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What Love Is

On Friday, my husband and I are flying to Houston to attend the wedding of his middle son. It is the second wedding within a year's time, and as his sons walk through this very singular, personal, and deeply spiritual threshold into their own adulthood, it is profoundly moving for a parent to witness.

They start out small, and look where they end... Our work as parents seems to conclude as they let go of one hand and take another, cleave as Ruth said, to the hand of another. Mark 10:7-9 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." Bless the beginning, release with love, and let the moment mark the years. They start out so small.

Originally posted, November 25, 2012:

Some things
you know all your life. They are simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

The beauty of love is that it is capable of great patience, tremendous tenacity, it stretches, it attaches, it slowly builds like bone in the new body. It has been a journey, for me, this life. And in the coming...the gestating of new forms of connection and partnership, of family. Evolving in new ways of being, new shapes to the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say that living is a cycle of ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor pristinely beautiful, not perfect in process, the becoming is perfect in intent. It is perfect in joy, grounded in the earth, heavens, and self. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth. Belong.

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photo credit: James Peat, South Dorset, UK
We could do worse.
I alternate between thinking of the planet as home - dear and familiar stone hearth and garden- and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners. Today I favor the latter view. The word "sojourner" occurs often in the English Old Testament. It invokes a nomadic people's knowledge of estrangement, a thinking people's intuition of sharp loss. "For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding."

We don't know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn't seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures - from whom and with whom we evolved - seems a mockery. Their ways are not our ways. We seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy - or a broad lampoon - on a thrust rock stage.

- Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk"

The weather is harsh today. A spin cycle of winds, driving rains, brief stillnesses and spots of sun followed by steely skies. The way in which winter fights the incremental arrival of spring, today the first day of spring, is played out in the heavens. Tender green grass and flower stems break earth, but the skies battle on a galactic level for dominance between light and dark, cold and warm, still and push.

My writer's thoughts are also caught between still and push. There is a lull toward stillness: to invite in the transitions in the seasons with reflection and awareness, and yet there is a strong sense of push. To birth the change in day, daylight, and energies now. There is much to do, more to accomplish, and time is a precious gift to waste.

Annie Dillard's timeless work "Teaching a Stone to Talk" is subtitled "Expeditions and Encounters." Her essays explore nature, they tease out subtleties, lift the skin on human dislocation. Her thoughts on solitude as "sojourners of spirit" on a harshly physical planet come to mind as I watch the wind and rain hammer the young weeping cherry. A hint of new bud on its branches, barely limned green, the slight tree bends to the lashing winds. I observe its travails, think about what I am, the "I" that is spirit and mind, and what I am trying to do here in my study, my words and thoughts weaving these works of imaginary tapestry. Out there beyond my window, earth expresses the hard unambiguous truth of the elements. Wind, rain, dark, light. Whereas inside, literally and metaphorically, I live and work in another realm.

I am a sojourner in one world, traveling the days and seasons, defined by my humanity yet essentially animal, a living being - and an alchemist in the other, an artist, inventing and imagining, seeking meaning. Which is more true? Or am I both in both? Is it any wonder we find ourselves uncertain of home?
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Simplicity, Pope Francis, and Philosophical Authenticity

Pope Francis, The Vatican: photo credit Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Images

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.
- Walt Whitman

My thoughts were swept away today. I abandoned working on my writing project to witness the choosing of a new pope in the great city of Rome. Perhaps the last time in my life this ancient religious event, a papal conclave of 114 Cardinals gathered from the farthest corners of the globe, will occur. For me, the great wonder of Roma lies in the rich intersection of Roman history in ruin and architecture, the artistic wonders present in every fountain, church, and piazza, in the venerable Jewish Ghetto, and in the Vatican's artistic and religious treasures. Within this city mingle centuries of letters, art, and the great philosophical ideals of human history.

3/13/13...a day of significance.

