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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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...persuasion and belief
Had ripened into faith, and faith became
A passionate intuition."

~ William Wordsworth

The last few days I spent on vacation in the Pacific tropics swimming and playing among sea turtles, watching Humpback whales breach and spout in the bay, lulled by the traveling trade winds in the palm fronds. I stood, cold and wind-whipped after hiking straight down from the edge of the 11,000 ft Haleakala Crater to the dormant cone of an ancient black and red sands caldera, all the Pacific beyond me.

The active presence of nature felt full and ripe, in stark contrast to the frozen, empty palette I left behind, the Inland Northwest in deep winter. I had time to consider the rich and diverse differences. The openness to life that warmth versus cold brings, island patterns of coexistence with an all-powerful ocean in contrast to mainland practices focused on land domination - harvest, drilling, excavation. Resources are more obviously finite on an island. There is a greater awareness of the balance among all things - fresh water and land for life and planting, wind and fishing, erosion and pollution, even the great struggle between earth and sea as volcanic cycles and ocean dance.

There is a sense on an island that everything and nothing is taken as a given. That life is rooted in biological harmony, exists in a specific niche, and a tilt in one species or eco-subsystem triggers a reverberation felt by all. In the Inland Northwest, a land of abundant resources, from farmland to timber and mining, there exists more of a sense of contemporary resource management than generations of guidance by an intuitive balance at play. We intelligently "manage" our lands, fishing, mines, and timber stands. We do not see ourselves as part of a great ancient wheel of shared survival and change that marks island cultures. This difference, I think, is partly behind the timelessness, the ease of island life...the sense that the gift of today is not to be wasted. On the mainland we toil endlessly, we produce and harvest, develop and market; we are conquerors, not inhabitants. A subtle but significant difference.

This element of harmony with all things, sharing a rock in the tide pool, colors my time in the Pacific islands. A gentle reminder that I am part of where I live, whether I am always subtly aware of that truth or not. That by thinking of myself as interconnected, even here within the hard cold of winter watching for the return of the geese north and the limning of the green on bare branches, I am as present in my today as the great sea turtle paddling the rolling wave, the Humpback breaking the surface to fly airborne into the sun. Cycles, balance, diversity, interconnection. Living.
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The Family Tableau

by Robert Hass

On the morning of the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit, a young man and woman come into the museum restaurant. She is carrying a baby; he carries the air-freight edition of the Sunday New York Times. She sits in a high-backed wicker chair, cradling the infant in her arms. He fills a tray with fresh fruit, rolls, and coffee in white cups and brings it to the table. His hair is tousled, her eyes are puffy. They look like they were thrown down into sleep and then yanked out of it like divers coming up for air. He holds the baby. She drinks coffee, scans the front page, butters a roll and eats it in their little corner in the sun. After a while, she holds the baby. He reads the Book Review and eats some fruit. Then he holds the baby while she finds the section of the paper she wants and eats fruit and smokes. They’ve hardly exchanged a look. Meanwhile, I have fallen in love with this equitable arrangement, and with the baby who cooperates by sleeping. All around them are faces Käthe Kollwitz carved in wood of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kinds of pain: hunger, helpless terror. But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible.

It is the 19th of December. The Winter Solstice is in two days, the Christmas and New Year holidays pushing forward on the heels of a tough week of national loss. American families are in mourning, in confusion about what is and isn't the nature of the human heart. This morning I happened across this lovely, muted prose poem by Robert Haas, a poet of great gravitas and dignity I had the great good fortune to hear read from his work at Stanford during his tenure as United States Poet Laureate. Somehow in revisiting this poem ~ a poignant gentle sketch of a family outing ~ I came to my own sense of hope again. Of possibility that all of us will, in the passage of time, heal. And in the fullness of days, find peace once more in our hearts and possibility for goodness in the day.

Let us look to the warmth of family and friendship for the truth of the human spirit. Let us join hearts in these holidays and keep faith in goodness.
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Be Your Peace

There is a law in psychology that if you form a picture in your mind of what you would like to be, and you keep and hold that picture long enough, you will soon become exactly as you have been thinking.
- William James

It's been a most interesting few months of late. My husband and I, talking about this next phase of life, both together and individually (he is about to become a grandfather through his oldest son), have invoked that old truism, Life is What You Make of It. It feels important to us both to transform "gateway events" - the celebratory, the sorrowful or unexpected, all that is joyful and generational - into meaningful life choices. To remember that each gate we pass through is an opportunity to chose. And in choosing, we make life.

Certainly one can drift hopeless through the days and life will happen, more accidental than desired. But if you believe as William James, the philosopher (brother to Henry James, the well-known novelist), that we all possess the personal authority to invoke and intend the life we most desire, then why toss on the tides instead?

