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What Is Left Unsaid

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Island, Scotland
Deciphering prehistory is the ultimate conjecture. I am instantly drawn into the imaginary possibilities of mute objects and ruins. Without a written or decipherable symbolic language, the humans of prehistory leave no record behind but these found objects. No record that we might use to correctly interpret fireside story retellings, or the adaptations of later generations to their own current morals and politics. Prehistory is the story of archeological finds. If a rune fragment or a decorative design is found on something as symbolic as a temple site or humble as pot, that bit of intentional marking represents a leap forward from the interpretation of found items without any frame of reference beyond other similar finds. To make interpretation of these early human settlements all the more challenging, the detritus of a civilization is not always found in context but scattered by time, weather, destruction or looting. What do we make of a carved stone ball at the buttress of a presumed gathering space, of intentional niches in stone walls, the placement of a hearth or a doorway?

On the heels of prehistory, the medieval Nordic lands - where I am now - give us Norse history interpreted through the two major eddas (poetic works) and sagas (about a hundred spoken, sung, and written stories). These later language records give us magnificent stepping-stones to understanding how these past cultures identified their roots and history, tell of migration, evasion or incorporation, and are important to developing a collective literature as well as art, frequently embellished by fabulist elements of religious and mythic belief incorporated from earlier periods or nonnative cultures.

Archeologists and anthropologists, along with their compatriots in culture studies and the arts, conjoin expertise to postulate explanations for earlier mute cultures of prehistoric times. There is now evidence of thriving communities that may have functioned in situ for as long as a millennia; a contradiction of past assumptions our ancestors were nomadic, their settlements of short duration. On islands such as mainland Orkney, the stone Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, the Ness of Brodgar excavations, the burial mound of Maes Howe, and the early settlement of Skara Brae gives us hints Norse prehistoric cultures had shared stories, rituals and ways communicated down the generations - we have only to discover how.

From the development of tradition-based songs and ballads, carved symbols began to record community history. Early runes, mostly in the form of early Viking graffiti (“Thor, whose mighty sword killed Hagar the Ugly, was here.”) provide valuable records of war and migration. Early Christians, spreading outward on the heels of the Vikings and Romans, brought with them the Latin word. Christianity was a religion of the book. And the spreading of literacy, of written histories, introduced a cultural medieval record rich in detail, tracing entwined ethnicities and themes, and imagery taken from pagan Nordic folk tales incorporated into Christian traditions. We begin to see how ancient peoples thought, and how they organized their lives. They put their faith and parables down in beautifully embellished altar books, hand-lettered in brilliant inks of native dyes recorded on vellum. The first “author pictures” introduced human figures in monastery records; in the form of images of the evangelists, drawn in the act of writing their testimonies of faith. Entwined in the art that adorned the pages of these books – the incipit page, catalogue of canons, intricate carpet motifs, letter adornments - lay a geographic migration of cultures. Animal designs and rune symbols, the inclusion of ancient Greek, the surprise of a Celtic symbol.

But the long silence of the prehistory peoples continues to haunt me as I stand in awe before these carefully constructed stone houses. I stand before immense pillars of basalt, still standing these thousands of years against the assault of wind, ice, earthquake, and pounding rain. Pillars of rock that weigh more than men can move yet somehow have. I wonder at the reason for the positioning of such immense stones. To catch the light at solstice? And the intentional shaping of workrooms – what were they for? Here there are earth-mounded repositories: stone chambers with pivot-stone entrances, dug in the earth to house the bones of ancestors. Clearly these long ago people cared for their dead, their engineering has lasted centuries. And yet what was the effort involved, the purpose of Nordic bog burials of entire ships and animals and human sacrifice? The meaning of a rock scraped with intertwined triangles? The spoken poetry, the songs, keep old languages alive; the sagas bring to life the myths and heroic journeys. But the unanswered silent mysteries of prehistory haunt us.

