Angel Orensanz Synagogue, Lower East Side

Dearest Friends,

For nearly two months now, I’ve completely neglected my Year to Live project.  Dead silence on my part.  I got so out of the habit of writing this blog that I had to root through piles of paper to even find the password to log in.

I feel like I owe you an explanation. . .  I was just out there in the world, living ferociously.

In that time  I indulged my wanderlust and set off for the mountains and any body of water I could find.  I hiked in an old growth forest in Oregon with one of my closest friends, her daughter and my littlest guy.  We rafted down a river in the high desert and slipped our bodies into soothing natural hot springs.    I skipped rocks on a glass-surfaced lake in Maine with my husband, ate wild blueberries on a trail in the White Mountains, was chased by a flock of migrating shorebirds on a protected island off Massachusetts, and strained to see a whale (a whale!) off the coast of New Jersey.

I think the complete surrender into what I value most in life was exactly what I needed after thinking about mortality so deeply month after month.

But here’s the thing:  there came a time when I longed to be grounded once again in the reality of my everyday life.  The familiar messiness. These very piles of paper.  My work.  The cacophony of street noises on my New York block.  The personalities that drive me to distraction.

I came to remember that there truly is a season for everything.  That it was time to bid farewell to a memorable summer and to greet whatever life has in store for me this fall.

Which brings me to Yom Kippur.  Today is the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar.  For twenty years, I’ve been observing this holiday in solidarity with my husband.  What I didn’t recognize until someone in my Year to Live class pointed it out, is that one interpretation of the day is that it is a “rehearsal for death.”  My classmate  Diane said – crediting Rabbi Shefa Gold also:

Yom Kippur is a day when Jews fast from food and drink, from sex, from anointing themselves, from washing, and wearing leather – all as a way to detach ourselves from the physical body and to have the experience of the nakedness of our existence.  Many Jews wear a “kittel” a full length, white garment which is the dress (shroud) that many Jews are buried in.

During the entire period, we act as if this day were our last, “our only day to face the Truth, forgive ourselves and each other, remember who we are and why we were born.  Yom Kippur reminds us that we are all dying.  There is no time for regret, worry, fear, no time to put off facing the truth, or to delay thanking our beloveds.”  Each moment takes on an urgency, and like each encounter with death we are urged into the fullness of living.

It is not morbid however because it is predicated on the hope of the New Year and the opportunity to live life to its fullest.  It is a day of death so that there can be a new life.

Last night, as a single violin resonated Kol Nidre throughout our historic synagogue, candles flickering from every hanging chandelier and – improbably – a striking long-haired cat wandering around the altar, I gave thanks to the universe for the life I’ve been so lucky to lead and vowed to try not to take it for granted.  I silently rededicated myself to bringing awareness to my deeds and to living with compassion for others and for myself.

An important part of this past year has been writing to all of you, and I do hope you’ll continue to join me in this journey.  Echoing the words of my classmate, I wish you all a good and sweet year and a year of insight,  loving-kindness and peace.

All my very best,

Barbara

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

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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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By now, 20 years after first meeting him, my husband Dave has come to accept the out-of-the-ordinary plans I make for our occasional nights on the town.

Last month, for instance, he didn’t raise an eyebrow when I asked him to come with me to an exhibit called “Remember That You Will Die:  Death Across Cultures.”

Nor did he make a fuss when I told him that I wanted to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary yesterday by waiting in a long line on a steamy New York City evening to get a hug from Amma.

“Ok,” he agreed.  (I love this man.)  “But who is Amma?”

Amma, otherwise known as the “Hugging Saint,” is an Indian woman — a divine spirit by some accounts — who is said to have the power to transmit a spark of unconditional love and compassion through her embrace (darshan). She receives thousands of people on her trips around the world, sometimes going for 22 hours without interruption until each and every person who has come to see her has been hugged.  In over 36 years, she has hugged 30 million people.  When Amma was last in New York, people I know and respect for their healthy cynicism of mass spiritualism claimed to have felt an indescribable sense of peace and transcendence after receiving darshan.

Amma is also a highly regarded humanitarian, setting up charitable hospitals, hospices, disaster relief programs, orphanages and schools around the world.  This year, she received an honorary doctorate for her work from the State University of New York (SUNY).