I've been receiving reader email lately on the seemingly unavoidable stress of the holidays, family life, and work. I'm thinking of all the bits of wisdom I might offer, having grown up in a thrifty, financially-challenged military and then later, single parent family; and, in my own life raising two kids through the sorrows, financial and parenting struggles that losing a co-parent and spouse bring. While mulling these challenges over, I realized the bright star on the horizon through everything, in my mother's life and my own, was a vision of survival. Intention. While there was never any way to know how or why we would get the job done, we both adopted constancy, check and check-mate with life on an almost daily basis. My mother leaned heavily on the practical, and her spiritual faith; I leaned more knowingly into the reality that only one person could make any certain difference and that person was me. I took every shot, walked through every open door, left no card unplayed. And at the end of the day, having done my best, I accepted the universe was in charge of the rest.

Interestingly, a side effects of this habit of holding onto a vision, is the dissolution of personal stress. Daily stress arises in part from the cognitive dissonance between what we expect of ourselves and life, and what we can do, or accept. The gulf between expectation and reality can leave us anxious and dissatisfied, worried. Choose a personal "Joy" vision this season. As your family or in-laws arrive in town, or you travel for the holidays, contemplate how delightful these days might be, how you feel about family and its importance to you, what you can do to Be the peace and joy you desire. Even if only you hold to that beautiful tranquility and love, it will be enough. Peace rubs off on others, it always does.

I have heard it said that Peace is Joy sitting still, and Joy is Peace jumping to its feet. We're jumping into new dreams, my hubby and I. And I hope you do too. Find your own perfect constellation in these holidays, my friends.
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Looking Inside

Available from The Penguin Press, 2012

There is one thing I never compromise on with poetry and that is owning the print edition book. Not the digital or audio version, but the actual book. A book of poems, really quite small and slender, is a talisman. Silken paper, bound with care. An object to handle thoughtfully, to open and dwell on silently, underline in pencil, archive between the pages a late season pansy, aged tea rings across lines of favorite verse. A deeper, more vivid world to tuck in my bag, leave open by the bed, to reread and rethink in the first quiet of morning. Poems are somehow...don't ask me how, but poems are not given to campfire dramatics, to spindling along by chapter or leaving at midpoint as stories are. No, poems entwine. Their briny starfish spines part of the organic elements of print and paper. Poetry's delicate structure speaks a shape on the page: the architecture of font, the empty space married to the singularity of thought the poet gifts to you. Poem need real books to rest within.

All that is good about life blissfully melds together the moment I crack open the work of a beloved poet. In October I discovered Mary Oliver's newest collection, A Thousand Mornings. These weeks have been extraordinarily joyful, reading Oliver's new poems. They skip like stones across my consciousness: reflective, wise. Musings of an internal questioning her past writings on nature have always hinted at, but which she now exposes with utter simplicity. These poems are the work of a poet writing of a mortal life, an end point she feels tucked in at her elbow, and walks with, head bent in intimate discussion.

Here my friends is just one of the treasures within the leaves of A Thousand Mornings ~

Everyday I'm still looking for God
and I'm still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.
How perfect to be aboard a ship with
maybe a hundred years still in my pocket.
But it's late, for all of us,
and in truth the only ship there is
is the ship we are all on
burning the world as we go.

- Mary Oliver
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Annapolis Harbor at calm
Low tide -
The sea's slow motion,
The surge and slur
Over rocky shingle.

A few gulls ride
Rocking-horse waves.

Under blurred gray sky
The field shines white.

I am not available
At the moment
Except to myself.

Downstairs the plumber
Is emptying the big tank,
The pump pumped on and on
And might have worn out.

So many lives pour into this house,
Sometimes I get too full;
The pump wears out.

So now I am emptying the tank.
It is not an illness
That keeps me from writing.
I am simply staying alive
As one does
At times taking in,
At times shutting out.

- from "A Winter Notebook," May Sarton

The stanzas above come from a long work in May Sarton's final book of poetry, Halfway to Silence - a period of rich imagery and lyrical poetry, prompted, she felt, by a keen awareness of the starkness of her own old age and the often violent passage of earthly seasons. During the onslaught of Superstorm Sandy on the mid-Atlantic coast, I worried for friends and family, and the fate of Americans, again, battered by nature's unpredictable chaos. There was a lesson in progress for me - that for all our vaunted technology and urban constructions, we are vulnerable to turns of nature we only superficially understand and not at all control. We are guests on this Earth, and among its most fragile. We learn this every generation.

Sarton's poem settled in my thoughts this morning as I sat at my writing desk. I found myself too full of yesterday's stress and anxiety to attend to the demands of the morning, too restless: The night before held hostage to worry, unable to believe the storm would pass, and then when it did, deeply aware of the calm underside of nature's violence - the grace and continuity. Sarton writes, "I lift my eyes/ To the blue/ Open-ended ocean./ Why worry?/ Some things are always there."

Sarton observes that as natures takes, she gives, and all things find equilibrium. "Sometimes I get too full.../At times taking in,/At times shutting out." It is our human ability to lift our eyes over mayhem and suffering to the poet's ocean, to trust in the serenity that is there just beneath that will empty overflowing sorrow and offer the hope and constancy needed to build again. I hope that today wherever you are in the stormy aftermath of Sandy, there comes a moment to love the world.
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Reflection: Light

Photograph by Michael Yamashita

Today is a day filled with the yellow gold halo of autumn. Sunlight filters through every tree of crimson and yellow, even gilding the deep greens fading to bronzed brown. The light of this season is one of the reasons I detour to run under the mile long canopy of grand old maples that line both sides of Manito Boulevard; why, like the old dog used to, I take a pause at the glass doors, soaking in the warm brightness of the morning sun, coffee cup in hand. Not thinking, particularly. Content to soak up the light without thought or agenda, just being. Autumn is to me the great Season of Contentment. To be, to appreciate, to dwell in these moments of living that are resplendent with the plentitude of all that grows and ripens and gives.