My thanks to the knowledge shared by Yale Professors Roberta Frank and Walter Goffart, Harvard Professor Stephen Mitchell, and Dr. Wendy Stein of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for their many inspiring remarks and text and art samples of Old Norse culture.

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The Hidden Ordinary: Two Poets (Book 2 of 2)

GENTLY READ LITERATURE, editor Daniel Casey, has just published its Spring 2014 issue. You will find a link (to copy into your browser) to this fine online journal below. In this issue I reviewed two extraordinary poets, Catherine Barnett and Jack Ridl, exploring themes of "the hidden ordinary" in their recent poems. This duet of reviews is the feature of today's post. I hope you enjoy and seek out their work.

Spring 2014 Issue

The Hidden Ordinary: Glenda Burgess Reviews Two Poets
The Game of Boxes, Catherine Barnett, Greywolf Press, 2012
Practicing to Walk like a Heron, Jack Ridl, Wayne State University Press, 2013

The two poets Catherine Barnett and Jack Ridl speak well beside one another. Their poetic styles and themes resonate uniquely in these books of collected poems. Impressions, delicate and telling, fossils of the hidden ordinary and intimate.

The Game of Boxes by Catherine Barnett, recipient of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2012 James Laughlin Award from the American Academy of Poets, comprises a collection of poems crisscrossing themes of vulnerability and intimacy. Barnett, author of the poetry collection Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced, extends her archeology of human loneliness and dislocation in The Game of Boxes, a rich work of intellectual and thematic poetic dialogs that riff off concepts from sources as various as Darwin and biological diversity, categorical thinking by Kant, a phrase from Keats in a letter to J.A. Hessey, even the reasoning of the Renaissance physician Paracelsus that “What makes a man ill also cures him.” This scholarly grounding informs much of Barnett’s poetry on motherhood, the erotic, child and parental bonds of trust, the alienated modernist’s soul. A thin dividing line on the page wavers between ecstasy and dread expressed in Barnett’s lyrical unwavering language, “Depends on how you define ‘nothing’-/ I think it’s a little shard of the whatnot/ I keep trying to name.” Barnett digs at the double-talk of passion and reason, “little shocks of pure mind,/ and I like them there, yes, ageless,/ persuasion’s design and rush.”

Perhaps what resonates deepest is Barnett’s ability to build on themes of cognitive- spiritual dissonance, evoking in these poems the very contradictions she deplores: the gap between sureness and mystery, need and abyss, the material and the unknown. In writing of absolution, of the verbs listen and forgive and the unique forms of human suffering, Barnett describes people in “Chorus [We didn’t believe]” entering a church transformed as animus shapes of personal pain and endurance. With this exquisite image of tangible wounded-ness, Barnett speaks of an elephant,
and her eyes
they shone like glass before it breaks. She looked
like she might fly but only walked down the aisle
in a dirty gown of wrinkles, so wrinkled and slow
and vast and silvery, the whole galaxy shivering.

Barnett’s themes shred intimacy as a draining, a taking, a trickle-down, a loss; “she’s already given herself to the world” she writes. Bare poem fragments hint of Bacchanalian appetite and aftermath:
I know agape means both dumbly
Open and not the kind of love,
That climbed the stairs to you.
(Of All Faces)

Barnett’s ability to find the inner nerve and follow it to and away from regret make her poems ring like powerful fables.

Practicing to Walk like a Heron by Jack Ridl, professor emeritus of Hope College, comprises Ridl’s second book of poetry. His earlier work, Broken Symmetry, was named best book for poetry by The Society of Midland Authors, and Ridl was named Michigan’s Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and coauthored with Peter Schakel Approaching Literature. Ridl observes, with an almost Darwinian eye for that which endures, the nature of the long familiar: couples, childhood, the human obsession with the bizarre...and the hidden alone. Ridl’s poems on what draws us into connection provide a thoughtful counterbalance to Catherine Barnett’s study of what then happens within.

