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A Content Heavy World

Photo credit: BBC News

Yesterday, in the face of escalating MidEast violence, attacks on American Embassies and continuing regional unrest, I felt an intense contrast between what I do now (creative writing) and what I was committed to 22 years ago when I first joined the US State Department. In 1980, I joined State under President Jimmy Carter as a Presidential Fellow, eager to apply my political science education and Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs to the American diplomatic effort. I was an idealist in fervent support of the goal of international peace and understanding. A decision made in full light of the events of November 4, 1979, when armed rebels in the country of Iran attacked the US Embassy and 52 American Embassy personnel became prisoners of the rebellion for 444 days. That moment to now brackets two points of international unrest that have resulted in the deaths of American Embassy personnel overseas.

Fiction seems so thin a pursuit in the face of real world struggles, and I must ask if the work I do as a writer leverages or wastes my given personal abilities to make a difference in the world. The potential to offer meaningful service to others. I look at the blogs, the book reviews, the novel in progress and think: Too much "lightness of being" in a content heavy world.

My friend, Barb Camberlain, who works in public service, sent me this comment yesterday - Where your greatest joy meets the world's greatest need you will find your calling (Frederich Buechner). You can write/serve! These are meaningful words. But the gap between what is one's "greatest joy" and "the world's greatest need" is measured how? Ambassador Chris Stevens worked in the arena of peace and stability for Libyans as well as American interests in Libya. His sad loss can be measured in personal and world terms, as is true for the other Americans killed at the American Consulate in Benghazi. The arena of the arts presents a challenge: How to discern the public value in any one particular painting, poem, story, or dance? Yes, the arts are the receptacle of global culture, and for that alone, are intrinsically valuable. Human history is recorded in the creative: the expression of what evolves from, and beyond, the commonplace. An ongoing translation of the ordinary into a symbolism of deeper human understanding. Yet it is not among equals that social enterprise matters; that what is made is worthy. We know this. There is substance and there is fluff, contribution and dissolution, meaning and what is vacuous. It is for each of us to push the boundary between our talents and the existential yaw, to address the terrible want of the world.

Today, like many of the days since I left public service and turned to a writing life, I think about the value to me and to humanity of the simple, ordinary things I do, and wonder if I've ever tapped the personal extraordinary we are all sometimes capable of. These are extraordinary times, in a world that demands more of us. More of me.  Read More 
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Hope & Remembrance

World Peace Flame, The Hague, The Netherlands

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die

- from "The Charge of the Light Brigade," Alfred, Lord Tennyson

September 11, 2001. No one of our generation will forget this day. The massive losses of human life in the synchronized terrorist attacks shook our ideals as an American nation and as peace-seeking individuals. A shaken national confidence. The lingering sense of confusion, of fear and insecurity. Psychic scars and literal changes to the way we live our daily lives that will last indefinitely.

When I talk to those of the Vietnam generation or listen to the stories of those who lived through World War II, I understand how this profound shattering of souls has happened before. War, famine, and disease spike human history: In just the last approximate 100 years we have witnessed the unspeakable suffering and horrors of World War I. The massive loss of life to the flu pandemic of 1918. Before that, the bloody histories of the Civil War. (Not to mention the horrific impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes and the recent tsunamis.) For as long as people have struggled for peace and prosperity, there have been pivotal outbreaks of violent cataclysmic conflict or sweeping famine and disease to change the years to follow. But I wonder, could we be building a species immunity to these ever-extremes of violence and pandemic? A better sense of what not to do, or how to proceed, or how to avoid what the generations before have experienced or destroyed? Is there an epidemiology of mass tragedy that carries within it even a kernel of resistance to repetition?

On the subject of war alone it would appear not. Part of the heartbreak and melancholy surrounding our remembrance of 9/11 is more than mourning this loss of innocents; we are haunted by an uneasy, subtle knowledge terrorism can occur at any time. Violence breaks through our most enlightened eras, endemic to human nature it appears. I am more hopeful about the progress of science in eradicating disease and famine than its impact on violence. I am more hopeful about positive outcomes from rebellions for civil independence than in the elimination of terrorist attacks of hatred. Yet. The continuing Syrian civil violence marks the worst shredding of human life and morality in contemporary history; following in the footsteps of the unrelenting genocide in Darfur to combine the worst of human cruelty and abuse of power.

