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.


Please Remember

A few years ago, en route from Basel, Switzerland to northern Germany, I spent a day in Strasbourg, France, visiting the beautiful Gothic cathedral I had fallen in love with in an art history class in college. I spent hours walking around the outside of the church, gazing at the portals with their exquisite sculpture, each figure a unique mix of the personal, the holy, and the quirky. Several times that afternoon, people approached, paused for a second, aimed their camera at the portal, walked on. How odd, I thought, they will see where they’ve been only after they’re no longer there.

Judging by an article in the New York Times Magazine on July 1, the problem of not being present for your own experience is even more pervasive than I’d thought. In an article called “Timehop,” a young man named Daniel Kolitz explains that he’s worried, because he’s having trouble remembering the details of his life. If something isn’t directly in front of him, he says, it doesn’t exist. All the iPhone photos and status updates he’s made over the years aren’t helping. That’s why he likes a new app called Timehop. It culls your photos and social media posts and gives you a record of your own life. Timehop, says the author, has “become a key part of the routine by which I try to restore my sense of self.”

My friends, that’s scary. If you need a technology tool to sort through evidence of your years on Earth, which other technology tools have amassed, giving you, in the end, a picture of your life, then you’re not living.

If we don’t have our memories, we are jetsam in our own lives. We float around from experience to experience, with each smell, sound, kiss, tear, infatuation, and jealousy bouncing off our psyches as the rain bounces off a tin roof. We are superficial, depthless. How can you fall in love if you have no memory? How can you raise a child if you can’t recall what worked and didn’t work in the way you were raised? Without memory, our life does not happen to us; it happens to our devices.

This blog, then, is a plea to build memory. Please:

  1. Pause in front of something beautiful, interesting, or potentially memorable and, before snapping a photo, spend at least one full moment just absorbing it.
  2. Pause once or twice a day and look up at the sky. Describe this absolutely singular sky to yourself.
  3. When you do take a photo, ask yourself what, in particular, you’re wishing to remember about this moment.
  4. Memorize a poem!
  5. The next time you take a walk, stand still before something (anything), gaze at it for a while, then close your eyes or turn your back and try to picture it exactly how it is. Then have another look to check your accuracy.

Whatever you do, please remember.

What I’m Reading

Everything Is Illuminated. This was the first novel of then 24-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s a braid consisting of (1) the narrator’s journey to Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, (2) letters to the narrator from his Ukrainian translator, Alex, who speaks a form of English he seems to get by choosing synonyms from the thesaurus (when Alex writes of pretending to sleep, he says that he tries “to counterfeit that I am reposing”), and (3) the story of the narrator’s family’s Jewish shtetl from 1791 through the beginning of World War II.  There are many searches going on in this book, and parts read like a kind of a Ukrainian-American magical realism. I’m appreciating it more than liking it.

A Savory Moment

Herb walk in the Florence Shelly Wetlands Preserve, guided by herbologist and homeopath Peeka Trenkle. A young teenage girl is among the group, there with her mother. She starts adorning herself with the plants we learn about. We encounter cleaver, a trailing plant with sticky stems. Peeka says that you can make a poultice of it to treat skin ailments. She passes the plant along the line of walkers, so we can examine it. When everyone’s had a look, the girl takes it back and drapes it around her neck and shoulders, so it clings to her t-shirt like elaborate embroidery.

Things my mother told me to do… that I still do:


  1. Always close a book when you’ve finished reading and put a bookmark in it. If you leave your book face down and sprawled open, you’ll damage the spine.
  2. Don’t put the milk carton, ketchup bottle, mayonnaise jar, etc. on the dining room table. Transfer the contents to a bowl and put the bowl on the table.
  3. If somebody is still sitting at the table and eating, sit with them till they’ve finished.
  4. Don’t scratch your private places in public.
  5. Don’t pick the flowers in the neighbor’s garden without asking permission.
  6. Separate the whites and the colors when you do your laundry.
  7. Give your seat on the bus to an older person.

Things my mother told me to do… that I now ignore:

  1. Don’t lick your plate.
  2. A nice girl never lets a boy know how much she likes him.
  3. Nice girls don’t show their emotions.
  4. Don’t just sniff; blow your nose.
  5. Don’t drink right out of the milk/orange juice carton.
  6. You know, the birds aren’t really talking to you.