Sections of Ridl’s collection – From Our House To Yours, The Enormous Mystery of Couples, Interlude: “Heh Skinny, The Circus Is In Town,” and The Hidden Permutations of Sorrow – gather poems around emotional epiphanies in the most daily of moments. Family life, preparing for the holidays, clearing up after a storm, an itinerant’s life on the road, moving past loss. These are poems that explicate and punctuate: the death of an arielist, the turning of seasons, the lost and the dislocation of memory. Writing of the routine that is love, and the intimacy that is routine, two lines stand out: the infinitely rich, “We will sleep/ within the muted infinity of each other” (The Enormous Mystery of Couples), and the wry, “Sometimes sentimental is our way/ of holding on.” (Ron Howard’s on the Cover of AARP). In imagery that does not err, Ridl addresses the acceleration of modern life, musing on the manual labor required to restore function to the tools of old. In a poem titled, “My Wife Has Sent Me an Email,” he writes,
After lunch
today, I’m going to find the trowel

my father used. I’ll get a rag and
some rust remover and bring it back.

Jack Ridl sparingly inks in tender everyday experiences in poems that both startle and reassure. When we are at our most human and alien: when we discover ourselves in the process of losing reassurances of what we thought we knew. In the title poem, “Practicing to Walk Like a Heron,” Ridl’s narrator practices stepping across the room in “the walk of solemn monks.” Lifting his legs one after the other in stilted stillness
the heron’s mute way, across the
room, past my wife who glances
up, holds her slender hands
above the keys until I pass.

Why mimic the heron? Perhaps Ridl’s answer lies in the collection’s closing poem, titled simply “The Heron.” Here we find language that touches – even evokes – spiritual transcendence,
...she would bend
her knees, raise her wide wings,
and lift into the welcome grace
of the air... her great feathered cross moving above the trees.
(The Heron)

Jack Ridl’s work is grounded in observations of the extraordinary ordinary, and the subject matter of how we spend our days compelling when read beside Catherine Barnett’s profound spiritual and philosophical rhetorics.

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The Hidden Ordinary: Two Poets (Book 1 of 2)

Gently Read Literature
Spring 2014

The Hidden Ordinary: Glenda Burgess Reviews Two Poets

Review is posted below:
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Beginnings and Endings

Sunrise over Haleakala Crater, Maui
In the end, all books are written for your friends.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As soon as you trust yourself you will know how to live.
- Johann Wolfgang Goethe

This week has been full of important endings and magnificent beginnings. The world said farewell to one of the greatest writers in my lifetime, a spinner of tales of magic and fable, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Marquez passed away at his home in Mexico on April 17 at the age of 87, leaving the world a legacy of writing that most are familiar with and generations treasure. His stories were stories of ordinary, impossibly grand lives. Lifetimes lived accidentally, yet with instinct. Of poetic nuances and tragic shadows, ignorance and discovery. Marquez celebrated life for its many impossibilities - for those are the moments that give us beauty.

Also, a beginning to note. The birth in Princeton, New Jersey, of a baby boy. The first child, a son, of a dear friend's daughter. This beautiful, talented woman and her brilliant, compassionate husband have added a new voice to the world. I love this moment: when the revolving door of souls, the coming and going of destinies, freshens history. A sweetness on the air so delicate and full of promise with the arrival of new life that we can't help but notice. The world taketh and returneth. We give and lose and regain and lose and give again. Each life makes a unique, profound impact on the world; and when it is our time, we step aside for the next new performance. On April 17, one family marks a new beginning, even as another says goodbye.

I will never forget the stories of Marquez. And I cannot wait for the songs of one new boy. Isn't the world a marvelous place?
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Wonder Women

Women, Despite Being Leaders, Are Still Not Wonder Women- Debora Spar

Recently I was contacted by Jamie Coffey, Special Assistant to the President of Barnard College, Dr. Debora Spar. Because I had posted an earlier review discussion on Sheryl Sandberg’s book, LEAN IN, and the challenge of women's empowerment in the work place ["Lean In, Sometimes," July 30, 2013], Ms. Coffey suggested I might be interested in the unique perspective offered by a new book on this important topic by Dr. Spar, a Harvard-educated political scientist.

