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Interlude

Detaching from the chaos

After a long weekend at home, I’ve returned to the cabin up north for the second half of my stay/exile/retreat/quarantine. It was good to be back in St. Paul. I voted (have you?), saw family and friends, did laundry, and readied the gardens for winter.

I arrived at the cabin yesterday, just ahead of an on-again, off-again rain. Everything inside the cabin was as I’d left it. But outside, things had changed. The loons have been replaced, it seems, by a flock of geese, honking as they fly low across the water. The ash outside my window, whose leaves were yellow when I left, is stripped bare. The Paul Bunyan Trail is paved with pine needles, acorns, and splashes of aspen, maple, and oak leaves.

Even the lake seems different. The reed bed where I caught bass last week has dulled and begun to die. The surface of the water is restless. And the sky is bruised and heavy.

We live in dark, apocalyptic times. We know how much things have changed.

Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s family could absorb her death, there were those who were eager to announce her replacement—as if that were even possible.

For those of us who felt gut-punched by the outcome of the 2016 election, we recognize that same feeling inside, bracing ourselves for the awful possibility that we might be hit again.

More than six months have passed since America was caught up in a pandemic and still there is no mandate or collective will that would tame the virus.

Some days it’s all too much. We can’t stop talking about the chaos around us but then are spent by our own words.

I read about the Desert Mothers and Desert Fathers this morning in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation [https://cac.org/freedom-in-the-desert-2020-09-29/]. This group of ascetics arose when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire. Thomas Merton describes their movement:

“Society—which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life in this world—was regarded by [these desert people] as a shipwreck from which each single individual had to swim for their life . . . These were people who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.”

Sound familiar?

Only outside the mainstream did desert people search for wholeness. They called this process of moving toward inner freedom detachment.

I’m not an ascetic (though I’m getting by on only three pair of shoes), but I’m grateful to be here again, detaching. I recognize my need to abandon, even for a little while, the shipwreck our country feels like, before I myself am ruined.

My vote is cast, the interlude is over; let the second act begin.

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To the Lake

This week I headed north for a month, and I have Covid to thank. My daughter and her family are living in my house while they finish renovating theirs. With the grandkids back to school and day care, my daughter and I agreed it was best if we weren’t under the same roof.

I imagined my time away variously—exile, vacation, retreat, adventure. In any of those scenarios, I had plans. Plans to start another writing project. Plans to catch fish. Plans to read a lot and bike on the Paul Bunyan Trail. Plans to try my hand at water color, thanks to a friend who supplied me with all the materials and a link to an online class. Plans to cook all my meals. No wonder my car was full.

Finally, I turned off the highway, 3 miles to go. As we used to do for our retriever Indie, I opened the windows and breathed in the pine-scented air. He knew when we were close. The old excitement was there, along with the anticipation for all that this place holds.

This is the lake Chris and I vacation on for some 20 years. We discovered it one summer while at Gull Lake. Lake Hubert was more our size, and fishing was good. It became our lake, and cabin 3 our cabin.

When I called to see if I could come for a month, the resort owner told me he’d just sold the place as individual cabins. He referred me to the resort owner next door, who had a cabin I could rent for as long as I needed.

Morning, the first day

And so here I am, with a slightly off-centered view of the lake from the table where I write this. Still, a view I never tire of. In a different cabin, but no less cozy. A cold front has sent the fish deep, made them lethargic, so no fishing for awhile. The stack of books and magazines remains a stack. I don’t quite know  where to start.

Evening, the first day

Old routines become, eventually, old. At first I tried to transition as if I were here for one precious week. I wanted every minute to count. But my mind resisted. I slept long and hard, then napped. I stared out the window. I let the memories of past trips surface, feeling both tender and melancholy. Finally, I gave in to the pull of this place. I would need to learn how to fall in love with Lake Hubert all over again.

It’s been 7 years since I’ve been here, and that was to scatter Chris’s ashes. It’s been 10 years since Chris and I made our last trip here together. One evening we sat at the end of the dock with our gin and tonics and he predicted he would live to age 70. I believed him.

This year he would have turned 70. So when I go to the lake, he will be there. He’ll be in the gleam of a boat caught in last light against the far shore. He’ll be in the panoramic eye of the eagle as it drafts overhead. He’ll be in the call of the loons. He’ll be in the water, where his ashes have added layer to the earth.

This lake is our wild and sacred place, reminding me of the importance of loving where we are and who we’re with.

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Wait. Don’t Wait.

Death is a wise teacher, if we attend

Waiting. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing since March? Waiting for Covid to go away. Waiting to rebook flights and take vacations we’ve had to postpone. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for a functioning adult to lead us.

Some days it feels like waiting for Godot.

A friend in California whose husband died recently recommended a book: The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski, cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project.

Perfect, I thought, as I kept walking by the book on the table. It will speak to the loss of a beloved, something she and I now share. Finally, with the library due date looming, I picked up the book and opened it. It’s organized into 5 sections, which correspond to the 5 invitations. They urge us to a meaningful life, especially in light of the fact that we will all die someday. Together, they are a kind of carpe diem reminder.

The first invitation is simple: don’t wait.

“Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road,” Ostaseski writes. “Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most.”

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Covid has brought us closer to death on a grand scale than we thought possible. Most of us know the number of daily deaths by state and country. Yet death by other causes has been undeterred by the pandemic. Friends have lost parents and children and spouses. Deaths at the hands of police continue. The number of homicides is rising.

I admit, the waiting I’ve been practicing has almost dulled me. I tell myself I just need to be patient. I need to keep busy with projects necessary and invented. I’ve tried to put a positive spin on this waiting thing, when really, Covid is an invitation not to wait.

It’s reminded me what matters most. Family, of course, and friends. Zoom calls with them and small gatherings on my patio. But also the pressing issues of the day—racial justice, immigration reform, equal opportunity. Covid has reminded me to live.

A few days before John Lewis died, he wrote in a beautiful essay, “I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.”

SignDon’t wait, he was saying—fully aware that Covid has us in a chokehold—to redeem the soul of America. Don’t let death come before you make a difference.

“Walk with the wind, brothers and sisters,” Lewis went on. “Let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

We think we need to be patient and wait. But once again, death proves the wiser teacher. George Floyd’s brutal, unnecessary death is a call not to put off the change that needs to happen. His death invites us to do what matters most.

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Building Racial Stamina

Everything worth doing involves effort.

Last summer, during an equally hot stretch, I visited my son and daughter-in-law in Philadelphia. Because of triple-digit temperatures, we had to modify our plans. A hike became a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Another hike became a day at the Jersey shore. On the third day, we were determined to hike, as I was in training for my upcoming trip to the Canadian Rockies.

Hike.jpgDuring our drive to Hawk Mountain a few hours north of the city, Andrew talked about the professional development session on race he was getting ready to lead with the teachers he coaches. Most of the teachers are white; virtually all of their students are kids of color.

He planned to start by asking them to write their racial autobiography, a reflection on personal experiences, memories, and learnings about race. “If I’m going to ask teachers to write theirs, I realized I needed to write my own,” he said.

Intrigued by the idea, I asked him to send me the template he was using. That fall and into winter and the pandemic, I began working on my racial autobiography.

Then George Floyd was murdered.

Suddenly race and racism competed with Covid-19 as the hot topic. In editorials and essays, letters and stories, there was a collective call for white people to look at our attitudes and name the privilege we’ve not just enjoyed but taken for granted, beginning with the color of our skin.

I urge you to write your own racial autobiography. A few things I’ve learned along the way may help:

Keep it personal. You’re writing this not for an audience or publication. You’re writing it to document your life experiences that have shaped your attitudes about race.

Take your time. There is no deadline or end point to writing your racial autobiography. In fact, it’s a fluid document that will evolve as your understanding does. The idea is not to get it done as much as it is to get it right, as in accurate. I recently reread a section in my racial autobiography about my childhood and realized I’d left out a significant memory. In the summer after church, my family would drive down to Maxwell Street on the south side of Chicago. On weekends the street became a kind of flea market, and we were often the only white people, the vendors predominantly Black people. We could have just as easily gone to the lakefront or a park. If only my parents were around to ask them why they chose Maxwell Street.