Natural disasters and famine unite humanity in efforts of survival and recovery. Threats from disease bring the world scientific community together to research global solutions. But violence lies in the soul. How we handle conflict is a measure of human restraint. Are we evolving as a human race or not? Every generation fervently hopes so. But it is our children who will be the ones to find out.
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Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation: but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last night I, like thousands of Americans, tuned in to watch the Democratic National Convention, which followed closely on the heels of its counterpart, the Republican National Convention. As a former high school debater and lifetime lover of speech and rhetoric, political speeches offer an opportunity to witness the art of persuasive speaking, hopefully at its finest: Fresh new thinking, eloquently expressed passion, thoughtful arguments in continuance of our nation's Presidential debates. What startled me in its complete unexpectedness, was to see a woman I know and admire stand on the podium, and in her friendly, humble way, introduce First Lady Michelle Obama for her keynote address.

In a short introduction, this woman I admire so greatly, spoke softly about those who serve our country and their families; and about our national obligation to our wounded warriors. What few know that I and many many military academy parents know, is that Elaine Brye, whose husband was a combat pilot in Vietnam and who calls home a family farm in Ohio, is more than a veteran, mother, and teacher. Four of her five children serve in different branches of military service, and the fifth, graduating high school, hopes to be on his way soon. She is the kind of woman to devote a year to public service, teaching in Kabul. And most important to my personal experience, a volunteer parent liaison who reaches out to other military academy parents, as she herself has been, to offer the comfort and support necessary to bolster our commitment to our sons and daughters on the unique and challenging journey of attending a military academy on their way to military careers and public service.

In 2009, as my son began his military education and service at the United States Naval Academy, Elaine Brye was the new friend on the other end of a phone call, a hug, an encouraging email. She was the voice of reason, the archive of things past and the wisdom of experience. She was a shoulder to many to cry on when things grew dark or discouraging. She was always that one person, parent-to-parent, you could count on to listen and offer support, knowing that honor and youthful commitment aside, these were our kids. And there she was, smiling and full of light on the stage of the DNC, grasping hands in welcome with our First Lady. I caught my breath in awe, watching her stand there, quiet and real, living testimony to what her passion is - America's men and women in military service and the support of their families.

The post-script to this epic moment for me is that nothing in Elaine's life would have struck any of us as a path to here. She has, as Emerson urged, simply expressed her best. Her unique passion and full-throttle energy, her love of others. Even her warmth to send a Christmas card to the White House, thanking the First Lady for her support of our military families. Her years of selfless dedication made her that right choice to introduce to the DNC and those of us watching at home, the First Lady to America's President and Commander in Chief. Emerson is right: None of us yet knows what our best is, nor can we, until we have exhibited it.

Elaine Brye found her moment, and through her, love shines.
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Savor the World

Swiss mountain village cemetery

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.
- E. B. White

It seems as though the world is tilting again, making that great moon phase change in the rotation of generations. In the face of time, we lose the great icons of contemporary history. Yes, life and death are an endless repeating pattern of loss and replacement, but it seems to me loss is the more poignant. Names and faces, heros and legends... the bookmarks of our lives on earth suddenly depart. Am I the only one who feels the world has lost something significant, saying goodbye this year to Neil Armstrong, Lucille Ball, Hal David, Takane Wantanabe, Hans Einstein, Emmanuel Nues, and so many others who define our history, as well as the familiar? Not all are the brilliant and famous, some are simply those we dearly love. But their loss empties us.

I am reminded by this E.B. White quote that we are often so busy in the world, saving and fixing and doing and making and building and finding, that we forget to enjoy our lives. And enjoy those with us on the journey. To savor the experience of living, to savor the world around us, and to appreciate and fully immerse ourselves in our families and friendships and the beauty of nature. Poet Mary Oliver often writes of the fleeting nature of life itself, calling us to heed the imperative to pay attention and appreciate. I'll close today's note with the final stanza of her poem, "The Summer Day" -

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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Variations on a Theme

Matisse stained-glass window, Cathedral of Mainz

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or was it I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew:
I can.
-Variation on a Theme by Rilke, Denise Levertov

I think we sometimes forget we are organic beings. Part of the earth, the sky, and all that lies between. My husband, a physician, is used to the bare bones truth of the organic human; part of an every hour, day after day, invisible medical team that carefully and conscientiously strives to put back together what folly, violence, accident, or disease has broken. We are easily fractured. Events toss us. A vortex with an aftermath that will bear scars, abide sorrow forever. The miracles of skill and mystery.