One of the most beloved poems, ever, is Mary Oliver's The Ponds. I'd like to share with you the last three stanzas to bless this day ~

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled -
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing -
that the light is everything - that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

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Tell Me A Story

Raven and the First Men, sculptor Bill Reid. Photo credit: Meredith Arnold

"Tell me a story" still comprise four of the most powerful words in English, words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself.

Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent. When you come close to succeeding, when the words pour out of you just right, you understnad that these sentences are all part of a river flowing out of your own distant, hidden ranges, and all words become the dissolving snow that feeds your bright mountain streams forever. The language locks itself in the icy slopes of our own high passes, and it is up to us, the writers, to melt the glaciers within us. When these glaciers calve and break off, we get to call them novels, the changelings of our burning spirits, our lifework.

- Pat Conroy, "Stories," from the anthology Why I Write, edited by Will Blythe

Reflections. Why I write. Why sometimes I wish I did not. Why it inevitably feels inevitable that I do. I've thought a good long time about this artistic precipice that is " raw talent." Why would anyone choose to work at something which they may ultimately not be good at? I absolutely understand the attraction at the heart of professions in academia and highly-specialized skill: They comprise undertakings that are a) challenging but learnable, and b) honed better by practice. One is ultimately only as good or bad as some degree of smarts and disciplined learning married to rigorous ethical practice. But the professions of art? They are by their very nature blunted by an unknowable absolute: The limits of talent.

I think it is brave, honestly, to embark upon any life's work that treads at the edge of personal futility or inefficacy. If the artist does the work with a whole being, he or she is relentless pushing the boundaries of better. And then, as the saying goes - You're good until you're not. Gaining momentum until effort hits the wall, that peak of diminishing return. The artist's most secret fear is that the end point of one's authentic creative talent lies but a few steps out the door. A journey of not a thousand steps, but nay, two. That dreams of creativity will die in immutable impoverishment, sown in a soil of insufficient talent.

Pat Conroy's description of writing, his celebration of the yeoman's labors that are the craft of writing, and his inner joy in "the painterly loveliness of the English language," capture the plainsong of what Conroy calls the "hunt for fabulous books that will change me utterly and for all time." Just that word - fabulous - says enough for me. Yes, Mr. Conroy, Great writing sticks to the soul.
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The Places You'll Go

Convocation 2012. Stanford Unviversity
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...”
― Dr. Seuss, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"

There are so many jumping off places in life - that first day of Kindergarten, perhaps a religious commitment or confirmation, maybe just saying "no" when others push "yes"... And there's that BIG one, college. My son has been through the grist mill when it comes to higher education. His first commitment was to a military service academy. He and his plebe buds survived summer military training and advanced through the ranks to become upperclassmen, training hard in military skills, and core science and math academics. He rode for the cycling team, became a respected leader within his company, and majored in Computer and Electrical Engineering. In my son's case, fate intervened shortly after making his junior year formal service commitment: he was released on an honorable, medical discharge. It took awhile for him to sort through the whys and hows, and the sucking vertigo of dislocation he felt personally as well as in his education. Yet he handled it all with dignity and personal quietude, centered in adaptation and faith in life. I was privileged to experience the kind of man my son actually had grown to become: the kind that doesn't quit, even when there is no Plan B.

The following year was one of regathering a sense of purpose, redefining new education and career goals, and finding a way to stay productive and positive while living and working on his own, and waiting, once again, through the agonizing and uncertain process of college applications. This time as a transfer student - with fewer slots and greater odds against him wherever he might apply.

Tuesday, September 18th: Move-in day, Convocation, and the new class of 2016 is officially admitted to Stanford University. As parents and students sat in the golden sun on the old Mission-style quadrangle of Stanford's central campus, President Hennessey spoke about the beauty of beginnings, and the uncertainty that can accompany that first step. He reminded the new freshmen that they should believe in themselves, because the school certainly did. The President, and the Dean of Admissions, also specifically referenced the handful of transfer students scattered throughout the audience. How impressed they were by unique backgrounds of achievement and challenge, and their importance, as members of the Class of 2014 and 2015, to the development of ideas and community throughout the university. The faculty acknowledged the same strength and focus in the new class of admitted transfer students I witnessed take hold in my son: The ability to take that first step into the unknown, and if life or expectations change, retake it yet again.

As often as life requires.

I sat beside my son listening to the closing benediction, more proud of him than I had ever been, and for vastly different reasons than most of those parents beside me. There is pride in watching your children accomplish their dreams the first time, but there is a deeper faith seeing them doing so, because they have to, again. Creating Plan B, dusting yourself off and starting over, is character - built from the guts and muscle of life.

“You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!”

― Dr. Seuss, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"
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