Since I’m in the middle of my Year to Live project and spirituality has emerged as a major theme, I felt that getting a little extra hug along this path couldn’t hurt.  People came from all around the country to stand in line to see her; surely I could travel 40 blocks.

Here’s what happened:

3pm – I finish up work, turn off the computer and head outside for the subway.  “God damn, it’s hot!” a shirtless teen howls on the street as he exits the Burger King on Delancey.  It’s 102 degrees – an all time record for this day.

5pm – I’ve been standing on line at 34th Street for over an hour and a half.  There are about 100 people in front of me, and hundreds more behind me on a line that stretches nearly a full city avenue.  Sweat streams from the back of my neck to my sandaled feet.  Volunteers dressed in white with red sashes hand out cups of water.  Mainly, the crowd seems excited.

Then I hear the news – you cannot pick up a token for a hug for someone who is not now on line.  This means that Dave will not be able to get into the event, which doesn’t bode well for our anniversary night.

I reach him at the office.  “”Listen,” he says.  “You’ve wanted to do this since you first heard about it.  I’d be upset if you didn’t do it.  Go for it.  I love you, and we’ll pick another night to celebrate.  Honestly, it’s OK.”  With Dave, I know he doesn’t say something like that unless he means it, so I tell him I love him too and stay put where I am on line.  (Did I mention that I love this man?)

7:00pm – I’m in the main hall of the Manhattan Center.  There are probably 500 of us seated on the carpeted floor in front of the stage.   Well over a thousand fill the balconies behind us.

The man seated next to me introduces himself as Uncle Charlie.  He’s here because he is in some sort of legal dispute with his landlord and needs a blessing for his court appearance on Friday.

A woman to my left is a former interior designer to the rich and famous.  When she first met Amma, she had the realization that she needed to quit her job and do charitable work instead.  Now she’s helping design a hospital for the poor.

If I read People magazine more, I’d be able to name  the actress seated on a chair off to the side.

7:30pm – Suddenly, and without much fanfare, Amma enters the stage.  She is throwing rose petals in front of her as she walks.  Devotees clean her feet.

Now she is sitting on a small riser, a translator at her side.  She is a fantastic storyteller.  She tells us about a professor who invites all of his students to his home for coffee.  On the coffee table are cups of fine china and plastic mugs.  The students help themselves.  When the professor looks around, he sees that all of them have chosen the fine china for themselves instead of the plastic.  The lesson?  Life is the coffee, the cup is your circumstances.  Don’t be concerned about whether your circumstances are china or plastic.  Worry only about what goes inside.

There are other tales of Olympic runners, fashionable sunglasses, airplane flights.  The messages are always:

1) Don’t waste a single second of this precious life

2) Meditate and be concerned first and foremost about your spiritual life

3) Do good deeds and speak kind words

4) Be grateful for all of the blessings in your life, large and small

5) Love begins in the family.  When you return home after work, drop the work role.  At home you are coming back to real life, and you should move from your head into your heart.

We’re all given little plastic containers of water that has been blessed by Amma and are told it has healing properties.  I save it for later.

10:30pm – I’ve passed the hours since Amma’s talk eating an incredible vegetarian meal of dhal, chapatis, rice and curry served by her followers in the basement of the Manhattan Center.  There’s also a  group of musicians playing devotional music, and a market in the back of the main hall where devotees sell photos of Amma and t-shirts that say OM.

Finally, my token section is called to the front to wait for our darshan.  Everything starts moving quickly.  We take off our shoes, leave our bags behind, and climb onto the Persian rug adorned stage.  Amma’s helpers hand us tissues to wipe our foreheads and temples.

Uncle Charlie, who has just had his hug, is sobbing.  Others walk away beaming.  One woman looks disoriented and shaky.

And then, all of the sudden, Amma in front of me.  I’m told to kneel.  Amma looks at me, smiles and pulls me into her chest.  She puts her lips right to my ear and says, “My Dola, My Dola, My Dola, My Dola.”  It takes me a while to understand that she’s really saying, “My Daughter, My Daughter…”  I find it vaguely pleasant.

Seconds later, one of the people in white pulls me away.  Amma hands me a Hershey’s Kiss wrapped in a rose petal, and I’m directed off the stage.

