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large__4420314547This beautiful piece about an ailing doctor who makes his own coffin appeared in the New York Times over the weekend.

Once again I was struck by the realization that honest reflection on our own death is more about living than about dying.

I wanted to share my new blog with you as well.  You are always welcome to explore!

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To the degree we can embrace our mortality rather than deny it, we can live that much more completely and joyfully.

– Dean Ornish, MD

Some time has passed since my Year to Live project came to an end, but my interest in reflecting on death as a way of truly living continues on.  I’m happy to recommend a book called Enjoy Every Sandwich to anyone else who isn’t afraid of the conversation!

A quick read, Enjoy Every Sandwich is a spiritual memoir written by Lee Lipsenthal, a young physician who learns he is dying of esophageal cancer.  It reads a lot like Tuesdays With Morrie, flowing with insight and the beauty of human connection.

Here are my main take-aways:

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The amazing baby shower!

Hello, dear readers of Last Year to Live.

This month marks a year since my one year to live project came to an end.  And a year since my close childhood friend Marisa died of metastatic breast cancer.

I continue to be grateful for everyone who came along with me on this writing journey and for all of the comments – some on the blog, but many more off-line – that kept me inspired throughout that year.  The number one lesson I learned is that engaging in the topic of death unequivocally made me live life more fully.

I have some good news to share!  I’ve just come back from Marisa’s brother & sister-in-law’s baby shower.  Marisa would have been an amazing aunt to this little one, and I like to imagine her smiling at all of us.   The holidays will be a little easier this year.

On my end, because I’ve been missing the brightness of life lived through the lens of writing, I’ve launched a new blog called Beyond Siri’s Grasp.  I hope you’ll sign up for new posts by email or RSS on the top left side of the new blog.  (Unfortunately I can’t transfer your email over automatically, but if you’d prefer, send me an okay and I’ll enter it by hand for you.)

I look forward to seeing you there!

(If you are coming to this Year to Live blog for the first time, consider reading through it in chronological order, starting with the post on February 10, 2010.)

Thank you for reading!

All my best,

Barbara

Somehow, while I wasn’t paying close attention to the date, my Year to Live project odometer crept slowly and steadily forward and now I’m exactly ½ way through the experiment.  Six Months to Live.

From the start, I’ve wondered whether I’d be able to trick myself into living with a greater sense of meaning by imagining that life wasn’t going to stretch on forever.  It seems too trite to mention that death is the common destiny of every person on this planet.  But, oh, the fog we’ll conjure up to protect ourselves from clearly seeing this certain eventuality.

In practical terms, the mere mention of the Year to Live class I’m taking at the Village Zendo in New York, or the book that started Year to Live groups meeting in living rooms across the country, or even this blog made me feel like a skunk at a garden party.  Publicly, no one wants to talk about death.

Yet many mornings since I’ve begun this blog, I’d find a message in my email from a friend or a complete stranger saying that someone close to them had died.  Or they had recently received bad news about their health.  Or they were somehow also just predisposed to think along these lines.

Slowly, these conversations got us thinking more deeply and honestly about our lives.  Some shared poems.  One friend even sweetly offered to officiate at a ceremony at the end of this process.  (Who knows, I may even take her up on it!)  I cherish this new-found community.

Six months to live.  The very sound of it makes my heart beat a little faster, makes me feel like I’d better have something pretty profound to say to mark the occasion.  “Time flies” and “Carpe Diem” are just not up to muster.

But what is a valid way to mark this occasion? I discovered that in my usual life, constantly working towards some future fulfillment, I’d been losing sight of what is immediately present.  What has made this project so tough has been putting the “small”  intangibles that really matter into words.

Take this recent experience as an example…

Last month on a rainy London evening, I left the Globe Theatre with a close friend from Spain who I rarely get to see in person.  There was nary a restaurant open, so we wandered along the Thames arm in arm under one of those crazy umbrellas that’s meant to withstand high winds, where the front is short and back is long, but turned sideways, it holds two friends perfectly.  We talked about everything from work and what it means to contribute to the world, to the damnedest things our kids say, to  how we’ll know for certain when we’ve hit middle age.  For hours we laughed so hard we shook and ignored all of the social niceties reserved for less-close friendships that warn, “You better not say that out loud!”

