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QUINTESSENCE

Consoling Broken Hearts

Isadora Duncan, Photo Credit: Arnold Genthe, 1917

In the last weeks much has happened in America that deeply wounds the heart of all of us. Even if we are distant from the terror attacks at Newtown and the Boston Marathon, from the massive explosions at West, Texas, we feel the pain of the innocent, the victims. Before there is acceptance, before there is forgiveness, there is grieving. I came across this essay from Isadora Duncan from her memoir, My Life, that speaks of inconsolable loss and what we may say or do that offers genuine companionship and solace to those grieving. Duncan lost both of her children in an accident when a taxicab in which they were riding drove off into the water and they were drowned. She then fled to her friend, Eleanora Duse, and stayed with her in Italy.

From MY LIFE

The next morning I drove out to see Duse, who was living in a rose-coloured vila behind a vineyard. She came down a vine covered walk to meet me, like a glorious angel. She took me in her arms and her wonderful eyes beamed upon me such love and tenderness that I felt just as Dante must have felt when, in the "Paradiso," he encounters the Divine Beatrice.

From then on I lived at Viareggio, finding courage from the radiance of Eleanora's eyes. She used to rock me n her arms, consoling my pain, but not only consoling, for she seemed to take my sorrow to her own breast, and I realized that I had not been able to bear thew society of other people, it was because they all played the comedy of trying to cheer me with forgetfulness. Whereas Eleanora said:

"Tell me about Deirdre and Patrick," and made me repeat to her all their little sayings and ways, and show her their photos, which she kissed and cried over. She never said, "Cease to grieve," but she grieved with me, and, for the first time since their death, I felt I was not alone.


- Isadora Duncan, 1878-1927
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Just Pushing

For deLawd

people say they have a hard time
understanding how I
go on about my business
playing my Ray Charles
hollering at the kids -
seems like my Afro
cut off in some old image
would show I got a long memory
and I come from a line
of black and going on women
who got used to making it through murdered sons
and who grief kept on pushing
who fried chicken
ironed
swept off the back steps
who grief kept
for their still alive sons
for their sons coming
for their sons gone
just pushing


- Lucille Clifton

Today, the haunting notes of YoYo Ma on the cello plays in elegy, the faces and pure voices of the Boston Childrens Chorus rise in song, carrying words they barely understand but certainly feel in the gospel hymnal "To the Mountain." Today we talk about honoring our lost and commit to moving on. The voice of the cello cries "Why?" The prayer surrenders and accepts. The faces of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters turn away. And those of us who can go on, do. We rise and work, we take the children to school, we load the washing machine, chop green beans, hug our husbands and wives and kids because we know, really know, how fragile the thin thread is.

I run today through the cold bright sun. The new green limns the trees. The robin tucks the last straw into her nest. I run because I can and perhaps another cannot. I run because each day it is a gift to do so. I run for Boston, for me, for you. The thin fragile thread. I run because it is my way to pray. My heart beats "Why?"

Feet just pushing.
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Pocket of my Mind

Wedding Day, February 18

Today would be Kenneth Alan Grunzweig's 70th birthday. If he had lived to see it. Yesterday was our 25th anniversary. Had he lived to share it with me. My favorite work of anything I have yet written or conceived, remains the memoir dedicated to Ken published by Broadway Books in 2008, simply titled, "The Geography of Love." For that's what it was, the landscape of a relationship. Ours.

Ken's charm and brilliant wit were legendary. His grace and capacity for compassion and loyalty enduring. His life remains a great teacher to the many who knew him, called him friend. I take comfort in the knowledge our children walk a path today he would be proud of. His love of life carried me on. In the same vein that I love to run, the spirit moves forward. I am grateful, every day, for the beautiful life he left me and led me through and to. He is the presence, the faith beneath the wings of my new marriage that lifts us both I believe.

In the ten years since Ken's death, I have grown stronger in my conviction that all is connected, nothing truly lost, memory indelible like a scent in the air. Last night I dreamed a sweet dream of a day with McDuff, my wheaten Scottie dog, gone a year now. A loyal, funny, adoring animal, McDuff was "the true friend." Companion of the early years of grief. Alone on the pine trails, the Scottie and me. Waking from that dream of walking with Duffy, and thinking of Ken, and my mother whose birthday is this Sunday, I realized the only things that ever truly do matter are imprinted on our hearts. We live in our thoughts and our thoughts are a continuous media mix of moment and dream, memory and experience. We have only to know to love.