10:45 pm As I leave the building, I eat my chocolate and drink my little container of water (being careful to save some for Dave), reflecting on what has happened.  The sky hasn’t opened for me, though I don’t doubt that others were feeling it.  But I admire what Amma stands for in this broken world.  And intimate connection with others – through a smile, a hug and comforting words whispered right up close – is something we all could use more of.

There’s still a long line outside waiting for their turn in Amma’s arm.  As for me, I’m headed home to hug the person who is most dear to me on this special day.

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The Good Samaritan in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris

204 days remain

Years ago, 20 students at The Princeton Theological Seminary were given a copy of the parable of the Good Samaritan and were told they must deliver a sermon about it.

(Quick refresher:   A Jewish traveler is beaten, robbed and left for dead by the side of the road.  Two religious men pass by without helping.  Then a Samaritan — belonging to  group that was in conflict with the Jews — stops to help and even pays for the man’s recovery.)

A control group of students was also told they would deliver a sermon, but their topics were other passages from the Bible.  Some of the total group of 40 were led to believe that they had only a few minutes before they were to speak; others thought they had more time.

The researchers then orchestrated a situation in which the students had to walk outside to another building to deliver their remarks, passing by someone on the door step who was moaning in pain.

What happened?

Sixty percent of the seminarians walked on without offering help. A seminarian thinking about the parable was no more likely to stop than one given a less lofty topic, and on several occasions a seminarian going to talk on the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the man. Only 10 percent of those who were told to rush to the test site offered help, while 63 percent of those who thought they had a few minutes to spare offered aid. In examining psychological tests given to their subjects, [researchers] found no personality characteristics that predicted helping behavior; the only factor that seemed to predict helping behavior was degree of hurry. (Source)

I have to tell you, I got pretty down when I heard about this study, which was conducted in 1970.  If we could walk right by people in pain in the pre-cell phone/BlackBerry/iPod hurry, hurry, hurry days, what would we do now?

Well, a week ago I had a chance to hear Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, speak about meditation and neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change its structure and function in response to experiences.

Goleman says that we don’t have to be stuck running the same neural connections for the rest of our lives just because that’s what we’ve always done.  It turns out that we can become better people by reprogramming ourselves — even when time crunch and life pressures have conditioned us to sometimes turn a blind eye.

And how to do that?

Well-documented study after study, he said, shows that meditators (even people who have meditated as little as 10 minutes a day for 8 weeks) can literally transform their brains by taming their minds.  The great news for all of us is that the part of the brain that shows the most activity through meditation is the region that monitors our emotions and generates positive feelings such as happiness.  No wonder the Dalai Lama giggles all the time.

It also seems that the more time you’ve spent in meditation, the more likely these changes to the brain will be dramatic and enduring.

Simple “mindfulness meditation” will do just fine for decreasing anxiety and stress, boosting your immune system and helping reverse heart disease.  And meditation in compassion,  in which the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving kindness toward all living beings, seems to be particularly effective at lighting up the part of the brain associated with positive and altruistic feelings.

So the take-away is that being a good Samaritan doesn’t happen through sermonizing, philosophizing, reading, talking or writing about kindness but through consistently working with your mind.  To prevent bullying, aggression and violence, researchers are teaching compassion meditation to young people nearing adolescence.   Relationships throughout the life-span could clearly benefit from this as well.

I’m willing to bet there are many ways to achieve this same effect, from different religious traditions.  If you’ll allow me, here’s a thoroughly unscientific anecdote: my mom sits quietly in a chair by the window for nearly an hour a day with a “prayer chain” — a list of people who could use some form of assistance in their lives — offering up prayers for each one of them.  She also spends enormous amounts of her free time helping others and volunteering in the Alzheimer’s ward at the local nursing home.  To her, the prayer and the action are inextricably linked.)

All of this brings to mind a beautiful saying by Shantideva, the 8th-century Indian scholar, on how to find happiness in our lives.

Whatever joy there is in this world

All comes from desiring others to be happy,

And whatever suffering there is in this world

All comes from desiring myself to be happy.


Have a great week, everyone!

