My new best friend?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart


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

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

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

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

Revive Speculation!

A woman who took my workshop at Rowe Center last weekend commented, “The internet has put an end to speculation.”

She’s right! When you’re having a conversation with someone and a question comes up—In what year did Paul McCartney and John Lennon meet? What does hegemony mean? How exactly did the Cuban missile crisis end?—somebody invariably reaches for their smart phone, googles the question, and shares the answer with everyone.

But imagine what would ensue if we refrained from demanding instant resolution. People would venture guesses. Memories would emerge, some inaccurate. Theories would form, some improbable. One person’s contribution to the question would kindle a sliver of answer in someone else. The conversation would unfurl, slip, slide, backtrack. Funny answers would emerge. Someone would have a personal story to share.

Maybe, after all that, everyone agrees it’s time to look the thing up.

Twice, since the woman in the group made that observation, I’ve had occasion to urge friends in conversation not to grab their smartphone as soon as some perplexing issue arises.  And it’s really been worth the delay!

Try it! Revive speculation!

(Cartoon above by Dave Coverly/

Some gulls allure

In my book, The World Is a Waiting Lover, I wrote this about allurement:

The earth, out of which all living things arose, is constantly pulling its offspring close through the force of gravity…. We ignore allurement at our peril. If we cannot stand outside ourselves in wild ecstasy (the Latin roots of ecstasy mean to stand outside), we will cower alone in fear. We will demand safety and security over freedom. We will frown upon people who don’t follow convention or who seem to be having too much fun or exhibiting too much sexuality. We will become conservative in crimped, unhealthy ways, preserving what has ceased to serve us, saying no to the naughty, the quirky, the weird. The quite possibly seductive. What we devote our life to, instead of liberating us, will tie us in knots.

Today I was allured by gulls. My husband and I were coming out of Jo-Ann’s Fabric store, located in a small mall near Scranton, Pennsylvania, when about a dozen seagulls started swarming around. Some of them perched on the roofs of cars, others swooped so low we could almost have reached up to touch them. They dove, they rose, they flapped. What were they looking for? We are many, many miles from the sea here. There was no restaurant in this mall, so the birds had no reasonable prospects of food.

Andy and I just stopped and watched them, speculating, amazed. Finally all the gulls flew off except these four, who decided to perch on a corner of the Toys R Us store—graceful, willful beings more fascinating than any of the plastic mimicries of animal life to be found inside.

The gulls were a treat, a distraction, a mystery, an amusement. I don’t have any idea what they had in their individual and collective minds as they explored that parking lot on a gray November day. But I’m glad we stopped to wonder.

Knock on the door you’re sure won’t open

I had a wonderful conversation on Saturday. A woman from Puerto Rico contacted me. Her niece in the U.S. had sent her an article I wrote, “The Beauty of Broken Places,” that’s in the current issue of Rowe Center’s magazine, Center Post. In the article I talk about the importance of facing the dark places in ourselves and the places we love and making beauty for them.

Maria, a 79-year-old woman living in the mountains of Puerto Rico, contacted me and invited me to come visit her, meet the people, write, and make beauty for that very wounded place. Maria is full of life, vigor, and, in her words, the spirit of a “warrior.” We had a long conversation about beauty, sorrow, toughness, and what’s happening in her country.

I loved how she saw the two of us as kindred spirits and simply reached out into the unknown to get in touch.

It reminded me of a time I did that that had a major impact on my life.

After my first essay was published in 1985, I sent a copy of it to Peter Matthiessen, whose writing I loved. He wrote me a nice postcard in response. A few months later, I attended a talk he gave in New York about Leonard Peltier and other serious and ongoing American Indian issues, including a land dispute that was forcing thousands of traditional Navajos off land both they and the Hopi considered sacred. After the lecture, my husband insisted I go up and introduce myself to Matthiessen. I was reluctant, since there was a long line weaving its way up to his famous presence, and I felt like I’d be just a nuisance. But Andy sat back down in his chair and said, “I’ll wait.”

So I joined the snaking line, and when I reached Matthiessen, I said, “My name is Trebbe Johnson, and—”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “You know, you should go out to Arizona and write about that Navajo-Hopi issue. You’d like the people, and you could wrap your kind of writing around it.”

That was all I needed—a mandate from Peter Matthiessen. Two weeks later I was in Navajo-Hopi country. After that first trip, I wrote Matthiessen a long letter about my findings. Coincidentally, the editor of Amicus Journal had just asked him to write an update on the issue, and he suggested that I do it That was the first trip and the first article (photo above) of many I’d undertake over the next five years.

So the message is… it’s always a good idea to go somewhere you’re drawn to go, even if you think you couldn’t possibly be welcomed there. You just never know.