Debora’s new book, "Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection," just recently hit the shelves. Throughout the author's personal and professional experiences, she has advocated tirelessly as a proponent of women’s education and leadership, highlighted both in her new book and in a recently published post by Dr. Spar I have excerpted here.

[guest blog post, excerpt from September 17, 2013 by Debora Spar*]

Feminism gave women of my generation an infinity of choices and opportunities to lead. We could cheer for the boys and play alongside them; look effortlessly elegant while chairing a board meeting, performing surgery, or saving the world. And never for a second did we doubt we would have it all. But then we grew up and the life we were supposed to handle flawlessly in 5-inch heels suddenly became considerably more complicated. Today, women are regularly trapped in an astounding set of contradicting expectations: to be the perfect mother and manager, the comforting spouse and competent boss. Not only do we strive to be the perfect person, and the perfect leader, but we blithely assume we will achieve it all. And when, inevitably, we don’t, we don’t blame the media, or our mothers, or the clamoring voices of others. We blame ourselves. Below is an excerpt from my newest book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, addressing the issue:
“Women are still sorely under-represented at the top of the professional pyramid: only 15.2 of the board members of Fortune 500 corporations, 16 percent of partners at the largest law firms, 19 percent of surgeons. Indeed, there seems to be some sort of odd demographic guillotine hovering between 15 and 20 percent; some force of nature or discrimination that plows women down once they threaten to multiply beyond a token few.”

- Debora Spar, "Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection"

This is a deeply important topic - especially for our daughters, the next generation of women who will wrestle with the challenges of attaining a meaningful career and a sustainable home life. Let's continue this critical dialog...

*Please copy and paste the link below in your browser for the full post, book site, and a brief video clip by Dr. Spar:

For more on Dr. Debora Spar: http://barnard.edu/about/leadership/president-spar-bio

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What We May Give

When snow is shaken
From the balsam trees
And they're cut down
And brought into our houses

When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows

We hear and sing
The customary carols

They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common

But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet's message

Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies
Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices

They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.

- Anne Porter

From my earliest memory as a child, Christmas has always meant something special. Something unique to my family. For one thing, I had a Grandma and Grandpa who for most of the Christmases of my childhood, were dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. My grandfather, a business executive and El Katif Shriner, cheered the children of The Shriners Childrens Hospital in Spokane all of December with his hearty laugh, smashing red velvet suit, reindeer bells, and thick white hair and twinkly eyes. He loved children, loved Christmas, and growing up a poor Scotsman, felt the very best gift was to cheer up ill children with a hug and toy. My grandmother stood at his side handing out smiles and the presents she wrapped nightly.

Christmas morning spent with my grandparents meant "Santa" would appear at the front door jangling his bells in his amazing Santa suit just for us, his grandkids, home for a week from wherever we were in our lives as a military family. My mother, one of the sick children herself the year she was seven with rheumatic fever, spent a year in isolation in a children's hospital. She both loved her father for his generous spirit (perhaps born of cheering her up in the hospital as a child) and pained by memories of the loneliness and isolation the holidays symbolized for her: separation at a time dedicated to family. Christmas also became the one acknowledged armistice in the conflicted relationship between my parents. Whatever sorrows, arguments or disappointments the year might contain, Christmas marked a time my family came together. My mother, an ice skater, built homemade rinks in our wintry back yards. There were trips to the mountains to hike through the snow and find our tree. There were lights and presents even when the money was tight; sledding, cocoa, and snowmen in the front yard. Christmas Eve was the one night it was okay to fall asleep under the tree, looking upwards at the beauty of the lights waiting for magical Santa. The one night God seemed real and close, an expression of peace and love.