Learn more:

Sitting Quietly, Do Something New York Times, Daniel Goleman

How Thinking Can Change the Brain Wall Street Journal, Sharon Begley

Compassion Meditation Changes the Brain, Science Daily


Try this at home:

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who has pioneered work in the health benefits of meditation, speaks at Google about mindfulness meditation.  Meditation instruction starts at about 23 minutes in:

Mindfulness meditation instructions

Sit in a comfortable position that embodies dignity, eyes closed, preferably with the back upright and unsupported. Relax and take note of body sensations, sounds and moods. Notice them without judgment. Let the mind settle into the rhythm of breathing. If it wanders (and it will), gently redirect attention to the breath. Stay with it for at least 10 minutes.

Meditation in Compassion (sometimes also called “Metta” or “Loving-Kindness” Meditation)

Click here for instructions

Facets of Metta, Sharon Salzberg

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Banksy's Beat Up Buddha

211 days remain

On my recent trip to London, I was strolling in an outdoor market with friends when one of them pulled us into a stall featuring the work of her favorite artist, Banksy.

For me, it was love at first sight.

Banksy is a graffiti artist who makes high art out of the political.  His work can be seen on walls from post-hurricane New Orleans to the military division between Palestine and Israel.  With Banksy, there’s always at least one subversive message to be discovered.

In that market stall, so many of the 9×12 canvas reproductions of his work jumped out at me:

Ok – maybe it’s not the kind of thing you’d want hanging on your wall.  Or is it?

I picked up a canvas with Banksy’s beat up Buddha, complete with black eye, bloodied nose, neck brace and bandaged hand.  I wondered what the kids would make of this.

So I plunked down 25 pounds and bought it.

The first thing I did when I got home was to pound a nail into the empty wall behind the toilet in the bathroom and hang it.   It’s a prime piece of art real estate for the male gender, who probably spend more time staring at that space than any other, I reasoned.

And then I waited.

Evan noticed it first.  He came running out of the bathroom, “I love it,”  he shouted.

“What does it mean?”  I asked.

“Buddha picked a fight,” he said.  “It means he’s not all that you think he his.”

“Great!  Keep going,” I encouraged.

Two weeks later, I have a collection of potential meanings from our family and friends.  We’ve had a lot of fun with this, racking our brains, rolling our eyes at some interpretations, applauding others:

  • It’s a representation of the famous Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
  • A calm mind can handle the worst of human nature.
  • It’s a statement about the Chinese government invading Tibet and killing the monks.
  • It’s a statement about the Burmese government attacking monks.
  • It’s not possible to be perfect.
  • Organized religion can be a giant deception.
  • Since the original was spray painted on a wall in London and was already painted over, it shows that everything is an illusion.

I’m sure there’s a lot more that can be said (please feel free to add your interpretation), but I learned a lot from our little exercise in art appreciation.

Life can be taken sitting down, observing.  That can be a good thing.  But it can also be grabbed, interpreted, discussed, debated,  found wanting, enjoyed.  And when we take it to this level, it’s all the richer.  Life is art.

Banksy-inspired art

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218 days remain

William Sloane Coffin

I was reminded today of this beautiful eulogy by the late William Sloane Coffin for his 24-year-old son, Alex, and I wanted to share it with you.  There’s such wisdom in these words that I’ve found it bears re-reading from time to time.

While he was a student, my father heard the feisty William Coffin preach as a young chaplain at Yale.  My dad, who became a doctor, has a weathered copy of Alex’s Death which he has xeroxed on many occasions to give to friends and colleagues experiencing loss.

But just one thing before you read it…  Here’s one of my favorite Coffin-isms, from an interview with Bill Moyers when Coffin was 80:

Chirping optimism is terrible…. And [a lot of people] think that emotional mediocrity is the good life. No. We should be able to plumb the depths of sadness and rise to the heights of joy, even ecstasy, though at my age, it’s not too easy.

William Sloane Coffin’s Eulogy for Alex

Ten days after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident, Reverend William Sloane Coffin delivered this sermon to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City.

As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son — Alexander — who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family “fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky” — my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”:

“The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”

My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.” Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady!” I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I’ve been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist — yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died — to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, “You blew it, buddy. You blew it.” The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

I mentioned the healing flood of letters. Some of the very best, and easily the worst, knew their Bibles better than the human condition. I know all the “right” biblical passages, including “Blessed are those who mourn,” and my faith is no house of rest, came from fellow reverends, a few of whom proved they knew their cards; these passages are true, I know. But the point is this. While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. The reality of grief is the absence of God — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart is in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away.” (Lord Byron).