This month, the same friend put her 12-year-old son on a plane bound for our home in NY.  I’ve known him since he was a baby — she was my first friend to have a child — and we spent many evenings after work taking him along with us to grown up things like art shows and nice restaurants.  That time together had taken away some of the fear I carried which equated having children with losing my sense of self.

So there I was, picking him up at the airport as an unaccompanied minor.  My sons were with me.  Drew presented him with a box of Fig Newtons and a huge hug.  We took him by subway to Chinatown, where he gazed at the decidedly strange things sold from barrels outside the apothecaries and fish shops.  Afterwords, he and Evan played chicken on the monkey bars at the park, the blond peach fuzz on their legs standing out against their bronzed skin.

The next day in the car, driving to Maine to bring them to summer camp, they fell comfortably into talk about the World Cup.   They played a tickle game.  Drew was laughing harder than we’d ever heard him laugh.   He put his head on his new friend’s shoulder and fell asleep.  Evan was endlessly happy that he had someone with him at camp this year to ward off the inevitable first days of homesickness.  When the woman at the Friendly’s where we stopped to use the bathroom asked if they’re my 3 sons,  I smiled saying, “Yes, for today.”

What I mean to say is that perhaps these small moments are what truly make up our legacies.  My warm relationship with a friend flows into a connection between our children, across a vast ocean.  Maybe they will continue to be friends, introducing their own children in the future.  Or maybe they won’t.   In the life that’s important, things don’t need to be so linear.

The poet Natalie Goldberg once said that writers get to live twice.  They  go about their regular lives, but then there’s a second chance where they look closely at the texture and the details.  I’m so grateful to all of you, dear readers, for traveling with me on this journey and for encouraging me to note the small things.  I look forward to sharing the next six months together.

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One of the recent assignments in our Year to Live class was to do a “life review,” and the instructions began something like this:

Sit quietly for a while and bring to mind someone from your past whose kindness touched your heart.

Envision yourself speaking to that person.  Tell them what they have meant to you.

In general, I’m a fan of any exercise that offers the chance of meaningful reflection.  Somehow, though, the process of envisioning myself speaking with people who are very much alive seemed utterly ridiculous.  Why not actually talk to them?  Which is how I found myself on a mission to find my favorite high school teacher from 25 years ago.

Unfortunately, Dr. Montella (for she was one of those rare public high school English teachers with a PhD in the topic) had no discernible presence on the Internet.  A call to the high school led to another dead-end when the receptionist told me that it was against school policy to give out contact information for retired teachers, nor would she be able to tell Dr. Montella that I was looking for her.  I tried the phone book but found no trace of her.

Finally I thought of my sister-in-law’s mother, who taught typing in the high school years back and seems to know just about everyone in the state of New Jersey.

“Yes,” she said.  “I know exactly where she is.  My husband takes yoga with her every week.”

I began to worry if Dr. Montella would have any memory of me.  She must have encountered hundreds upon hundreds of students over the years, and the only thing that might have stood out as a memory of me was that I had won some state writing contest while I was in her class for a literary analysis of the 15th century morality play Everyman, and she had taken me to the award ceremony.  (My own memory of that event was noting how weird it felt to be sitting in my teacher’s car!)

A few weeks passed before this somewhat complicated web of relationships yielded a response.  Dr. Montella certainly remembered who I was, and she would be delighted to hear from me.

I called her immediately, and we did a quick catch-up.  She was exactly as I remembered – no-nonsense, interesting and interested.

“If it seems like I’m writing down what you tell me,” she said, “it’s because I am.”

I wanted to ask if she might like to have lunch someday.  I felt nervous and 17 again.  Thankfully she beat me to it.  That’s how I came to be seated in the dining room of her orderly, yet cheerful, northern NJ condo this week.