On call on a recent crazy hot summer August night at the hospital, he worked a nearly 18 hour shift of relentless traumas. There are always the knuckle-heads, the drunks and knife fights, the drug deals gone wrong, all we might cynically and collectively disparage as a parade of idiocy. But what causes any good doctor to pause and spend an extra moment or two with someone on a night like this are those caught up in the collateral damage. The innocent bystander, the "other driver" on the way home from a late work shift the drunk hits head on, the old and sick late at night and alone. Victims, families.

Denise Levertov's poem speaks to the living breath of a given day. Life itself is a pulsing entity, both directive and utter chaos. The fate of who we are, where we are, and what we do depends not so much on chance as choice. The capability within all of us to answer the challenge. To make a difference. To bring all that we can to a problem and endeavor to be part of the solution. Right or wrong, folly or misfortune - judgment is suspended. And in its place we allow ourselves to be "a bell awakened." To command the sheer power of being and step up. I can.

What is your "I can"? To make partner? Forgive? Win Olympic Gold, eradicate ignorance, fly higher, ease poverty, photograph the meaningful, paint fury, end a war? We are as great as we need to be. As we choose to be. Say and sing who you are.
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Street musician, Berne, Switzerland

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertook to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the 18th of June, in the year of Our Lord, 1799.
- Opening paragraph of Adam Bede by George Eliot

George Eliot speaks through her writing in Adam Bede directly to the reader in the same way I am reminded, following recent and vivid dreams, that our subconscious selves are continuously speaking as well. Nightly, the mysterious ink blot takes shape behind our sleeping eyelids, and story and narration unfold. We may awake confused, but there are times we lie still as the dream settles, a vivid and particular message imparted from an unexpected symbol or word.

Meanings of dreams range in the research on a scale from the merely chaotic and random to the apparently psychic. Dream symbols, dream visitations, dreams in detail that predict future events, even dreams in the guise of one event that clearly tell the intimate tale of another. I myself have dreamt in deja vue: dreaming the receipt of a surprise letter from an old friend, noting postage and handwriting and reading the contents aloud, and the next day, receiving that exact letter by post. It's not mine to explain, but when this kind of experiential slip of time and dimension jars our accepted measure of what is real and what is not, the aftermath is often a more fluid personal definition of fate. History begins to seem less of a chronological march and more dimensional; interlocking rings in which personal and global events tangentially spin through many planes of meaning.

In talking with a friend today about work, specifically about inviting in a major change in career and residence sometime in the near future, I used the phrase, "Open to what the universe brings." Not because I believe in random or directionless fate, but because I sense that there is in life the path we choose, the path we encounter, and all the nuances and variables in between. Sometimes we try so hard to direct the future, we fail to see what comes up naturally around the bend. In my life it has always seemed to work out best when I simply commit to a desired direction and let my inner spiritual GPS "recalculate" as I go.

Lately, my own dreams have involved change as well: a temporary house, painted a remarkable yellow; adventuring on an Odysseyian quest with the voices of those gone speaking as trusted muses; the physical body rhythms of packing and unpacking; an adventure with my adult children moving in and out of the action as members of the supporting cast and no longer my prime directive. All signs of inner shift. My friend? The one contemplating the big change? She gently scooped up the phrase "Open to the universe." Willing to let her next step float for now in her readiness; waiting to embrace what comes of "wait and see."

By the way, I miss novels that open big like Adam Bede by George Eliot. The writing today often too confessional, or its obverse, the chic brittle fancy. Art-less. Dialog-heavy helpings of "distraction action," missing translation. I love those narratives that sweep us up and in, that omniscient stroke of the pen, the sorcerer's dark conjuring... The inky trace of change.
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Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends,
Mmm, gonna try with a little help from my friends...
Yes I get by with a little help from my friends,
with a little help from my friends...