That’s why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers — the basics of beauty and life — people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends — not many, and none of you, thank God — were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.

And that’s what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us — minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.

After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, “They say ‘the coward dies many times’; so does the beloved. Didn’t the eagle find a fresh liver to tear in Prometheus every time it dined?”

When parents die, as my mother did last month, they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head high, instead of — as we must — marching as the latest recruit in the world’s army of the bereaved.

Still there is much by way of consolation. Because there are no rankling unanswered questions, and because Alex and I simply adored each other, the wound for me is deep, but clean. I know how lucky I am! I also know this day-brightener of a son wouldn’t wish to be held close by grief (nor, for that matter, would any but the meanest of our beloved departed) and that, interestingly enough, when I mourn Alex least I see him best.

Another consolation, of course, will be the learning — which better be good, given the price. But it’s a fact: few of us are naturally profound. We have to be forced down. So while trite, it’s true:

I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she;
But the things I learned from her
But oh, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.
–Robert Browning Hamilton

Or, in Emily Dickinson’s verse:

By a departing light
We see acuter quite
Than by a wick that stays.
There’s something in the flight
That clarifies the sight
And decks the rays.

And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yes, but at least, “My God, my God”; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the “right” biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee”; “Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning”; “Lord, by thy favor thou hast made my mountain to stand strong”; “For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling”; “In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”; “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall — so let us all — seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

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230 days remain

Many years ago I worked in a drab office full of cubicles where there were no secrets.  One morning my colleague poked her head over the divider to tell me that she was having a visitor later that day — her best friend from college who, she confided, had inoperable brain cancer.

This friend was traveling around the country with her boyfriend to spend time with loved ones while she still could.  She was all of 24 or 25.  When I caught a glimpse of her that day, I couldn’t believe how happy she seemed.

I’ve thought about that young woman many times during my year to live project.  While I, admittedly, knew precious little about her state-of-mind, her trip struck me as a beautiful, courageous way to approach her remaining time.  An act of graceful acceptance, fully honoring the primacy of her web of interconnectedness.

In that spirit, I’ve vowed to venture out this year to be with people I care about.  By dint of the career I chose (loosely defined as international social justice) and the time I’ve spent on the road, many of my close friends are far away.  I wish that time and frequent flyer credits would allow me to visit every single one of them this year, but I’ve decided that small steps towards that vision are better than merely paying it lip-service.

This weekend you’ll find me at the annual sheep shearing party on the farm next to my brother’s in New Jersey, surrounded by three generations of family.  Then I’ll fly to London to see a friend who I’ve been promising to visit for the past 8 years, which happily coincides with the travels of two other friends — one from Spain and one from Angola — who will also be there.  Then, volcano gods willing, I’ll make my way to Ohio to be with my freshman roommates.  There’s a lot of catching up to be done.

I know.  It’s an odd assortment of places to be in one week’s time.  And it’s a totally privileged thing to be able to do (I carry around a healthy dose of guilt about these things).  But the window of opportunity can slam shut quickly, and life is too short to make excuses.

I’ve always loved this Irish blessing, and it’s my hope for you no matter how near or far you roam this summer:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

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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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Ann Dunham, the President's mother, visiting a Balinese duck farm

248 days remain

I’ve just returned from 240 hours of silence.  No coffee.  No chocolate. No NPR.  No Facebook.

It was amazing!

It will sound like a case of the dog ate my homework.  But here I am, jumping into a week of work which will involve speaking a lot — sometimes even in Spanish.  Life is funny that way.

So I thought I’d share with you something I wrote that was published in On the Issues Magazine while I was gone.

It’s really not about death.   It’s a personal story about travel and life.  There’s a short section on how I came to know President Obama’s mother.  It still saddens me that Obama said of her final days:

She was 52 years old when she died of ovarian cancer, and you know what she was thinking about in the last months of her life? She wasn’t thinking about getting well. She wasn’t thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality. She had been diagnosed just as she was transitioning between jobs. And she wasn’t sure whether insurance was going to cover the medical expenses because they might consider this a preexisting condition. I remember just being heartbroken, seeing her struggle through the paperwork and the medical bills and the insurance forms.