What advice did your mother give you? And how are you doing with following it?

Wishing America Could March Like This

Vast Forward

Toyi-toyi—the protest dance of South Africa.

I heard about it last week from an American friend who’s currently living in South Africa. He was responding to a frustrated post I wrote on Facebook about the lack of fervent, committed, regular protest in the U.S. in the face of daily assaults on justice, fairness, diplomacy, and common decency. Toyi-toyi—that’s the way South Africans protest, he said.

I looked it up.

Here’s how you toyi-toyi: you jog up and down, bringing your knees up high. You hold your left hand in front of you, as if bearing a shield. Your right hand carries an imaginary sword and pumps the air in time with your feet. And the words—the words are whatever you want them to be, but they will most certainly express the indignation that’s at the root of your complaint and a fierce demand for your rights. Here’s a video of a black South African teaching a white South African how to do it.

I watched this and a few other toyi-toyi videos for a while and I could hardly contain myself. For an hour or so, I was convinced that a dance like this was the way to get Americans engaged in fighting for our country. Toyi-toyi combines outrage, community spirit, a united voice, and energizing movement. You could stand on the Washington Mall toyi-
toyi’ing or you could jog down the street toward Congress together.

Of course, my focus for many years, expressed in the organization I founded, Radical Joy for Hard Times, and the subject of my new book (coming in September) is finding a way to express beauty and joy in hard times. Toyi-toyi is impassioned  Movement moving forward. It confronts, but it also celebrates the power of people confronting together. It acknowledges the worst even as it mounts a determination not to succumb to that worst thing. I’d say it’s joyful. I wish we could do it here.

What I’m Reading

Eva Saulitis, Becoming Earth. Saulitis, a wildlife biologist who studied orcas in Alaska, started writing the essays in this book when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 45. Three years later, as she chronicles in the essay called “When What I Most Feared Came to Pass,” the cancer returned—metastasized, terminal. This is no peppy, positive, pink-ribbon book. It is the grit of a woman who spent her life wading as deeply as she possibly could into the muck and froth and gale of the natural world and kept doing so as her body transformed. Her journey with cancer is instructed by her encounters with nature: a deer nibbling kelp, holes in trees, falling golden birch leaves, a crippled calf. From them she gleans the holes in her own life, she grabs a moment of vitality, she mourns the loss of her own hair. Saulitis died in 2016. This book is not depressing. It’s actually not even sad. It’s dark, but in the way deer bones in a wood are dark, the way fungus on a tree is dark. It’s gorgeous-dark.

A Savory Moment

Saturday morning. Woke up at 10 minutes till 6 to a gentle rain falling. I went downstairs and made myself a cup of tea and got back into bed. Andy still sleeping beside me, my book, the hot tea, the rain, the day so fresh and early I was absolved even of asking myself to start getting things accomplished. Bliss.

How Lilacs Can Save Your Life

The motto for this website is “Grabbing the Great Now from the tiny now.” That refers to my conviction that what makes life worth living is noticing the unexpected moments in which the world extends an invitation and we say Yes and grab it.

It’s especially important to grab the Great Now in times of stress and sorrow.

Today I want to thank a lilac bush for offering delight in a difficult moment.

On Friday morning, my husband had to go to the hospital for unexpected surgery on his bladder (he has bladder cancer). After only one hour’s sleep the night before, when we finally tumbled into our bed after returning from a local emergency room, I drove us two hours up to Ithaca, NY, where his urologist has his practice.

As we got out of the car and walked up to the hospital entrance on a cloudy early morning, we were frightened and sleep-deprived, and Andy was very uncomfortable. Just before entering the building, we passed a blooming lilac bush. I insisted we stop. I drew down one of the branches to our faces, took a whiff, and passed it to Andy.

That in-breath bore more than the fragrance of the flowers. It carried the assurance that, no matter what is going on in a human life, nature has a will of its own. That scent declared that lilacs don’t care if they’re in a royal garden or outside a hospital; when it’s time to bloom, they bloom with all their might. The lilacs told us that life is always going on—fiercely, wildly, indomitably.

Those lilacs gave us a moment of joy on a very difficult morning.