After blending both Jewish and Christian traditions together in my own adult life, I discovered that, like my mother, I have a complicated adult relationship with the holiday now. When my husband Ken was ill with cancer and went into surgery on Christmas Eve of 2002, I sat the night beside him after that failed operation watching televised celebrations from the Vatican, marooned in the cold indifferent rhythms of the hospital and the disconnected attitude of the shift nurse on our floor. The night resonated with the utter absence of God. Where was the magic? The sacred? Simple compassion of the human kind? I held my husband's head as he retched uncontrollably, feeling like one of the lost souls my grandfather might have cheered, not the girl who loved and found solace, always, in this one exquisite night of the year.

Those moments gild the day with a particular melancholy. A poignancy in which the beauty of Christmas subtly marks the prelude to feelings of real loss.

Life goes on. My family and I make holiday cookies, decorate a tree with ornaments and vintage decorations that hold memories of people and places and times past. There is a "Just Married" ornament with Ken; a pewter engraved book celebrating my first published novel; framed pictures of the kids; glass ornaments from Germany my uncle bought my grandparents during the Korean War; a hand-painted ornament with my mom's and my name on it the year I turned one; the Christmas stocking my grandma made me of hand-stitched velvet and sequins, the stockings I made everyone in the family after that. My daughter's stocking from her Godmother and the quilting club that is 4 feet long. School ornaments from the kids' colleges, travel mementos gathered with my second husband, Greg; the dog and ski and music and Barbie collections. The album of my life is on that tree. I tell my life in Christmases.

Christmas isn't a religious holiday or a festive month on the calendar for me: the season signifies a willful decision to create joy, when the human need to love reaches across disappointment and misfortune. Christmas is my grandfather with a sick child in a hospital johnnie on his knee holding in his hand a new toy. It is my parents pulling something happy together. Christmas is the time of year, for me, when people try a little harder and often succeed at making the world a better place. Snowflakes and glowing lights, mystery packages and sweets. When we battle the darkness with as much light as we can muster.

So as James Taylor sings his particularly melancholy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in my study as I write this, I smile. Yes, it is a world of chipped edges and tattered corners. But life is also beautiful in its capacity to reflect the best we give it.

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The Year in Gratitude

Be in a state of gratitude for everything that shows up in your life. Be thankful for the storms as well as the smooth sailing. What is the lesson or gift in what you are experiencing right now? Find your joy not in what's missing in your life but in how you can serve.
-- Wayne Dyer

Last Saturday all across America we celebrated our favorite local independent bookstores. Here in Spokane I joined fellow authors at Aunties Books. The experience of mingling with shoppers in the aisles, talking books, life, meeting other area authors…all of this was deeply affirming for me. I am grateful, beyond measure, for the beauty that writing has brought to my life. How much there is to give and receive.

I learned from a young Canadian man about adventure literature of the 1930s. ("The White Spider"...anybody?) I talked with a lovely woman who radiated such quiet gentle strength it was no surprise to learn her story of survival infuses the grace she lives by. And of course there was the funny family from Florida, in town for the holidays - all of them opinionated, smart, verbal - who split to the far corners of the bookstore, browsing and reading in the stacks. I met grandparents searching out perfect book gifts for grandchildren, young couples browsing, outdoorsy guys killing time before a Pearl Jam concert. The talk was so much about favorite books (and life stories) I jitterbugged my own little "Snoopy dance of joy' down the aisles. (Sorry if you saw that.) This season, may every good book find its devoted reader.

I am grateful for what is present, this very moment, in my life. A loving family. A quirky, funny, devoted spouse, who brings all that is fresh and new from his realm of medical science into the bookish hours of my day. I am grateful for the gifts of friendship - especially those of you I have known for years now, you are gold. I hope there are surprises of utter joy in store this coming year.