The rituals of faith have once more brought forth change. Cloistered deep within the Vatican, where Judeo-Christian spiritual history may be felt in the worn stones of St. Peter's Basilica, seen glorified in Michelangelo's great artistic homage to human faith in the Sistine Chapel, found written on ancient Aramaic burial stones protected in the Vatican's Judaic collection, a new leader has been chosen for the Catholic Church. An elder of the South American faithful, a Jesuit known for his work as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, this humble man represents virtues of simplicity of faith, tending to the needs of the poor, and building a strong - and honest - church. His chosen name as Pope is Francesco: Francis, for St. Francis of Assisi, the historical voice of the poor and great reformer of the church. A declaration that faith is not about power but purpose.

What destroys faith most fully is hypocrisy. All of us, I believe, want faith to begin in spiritual honesty, to be lived genuinely, and defended in truth. This humble man, who has re-christened himself after the most plain of saints, offers hope; dedication to the reforms and healing needed within Catholicism around the world. As Pope Francis led the faithful from the balcony of the Vatican tonight in the Lord's Prayer, I could not help but feel deeply moved. His simplicity is authentic : there is an experience of purity in his humble smile, in his joy in the people, in his obvious love of his church. The moment stands as a great sweep of fresh air through the spiritual work of humanity on this planet. I wish Pope Francis many blessings in bringing forth meaningful change.

Habemus Papam Franciscum.
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The Art of Care

Technology and life only become complex if you let it be so.
~ John Maeda, "The Laws of Simplicity"

Saturday, March 16, 2012
Bozarth Center, Spokane Washington
Breakfast meeting & 9:00am talk on The Geography of Love,
"Compassion as a Pillar of Medicine: the Art of Care."

This upcoming Saturday the 16th of March, I will have the joy and privilege of addressing the Spokane County Medical Society. In particular, the women physicians of the SCMS, gathered at the Bozarth Center in Spokane, Washington, for their annual retreat.

This is an honor for me on many levels. To begin with, these busy and generally overworked physicians have made time for reading, and not just the professional journals and scientific work necessary to keep current in their specialities. These physicians also read for discovery, to engage in new ideas, for pleasure. These medical professionals, many who are also in book clubs, are terrific examples for all of us who feel that our lives have become impossible to tame - slaves to our calendars - and wonder where the days have gone where we used to get "lost in a book." Yes, we can still find time for reading: through a book club, a book event, e-readers on our exercise bikes, a book last thing we dip into before sleep. It takes commitment.

But all of life takes commitment, right? In my upcoming talk with these medical professionals, for whom "commitment" is organic to their ethic and calling, the concept of committing to care about the experiences of patients, the importance of compassion in scientific practice, and one's own emotional life in and out of medicine...all these ideas are both familiar and difficult. Who has the time? What will be the pushback from health care organizations slicing away minutes and hours; or insurance practices imposed on medical practitioners unable to spend that extra moment with a sorrowing, shocked, or uncertain patient or their family?

I recently finished a book by John Maeda, MIT professor and digital artist, called "The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life" (MIT Press, 2006), wherein he tells a story regarding the importance of balancing meaning and clarity. The story goes loosely as follows: A wealthy socialite in Italy, given the news of a terminal cancer diagnosis (certainly clarity of message), was then told by her physician, "I have a ten minute limit per patient." In her fragile state this woman left her doctor's office in understandable shock, without either a sense of support or life options. In her last five months this brave woman decided to address this glaring gap in compassionate care and created a foundation to build beautiful, intensely artful areas in oncology centers where patients receiving this kind of life changing/shattering news would have a place to, as Maeda so gently puts it, "soak their minds and hearts." Maeda's point was that art gives a reason to live, and design, clarity of message. In the practice of medicine (design devoted to clarity of diagnosis and treatment), the art of care, compassion, is one pillar of patient care that addresses a genuine human spiritual need but is often overlooked.

I am deeply grateful to this gathering of physicians for their interest in my memoir, The Geography of Love, and my individual journey through the harrowing and enlightening experience of terminal illness with a loved one. But I especially love the strong energy of their personal commitment to the art of care, to literature, reading, and renewal. What we do says so much about who we are.
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