In honor of our Ken,

A LETTER FROM THE CARIBBEAN
by Barbara Howes

Breezeways in the tropics winnow the air,
Are ajar to its least breath
But hold back, in a feint of architecture,
The boisterous sun
Pouring down upon

The island like a cloudburst. They
Slant to loft air, they curve, they screen
The wind's wild gaiety
Which tosses palm
Branches about like a marshal's plumes.

Within this filtered, latticed
World, where spools of shadow
Form, lift and change,
The triumph of incoming air
Is that it is there,

Cooling and salving us. Louvres,
Trellises, vines -music also-
Shape the arboreal wind, make skeins
Of it, and a maze
To catch shade. The days

Are all variety, blowing;
Aswirl in a perpetual current
Of wind, shadow, sun,
I marvel at the capacity
Of memory

Which, in some deep pocket
Of my mind, preserves you whole-
As a wind is wind, as the lion-taming
Sun is sun, you are, you stay;
Nothing is lost, nothing has blown away.


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The American Story: Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

~ from "Formaggio," Louise Gluck

Dear Friends,
This terrible massacre of school children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, outside Danbury, is still unfolding in its terrible details. I intended an entirely different blog today, but honestly, I find myself welling into tears at my desk. WHY? These innocent children, many of them among the very youngest, are dead. Eighteen confirmed as of this writing, but the numbers seem to keep climbing.

I cannot, as a mother, separate myself from the heartbreak and terror I know lies in the heart of each of the Sandy Hook Elementary families and teachers, their friends and relatives. Elementary schools are among our most close-knit education "families"...a dedicated community of educators, parent volunteers, and part-time librarians, language, art and gym instructors. The mission of elementary school is more than the teaching of learning fundamentals - it is also the encouragement of youngsters in early socialization skills: development of trust and comfort away from home, ease under the direction of unfamiliar adults, feeling safe in large groups. Sometimes the experience of school itself is a huge emotional and mental undertaking for the very young.

And then there are parents, who tremble on that first day and every day after they watch their children walk out the door on their way to school. We, who know our children are for the school day, solely in the safekeeping of others. How will any of us truly comprehend this horror come true - our worst nightmare? While I live in Washington, my own daughter went to school in Connecticut. We have dear friends there. Sandy Hook Elementary is every school. I do not know why this tragedy occurred here, or now. But I pray with all my heart for the families and faculty, staff and first responders. This is not the "American Story" we should be familiar with, but unfortunately, it is now the most common.

It is time to do something about gun control in America. Enough innocents have died at the hands of the violent. It is up to us to stop gun violence, in any way we can.
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Final Thesis


OXYGEN
Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,
while it calls the earth its home, the soul.
So the merciful, noisy machine

stands in our house working away in its
lung-like voice. I hear it as I kneel
before the fire, stirring with a

stick of iron, letting the logs
lie more loosely. You, in the upstairs room,
are in your usual position, leaning on your

right shoulder which aches
all day. You are breathing
patiently; it is a

beautiful sound. It is
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of
separation. And what does this have to do
with love, except

everything? Now the fire rises
and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red
roses of flame. Then it settles

to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
our purest, sweet necessity: the air.

~ Mary Oliver

A dear friend is losing her only parent. She has moved from caregiver toward wellness, to caregiver through dying. My friend and I have both been in this hard place together before. Through the loss of her sister and my husband and my mother to cancer within months of one another. My friend shifted priorities to co-raise her nieces, and parentless and widowed, I became a single parent.

Here we speak quietly again, my friend and I. Her journey moves with inexorable suffering and patience toward new loss. Her best friend, her mother. A few days ago, my friend, who is also a Buddhist priest, sent me this beautiful poem - words written by Mary Oliver during the days her partner lay dying. Somehow, this poem lingers in my mind. There is something intimate and sharp throughout. As double-edged as love itself is, as life is. Oliver's words expose the powerful strength born of human grounding within relationship and our simultaneous awareness of the erosion of presence itself. The hug and the sucker punch.