I am grateful for my publishing family. My "knights in industry" who do battle with the odds, flying their faith in books and writers, in me, daily. Where would I be without your loyalty and love and insight and determination? Where would writers be without you, and readers without writers? Thank you all for this amazing year, and for the work you do. I hope your stockings are filled with bows and garlands of royalties and accolades.

And finally, I want to express my gratitude to the unseen hands throughout the world - the angels that bring peace, ensure safer hours and places for children to play, bring knowledge to dark corners, protection in danger, leadership through passages of fear. I stand daily in awe of the many humans, anonymous, official, noble and humble alike, who give and serve and build community within the human race. We are all of us connected by family and community and hopes for a better world. May the stars atop your dreams cast the brightest light.

I wish you the long-abiding warmth of gratitude. Thank you. Thank you for your presence in my life and your presence in the world.

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Savory Life Lessons

forwarded along from woohdreambig.tumblr.com

My first gifts to you this holiday season are morsels of goodness, both wise and tasty. The words of life wisdom above came to me anonymously and I regret not being able to tell you more about the folks involved, but I find Mr. Snell's advice worth passing on as it is wise, humorous, and certainly practical.

AND…TIS THE SEASON OF FEASTS & CELEBRATIONS!! Here is a recipe for a holiday family favorite, an English-inspired savory cranberry conserve. This cranberry conserve is a robust recipe that balances the sweet and the tart (and can actually be made into a dessert tart); a recipe we usually double, so popular it is often given as a gift, with the beautiful conserve spooned into a festive jar decorated with a bow on top.

1 thin-skinned orange (or two clementines*), seeds removed, cut into eights
1 pound fresh cranberries
1/2 cup dried currants
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups raspberry vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1. Process the orange in a food processor until coarsely chopped
2. Combine the chopped orange with all the remaining ingredients except the walnuts in a heavy saucepan. Simmer, uncovered, until all the cranberries have popped open, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the walnuts.
3. After cooling, pack conserve not immediately for serving into air-tight containers and freeze, or refrigerate for up to two weeks.
Makes 6 half pints

* The substitution of clementines is my edit to the recipe. I usually double this recipe and cook in one large heavy saucepan; note, the simmer time is closer to 30 minutes then. The raspberry vinegar taste will be too intense if you use a raspberry balsamic, so be sure to look for a raspberry vinegar. (Silver Palate now produces a bottled raspberry vinegar you can fortunately find in most gourmet grocery stores around the holidays. A doubled recipe will use most of three bottles.) I use a wooden spoon to pop any remaining stubborn cranberries open against the side of the pan. Savory taste can be shifted toward the sweet with the addition of slightly more brown sugar and currants, but everyone seems to love the chutney-like consistency and tartness of this blend as is. Also delicious on bagels with a cream cheese spread. Hope you love it!

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Limb to limb, mouth to mouth
with the bleached grass
silver mist lies upon the back yards
among the outhouses.
The dwarf trees
pirouette awkwardly to it -
whirling around on one toe;
the big tree smiles and glances upward!
Tense with suppressed excitement
the fences watch where the ground
has humped an aching shoulder for
the ecstasy.

- William Carlos Williams

The matter of relatives...

Interesting that my recent, rather euphoric posts, on friendships, families and weddings, have once again been diluted by the universe with a salty dose of reality. In the nineteen eighties self-help manuals used the vernacular of pop psychology to identify family drama-divas as "crazy makers." You and I might know these family hot spots as Uncle Ed, or your sibling with the clove cigarettes, Goth piercings and menacing one-liners, the girlfriend gramps brings to family events he is asked not to, the in-law exes that cannot go five minutes before reenacting their divorce. If not family drama, then it's the cold war. The issue is euphemistically what one might call "hoarding of information," an unwillingness to invite intimate family commentary into our lives. We remain mum with one another about everything from job changes to medical procedures. Finding out someone is engaged before knowing they were dating.