• Be honest. Writing your racial autobiography isn’t an exercise to fill up time—something Covid has given us plenty of. It’s an opportunity to reflect deeply, perhaps for the first time, on how racism plays out in our daily lives. My mother gave me a Black baby doll when I was five years old. I loved that doll more than my favorite stuffed animals. The doll slept in the crook of my arm every night. Looking back, I realized that my love for her was shadowed by sympathy because she was different. Even then, I sensed that difference meant disadvantage, laying the groundwork for whiteness being the norm, the standard for how I saw the world.

• Share what you discover. I know I said a racial autobiography is a personal exploration. But if you feel safe with a person or group, tell them what you learned along the way, the questions that you’re wrestling with. The conversations that follow can only help build our capacity for greater understanding—and less racism.

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Four months into the pandemic, house projects are mostly done. Netflix will always be there. We’ve made enough cookies and breads to tip the scale. Gardens have no weeds, or are only weeds. No matter. What better time than now for white people—all of us—to reflect on how we came to this moment in our nation’s history, to see ourselves in racial terms (our whiteness, in other words), and to reckon with our past.

As Robin Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, writes, we need to “practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity.”

Stamina, like training for a hiking trip, is not just helpful but necessary, because the path ahead is long and steep.

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Breathless

Sometimes there are no words, and there shouldn’t be.

George Floyd is trying to tell us something. His first message was clear, urgent: he couldn’t breathe because of the pressure Derek Chauvin applied to his neck for more than eight minutes before Mr. Floyd died of asphyxiation.

But as I sit with the events of the past week, feeling a deep gnawing because we still seem so far from equality and justice, I’m hearing another message, equally urgent. Know what it’s like to be breathless. Stop talking and listen.

Sarah Bellamy, artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre, said following Mr. Floyd’s murder:

“As a black institution that has carried the water of racial equity work in Minnesota for decades, . . . we must be permitted the space to grieve right now. . . . Give us a moment while we practice deep self-love. Give us a moment while we gather our strength. ”

George Floyd

Listen while we mourn.

“For white folks who want to help the black community right now, if you have the energy to act: step into the space and put your comfort at risk.  Stand with us. Stand next to us. Be kinder. Be even more compassionate. Listen better. Dig deeper. Move past fear. Don’t wait for us to tell you what to do but be ready to listen when we offer constructive criticism or advice. We can’t do this alone and we need everyone, everyone, in this fight.”

Listen.

George Floyd’s is one voice among many that has been trying to tell us for a very long time, We can’t breathe.

Today I visited the site where Mr. Floyd died. At the scene of the crime that has rocked the world and broken too many hearts, a boy no more than 7 offered me water. Free.

Listen.

 

 

 

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Habits of Living

Can we embrace a new world order?

A male house wren is building a nest in my yard.

Some years ago I hung a nest box from a branch of the towering pine tree in my backyard. I thought that if I hung it, the wrens would come. They have the largest range of any songbird in our hemisphere. Their numbers remain steady. Still, no wrens. Maybe they missed the listing on Zillow or the price was too high (a tabby cat roams the yard)? Was the neighborhood not suitable?

The small cedar box hung there, drilled only by woodpeckers late in the season who were imagining a winter home.

Then, a few years back, the wrens showed up. First was the male, who I’m calling Fifty Cent because he weighs two quarters but has a priceless song. It’s been called effervescent, rush-and-jumble, loud and insistent—a voice that fills the air with rapid-fire variations, a voice so much bigger than the half-ounce body it comes from.

wrenHouse wrens aren’t particular. They build nests in any available space—cans, boots, boxes, even the leg of a pair of jeans hanging on a clothes line. Wrens don’t win awards for Best of Nest. Even my cedar box can’t contain the sticks jammed in kittywampus.

Wrens may have inspired Tinder. Males build up to five nests in the hopes of attracting a female to mate. Mid-century modern, colonial, arts & crafts? Talk about options! Yet afterwards, the pair moves on to find their next one-brood stand.

This is how I occupy my stay-at-home days. I observe and read about wrens from my patio. It’s that or be tsunamied by news related to the pandemic. (I had intended to write this post without a single reference to the virus but it’s as aggressive and unpredictable as they say.) Even when a few friends or neighbors come over for an appropriately distanced, bring-your-own-bottle-and-glass happy hour, our conversation veers to the virus.

I read with interest all the ways the pandemic is already bringing about positive changes. Grassroots efforts help neighbors who can’t get out for food or prescriptions. People who have been homeless are sleeping in hotel rooms, enjoying their own bed and a roof for the first time in months. The general sentiment “we’re all in this together” has become the pandemic’s tagline. 

But behaviors, especially our own, are hard to change. An article in The Washington Post put it bluntly: “If history is any guide, not much will change in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic.” One of the examples cited was the 1918 influenza, which caused 675,000 deaths. After all that devastation, Americans frowned on public spitting and outlawed the common drinking cup, but couldn’t agree on how to remake our health care system so everyone was insured.

Beyond an inexplicable need to stockpile toilet paper (ask yourself, at the proper moment, does two-ply really make me feel more secure?), will we really drive less or take fewer trips? It’s a sad statement that one of the first acts post-pandemic for some will be to go out and get drunk in public.

When the sky is falling, we panic. We repent. We promise to be better human beings, better neighbors, better believers. We imagine a world where capitalism isn’t king, where, as my former boss said, “we all do better when we all do better.”  

Maybe if the sky fell more often, that just might happen. We will likely see a “new normal,” but I’m not betting my stimulus check on a new world order. We remain creatures of habit, more like house wrens than we ever thought.

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Where Change Takes Place

Silence as the source of transformation

I sat down recently with friend and mentor Ruth Halvorson to celebrate the publication of her new book, When the Heart Is Stirred: The Transforming Power of Silence. It tells the history of the ARC Retreat Community that she envisioned. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

L: Why a retreat center? 

R: I had an experience in 1972 that stirred my heart to do something like this. My husband and I and family moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he was starting a department of peace and justice at the ecumenical center on behalf of Lutheran World Federation. Days after our arrival we were invited to a welcome lunch. There I met two women who invited me to a retreat. I thanked them but said no, I had too many things on the home front to do to get settled and get our 5 children enrolled in school. But they had powerful persuasive abilities and, surprising myself, I went.

RuthIt was a 3-day silent retreat at the Sisters of Grandchamp, the sister community to the Brothers of Taize. I had never been on a retreat. The whole setting, steeped in the understanding of silence, was transforming. It felt real and good but I didn’t know what it meant. The inspiration for ARC began in the womb of that silence.

L: Your title intrigues me. I just finished a memoir that’s also about silence, but a very different kind. For me, it was feeling silenced as a person. Explain how you understand silence in the context of your book and ARC.

R: My childhood prepared me to receive this notion of silence as transformative. I was the youngest of 7 children. The sibling next to me died when I was not quite 4. There was a break of almost 7 years between me and my next sibling, a sister. So my siblings were gone, in high school or college, by the time I went to school. I spent a lot of time alone. I attended a 1-room country school and we lived on a farm. In clement weather I walked home, all alone, 3 miles. It was those long walks on the prairie that prepared me to receive the solitude 45 years later.

L: Does silence have to do with listening?

R: It has a lot to do with listening. Silence opens you to that possibility. You’re freed from extraneous noise and preoccupation.

L: My memoir is about a woman who has struggled to claim her voice and to believe that what she has to say matters and has value. Her doubts and insecurities undermine her again and again. Your gentle, soft-spoken way suggests you are a woman who is timid, unsure of herself. We both know that’s not true. One of the things I so admire about you, Ruth, is your inner strength and courage. Have you always felt the power and the freedom to speak what is in your heart?

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Order your copy of When the Heart Is Stirred here

R: I don’t think I’ve always had that courage. When I was a girl I did have some dimension of myself that reacted to things that I didn’t think were right or just. I felt that I was born with a feminist gene, and I would see certain relationships that didn’t seem to be fair or just or kind or good. I would comment to my mother about them and the need to change. Her response was, “Let’s not cause any trouble now.” That always stayed with me.