When I was about to graduate from college, I received some encouragement from the Danforth Foundation to apply for a grant to start graduate school. I went to my advisor to ask him what he thought.

“You want to be a writer, don’t you?” he asked.

I said with conviction that I did.

“Writers write,” he said.

It was such wonderful advice. I decided not to go to graduate school, and for the past 40+ years I have been writing. I pass along this counsel to anyone who asks me for tips about how to start writing. Writers write.

Now, I need to take my own advice and start writing this blog!

For months, I’ve been asking myself with uncharacteristic indecisiveness what this blog should look like—how personal, how philosophical, how much reflecting the subject of my new book, how much about other preoccupations… But actually, tagline says it all: Grabbing the Great Now from the tiny now.

Life is full of challenges, and if I make an effort to see them with openness, curiosity, a sense of their larger possibility, and the certainty that I can be surprised at any moment, I receive great amazement and insight… even in the midst of grief and fear.

So this is my commitment to you: to write more often—sometimes with the personal, sometimes the philosophical, sometimes citing something I’ve found interesting… but always exploring how to grab the Great Now from the tiny now.

Thank you for sticking with me!

The Ahhhh Moment

You know those moments when, just for a few seconds, everything is perfect, all your senses in bliss, and you realize how lucky you are? You know it won’t last but right now, in this instant, you’ve caught it, acknowledged it, and thereby brought the added dimension of conscious appreciation to the experience.

I had one of those ahhh moments today, a rainy, chilly Sunday morning. Leaving the supermarket, I got into my car with the Sunday NY Times, a cup of good coffee, and 20 minutes to spare before I had to leave for a meeting. It was the perfect moment, with the promise of coffee, a dip into the Book Review, and the coziness of being in a warm car on a chilly, rainy morning.


My Mentor, Anthony Bourdain


You never know who your teachers are going to be or where you’re going to find them.

I’ve never been one to talk to strangers on planes, in lines, while sitting in a concert hall waiting for the music to begin. It’s not that I’m afraid. I’m just afraid of being bored. I don’t deal well with boredom. Sometimes, I admit, I feel like I’m missing a lot by not engaging in conversation with people I don’t know, so I’ll give it a try. And often, after a few minutes, my most urgent need is to whip out my book and start reading fiercely.

Recently, my husband and I have been watching the TV show, now on Netflix, Anthony Bourdain: Parts UnknownBourdain, of course, is a chef, author, and TV personality who is often a harsh and cruelly witty judge on Top Chef. In Parts Unknown he visits cities around the world, many in challenged countries, and tries many different kinds of food.

It turns out he is a wonderful conversationalist. He treats everybody the same, whether he’s dining from elegant china in a Quebec restaurant or eating street food in Tripoli. He laughs, he asks people what they dream of for their country’s future, he jokes. He tastes all kinds of weird food. He seems really interested.

I decided I want to be more like him.

So a few days ago, I was early for a meeting and there was a young woman—I’ll call her J—whom I’ve known for a couple of years, but have never really spoken to. In truth, she just seemed distant and remote. She’s a friend of another young women, M, whom I am close to, but whenever I’ve spoken with M, J has just stood there silently, staring into the distance. I thought she didn’t like me.

But there she was and there was I, and I thought about what my new mentor, Anthony Bourdain, would do. I walked right up to J and asked her how she was. She answered briefly. I said that her father had told me she’d been having some health problems and how was she doing with that? And then she began to open up a bit. I listened, I asked a few questions, and then I told her I really hoped she would feel better soon.

A couple of hours later, after the meeting ended, she passed by me on the way out the door—and she gave me a hug.

Thank you, Anthony Bourdain.

In the hospital waiting room

Waiting for my husband to undergo a surgical biopsy for bladder cancer this week, I spend a lot of time watching and thinking about the other people in the waiting room. A family of four, including a boy about 13,  sat in silence, both the man and woman bent over and staring at the floor. Then their loved one’s doctor came out and said something to them, and they all straightened and brightened like flowers that had just received rain. In and out came the people, in and out came the doctors. There was a silly TV show on, a morning talk show whose hosts bantered back and forth. A young couple in their twenties arrived and were obviously familiar with the place and the receptionist. Why, I wondered? What brought them there so often? Another man, elderly, seemed to have gotten a news much different from that of the family. His doctor came out and conducted him to a “consultation room” just off the waiting room. I could just imagine the heaviness, the grief of what that man was hearing and considering. A hospital waiting room is a lonely, frightening place. But it is also a place that can wrench your heart wide open for others. (And when Andy’s doctor came out, he was very happy with what he had seen… or rather not seen.)