My friend possesses a gentle truth that for most of us remains unbearable to embrace. Transition at its core is about life, perhaps even more than simple living. The compassion and strength and presence we bring to dying, of oneself or others, is the final thesis on life. In these moments we say what we've come to say, or we never do. Breathe, and listen. As Oliver writes, "You are breathing/patiently; it is a/beautiful sound. It is/your life..." In the space between heart beats lies the singularity of presence. Love.

Today's words go out to my beautiful brave friend and her equally beautiful and brave mother."It is/your life, which is so close/to my own..."
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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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Memories on Memorial Day Revisited

And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
- Rainer Maria Rilke

A year ago at this time on Memorial Day Weekend, I wrote an essay on this blog about the power of memory. Memorial Day is for some a weekend that kicks off the summer holidays, and for others, about remembering the loved and lost, and most especially, the honor and courage of our soldiers. Here is that original essay from last year, and then I will update the year for you at the end. Enjoy!

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, down from the high train trestle bridges we call the "wishing trains" because we so often whisper secret wishes as we cross under the train cars suspended high above. They thunder overhead on their way across the continental U.S., great diesels hauling container goods, crops, oil and chemicals, slatted stock cars swaying down the tracks before they disappear through granite cuts into narrow pine valleys. My husband quite liked the idea that he would have a view of the river and the trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

Today, cemetery breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow paths that are lined with the stars and stripes. Families with lost looks on their faces and clutching plot grids, wander the acres under the ponderosa, looking for the buried but not forgotten. Children's hands are tucked in those of parents - in the little fists more small flags, bouquets of lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. The green shade seem to be a continuous sea of monuments. A new engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's - a nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Somebody's son, someone's brother. There were two flags flying in his honor, and the gift of a baseball mitt. Was it his, I wonder.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground a boot length away from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force Veteran, Ken was proud of his service. He met men in those years who became friends and mentors. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy. His life is at a crux point as well. What direction will it turn? How will he think of his service, years from now? National service opens us to community beyond family - opens us to the identity we share as Americans. Whether serving in the military services, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, the Red Cross - take a moment to thank the next young or old person you meet giving of themselves to all of America.

This fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO - proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know who came before her and follow her now. Service requires only that we show up, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Let the poems of your memories carry the day.

As I think of my son and how proud his father would be of him, as I wonder about his future, I think of Eric Greitens, the decorated Navy war hero and author of "The Heart and the Fist - The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Seal." Eric penned a personal note to my son on the title page - "Follow your heart and continue to live with courage." Words that might inspire us all I think.


That was May, 2011. And now it is May, 2012. How right Eric was! The months after writing those words have been difficult and, unexpectedly rewarding. For my son, a challenging illness at the beginning of his junior year at the Naval Academy lead to an honorable medical separation from the Navy. He had just signed the upperclassman's seven year commitment to serve, and instead found himself unexpectedly lost - the Academy dream, his friends, his education, his health... interrupted, perhaps broken. In the face of disaster, this young man "walked the talk": He had the courage to follow his heart, redefine his dreams, kept his old friends as well as made new. He has recovered his health, completed an interim semester of classes, earned a prestigious internship at a national science lab, and matriculated to Stanford University, continuing in his intended major. His year has been about accepting loss, finding center, and moving forward. He has grown up a resourceful man, dealing with life in its complete unpredictability.

My daughter has successfully completed 5 half-marathons now, and was recently asked by Team USO to run the 2012 Washington DC Marine Corp Marathon and the 2013 New York City Marathon in support of the USO once again. She will begin her medical education at the University of Washington Medical School in August. Her year has been about setting goals that were big reaches (distance running) and making wise long-term life choices (which medical schools reflect her goals, budget and intentions?). And becoming an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church Monastery, she married my sweetheart Greg and I on Haleakala Crater on Maui this past April. A big year!

There is an old saying that we never forget the ones we love when we love anew, we simply add more room in the heart. I am happy to have found love again, and happy with the memories of all that has come before. Memories are the foundation of the soul. And so I take a moment this weekend to celebrate and revisit the wonder of life and all its surprises.
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In the Risk

Shield of Charlemagne

Beth: Dad. When you married Mom, did you ever think that you wouldn't make it?
Beth's Dad: Elizabeth Ann. Honey, you cannot learn from my mistakes. You're going to have to go out there and make your own. Now, you could get your heart broken or you could have the greatest love affair the world has ever known, but you're not going to know unless you try.
Beth: But what if there was a guarantee that you'd never get hurt.
Beth's Dad: Baby... the passion is in the risk. It's like I always say, If you're going to be a bear...
Beth: ...Be a grizzly.