I was a timid little girl. I didn’t speak up in groups. But I’ve gotten more confident in what I believe and in my own truth. Silence helped me discover the God within. I used to think that God was up there, out there, over there. Then I realized that I am the temple of God, and that I was created good and for good. It’s taken a long time to believe in my own truth.

L: Our husbands both died 10 years ago. Since then, we’ve talked a lot about being alone. Has widowhood changed your understanding of silence, or added another dimension to it?

R: I don’t know that it’s changed my understanding, because silence is still a resource and a place I go to. But preparation for widowhood was aided tremendously by the hospice people who cared for Loren over 5-1/2 months in our home. Speaking of death and dying so directly opened it up to me in a new way. It ceased to be such an enemy as it once had been. That was a real preparation for me, as opposed to people who lose their spouse suddenly, as you did. Loren and I had a chance to talk about what we wanted and needed to talk about. After he died, I decided that I wanted to live more with gratitude than with lament. That helps to change the day.

L: On the surface, silence and our need as humans to belong and feel loved seem to have little to do with each other. But my experience has taught me that there is a strong correlation between silence and our need to be loved. The silence I’ve known has come in many forms. There’s the silence of sin that reinforced my unworthiness. There’s the silence of being a good girl, rule bound, who found it necessary to seek the approval of others in order to validate herself. There’s the silence that sometimes comes with relationships, when we avoid the truth or dismiss our feelings so as to avoid conflict. And then there’s the silence brought on by the conventional roles that our culture still promotes for women, as if marriage and motherhood are the only ways we can be fulfilled. Silence prevented me from an essential self-love, which we need in order to be fully present to others. How do you make the connection between silence and our need to be loved?

R: All the things you spoke about, what we think we have to do in order to receive love, I have gone through myself. But in sacred silence, you feel so embraced. That embrace tells you that you are loved. We still struggle with “Am I worthy,” and “Am I this or am I that.” A lot of that spirals back to the early theological words we heard. Original sin. I don’t think of original sin but original blessing. I don’t need to be told I’m bad or I’ve failed. I know that. What does encourage me is to know that I’m loved and supported and held. That gives me the incentive to do things and move forward.

L: It sounds like sacred silence is what brings you closer to the divine. The silence I experienced did the opposite. It created a bigger distance between me and who I was created to be. What a difference. It seems so important to have places like the ARC for spiritual renewal.

R: Some people who go on retreat are afraid of being confronted by their inner self and the shadow side within. But when we do, we realize the benefits to opening up our spirit and to understanding who we are. It’s something we don’t conquer once. We continue to doubt and always will.

L: What words of encouragement would you offer women who have felt silenced in their lives?

R: I think we need first to understand that calling forth our own truth is slow. We have to be intentional about it. For women who have been silenced, it’s been built into their system so deeply that they somehow feel they’re doing something that isn’t right by speaking their own truth. But by speaking our truth, we realize that something happens within us. We realize the strength that comes.

*     *     *

Only after I was home and read Ruth’s book did I see a connection I’d missed earlier. Ruth and I write about a different kind of silence, but both of our experiences with silence led to transformation. Hers called her to create a community where people can enter into sacred silence. Mine led to a search for the person I had never believed was worthy of being loved. In our own ways, we listened to the truth in our hearts.

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Invited to Speak

The headline caught my eye. It was a direct plea, thematically linked to this blog and my memoir.

I was two hours into reading the Sunday New York Times a few weeks ago. I was on the last page of my favorite section, The Review, which gathers opinion pieces from guest writers and a stable of regulars—Frank Bruni, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof, and Russ Douthat.

Next to an editorial on the costly nonsense of building a wall along the U.S. and Mexican border were the Letters to the Editor. Except there were no letters, only this headline: “Women, Please Speak Out.”

Letters Editor Thomas Feyer was reporting on the Women’s Project, begun a year ago to correct an underrepresentation of women on the letters page. The stated goal was to work toward gender parity. The results showed little change in the percentage of women whose letters are published (43%) or in the number of submissions by women (25 to 30%).

Kimberly Probolus, the woman whose letter to the editor a year earlier had inspired the Women’s Project, also weighed in, urging men to be better listeners.

Before I finished reading both pieces, my response to both was quickly taking shape. I knew what I wanted to say, and I had 150 words in which to say it. I typed it up, made a few changes, checked my word count, and sent it. This from a writer who likes to spend a day or a week crafting one page, only to delete it the next day and start over.

I waited. A day, two days. Nothing. By Wednesday, I figured I was out of the running. Less disappointed that my letter wasn’t chosen and more pleased that I’d at least pressed “send,” I packed for my trip and forgot about it.

My last day in Washington, D.C., I was in my third museum, the National Archives. I was fast approaching physical and mental overload. I checked my phone for the time. There was an e-mail from the Times. They were interested in publishing my letter and just needed to ask me a few questions. After a quick exchange, the editor informed me that my letter would appear in the online Sunday edition and in Monday’s print version. Unless, of course, late-breaking news preempted it. Always a possibility with this administration.

If you’re interested, here’s the link (mine is the second letter): https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/29/opinion/letters/new-york-times-letters-gender.html

SupremesYes, I’m thrilled that my words made it into print. But the greater thrill was that I heeded the headline’s plea. I might not have even a year ago. I might have dismissed what I had to say before pressing send, talking myself out of the very act necessary to be heard. 

In case I ever doubted the need to speak out, I was reminded of my tour earlier that day at the National Portrait Gallery. At the top of a wide marble staircase is a painting that occupies an entire wall. “The Supremes,” my female guide said, smiling.

None of them waited for an invitation.

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Two Women, the Same Story

An old play reminds us of an ongoing struggle

One woman lives in Norway in the last years of the 19th century. She is assured, articulate, and well dressed. She exudes self-confidence. But she has unfinished business with the man she walked out on 15 years earlier. The person and career she’s built for herself are in jeopardy if he doesn’t make good on his promise to divorce her.

The other woman lives in present-day New York City. She is an architect and an Iraqi refugee who, with her husband and son, have just gained citizenship after eight years. When she sneaks outside for a cigarette and is haunted by voices from her homeland, she reveals her own struggle between embracing this new life and longing for the culture and traditions that have given her meaning.

Meet Nora and Noura. Both women are unmistakable spinoffs of the Nora that Ibsen made famous in A Doll’s House more than 200 years ago.

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This winter, two local theaters staged productions based on Ibsen’s classic. I was fortunate to see both, and was fascinated by the playwrights’ different interpretations. The Jungle Theater is in its final week of A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath. He flashes forward to explore how the freedom Nora sought and seemingly found is still at risk because of a society that was slow to change in granting women equal rights.

The Guthrie Theater staged Noura, by Heather Raffo, who described the sources of her interpretation. “Noura was provoked by many things. From the fracturing of Iraq to a shifting American identity. From the rise of polarizing ideologies to modern marriage and motherhood. It is at the explosive intersection of these issues that the characters . . . attempt to balance their individual pursuits with a search for community.”

Raffo added, “I believe it is a balance with which many of us struggle.”

The question Nora/Noura face is familiar. Women especially struggle to achieve some kind of balance. As they strive to grow in their many roles—professional, mother, daughter, partner, caregiver—can they be fully realized? Or will one or more of these roles become unsustainable?

Some, like Nora, literally walk away from one life in order to create another. I relate more to Noura, and recognize her ambivalence. Because I often don’t trust myself to make the “right” decision, for a long time I chose to live in the in-between place—to have a conventional life (marriage and children) and, however tenuously, hold on to my personal dreams.

Both plays end in ambiguity. We don’t know whether Nora and Torvald will try to repair their relationship within the context of marriage. We don’t know if Noura will construct a world where she can stop living in exile from herself. Maybe not offering a clear resolution is as it should be.

In my memoir, I describe my attempts to find space to pursue my own writing while raising a family. I started several book-length projects, took classes at The Loft Literary Center, and joined a writer’s workshop. In one of the middle-grade novels I worked on, the mother-journalist tells her son she’s taking an extended assignment overseas. Even as I explored the emotions that rocked the boy, I was speaking through the mother.