The obvious conclusion would be to assume families are comprised of wary, judgmental people taking cover from the bite of familial criticism, but I believe people are instead rather neurotically private, and in most situations completely unable to distinguish helpful bonding behavior from exclusion. One can probably lay part of the blame on the perpetuation in early childhood of old generational conflicts and habits, but relevant or not, there seems to be a stubborn pattern of defensive coil-and-sting behaviors wherever relatives gather. And for some of us, no matter how often the zingers occur, we never see them coming. The immediate sequel to the experience of emotional evisceration at the hands of a family member is to ask oneself, what is the best response? Both to maintain cordial relations, but also for one's own peace of mind? Do we cut the crazy makers from our "circle of trust" as psychologists frequently advise, or confront and "speak our truth" as others urge us to do? Or in keeping with modern psychoanalysis, feel the real awful, then forgive and grow a callus. Is family forever, or are we all entitled at some point to give up and step away?

Practically speaking, when months of silence settle over a family conflict, the persons involved do not usually come to their senses as one hopes and make an effort to forgive and reconstruct. People tend to dig in and resentment simmers. Get-togethers get more weird and uncomfortable and tense. Communication is reduced to the polite minimum and then you wake up one day to discover paroled Uncle Ed was arrested on gun charges in Scientology rehab with your name as "next of kin" on the back of a bail bondsman's card. A sibling needs a transplant but didn't list you on the possible donor list. Family betrayals, especially the more subtle "dis-inclusions," are ugly and hurtful. Shaming.

Can we change this? We can want to. We can suck it up and try again. As the old saying goes, "hold hands not grudges." But in middle-age, I'm inclined to give more credence to the effects of entropy in family relationships than I used to. Eventually connections just wear down if nothing builds them up. I consider myself to be in the family bridge-building business. Like you, I'm working on the family pothole crew. But what most of us want out of family life is genuine affection: true respect, and an appreciation and gratitude for the beautiful idea of family. In the aftermath of two graduations and three weddings, I can happily toast the amazing, giving, loving family members sharing in these celebrations together. And once again, wonder what any of us can do to improve what isn't so fabulous.

What has worked in your family interactions? Do you have any personal wisdom or insight to share?
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A Stitch of Love

The ring so worn as you behold,
So thin, so pale, is yet of gold:
The passion such it was to prove;
Worn with life's cares, love yet was love.

- George Crabbe

In the last of three beautiful weddings this year, on Saturday we will join family as my younger brother celebrates the wedding of his oldest, a daughter. My brother is the second among my siblings and I to have a child marry, and the ceremony defines once more the transition of generations. I remember the event of my niece's birth, and the feeling among the four of us (my brother, two sisters and I) that in the birth of our children we were laying a true milestone: that family builds the future. Educations complete - marriages and careers, a home, children. Now that niece with the big smile and infectious giggle is to be a bride, beginning her own adult journey. The foundation of a new generation.

Our parents are not alive to enjoy or appreciate this moment. This gives each wedding a particular poignancy, the sense of a premature shift in roles. It is up to us, newly middle-aged parents and future grandparents, to stand as unshakable pillars. To brace the uncertainty and evolution of the next generation's first steps into marriage, parenthood…taking on the challenges of life. Will we be good in-laws? Surprised grandparents, self-conscious, perhaps unprepared to be the wise, supportive elders our grandparents were to us? How do we step into such large shoes? Dazzle our grown children's lives with that same bracing unconditional love and faith? Echoes of courage in our hearts, embedded in the memory of our own crossing from "I Will" to "I Do" and "I Shall," we stand proudly at the side of our sons and daughters as they take the hand of the one they promise to love and cherish. We blink back tears, remembering first smiles, tiny arms wrapped tight around our necks.

A wedding celebrates the day we fully let our children go. No longer the smallest or the first stitch in the line, the thread slips forward and loops the future in. Love darns new hearts into the family tapestry. We smile in joy.

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