For 3 ½ hours we talked like old friends.  She wanted to know about Dave and the children and what I had done with my career.  (“Ghostwriting [part of my work these days] seems so unfair,” she said.  “I understand the function, but really you should think about getting your name on things,” she observed, ever the supportive teacher.)

Much had happened in her life as well.   The momentous news was that her beloved husband had passed away.  After fifty years, it was an adjustment to live without him, though she seems to have dealt with this life-change without a hint of “why me.”  She volunteers at the local hospital, goes on trips with Elderhostel, belongs to a book club, and sings in a choir.  Through it all, fond memories of Tom sustain her.

Which led me to what I really wanted to tell her.

“You gave all of us such valuable skills,” I began.  “But the most important thing you did for me happened the day you put down the text you were teaching, looked around the room, and said, ‘Here’s a bit of advice for your own life when the time comes:  Be sure to marry your best friend.’”

I told her how much those words meant to me.  How I had judged all of my relationships by that measure.  How looking for my best friend had led me on a circuitous but definitive path to Dave.

“Funny,” she said.  “I don’t remember saying that, but I certainly agree with the sentiment.”

We lingered over tea until it was time for both of us to continue on with the tasks of the day.  Getting up to leave, she reached out her arms and thanked me for coming.

******

Right after I wrote this, Dave send me this article from the New York Times about people finding their teachers years later through FaceBook.   I highly recommend trying it yourself.  And if your teacher hasn’t joined the FB revolution, going the extra distance to find him/her might yield benefits to you both!

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240 days remain

There should be a rule against writing about meditation retreats immediately after they’re over.

In those first hours and days post-retreat, it’s as if I’m experiencing the world through a fresh set of eyes.  The cosmos have aligned.  Nothing could be a problem.  It also smacks of a certain smugness.

Take my first retreat.   Right after it was over, I went to the parking lot with the kindly woman who offered to drive me to Albany.  One of her tires was completely flat and her battery was dead.  It took a couple hours to work that out. Then, worried about her flimsy spare, she proceeded to drive 40 mph on the interstate for 4 hours.  After that, we went the wrong way and ended up yet another hour behind my designated rendezvous with Dave.  All the while we smiled knowingly.  “Life as it is, not as you want it to be,” we kept quoting our teacher.

Ever since I returned from my latest retreat, I’ve been keeping a list of  great things I wanted to tell you.  Like how I went for walks in the woods behind the retreat center each morning and discovered a forest full of pink Lady’s Slippers – wild orchids so vulnerable that I’d only ever seen one once before in my life.  I was going to draw parallels to life and tell you how wonderful it all is.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are so many beautiful things to say about the time I spent at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge.  But one week post-retreat, the story looks different.

I’ve been reminded of the truly hard stuff over and over again in the past few days.   A 24 year old man who had once worked at Dave’s office was shot to death in the middle of the afternoon on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant.   Someone dear to me is struggling to control Lupus.  A young mom in the neighborhood has been diagnosed with an advanced stage breast cancer.  A photo of our 5th grade class posted on Facebook caused an avalanche of childhood friends writing with memories of our classmate who died of a brain aneurysm, and of the friend’s parents who were killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver.

As if these things weren’t enough of a reminder of death, I used my date night with Dave on Friday to explore a new exhibit called “Remember That You Will Die:  Death Across Cultures”at one of my favorite places in NY, the Rubin Museum of Art.   We spent an hour looking at ancient ritual objects made out of human bones and haunting depictions of charnel grounds.  The only thing I could think at the end was, “My god, my husband is really a trooper for agreeing to this macabre idea of a night out.

I’m doing all I can this week to soak it all in and watch the ever-changing flow of accompanying emotions without following any one of them down a fantastical Rabbit Hole.