How do mothers give up what they love for what they love?

In our great pursuit of freedom—of expression, to pursue our dreams, to enjoy parity at work and at home, to be ourselves—we do so in the context of a much more complex social structure, whose laws, expectations, and roles of conformity threaten to pull us apart, as individuals and as a community.

Regardless the generation, this question will always be there. For women, there is no simple answer.

 

 

 

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On Pain

Pain is something we often suffer alone, in silence.

My sister and I have different memories of our mother’s pain. Camille recalls Mother going into her bedroom—directly off the dining room—and crying.

I recall Mother going into her bedroom and lying down after lunch. I knew not to disturb her. She’d been on her feet since before dawn and I figured she deserved the rest. I didn’t connect this daily quiet time as a way to manage pain.

Much later, I realized how much our mother suffered in silence. She didn’t complain. She didn’t blame. She didn’t make her pain ours. But pain isolates us. It can make us bitter. It can shrink the world to our small sphere and put us at its center to the exclusion of everything else.

Mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her 30s. It came as no surprise. Her mother had had arthritis, which eventually turned her hands into bent fists. Mother’s arthritis wasn’t just in her hands. Her shoulders, arms, and back ached. As the bones in her feet crumbled, walking became painful. The largely manual labor that constitutes managing a house and 3 children took its toll.

Despite this evidence—heredity and Mother’s hard-to-ignore swollen joints and crippled fingers—I had decided I wasn’t going to suffer. I gardened relentlessly. I carried things much heavier than I should have. I denied a chronic disease that had been in the female DNA of my family for generations. Arthritis was something other people had. Something old people had. Even when my brother, beginning in his 40s, mentioned the stiffness in his neck as arthritis, I refused to see what his pain had to do with me.

One thing my siblings and I agree on, now that we recognize arthritis in our own bodies, is that Mother suffered. When I was in grade school she underwent an experimental treatment. Desperate for relief, she had liquid gold injected into her bloodstream. The gold had been shown to reduce the inflammation that brought on pain.

Instead of the improvement she’d hoped for, she discovered she was allergic to gold. Open sores covered her entire body. Doctors doing their daily rounds gave her more attention than she liked. When she came home from the hospital, she lay wrapped in a white sheet on a lawn chair in our den. She didn’t want to stain the furniture.

After that, Mother returned to the typical oral meds, graduating to methotrexate, a chemo drug that also counters the symptoms of arthritis. The stronger the meds, the harder it was for her sensitive stomach to tolerate. In her last years, she wore a fentanyl patch. It didn’t take away the pain but eased it considerably.

Unused to having much discomfort, I was blindsided this past weekend by lower back pain, neck pain, and swelling in my thumb joints, where my arthritis mostly lives. My hands were on fire.

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Pain does something to a person. Pain is something we often suffer alone, in silence. It pulls us into ourselves. Suddenly that seemed too much. I couldn’t hold all the pain myself. I called my daughter and blurted, “I’m scared.” What if this pain persisted? What if I suddenly couldn’t bathe or get dressed or lift a pan off the stove? What if I couldn’t drive? What if the life I had taken for granted was no longer possible?

That’s the degree to which I’d been in denial. I believed that I would fare better than most. I couldn’t accept the full weight of what being human, what aging, entails. My blind faith that I could prove myself again and again ignored one simple fact: my fate is the same as yours.

I trace my back and neck pain back to overdoing it at the gym, but the flare-up in my hands remains a mystery. After a day of much rest and ice packs, I am better.

The person coming out of pain is humbled. I felt myself again, joyfully, not just a dark knot of cells raging inside. How quickly pain caused me to forget, just as quickly as its absence restored me.

As I scrolled through e-mails early this morning, I learned that a friend’s husband, still in his 40s, had died. He’d had brain cancer for 4 years. In the loving arms of his family, he took his last breath. He had had numerous surgeries, many rounds of chemo and radiation, cautious times when he seemed to be winning.

Through it all—the pain, the setbacks, and his brave openness—he loved life and all the people in it. He admitted his fear. In doing so, he didn’t let it defeat him.

My one bad day pales to others’ chronic pain and ultimate loss. But it was the reminder I needed.

 

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My In-between Place

Where language and living connect

Heidegger had his hut. Deborah Levy, a garden shed. Dickinson, her bedroom. I have my treehouse.

It isn’t really a treehouse built around branches. But that’s how I like to think of the space where I write. With 8 windows that bring me as close to nature as possible without stepping outside, the room where I write feels private, high up, secretive—as tree forts are intended to make its young residents feel.

Who doesn’t want a space where our imaginations are set free? A space we can paint any color or leave wood and brick exposed? A place that holds only what we bring to it, kept as messy as we choose?

Book.jpgA favorite picture book when my children were young was A House Is a House for Me, by Mary Ann Haberman. After 35 years, the book is still in excellent condition, and not for lack of being read. Now it has become a favorite of my grandchildren. The text is minimal, pleasantly repetitive and rhyming. The illustrations are of ordinary things: drum, bag, kangaroo, coat, jack-o-lantern, egg, sandwich.

It’s the premise—that anything and everything is a house for something—that is at once clever and provocative. The story moves from the obvious “A hive is a house for a bee” to “A mirror’s a house for reflections, a throat is a house for a hum.”

The east windows of my treehouse look out on a towering pine, planted around the time my house was built in 1917. The pine—a house for every imaginable bird that visits my yard—has the slightest southern lean, maybe by 7 degrees, which has endeared me to it even more. My neighbor whose house is closer to the tree worries a storm will topple it and has hinted it might be time to cut it down.

Maple.jpgTo the south—4 windows wide—are, left to right, a walnut tree (much maligned by the neighbor who must clean up its nuts encased in rock-hard shells), an aging birch, and a sugar maple. In the foreground (my yard) is a hydrangea tree that offers its own fall blush.

Out the west windows is a white pine, the youngest of all the trees by far but holding its own against two columnar cedars which, if I opened the window, I could touch. A hawk patrols from their dense cover, doing its part in controlling the mice and voles that have taken up residence in my yard.

It is in this sunroom that I write. It is where I’m invited “to climb in-between the apparent reality of things, to see not only the tree but the insects that live in its infrastructure, to discover that everything is connected in the ecology [read: house] of language and living.” (Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living, 37)

Or as Haberman writes at the end of her charming book, “The earth is a house for us all.”

No matter the month or season, I’m grateful to have this in-between place, a room that is at once a treehouse, rising moon, thunderstorm, dream, echo, flame: anything I want it to be.

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Artist as Warrior

All good art is political

My instincts this morning told me to get to the exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before it closed tomorrow. I did. Write-ups in the paper had mentioned powerful images. One person who shared his impressions with me panned the raw explicitness of the art, which included nude public demonstrations. In Chances Are, a novel by Richard Russo that I just finished listening to, the Vietnam War’s impact on young men’s lives is a strong undercurrent.

Call it coincidence or convergence, but I had to see the exhibit, “Artists Respond to the Vietnam War.”

For a fully immersive experience, before entering the gallery I donned a headset so I could listen to a playlist that included “Purple Haze,” “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” “Riders of the Storm,” and other songs written during and inspired by the war. The soundtrack had the added benefit, I discovered, of drowning out the chatter of others so I could concentrate on the art.

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“War Room,” detail, Wally Hedrick (1928-2003)

Of all the garish colors, bold graphics, and gruesome images included in the exhibit, “War Room” moved me the most. It is an actual room that viewers walk into. The walls are layered in black. The space itself isn’t small—maybe 10′ by 10’—but the overwhelming darkness feels  claustrophobic, or, as the artist intended, boxed in, as America  had become in Vietnam.

The first image I thought of was the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., which I saw with my son 20 years ago. Also black on its surface, this artistic work had a quite different, but no less powerful effect on me. The smooth granite wall extended beyond my vision, as if taking in all of history with its list of names that we were drawn to touch, and the other monuments reflected on its face.