Thank you, lilacs.

Momentary Sanctuaries

Sanctuaries are places of refuge where a sense of the sacred emanates so powerfully that those who enter feel infused by that essence.

But occasionally we can experience sanctuary not as a place we enter but as a moment that enters us.

Last weekend, April 22, I had the privilege of co-leading a service with Stephen Blackmer at his Church of the Woods in Canterbury, New Hampshire. When Harper’s Magazine published an article about Steve, “Priest of the Woods,” a couple of years ago, about half a dozen of my friends sent it to me and urged me to get in touch with him.

I did, and he has been a friend of Radical Joy for Hard Times ever since. Recently, I decided to visit him and attend one of his services, and to my delight, he invited me to join him for the Earth Day service.

Several years ago, when Steve started hearing voices telling him he was to become a priest, he resisted mightily. He was an agnostic, a forester, an environmental activist, and  he was not interested. But the voice would not be still, and in the course of exploring where it led him, he has carved out a beautiful liturgy and worship affiliated with the Episcopal Church, yet centered on the natural world. The prayers and reflections are related to nature. Every service includes time for the congregants to spend alone in contemplation in the woods or by one of the deep, mossy pools, and when they regather, they can share what they discovered. (Jesus never went to the temple to pray, Steve points out, he went to the mountains and desert.)

As for me, I grew up in the Episcopal church, but I have not associated with that religion or any other for many years. Still, I am fascinated with the spiritual search in all its forms, with the quest—and the questers—for that which is beyond the ordinary, that which connects all beings, that which transcends reason.

I drove up to New Hampshire on Saturday, and Steve took me for a tour of his church. Truly, this church is not in the woods, it is the woods.

I love being shown a special place by a person who loves it, and this walk would have been a treat if we had just walked around and said nothing. But as Steve and I walked, we would stop occasionally and have these marvelous little dialogues:

Is nature sacred?
Or does it bear the sacred?
What was going on in your life when you started hearing those
What does it mean to say that nature is alive?
I think this pool tolerates, but does not invite.

In those moments, with ice still coating the black north-facing wetlands and wood frogs awakening in the warmer southern ponds, with sun dappling the hemlock woods, and periodic pauses to delve into questions like this, I thought, This moment is a sanctuary. It is a place of peace, beauty, and delight. Its depth is bottomless.

Momentary sanctuaries can pop up at any time. The trick is to catch them and marvel.

What are some recent Momentary Sanctuaries in your life?

(Photo above: Rev. Stephen Blackmer (center), Bishop Rob Hirschfeld, Bishop of New Hampshire (right), and me at the newly blessed Church of the Woods well, where the congregation made an act of beauty.



Imagining the Incognito Window

The other day, I was having trouble logging into the Radical Joy for Hard Times on-line Quickbooks account, so I called the support number. After helping me, the tech person suggested that the next time I logged on, I should use an “incognito window.”

An incognito window! Immediately I was intrigued. “What’s an incognito window?” I asked.

She told me it’s a way of logging in to a website that instantly erases your browsing history. It would be useful in this case, because my previous efforts to log in would be inaccessible, and I could start the process afresh. I tried it and it worked.

Still curious, I googled incognito window. Turns out it’s a useful tool if you’re sharing a computer with your partner and want to do some on-line birthday shopping without leaving a trail of the enticing presents you’ve been considering and hence giving away the surprise. With an incognito window you can check your social own media sites to see what other people see when they view your page. Or you can google yourself to find out what others see when they google you. Some people use it to look at porn without anyone finding out.

But the phrase “incognito window” is so evocative. What do you picture when you hear the term? I imagine myself staring out a special kind of window, perhaps from a second-story flat in Amsterdam or Brussels, and being invisible to those on the street. Or maybe a person who stands in an incognito window looks entirely different than they usually do. Maybe a  middle-aged white woman would look like a young Latino to anyone who happened to glance in. Maybe someone framed in an incognito window would turn into a superhero or a version of themselves in a different time period or their own avatar.

Or maybe it’s the world that looks different when I view it from an incognito window. At any rate, I think we all need at least one in our homes.

(Painting above: Woman at Window by Eastman Johnson)



Noticing Fathers and Their Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching Nature Breathe

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

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

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