To do this, I’ve blocked out a chunk of time – 45 minutes or so – each day to sit down on a cushion and just watch.  It’s so much harder at home than it is on retreat.  But this is the heart of mindfulness, the “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” kind of stuff as Jack Kornfield so aptly calls it.  He wrote in his book of that name:

We cling to some hope that in spiritual life we can rise above the wounds of our human pain, never to have to suffer them again. We expect some experience to last. But permanence is not true freedom, not the sure heart’s release.

Ordinary cycles of opening and closing are necessary medicine for our heart’s integration. In some cases, though, there are not just cycles, there is a crash. As far as we ascend, so far can we fall. This too needs to be included in our maps of spiritual life, honored as one more part of the great cycle.

If it’s the one thing I gleaned from the past two weeks, I’d say it’s a decent start.

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This week I bring you two heads-up pennies that I gathered along my way.

  • The first is a letter about an encounter with a woman who was “too mean to die”  from my friend Kathleen,  a volunteer hospice worker.    It’s a great reminder to begin again when life gets the better of us.
  • Second, a poem by Mary Oliver that we read  in our Year to Live class .  I’m told that Mary Oliver lives on the tip of Cape Cod and draws inspiration from long walks along the beaches and salt ponds.

Wishing you time to muse this week as you stroll along under the open sky!

Letter from Kathleen

Your recent hitting the restart button post and the premise of one year left to live reminded me of a hospice patient I once had.

When the volunteer coordinator called me, she said she had a woman who was “too mean to die” and that she trusted that I was the right person for her.  (They used to send me all the “hardest” and “most unusual” cases!)

With that introduction, I left with an open heart and open mind, intending not to judge, but send loving energy to her.

She was the most miserable, unlikable, complaining, woman I have met!  She was staying with her granddaughter, who had escaped to Florida for a break, leaving behind her husband who needed to study for an exam.  She made his life pure hell!

She complained that the hangers in her closet were not hers and that other people had taken hers.  She wanted me to rearrange the furniture in her bedroom. When I told her that I was the volunteer and didn’t move furniture around, she demanded to know why I had come if I was going to be worthless!

When the nurse came, the woman went into the bathroom and wouldn’t come out.  When she finally did, the nurse examined her, changed the bandages on her legs, with the woman telling her how to do it all along the way.

When the nurse left, she cut off the bandages and called for the grandson to re-do them another way.  She complained about how he did it to!

This kind of thing went on and on all day… but I kept to my plan of open heart/open mind.

At the end of the day, I was putting her into her bed, and she looked up at me and told me this:  

Every day I go into the bathroom and look in the mirror and promise myself that I will be nice to everyone today, and I try very hard….but I find myself not being nice…..so I go back into the bathroom and look again into the mirror and start again! and again, and again…

My eyes filled with tears and I embraced her and told her that God knew what was in her heart and that was all that counted.

She was not too mean to die, she was refusing to die until she could be nice for one full day.

Talk about restarting!

When Death Comes

Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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279 Days Remain

I used to have a neighbor who would yell at her young children a lot.

I would listen to her voice reverberating through the thin walls of our building and vow that if I ever had kids, I would never do that.  Plain and simple.

Fast forward a decade plus and  – well, you can guess where this is going!

I’m the first to admit that even the thought of this being my last year does not exempt me from getting hot under the collar more than I’d like.

I’ve been reading the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying lately, and Sogyal Rinpoche’s teachings resonate with me when he says:

Whatever we have done with our lives makes us what we are when we die.  And everything, absolutely everything, counts.

In other words, I don’t get a pass for being an overtired/overworked mom.

Because resigning myself to my habits and the parade of excuses that go along with them is a giant cop-out, I’m trying really hard to look precisely at how my mind works these days.

Meditation is very helpful for this.  As is noticing when I’m headed off-kilter and saying to myself, “Begin again.”

My husband calls this hitting the restart button.  Which basically means that at any point in time — whether you are about to lose it or have already made some kind of mistake as a parent or a person — you get to notice it and have a new start in the next moment.