In both installations, understatement is still a statement. Or, as Toni Morrison said, “All good art is political.”

In a particularly moving video at the end, several Vietnamese artists were interviewed. They explained how and why they created art in the context of the horrors of war. For some it was a way to preserve a sense of humanity and beauty. Some hung their pictures like clothes on a line to dry, a kind of portable gallery for soldiers to see and be heartened by before going into battle. Mostly these artists portrayed individuals. Almost sketchlike in their simplicity, with a minimal wash to bring dimension and life to the faces, these portraits were a counter narrative to the thousands who died.

I was a mostly oblivious 15-year-old from the suburbs when demonstrations broke out in my home town of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The only recollections I have of that riot, Kent State, and other protests are based on what I saw on TV, just as the war itself was curated for those of us at home.

My age group just missed the draft, so I didn’t know anyone who went to Vietnam or was killed. Somehow, I didn’t see myself as political. But war lives on—in me, in art, in our understanding of what it means to be human. When I recalled the newspaper’s headline this morning—”U.S., Iran, Escalate Threats”—I realized that “War Room” is as relevant today as fifty years ago. War lives on.

I lingered longer than most at the video of the artists being interviewed. They described themselves as warriors, a term I never would have considered for myself. Their weapons were pencils, brushes, paints, paper, camera. Their role was to document war, bear witness to what they saw, portray the truth that is at once painful yet necessary to remember. Art lives on, even if people don’t.

I came home newly inspired to finish the book proposal I’d set aside during the holidays. Or was it more than that? Had the exhibit stirred the political in me, made me a warrior in my own right?

I describe my story as part memoir, part manifesto. Memoir because it’s my experience of loss, grief, and self-discovery. Manifesto because it documents the many, often insidious, ways silence has kept women from fully realized lives.

To write about that and hope the world listens: that’s political.

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Christmas A to Z

We already have all that we need

At a recent exhibit at The Museum of Russian Art, I saw a serigraph by American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) entitled “Alphabet of Creation.” In it he depicts the Hebrew alphabet as stylized, interlinking shapes, stark black on a white background. As a writer, I was intrigued. Words are my tools, and letters the building blocks for how we communicate. We cannot tell or hear a story without them.

IMG_1995Shahn saw beyond the alphabet’s functional purpose. He believed that letters hold a spiritual meaning as well. The alphabet represents nothing less than Creation itself, a way to feel intimately connected to God.

John makes that same connection when he opens his Gospel with “In the beginning was the Word.” God is the source of all creation. We cannot speak without calling forth God’s name. When we tell stories, we often start with “Once upon a time . . .” and use 26 letters in endless combination. This first verse of John uses a mere 13 letters to announce the only story that matters in our lives.

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My Swedish cousin Per sent this today with this message, “I hope you can hear the song from the little boy!”

All year we long for this story of love, and Advent prepares us for its Incarnation. Jesus’s birth marks our own beginning in a fundamental way. Beyond daily injustices, beyond a dying world, beyond our broken hearts and fractured language, a New Creation awaits.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The story of Jesus’ coming is the one Word we desperately need.

 

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Wisdom’s Patchwork

The practice we call living

For those of you who read my blog, you know that periodically I go for a stretch without posting. It’s not that there’s nothing to write about. If I’m deep into work on my memoir, I’m less inclined to write here. Lately, life has been pulling me in many directions, and it feels as if there’s almost too much to reflect on. What follows is more patchwork than whole cloth.

The Zen of the Y

This past summer, I trained for my hiking trip to the Canadian Rockies. I went regularly and worked a plan. My goal was to be physically able to hike each day and enjoy it. I didn’t look beyond the trip. But when I returned, I realized I missed going to the Y. Not the getting up and out the door at 5:30 a.m. part, but how I felt during and after a workout. Without realizing it, going to the Y has become a life habit, which for me means moving and staying flexible so as to meet aging on somewhat even terms.

Besides learning about the Bosu, kettlebells, and the TRX, I look forward to seeing the “regulars.” Margaret (we’re Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday gals) gives me her latest movie recommendation and chides me for being lazy if I miss a day or arrive after 6 a.m. Tony, a Monday through Friday guy, cracks jokes as he alternates between machines and weights. Chris seems to live there, and is determined to keep off the 60 pounds he lost a year ago. And if I’m lucky, I see someone from church or the neighborhood.

At the Y we put our earbuds in and do our own thing. There’s no competition, no judgment, mostly encouragement and admiration, along with gentle teasing.

In a recent article on weight lifting that I happened upon: “The perennial wisdom traditions and decades of psychological research point to three basic needs that, when fulfilled, allow people to thrive.” They are autonomy, mastery, and belonging. So I keep going to the Y, where it is all about showing up.

Wisdom Ways

I just finished a four-session class on contemplative prayer offered at Wisdom Ways, a center for spirituality at St. Catherine University. Over the years I’ve dipped in and out of contemplative prayer, knowing just enough to be dangerous (as in falsely believing I “get” it and could do it anytime I want but am a bit busy now so check with me later), but not enough to make it a regular practice, like the Y.

The instructor, a former Episcopal priest, used passages from three Gnostic Gospels,  Philip, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene. Again and again they invited us to participate (practice) in the search for truth, and to do so with the heart. I wasn’t the only one who came each week with an excuse why I didn’t have time to sit quietly for 30 minutes each day.

In Mary Magdalene: “The Son of Humanity already exists within you. Follow him there, for those who seek him there will find him.” In other words, we keep seeking what we already have, something it’s taken me more than 60 years to recognize.

Art for More Than Art’s Sake

As thirsty as I’ve been for physical and spiritual exercise, my mind has been challenged by various art forms. This fall the Pillsbury House Theatre presented “Jimmy and Lorraine: A Musing.” The playbill described it as a meditation on the American political climate of the late 50’s and early 60’s through the lens of two significant artists of the time, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. Both came to the Civil Rights movement through their art, but ultimately, politics and the black experience informed their writing. Can the two ever be separated?

I’ve discovered Kate Walbert’s novels (A Short History of Women) and short stories (She Was Like That), in which she explores the real lives of contemporary women and the struggles they face around work-life choices, having children, and relationships in painfully honest ways. Her bravery in naming women’s reality and avoiding predetermined narratives inspires me in my own cross-generational look at the women in my family.

A current exhibit of the work of Theaster Gates at the Walker reveals a man of broad artistic abilities who strives not only to reclaim and repurpose found objects that might otherwise be destroyed but also to salvage from history the stories that haven’t been told. (For a recent example, see the movie The Report.)

Two days earlier I heard Esi Edugyan, author of Washington Black, talk about how her own experience shaped the creation of her title character. Questions of displacement, identity, and belonging become more potent when looked at from the perspective of a young black boy who has only understood himself as a slave.

What does it mean to be at odds with the history before you, she asked, a history in which you aren’t represented and didn’t write the laws? “True agency,” Edugyan said, “is as urgent as love—and just as elusive.” Think about that, as I still am.

Frozen river

A Walk

When it warmed up enough this week to venture out for a walk, I headed down to the Mississippi River. I enjoy the view from along the bluff, where recently I’d seen a coyote at dusk. Already the river is frozen, locked down for the season. I’ve been feeling this same inertia, even stuckness as winter sets in.

I stopped and took in the vista, sensing there was something else to see, something I could only see with my heart. Beneath the white sheet of ice a river moved, living water, in perpetual transformation.

 

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Ahead, the Unexpected

Finding where peace is possible

My Canadian Rockies trip in August didn’t start out well. For all the training and preparations, I miscalculated how early I needed to be at the airport that Saturday morning. The lines were historically long. The wait for an agent as long as the lines. By the time my travel companion Pat and I reached the kiosk to check our bags, the message on the screen told us we were too late. Checkin for international flights must be done at least an hour before departure. That meant another line, another wait, to rebook on a flight that evening.

Things don’t always go as expected.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in Calgary, it was midnight. The others in our group, from as far away as New Zealand and Boston, had arrived much earlier, met each other, and had dinner with our two guides, who left a note that we were to meet for breakfast at 7 a.m.

