals and feeling badly about that, and at the same moment I was loving that sense of coziness and ease, being all wrapped up in friendship, afghans, the prospect of dessert, and just the loud, flamboyant way Americans like to celebrate.

Speaking to the fear—of another

In the past thirteen months, my husband has had an excessive number of visits to medical professionals (bladder, back, eyes). We’re calling this summer “the Summer of Repairs,” in hopes that the treatments and surgery he’s gotten since May will start putting him back to rights.

Over these past 13 months, I’ve had a lot of time to study people in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices and hospitals and to think about the many trials and hopes and expectations of being in limbo while the one you love is being probed and snipped in some other room in the labyrinth. I wrote a blog about one aspect of the medical waiting room (signs of love) a few months ago. Today I want to write about a woman’s face.

Last Tuesday, I was in the waiting room of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York while Andy had arthroscopic surgery on two herniated discs in his back. It was an unusually nice waiting room—coffee and water, no TV, comfortable chairs, windows overlooking a garden. I was sitting in a little niche by the window, working on my computer, when a surgeon came in to talk to the woman seated across from me.

She was an attractive woman in her early-mid 50s, slender, with a good haircut and clothes that were carefully chosen, both in the shops and from her closet. As the surgeon was giving her his news, he stood, while she stayed seated. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could tell it wasn’t good from the look on her face. It was the very picture of worry and fear. It seemed that as she listened, she was being poisoned by something much worse than she had anticipated.

A few minutes after the doctor left, I couldn’t help myself. I pushed past my shyness and went over and sat beside her. I told her what I had seen on her face and said that my heart went out to her. She said nothing, just looked at her hands. I told her, “You don’t have to say anything. I just wanted to tell you I hope things will get better.” Then she started weeping. “It’s my son,” she said. I sat with her for a few minutes without speaking, then went back to my seat. Then I heard her making a phone call and telling someone that they had removed the tumor and the surrounding lymph nodes.

She left soon after. About an hour later she came back and bent over me, and thanked me for speaking to her. I have no idea if I gave her any comfort. I just knew I had to offer it.

Seeing that woman’s face, so raw and open in her reaction to the shaking of her world made me realize once again what tender creatures we all are… and how well we usually keep that tenderness hidden.

What I’m Reading

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. I first read this book by the Angentinian author about 35 years ago, when I was dating a Brazilian man who introduced me to the extraordinary world of Latin American literature. It’s a challenging novel—155 chapters divided between the story of an intellectual trying to find himself and snippets of philosophy, quotations, diversions, and the reflections of an author who is Cortazar’s stand-in. You can read the novel straight through, as you would a regular book, or you can “hopscotch” between the first part and the second part, following the author’s pattern: for example Chapters 73-1-2-116.

A Savory Moment

Andy’s back surgery was a success. We left the hospital six hours after checking in, walked a few blocks, ducked into a coffee shop as a thunderstorm began and had lunch, took a taxi back to our friends’ apartment. They were both still at work. Andy lay down to take a nap, and I took a long, long bubble bath in the most divine old tub as the rain pattered against the window and I luxuriated in the relief of a one more big, scary procedure having gone well.


The Call: No and Yes

Every day, we hear a “call” to do something that requires us to push beyond our normal boundaries and risk striking into new and alluring territory. The inclination to respond to that Call with a No is actually the next step toward saying Yes to it!

This weekend I took part in a wonderful event, The Gathering, at Keystone College here in northeastern Pennsylvania. Each summer for 12 years, the organizers have developed thought-provoking themes and invited a variety of authors and thinkers (Salman Rushdie, Anita Hill, Diane Ackerman, Tracy K. Smith, Mara Liasson) to speak about and teach variations on it.

This year’s theme was “The Myth of Truth,” and as soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to do a workshop called “The Truth of Myth.” I love how the myths of the world reveal themes and lessons that can guide us in our own personal lives. In my book, The World Is a Waiting Lover, which traces desire from the physical to the spiritual (interwoven with a personal story), I used a myth at the beginning of each chapter as a way of pointing out a particular aspect of love and longing. When I was guiding wilderness rites of passage journeys, I often used myth to help questers view their experience as part of a great cosmic pattern.

In my workshop at The Gathering, I described the heroic journey, as defined by Joseph Campbell, the first step of which is The Call. I invited the participants to identify a current Call in their own lives and to feel within themselves both the strong Yes to it and the sometimes even stronger No. They were to choose the Yes before stepping over the threshold of the classroom into their journey. Outside on the campus grounds, they then “journeyed” through other aspects of the mythic pattern, such as confronting monsters, meeting allies, and finding their superpower. When they returned to the workshop, they shared their stories with a partner, as if they had already triumphantly returned from the journey prompted by this call and had achieved the final step—sharing the treasure with the people.

We are all constantly receiving these “calls” in our lives. We are called to a new career; to a new love; to finally decide, after years of longing to do so, to take cello lessons; to contact someone we admire but don’t know personally. (One man at the workshop said he had already answered the Call not only to speak to Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith after her reading, but to give her a copy of his own self-published book.) These calls beckon in small ways and large.

Often we let the big No prevent us from saying Yes to the call. We think: Who am I to try that? I’m not ready. Maybe later.

What I love about seeing the Call as part of the mythic pattern is that, by recognizing its timid counterpoint, the Refusal of the Call, as a normal and natural part of the pattern, we aren’t so likely to be held back by it. Then we can leap ahead and practice being our epic selves.


What I’m Reading

Violet Clay by Gail Godwin. I spend a lot of time journeying with books that I’m drawn to because they’ll inform a project I’m working on or give me insight about life, humans and nature, the cosmos. Every now and then I just want to read a really good novel. One of my favorite authors is Gail Godwin, now in her 80s and still writing books. Violent Clay, published in 1978, is the story of an artist who got a lot of praise in art school, but in her early 30s is more interested in being a famous painter than she is in the drive to paint. She wastes a lot of time and then makes up for it after a crisis and a few months of determined application to her work. All Godwin’s novels are engrossing and very well written, but the end of this one is disappointingly easy.


A Savory Moment

The Gathering (see above) ended yesterday with a brunch. At my table, we got into a conversation about our first memories. The memories ranged from the wistful to the startling to the traumatic. One woman recalled sitting in the kitchen when she was two years old and petting the dog. In the other room, the family was gathered, listening to the radio. Suddenly the child heard a gasp, and people cried out. She got up and went to the doorway to see what was wrong. Years later she understood that what her family had been reacting to was the news that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.