We talk about our restart buttons frequently in our family.  It’s a way of showing the kids that we’re not perfect, but we’re trying to be better.  And it teaches them the meaning of resilience and the importance of making new choices when things aren’t going right.

The hope born out of having a fresh start at any moment – no matter how big the failing – holds all kinds of possibility for me.  It can be done over and over again ad infinitum.  It reminds me that whatever you do with your mind repeatedly becomes your mind’s habit, and it will rediscover its own original calm nature.

Of course, it helps to approach the restart button with some compassion towards yourself, as Sharon Salzberg says of meditation in this article in the Shambhala Sun:

Even if I’m teaching people just to be with the breath, my emphasis is that the critical moment in the practice is the moment we realize we’ve been distracted. We have a phenomenal ability to begin again—when we’ve gone off somewhere, we can begin again. And in that moment of beginning again, we can be practicing loving-kindness and forgiveness and patience and letting go.

This week I wanted to share a short piece of inspiration by Portia Nelson, who funnily enough, was most famous for playing the role of Sister Berthe in “The Sound of Music”…

AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN FIVE SHORT CHAPTERS

Chapter I

I walk down the street.  There is a hole in the sidewalk.  I fall in.  I am lost.  I am helpless.  It isn’t my fault.  It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.  There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.  I pretend I don’t see it.  I fall in again.  I can’t believe I am in the same place.  But it isn’t my fault.  It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.  There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.  I see it is there.  I still fall in.  It’s a habit.  My eyes are open.  I know where I am.  It is my fault.  I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.  There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.  I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

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286 Days Remain

“How was Turkey?” kind friends and family have been asking.

After being home for a couple of days, the only way I can think to describe it is as Lakshman says of his life in the Ramayana,  “It’s like something I dreamed once, long ago, far away.”

The trip had many magical qualities to it.  And the honest to goodness truth is, I didn’t think too much about my Year to Live project while we were away.  (Other than noticing how much I cling to the idea that my life will be a long one when I inadvertently say things like:  “We’ll have to come back here someday!”)

Here are just a few of the memories.  But if you promise to come over, we’ll serve tea in clear glasses, show you the whole album, and send you away with a cobalt blue charm to ward off the evil eye…

Speaking of eyes, we heard that many stray cats in Istanbul have one blue eye and one amber eye.  It was our mission to find one!  Trouble is, most just wouldn’t give us the time of day.  (There’s a pic of one on this site.)

Hiking the Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia, Central Turkey. Normally I’m not a fan of buying native garb. But, it was snowing that morning, and — having foolishly believed Weather.com — had only packed light jackets.

One morning in Göreme we woke at sunrise to the strangest sound that went something like this: Fffwwwuuup, Fffwwwuuup.  In the field across the road, 40 hot-air balloons were taking off.  (The noises were the torches inflating the balloons.)

Dave had this crazy idea that we’d take an 18-hour train ride from Central Turkey to Istanbul (rather than the 1.5 hour flight or the 10-hour bus that cost the same amount).   It didn’t sound like fun to me.

I was totally wrong.  It ranks as the boys’ top memory of the trip.  And we got to arrive in Istanbul as the sun rose, just as the Orient Express did in years long gone.

People in Turkey absolutely adore children.  On a crowded tram, a 70-year old man rearranged Evan’s hair repeatedly for 5 minutes.  (There wasn’t even a hint of creepiness.)  Strangers walked up to them and pinched their cheeks.

Here, on an elevator, some soccer fans grabbed the kids into a friendly team embrace while their friends took pics on their cell phones.

It was like traveling with mini rock stars.  Wow, did they love the attention.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s famed Nobel Prize winning author, writes often about hüzün – a state of melancholy.  He opened his book “Istanbul” with a quote by Ahmet Rasim, “The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy.”

Indeed, Istanbul – the crossroads of Asia and Europe – is a city of neglected villas, ancient Byzantine and Ottoman glories, and the ever-changing waters of the Bosphorus, where we saw nearly fifty dolphins swimming at dusk.