When we came down to eat, we looked around, expecting, well, our group to be assembled and holding a sign that welcomed us. Instead, I felt like the newly hatched bird that keeps asking, “Are you my mother?” to anyone who looked like they might be about to spend seven days in the wilderness. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to be dressed for that occasion.

A mother and son finally joined us, then others in our group stopped by. An hour later, we were all in a comfortable van, on our way to Lake Louise campground, our base for the week. The days revolved around the weather, which changed often. After setting up our tents, we drove to a trailhead close by and hiked on a forested path in a light rain up to Sherbrooke Lake. As we admired the turquoise water and the mountains rising all around, our guide said, “On the other side of this mountain is the Continental Divide.”

The Canadian Rockies are vast, covering some 75,000 square miles. Each day our hikes—carefully chosen by our guides—took us to incomparable vistas. We climbed to the Lake Agnes Tea House above Lake Louise. We walked to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, then climbed Parker Ridge to view another glacier tongue of the Columbia Icefield from above.

IMG_1767.jpgSome of us made the steep climb to a secret lake tucked deep in the mountains, stopping along the way to view Takakkaw Falls, the tallest in the Rockies. What else might I see, I wondered, if I stayed longer?

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Our longest hike started at Moraine Lake and took us up switchbacks and through an evergreen and larch forest before we came out to an alpine meadow on our left, scree pitching sharply up on our right. There, before us, was the Valley of the Ten Peaks, each one more than 10,000 feet high. My eyes filled with tears. I stood in awe, hearing only the sound of the wind. It was nothing less than a mountaintop experience. Here was the bare, unfiltered love we spend out whole lives seeking. Here was the God within me who had always been there, the God I could stand before and feel as one. Here was the peace I had come to see was possible.

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These moments change us. They stay with us, become a part of who we are. Life is never the same afterwards. I still feel aftershocks when I recall that place, even choke up when I try to describe my trip to a stranger.

Moments such as this bring me to the tender time, when I mark Chris’s passing nine years ago today. Things don’t always go as expected. A hard lesson for me, who likes order, control, and a plan.

One afternoon we went rafting on the Kicking Horse, a class III-IV river, swollen from recent rains. I’d never rafted before and needed coaxing by the group to overcome my fears. During the orientation, our guide said she would use three simple commands throughout our seven-mile float.

I climbed into the raft. Within a minute we were hurrying downstream. “Hold on!” our guide shouted as the raft pitched forward and a cold spray crashed over me, finding its way under my wetsuit. “Get down!” she hollered over the roar when rapids swirled around us. And between these harrowing moments, between the unexpected and the seemingly impossible, “Paddle!”

From somewhere deep within came a swell of energy and I laughed at the pure joy of living.

When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks—when you hear that unmistakable pounding—when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming—then row, row, for your life toward it (Mary Oliver, West Wind, 46).

I have many wonderful memories from my trip, but these three commands may be all I need. The past nine years I’ve held on, wanting to survive. I’ve ducked some hazards, faced others. And in between, I’ve navigated the river, paddling, paddling, with all my heart toward the unexpected.

 

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A Walk Taken

When not having a purpose is the purpose

My father loved to walk. Walking was simple, functional, and the purest form of exercise. He walked in his wingtips to the train station, then across the Chicago loop daily for 37 years. He maintained a healthy weight because of the 3 miles he walked every day.

He would be delighted that his youngest daughter has been logging her own miles this summer in preparation for a hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies. On weekends Father liked nothing more than to take a walk in the woods, at the arboretum—wherever he was surrounded by the natural world.

I will be thinking of him as I scramble across boulders and stand before snow-capped peaks and glacier-fed lakes. He will be my reminder to walk for the pure enjoyment of it. I won’t be tracking number of miles or speed. I certainly won’t be breaking any records. My goal is not to have a goal. I’m eager to see a magnificent part of the world, meet new people, and appreciate being able to have this opportunity.

Walking has recently become the subject of several books that promote the activity as a goal-driven pursuit. Writers, one book documents, are invigorated by walking, which fuels their creativity. Another author argues that walking is a form of protest against our busyness, going so far as to suggest that walking is a way of imagining a more sustainable future.

Norwegian writer Erling Kagge believes that “walking is among the most radical things you can do.” He speaks from experience, having been the first person to cross North and South Poles and climb Mount Everest on foot. For him, walking is a protest against growing the GDP and then resting whenever we aren’t doing so.

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In my own preparations, I admit to wanting to have the right equipment, training a lot, and becoming the consumer I’d rather not be. At least I haven’t joined the “Order of Walkers” just to head out my door.

My great hope is to keep all things political and purposeful out of my week of hiking. I intend to walk every day, period. I will put one foot in front of the other and imagine Father at my side. More than anything, he and I would agree, walking is good for the soul.

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What to Say to a Writer

Writing takes courage and no small amount of faith

At my writer’s group recently, we were going around the circle and checking in—giving the others an update on our own writing, perhaps raising an issue we’d been facing. One woman, when it was her turn, expressed frustration over a question she is asked often by those who know she’s working on a memoir. “When are you going to get your book published?”

When indeed. For anyone who doesn’t make a habit of wrestling with words and calling it her livelihood, let me tell you a secret. This is the question every writer dreads. It’s a question that pokes us, taunts us, by way of saying there should be a measurable outcome to everything we do and perhaps we’ve chosen the wrong thing to spend our time on.

A journalist writes to meet a deadline. An academic writes to stay relevant. A copywriter writes to sell.

The writers in my group are not the publish-or-perish type. Our work has a more subtle intent. We are trying to solve something that may not have a solution. And we won’t know that until we do.

We aren’t capitalists. We don’t keep a time sheet. We don’t have a business plan. We don’t build empires. We don’t insist on deadlines that force us to a place we don’t yet know exists.

We aren’t lion tamers. We don’t train words with a whip, making them do tricks for others. Writing must maintain its wildness. We’re just along for the ride.

This is why we don’t know how to answer these questions. They seem to be in Farsi, and we only speak English.

• How long have you been working on your book?

• When will you be done?

• How long is your book?

• What’s your next project after this one?

• Do you have a publisher yet?

As Annie Dillard writes, “Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.” (The Writing Life)

Let me tell you something else. I came to the end of my latest revision this week. For a quick minute I breathed. But my first thought wasn’t to begin researching literary agents or tell you how to preorder copies on Amazon.

My first real thought was, “Now that I’m done, I can sit down and write my story.”

This is how writers think. We arrive, hoping for greater insight, a clearer path that then requires going back to the beginning, rubbing that new insight like a smooth stone.

It takes courage, believe me, and no small amount of faith, which is assailed most days when we look at our words from the day or week or year before and they’ve lost their sheen. Still we persist, sometimes taking a necessary break, sometimes diving even deeper into the murky waters we’re trying to see our way through.

Here are a few thoughts on what to say to the writer in your life:

• What feeds your writing?

• I’m interested in what you’re working on.

• How has writing changed you?

• I admire your commitment to your writing!

• Courage, my friend.

When we write, we put symbols (words) on the page. We don’t know yet what meaning they contain. We can’t because we are traveling in new territory. It is full of mystery. “Right now,” Dillard says, “your job is to hold your breath.”

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The Art of Grieving

If we can’t confront our own pain, we can’t be present for others

Yesterday I spoke with a group of about 30 women and 2 men about how writing has helped me grieve. Then I asked them to think about how they learned about grief.

The stories they shared were heartbreaking. One woman’s first child died at 6 months. When she told her father, he replied, “That’s water over the dam. Just have another one.” Another woman admitted, “I stuffed my pain; I simply couldn’t face it.” A few of us recounted how a grandparent’s suicide was kept a secret for years, as if not talking about the loss would somehow make grief go away. Many shared platitudes they’d heard, like “we shouldn’t be sad because our loved one was in heaven,” that became excuses not to take time to honor the pain of loss.

Most of us admitted that these former models reflect a different, unhelpful attitude about death. Now our generation has been left the hard work of trying to dismantle these lessons in order to arrive at a healthier way of grieving.