- from the movie, WHEN IN ROME, 2010, directed by Mark Steven Johnson, starring Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel.

I decided to write this morning on the worth of risk, thinking of one sentence fragment from the 2010 film WHEN IN ROME. Beth's Dad says to Beth on the cusp of her wedding vows, "...the passion is in the risk." He is touching on a truism we have all heard a thousand times: Take a chance! The guaranteed outcome is the boring one.

Beth's Dad goes on to tell his daughter, who is uncertain whether she has earned her groom's love or stolen it in a magic twist of coins stolen from an Italian fountain, that if you're going to be a bear, "...Be a grizzly." In other words, go big or go home. I think we all too often cop out on ourselves when it comes to taking risks. Common sense intervenes, past experience warns us off, uncertainty makes us hesitate. Yet this insight that passion lies in the element of risk is absolutely a core truth. We are moved to take chances by great desire: To win the cup, woo the girl, cross the crevasse. Risk and passion are co-igniters. They are catalysts for one another in purpose and in meaning. We value what we struggle to achieve and we struggle to achieve what we value. And if you're going to put a toe in the water - plan on jumping in completely. Nothing is ever won by being half-committed.

Our heroine Beth goes on to risk her lover's commitment by confessing the trick of the magic coin only to discover the coin was never in his possession, and the assumed "guarantee of love" was a sham: all along risk ruled in the giving of their hearts. Risk is true of love, but there lies a wider meaning than that. All life is a gamble, and the passion we bring to embracing opportunity is directly reflected in what satisfaction life awards us. Risk is truly noteworthy following failure. Such nonchalance to embrace risk when we've only ever made successful leaps to the opposite side. Far braver, far more poignant, the risk for one who has fallen before. And yet, wouldn't we also agree far sweeter, when the next, truly uncertain leap, takes the prize?

The courage of the human heart is a shield we take into battle with uncertainty. It is not so much that we are never wounded, but just never enough to quit the game.
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Bye My Friend

McDuff 11/17/2001 to 12/17/2011

McDuff was our "wheaten" Scottish Terrier, born eleven years ago on Canfield Mountain. A beautiful cream-color dog with a bearded mailbox head, perky ears, and expressive chocolate eyes - two splashes of cappuccino cream over both shoulders. McDuff lost his battle with cancer Saturday. He leaves behind his adoring family as well as the backyard squirrels, who have for generations taught their young to run fast and jump far over the head of the barking "white terror." He is missed by the quail families he protected from the marauding cats of the "dark side" of the fence and missed by his beloved pet sitter Suzanne, with the home baked treats. Duff leaves behind the dusty winding bluff trails he knew and loved to ramble, his snooze spot by the back door, and nose prints on the car window. We will forever look for his face at the kitchen table window, waiting for us to come home.

Goodbye, my friend. You were there for me after Ken died and the whole world lay on my shoulders. Beside the kids as they clung to you through uncertain nights. At my side as first Kate, and then David, headed out across the continent to school. (You were certain I was losing the herd!) There in the nights, and for shoveling snowy mornings, sunny backyard days lazing by the barbecue, our long daily hikes wherever the whim took us. You were our scout with your amazing nose for hunting huckleberries at the lake, underfoot at Thanksgiving waiting and hoping for a tasty morsel to drop from the carving platter. Just a pup, you decided to "eat" new dental molding into the baseboards around the dining room...bored and awake on your own at night, you raked your teeth down David's bedroom wall like a kid with crayons. How patiently you wore the pumpkin costume at Halloween as the little kids loved on you, and listened to the "little white dog" ditty as you boys shared "last call" in the backyard. You had a tail wag for all the souls that crossed our front door. Duffy, Duffers, Mackleduff, Doofers, Duff. We will miss your snores at the foot of David's bed, from behind the couch and under the coffee table, from wherever you caught a nap. Your presence anchored this house with love and devotion. Your absence has dimmed the light of our every day.

I hope you're romping the fields with crazy Scooter now. Your collar hangs on the hook with his. Best dog, ever.
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