There is a certain kind of yearning here, even as the city becomes “modern” at a dizzying speed.

I got to fulfill my long-time dream of seeing the Whirling Dervishes of Mevlevi!

The “turn” originated with the Sufi mystic Rumi, who (according to the fascinating poet/translator Coleman Barks) while walking through the gold-smithing section of Konya heard beautiful music in their hammering:

“He began turning in harmony with it, an ecstatic dance of surrender and yet with great centered discipline.   He arrived at a place where ego dissolves and a resonance with universal soul comes in.”

The boys fidgeted endlessly and then at least one of them fell asleep.  But I was in heaven.  And, so, I leave you for now with my favorite passage from Rumi about the Turn:

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.

Don’t try to see through the distances.

That’s not for human beings.  Move within,

but don’t move the way fear makes you move.

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"Early Morning" by CW Ye

300 Days Remain

One of the most common reactions I hear from people taking in the concept of the Year to Live project goes something like this:

“Before I die, I really want to walk on the Great Wall of China.”  Or see the Grand Canyon, go on a safari, explore Angkor Wat, hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

It seems that children also put travel among the top priorities for their lives.  The Make-A-Wish Foundation, for example, grants requests from young people with life-threatening illnesses.  Many of these heartfelt wishes are for cruises, visits to Disney, and seeing the Eiffel Tower.

There’s something so vital to travel.  It’s almost antithetical to death.

While I flat out refuse to buy the ever-popular book  “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”, the very concept of which seems – well – a little greedy to me,  I must admit that I too am smitten by travel.

I feel like I’ve been lucky in this regard.  Early in my young adulthood, I was overcome by a desire to see the world outside of the New Jersey suburb where I grew up.  Without hardly a second thought, I applied for a summer job as a “house parent” in a home for teenage foster kids in Appalachia.  (I still marvel at their judgment/desperation in hiring an inexperienced  19-year old Yankee to manage a high-risk group of kids who had been hardened by years of abuse and humiliation.)

One “break” from the action which I always looked forward to during that Kentucky summer was accompanying the librarian of the BookMobile on her excursions into the heart of Appalachia.  In her beat-up old 4-wheel drive, she’d navigate dirt roads which were sometimes barely passable from the landslides caused by strip-mining, all the while compulsively eating Snickers (donated by the crate-load to the foster system).   With a heart full of compassion, she’d carefully explain the situation of each impoverished family we’d be visiting.  It seemed to me that delivering books was a convenient excuse for checking in with people to make sure no one was starving to death.

After that experience I ventured a little farther, spending a year studying anthropology in California, where I didn’t know a soul.  And then I crossed the Pacific and lived in Japan for a couple of years, choosing to teach English over accepting a coveted slot in the management training program of an insurance company back home.   (Some of my elders were none too pleased!)

By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was so hopelessly addicted to travel that I vowed to combine it with my ideals – vaguely defined as anti-poverty and women’s rights – and somehow cobble together a career out of it.   As part of my jobs, I traveled to Bangladesh, Thailand, Kenya, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Peru.  I loved being invited into the lives of locals, thinking about how we were different on the surface, but so fundamentally the same inside.

Now that I have a family, my adventures have mostly been closer to home.   Four hours in a car gets us to the beauty of New England.   Well-planned stay-cations visiting with my brothers and their families are fine by me.

Last fall, my husband asked me where I might like to go with the kids during our long spring break.  He said I’d get 51% of the vote.

I started thinking about all that I’d want to show the kids if this were to be my last year.  What would I want to impart?  What culture would I want them to soak in?  Where would my heart sing?

Tomorrow we leave for Turkey  — land of my favorite poet, Rumi.  The crossroads of Europe and Asia.  Home of baklavah.  Muezzin calling the early morning prayers.  Multitudes of opportunities to talk about how much better the world is when we don’t see things as Us vs. Them.

For now, as we leave our laptops behind, I wish you happy spring and joyous holidays.  No matter how far or near you venture, travel well.

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