When poet Gregory Orr was 12 years old, he went hunting with his father and younger brother. Orr accidentally shot and killed his brother. He became a writer in large part because language gave him a way to grieve. “Words don’t change the disorder,” he said, “but hold the chaos.”

Like Orr, I’ve discovered that when I write about loss, I bring my chaos to words and language meets me with a container to help reorder the chaos. Talking with a grief counselor—or anyone who understands grief as necessary—can serve the same purpose. Those conversations can be the vessel into which we pour the emotions, the tears, whatever we can’t make sense of about our loss.

The loss of a loved one touches us all, so why do we have so few examples from our own lives of healthy grieving? “Death is scary, ” says writer Meghan O’Rourke, “and people don’t know what to say.”

I agree with O’Rourke, but I also think her response is too often used as an excuse, not an opportunity to change how we view death and our response to it. We need to learn a new vocabulary for loss and grief.

Each of us faces loss differently. Any feeling we might have is legitimate, not “abnormal” as we may be inclined to think when the world is moving to 4:4 time and our tempo keeps changing as we stumble through grief. We desperately want to fall into step with everyone else, to prove that we’re coping and will soon be fine. But what about the questions and anguish that haunt us at night? Aren’t they worth our attention?

Death is part of life, and nature is our best teacher. The seasons cycle through birth, growth, and dying year after year. Why, then, is it so hard to grieve?

I think it’s fear that stops us. Fear that if we unlock our heart, our pain and vulnerability, our own mortality, will stare us in the face. Fear that our faith is insufficient for the sorrow we feel. Fear that this natural cycle will stop with us and the end will be THE END.

We avoid grief at our own peril. And that peril is this: if we can’t confront our own pain, we can’t be present for others. We perpetuate the sense of being all alone with grief, instead of recognizing that honestly facing the inevitability of loss in our life connects us as humans.

Writer Gail Caldwell may have made the best case for why we should grieve. Near the end of her memoir Let’s Take the Long Way Home, about losing a dear friend, she writes, “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”

Grieving is a holy way to feel the ongoing presence of a loved one who has died. Who doesn’t want that for themselves?

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Signs of Spring

What we all need after a long winter of discontent

I’ve been more than tempted to malign Spring’s slow arrival this year. I’ve succumbed. I guess a 7-month-long winter will do that to a person who likes to garden, if not simply be outside without wearing several layers and spikes on my shoes. The long winter of my discontent (political and climate) had turned my thoughts more foul than the weather. Even with hints of change, I wasn’t willing to stop complaining.

Still, my determination is a formidable foe. Nearly every day for the past three weeks I’ve managed to spend a few hours in the garden, raking leaves from under shrubs, cutting back dried blooms, moving perennials, and making discoveries along the way.

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Today when Mike the Mailman pulled up and got out of his truck, we greeted each other and commented on the lovely day. “You know,” he said, “I kind of like that Spring has been gradual this year.”

I had to agree. It was pleasant being on my hands and knees without sweat dripping in my eyes. It was nice to transplant perennials before the heat stressed them. It was comfortable working in long sleeves and not seeing (or feeling) a single bug.

A friend who isn’t from here helped me with some of the digging. The temperature hovered around 50 with a slight cloud cover and no rain. In other words, perfect for the tasks at hand. After a full day of gardening he said, “Minnesotans like to complain about the weather.”

I’m going to try not to be one of them.

NOTE: The first person within a 20-mile radius to identify all the plants shown above will win a FREE elephant ear (not the pastry). They get BIG and are great in large pots or planted directly in a sunny spot in your garden.

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The Sense of an Ending

Writing and life: where nothing is tidy

Growing up, I read a lot of mysteries. I cut my sleuthing teeth on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but eventually moved on to Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Patricia Cornwell, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Maj Showall and Per Waloo, Ngaio Marsh, and British TV series such as “Inspector Morse,” “Prime Suspect,” “Vera,” “Sherlock,” “Broadchurch,” and “Shetland.” Now when I walk, clean, cook, or garden, I listen to mystery-thrillers.

Mysteries are inherently satisfying. A crime is solved, a criminal apprehended, and order is restored to a family, a village, a country. I liked this tidy resolution that restored my belief in good triumphing over evil.

I was into my twenties before I stopped flipping to the last pages of a mystery I was reading. I couldn’t wait to find out “who done it” and why. Then I would go back and read to the end as I was supposed to, all the while knowing exactly where the story was headed. The element of surprise was gone, but I liked to think that I noticed clues I might have otherwise missed.

Who doesn’t like happy endings?

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, stars of the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” were my favorite secret agents in the 1960s. Like James Bond, they always resolved some international situation. The book Boys in the Boat tells the story of a group of rowers whose homegrown grit and teamwork lead them to Olympic victory. In Educated, Tara Westover finally escapes a suffocating life. Easter is the happy ending to Lent, when Christians say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

I’ve been working on the ending to my manuscript. For awhile. At times I’ve thought I could just tie all the themes up neatly, cinch the bow on top, and declare, “Done!” But a thought—more a correction to my thinking—keeps surfacing. There is nothing tidy about life. And what is literary nonfiction but a person’s experience artfully told? To be true and real, that experience must include all the messiness and pain that come with life—relationships, parenting, aging, a diagnosis, dreams derailed, and, waiting for all of us, death.

IMG_1198.jpgWhen I shared my struggle in writing my final chapter, a friend suggested I look more closely at the endings of other memoirs I admire. What a good suggestion that was! Revisiting what we think we know nearly always yields something new.

“[W]e never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures . . . the pain is what yields the solution” (Gail Caldwell, Let’s Take the Long Way Home).

“If we are to live ourselves, we must relinquish the dead” (Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking).

“I opened the door to the rest of my life, this new life without a living link to the old world” (Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter).

With these rich examples steeping in me, I appealed to my writing coach. “I’m spinning my wheels,” I wrote to her, “wondering if what I have to say has value, uncertain as to how to land, questioning my faith, even revisiting the story’s heartbeat. No wonder I’m stuck!” At least I didn’t add, “hoping to run a marathon this weekend without training.”

With her help and my perseverance, I will find the elusive ending. But it will require patience, instinct, the gentle wisdom of others, and trust in the process itself. In the midst of my writing block are loved ones, activities of purpose, a good poem, a good meal, nature—all sources of inspiration and hope.

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Truth and Reconciliation

A process not just for nations but for ourselves

First, some background.

The truth and reconciliation concept emerged in the 1970s as a strategy for dealing with war crimes and other human rights abuses. As one website explained, “It seeks to heal relations between opposing sides by uncovering all pertinent facts, distinguishing truth from lies, and allowing for acknowledgement, appropriate public mourning, forgiveness and healing.”

 The most famous example is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of apartheid. More than thirty nations have used this model during the past three decades. (Imagine what restorative justice we could achieve if our country had a commission that confronted slavery.)

So why not apply the process to ourselves?

I asked myself this question at a recent writer’s group. Isn’t this what we’re about when we tell our stories? Isn’t writing the most intimate form of truth and reconciliation? Done openly, the process helps us confront and reckon with our past so that we can move beyond old hurts and inaccurate versions of ourselves to a place of authenticity and healing.

As one of the women in our group haltingly described what her story is about, tears came to her eyes and her face reflected utter anguish. So much in our past, in our lives, to reckon with. So much to process and forgive before we can love ourselves.

This is why I write. This is why many of us write. Some of us in our sixties and beyond know that it’s much more than a desire to be published that puts us in our chair. It’s more than “morning pages” or a 200-word daily goal. Writing the truth—naming it and reckoning with it—takes us deeper as we seek an Eden we will spend our whole lives hoping to reclaim.

What would it mean for each of us to speak our own truth?

Today is Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of Lent, the Christian church’s 40-day journey of truth and reconciliation with ourselves and God.

Today is also any Wednesday, a day like every other when, regardless of our beliefs, we can begin the process. There is always truth to uncover and reconciliation to come.

 

 

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Surviving the Siege, part two

I woke up this morning and it felt a little chilly outside of the covers. Since it was the coldest morning of the year, I figured that was why and dressed and headed down to the kitchen. I checked the thermostat on my way.