- from "I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends," The Beatles

Recently we have been up at the lake in the panhandle of North Idaho, not far from the Canadian border. We have done our usual favorite things - swim, hike, run the trails, pick huckleberries, read and relax under the pine trees. But midweek in our vacation, my daughter, 23, drove the 100 or so miles back into town to support a friend of hers she has stayed close with since high school who was undergoing an unexpected surgery. During the time she was gone, I reflected on the strength of their friendship: that her friend even confided in my daughter about her upcoming surgery, that my daughter immediately made plans to be there for the early morning procedure, to be with the family, and sustain her friend with her simple presence. They are both remarkable young women studying in the life sciences. I paid quiet attention, watching the way my daughter marshaled her resources, worked family professional contacts at the hospital to find the perfect way to support her friend and her family. Her determination to rise early, make the drive through the mountains alone, wait with the family and help with the medical debriefing and explanations, to be with her friend post op. These are the characteristics of a mature and responsive adult. A person who cares.

I think one of the gifts of any youthful friendship that grows and endures, lies in the exposure to adult decision-making that accompanies any life journey. From confronting experiences that require understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness, weathering confusion or disagreement, to believing in the best of one another, accepting the distortions and complications of time, dating and marriage, distance... Young people who develop close attachments experience the challenges and rewards of adulthood in the companionship of that very same friendship. I do not personally know how my daughter's friend feels about her presence with her at the hospital, but I know from talking to my daughter that she experienced a profound awareness of herself and her friend, that even young as they are, they nonetheless live in the shadow of mortality, must endure the angst of waiting through the unknown, seek to optimize the power of information, skill, and in this case medicine, and lean on faith and one another. I think the gift of youthful friendships is that they become the pillars of a much older, weathered wisdom.

We love and learn together...with a "little help from our friends."
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Girls with Goals: Hartford Half Marathon Finish

Really, Claire thought, some exits you needed to practice ahead of time.

It is an uncanny paradox, that we know we are ready for change before we actually make the shift and alter our lives. Our inner selves quietly rehearse an exit that our brains are not yet fully aware we plan to follow through on. Form follows function? Perhaps. Maybe we are just a wave or two behind ourselves, one part of ourselves leading the other. Gently, or not: sometimes it's a kick in the butt. Change this now, or else.

I have been following the inner struggles of a good friend, a woman who has circled around the same dilemma for years. Her pattern has always been to take on a new resolve, remake herself, celebrate the new exciting person she has become, yet doubt creeps in, confidence is lost, she falls back into that old previous rut, and the cycle begins anew. Only as most of us have discovered, the falls get steadily harder, the rut deeper, the cynicism and self-doubt grow with every single time we fail to believe in ourselves. I told her recently as she touched on the frustrations of her misery, her struggle evident in her voice, that I will "always come and find her." Dig deep, listen, reflect the truth. Regardless of the number of rise and falls life drags us through, I believe in the practice of exits. That someday, somehow, we WILL step free of what limits us. That we shall genuinely, simply, and purely release and forever redefine. The personal paradox between reality and desire changes when we suddenly see what the truth of our self truly is.

I think my friend is about done with "practice." I sense in her a momentum, grounded in a growing awareness, that for her this is all as simple as letting go of the doubt. That ending the cycle of attempt and stumble lies on the other side of a clean decision. The decision, as our old pal Yoda put it, to "Do. There is no try." I am excited to see where her next run at her future, her own heroic Olympic attempt at a personal best record, takes her.

I think this time she will fly.
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The Path to Super Good

Chess Prodigy Grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky
Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is a triumph of some enthusiasm.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This last week I've been thinking and writing about Daniel Coyle's engaging and well researched book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. Emerson's quote headlines a chapter in Coyle's book that addresses what motivates us to want to be great in the first place. Why did Roger Bannister break the four minute mile? And how did his seemingly impossible accomplishment fuel subsequent athletes to feats of equal or better time? While the examples are many, the finding Coyle arrives at is this: Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act (that necessary ten thousand hours of practice/ten years), ignition is a hot, mysterious burst. An awakening, he calls it. Our brains are organized to look for terrifically good uses of available focus and energy. Primal survival cues also leap-frog learning, seeking inspiration from copy-cat "Ah-ha!" moments (If he can do it, so can I!). The right mentoring, supportive environment, opportunity or impetus, and suddenly we are committing ourselves to a goal for the long haul.