IMG_0685.jpg Yep. You read that right. It was a bracing 45 downstairs, a crisp 50 upstairs. At least there wasn’t a windchill.

The extent of my ability to diagnose or fix something is to check the fuse box or go on YouTube. No circuit flipped. Somehow, this seemed beyond YouTube.So I started up the space heaters, one up, one down, all smugness from yesterday’s post gone. I ate crow for breakfast. Perhaps to punish myself (and before coffee), I figured I would hunker even further down than I already had been the last few days and wait it out. Wait what out? I thought. Now is not the time to prove anything.

I called the heating company that had installed the furnace some 15 years ago and soon the service technician showed up. I met him at the door in a down coat, hat, and scarf.

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After a bit of this and a bit of that, he told me my filter was probably the culprit, even though I’d replaced it this fall. He put a new one in and left. The house temperature climbed into the high 40s, then dropped to 42. Another call, another technician. He spent a bit more time doing this and that, including a few loud bangs, then gave me the news.

I needed a new furnace. Yes, I could replace parts (which might have to get ordered and weren’t easy to come by) but if I intended to stay in the house for awhile, I should do it.

I ate chilled crow for lunch. Last fall my neighbor mentioned she was having their furnace cleaned and checked out before winter. I made a mental note to do the same, forgetting that mental notes don’t come with a guarantee.

Now another guy is on his way to tell me how much it’s going to cost. I’ll gulp and cancel travel plans for the year, but be the warmer for it.

Back to the jigsaw puzzle.

 

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Surviving the Siege

When the usual tricks aren’t working

I thought getting through January was enough. I’d avoided making any resolutions I would not follow through on. I’d read and listened to several books, finished a podcast series on race, painted a room.

Then, the Siege.

Arctic air some of us haven’t experienced before or can’t recall, it’s been so long since temperatures here registered lower than Antarctica. (So cold that the previous sentence doesn’t have a verb.)

What to do when we are in virtual lockdown in our own homes?

The usual tricks weren’t working. I finished a book but couldn’t get out of my chair to fetch another. My office is begging to be decluttered but I can’t seem to see the piles all around. I dare not take a walk, not after listening to the dire warnings on MPR of exposure, frostbite, hypothermia, death. Frightful stories on the scale of news from Washington that were followed by a story of the Arrowhead 135, an annual endurance race of that number of miles across northern Minnesota that 146 people who need a challenge started yesterday.

“If you get a warm year,” one regular participant said, “it’s almost like you got cheated.”

Ha.

This morning I was at my desk, as usual, feeling just a little cheated that I wouldn’t be walking outdoors today, as is my habit. Even through the shades, the room had begun to brighten. It was time to open them, I decided, calculating that the overall effect of sun in (not to mention the lift it brings me) was greater than the draft that would come with it. This is what I saw:

 

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Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, this Siege.

I’d worry about my mental health if I was stuck indoors long-term, but for now, I’m embracing it. Last night I spent an hour in the basement, trowel in hand, planting canna and elephant ear bulbs. Today, a jigsaw puzzle. I won’t ever attempt the Arrowhead 135, but I can see why some people do. There’s something about not doing the usual.

Things could be a lot worse, I tell myself, still in my chair, staring out the frosted window. I could be married to Donald Trump.

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What’s Your Story?

Finding the narrative that runs through your life

My first writing teacher was Marion Dane Bauer. After taking a class from her through The Loft Literary Center, I joined a workshop that met twice a month in her home. Here our small group took turns reading from our works-in-progress and getting feedback. Besides writing On My Honor, a Newbery Honor Book, and other works of fiction, she wrote What’s Your Story?, a practical guide for young writers who want to attempt fiction.

This past November, I spent three days in Chicago with my siblings. We live in different states and rarely have a chance to be altogether. What better place to have a reunion, we decided, than our home town. And what better activity than to go to museums, a practice our parents instilled in us as they stressed the importance of lifelong learning. In my search for things to do, I noticed that The American Writers Museum had opened on Michigan Avenue a year earlier. It was an easy sell as we’re all avid readers. One morning we spent a few hours making our way down a long hallway, reading panels on well over 200 writers. It was a lot of information–too much, we decided, to take in in a single visit.

At the end of the alley, on the back wall, was this quote from James Baldwin:

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Of all I took in that morning, this is the quote that I remember. This is the idea that won’t let me go. It was as if with his serious expression, Baldwin was challenging me to answer the question “What’s my story?” as I work on my memoir. Yet I quickly realized the “larger” and “reverberating” aspects to my individual story. His quote carried universal appeal, if not application. We don’t need to be writers to ask ourselves, “What is my story?” We don’t need to be writers to recognize that there is a fundamental theme or narrative that runs through our lives.

What’s your story?

In all the writing I’ve done—the young adult novels, the poetry, the journaling, this blog, and now the memoir—a single thread runs through it. My story is coming to terms with a sense of unworthiness and learning to accept (read love) myself for who I am.

In the preface of her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama explains how her parents helped her see the value in her story. “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

What’s your story? How does it shape you? How does it limit you? How does it reflect who you really are and how does it perpetuate messages it may be time to delete? How does it shield you from suffering, and how does it ask you to risk everything?

Baldwin’s quote reminds me that answering the question “What’s your story?” is an ongoing process. We run, we fall, we pick ourselves up again and blunder on. It is the very act of living.

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A Child Shall Lead Them

Seeking a new way of knowing

Anthony Basta, a 17-year-old from St. Paul, described himself in his high school yearbook as “Just a kid growing up!” Five months later, on April 26, 2000, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting—a senseless, random act by three “kids” out on a dare.

On Mississippi River Boulevard, between Jefferson and Randolph Avenues, sits a rock with a plaque at the site of the shooting. The plaque is inscribed with Tony’s words, dated 12/1/99. Had he lived, Tony would be 35 years old today.

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This past Saturday, I was walking south on River Boulevard, noticing the first flakes of what would be a short but powerful storm that socked the southern part of the state. I saw the plaque as I’ve seen it countless times during my regular walks, bike rides, and drives along this scenic road. The rock has become such a part of the landscape that I hardly acknowledge it anymore.

But this time, I noticed the date. December 1, 19 years ago to the day. December 1, the first day of Advent.

For the rest of the weekend, I thought about Tony Basta. I thought about him during Sunday’s sermon, when I heard the preacher say, “Each of us is dying a little every day.” I thought about Tony during the adult forum, where we discussed Jesus as avatar, God in human form.

I also thought about the devotions I receive each morning in my inbox from Richard Rohr. This particular one began, “In one way or another, almost all religions say that you must die before you die . . . Some form of death—psychological, spiritual, relational, or physical—is the only way we will loosen our ties to our small and separate false self. Only then does it return in a new shape, which we might call the Risen Christ, the soul, or the True Self . . . You move from religion as mere belief to religion as a new kind of knowing.” (November 22, 2018)

I have lived for 65 Advents. This year, I’ve asked myself what it is I’m waiting for. Is it a baby born in a manger? Is it an avatar that stands in for God?

I’m waiting for more than “mere belief,” I realize. I’m seeking nothing less than a re-imagined faith, or a faith that reflects a re-imagined self, one that can reconcile the sin I’m imprisoned by with a more life-giving emphasis on being created in God’s likeness. I want a faith that allows me to hold guilt and self-worth in the same sentence. I want my prayers to come from my heart, more honest and spontaneous. I want the faith I’ve lugged with me since childhood to make sense for me today.

Perhaps I’m like Tony, just a kid when it comes to my faith, growing up within the uncertainties of life, ever seeking to move from “no” to “yes.”

Rohr concludes his devotion: “Once you know that life and death are not two but are part of a whole, you will begin to view reality in a holistic, undivided way, and that will be the change that changes everything.”

Waiting doesn’t mean being passive. The change, the growing up, starts within. I must make myself vulnerable. I must be willing to be transformed, however that transformation comes.

Tony Basta, bless his sweet memory, has inspired me to follow him on his beloved silver BMX, down every road, into every question, through every challenge, even if it means “dying” along the way.