One section of Daniel Coyle's research that I found personally fascinating (well yes, I'm the target subgroup), were the links between cognition and aging. The continual proof in the data of that old refrain: use it or lose it. It's simple, according to UCLA neurologist and researcher George Bartzokis, whom Coyle quotes extensively: "The myelin starts to split apart with age. This is why every old person you've ever met in your life moves more slowly that they did when they were younger. Their muscles haven't changed, but the speed of the impulses they can send to them has changed, because myelin gets old." No wonder, I thought reading this. It's a fact I run slower these days. My myelin is aging along with my knees.

But not so fast. It's a balance of natural entropy and regeneration, apparently. Bartzokis continues, "You must remember the myelin is alive, always being generated and degenerating, like a war. When we are younger, we build myelin easily. As we age, the overall balance shifts toward degeneration, but we can keep adding myelin. Even when the myelin is breaking up, we can still build it, right to the end of our lives." (I'll keep lacing up those running shoes.) Situations in which people are forced to adapt and attune themselves to new challenges (i.e., make errors, pay attention, deep practice) tend to increase cognitive reserve. Daniel Coyle concludes that "use it and get more of it," is what we need to remember as we age.

Finally, how do we raise motivated children and encourage budding talent? Coyle turns to psychologist Carol Dweck, who studies motivation. Her advice is distilled into two simple rules: pay attention to what your children are fascinated by, and praise them for their effort. The author's final observation in The Talent Code touches on the essential unique mystery of our brains, "In the whorls of myelin resides a person's secret history, the flow of interactions and influences that make up a life..." To be the best you can be? Embrace your passion, anchor your faith in the knowledge that failure is the path forward, and practice your way to "super good."
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The Rage to Master

Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code credits psychologist Ellen Winner with the phrase "the rage to master" as a description of the focus and intensity that sets some of us apart from others in the development of performance and skill. (He makes the point that if you have to ask if your child possesses the rage to master, they don't.) Research clearly shows, even in the case of well known prodigies, that possessing a high level of skill - mastery - is not accidental. Expertise is not strictly a matter of nature vs. nurture, or because some of us fell on the right side of the "genius gene." (There is no such gene.) Some of us just want total domination more than others. Expertise is defined by Coyle as "deep practice" learning broken into three parts - chunk it up, repeat it, learn to feel it.

The concepts are simple and logical: "Chunk it up" is a strategy for mastery of technique undertaken by breaking a subject into concrete, defined, manageable chunks of new learning, sometimes broken down to the most minute levels (e.g. a challenging two-note measure on a single page of sheet music, the twisted arc within a complicated dive), slowed way down in practice, and then reassembled into an integrated whole. "Repeat it" touches on the research of 20th century Swede Anders Ericsson that found behind every so-called expert or super-talent, roughly ten years/ten thousand hours of committed practice - which Coyle believes foots perfectly with the intense and repetitive brain process of coiling myelin insulation layers around neuron circuits strengthening developing skills.

The third rule, "Feel it," is about learning in practice to sense the gap between what you are aiming for and a mistake. An awareness of a missed note, a feeling in the slightest off movement of a bad javelin toss, an ear for a mistake in grammar. Coyle describes this awareness in the words of Glenn Kurtz from Kurtz's book Practicing, "Each day, with every note, practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture - reaching out for an idea, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers." Now if that doesn't capture the struggle of learning, what does? Most important, it is the struggle that builds the skill.

These building blocks are simply not enough however without motivational fuel: the "rage to master," that ignition factor that leads us to want, to commit, to do. I'd welcome your thoughts on what made the difference for you between a routine practice and one that "clicked." What do you see in yourself, or in your children when they struggle to master something they passionately want to learn?

Let me close with an evocative poem by Billy Collins that speaks to me of the mystery and beauty of "deep practice."

by Billy Collins
My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.

He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.

He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.

I am doing my scales,
the familiar anthems of childhood.
My fingers climb the ladder of notes
and come back down without turning around.
Anyone walking under this open window
would picture a girl of about ten
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,
like a white Horace Silver.

I am learning to play
“It Might As Well Be Spring”
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him in to the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.
It is the largest, heaviest,
and most beautiful object in this house.
I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.
And late at night I picture it downstairs,
this hallucination standing on three legs,
this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.

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