My blog isn’t about debating the health care system, to be sure!  But it’s sad for me to think of Ann — or anyone — in this way.

You might prefer to read my story here with the nice layout and all.  I promise I’ll be back to you soon about what I really gleaned from my meditation retreat!

Dispatches from the Road: A Travelogue of True Stories

Two decades ago, an encounter with a now-famous global trailblazer helped point me on a path of international travel from which I’ve never looked back. The lessons I’ve learned on the road have informed my career choice, my activism, and even my willingness to be open to perfect strangers.

Recently I began to pass along the simple delights of travel to my two young sons. If their generation doesn’t learn to cross borders and become citizens of the world, what are the prospects for solving the critical issues facing the planet?

Crossing borders aboard the Dogu Express

The Dogu Ekspresi train runs from Turkey’s far eastern border near Armenia to Istanbul in just under 40 hours. Earlier this year, my husband and I, vacationing with our children, climbed aboard in Central Turkey for the train’s remaining 18-hour route to Istanbul.

We were warned that it is one of Turkey’s slowest and oldest trains. Perhaps we’d be better off considering an hour and a half flight back to Istanbul? Or the 10-hour bus ride, at the same price?

We’d also heard that there were warning signs in the sleeping car reading: “Recently some persons with bad intentions have approached our passengers and offered them food or drink containing sleeping drugs, and have then stolen their valuables…. We wish you a pleasant journey.”

The truth is, I had agreed to this meandering mode of travel because of the children. It’s hard to describe the light in our six- and ten-year old boys’ eyes at the very thought of a sleeper car (with bunk beds!) and a dining car (with tablecloths!)

Plus, I’d warmed up to the idea of nearly a day on the train after having met a fascinating and friendly family from Iran who had crossed the border into Turkey and taken the Dogu Express from its starting point in Kars.

Indeed, one of my chief criteria in selecting travel destinations is the opportunity to interact with people from cultures and backgrounds I don’t usually encounter at home. If interesting people like that were on this “express,” how could it not be a good idea?

On the day of our departure, the train was already over an hour delayed. We waited in the Kayseri station as the boys curiously eyed the automatic guns of the dozen soldiers standing about, and I strategically lifted our bags to higher ground while the janitor threw buckets of soapy water over the grooved marble floor.

On The Issues Magazine -
On the Train

Once the train finally pulled into the station and we ran along the track to find car nine, we were greeted enthusiastically by an older woman wearing a headscarf and fingering her worn prayer beads. She took my hand, smiling, and starting speaking in rapid-fire Turkish.

Pretty much the only thing I can say in Turkish is, “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Turkish.” I gave it a try. She laughed heartily and continued talking. Maybe she was speaking Farsi? Armenian? Eventually she waved goodbye and went back to her compartment.

A few hours later, I was sitting alone while my husband and the boys explored the train, when she came back. She smiled and sat down in the empty seat right next to me. And she started speaking quickly again, as if we were old friends.

I took out our Turkish phrase book and tried to make conversation.

“Where are you from? I’m from America.” She just laughed and continued right on.

“Where are you traveling to?” Nothing. “Istanbul?” Now she was nodding her head, still smiling and talking.

This went on for a while longer, and I figured I’d join in the only way I knew how.

If interesting people like that were on this “express,” how could it not be a good idea?

So, in English, I told her about my life. How we were on something called spring break. How my husband looks Turkish, but his family originally came from Russia. That my parents and my husband’s parents live not-too-far from us and that we see them often. And how my brothers and their families are nearby and how that might all seem like we live in a small village, but we’re really from New York.

She listened along, nodding vigorously as if she understood every word I said. Then she told me her story. I offered her a bag of raisins we’d bought in the outdoor market in Göreme. She accepted, patting me on the shoulder. Then she went back to her compartment and returned minutes later with a half-drunk bottle of orange soda. We joined hands for a moment and said goodnight as the sun set over the hills outside our window.

Years ago I taped a phrase by the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein to my college German folder: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” At the time, I took its meaning more literally than Wittgenstein ever intended, believing that a facility with languages could expand my understanding of the world. While this is no doubt true, the conversation with my new travel companion had defied the boundary of words entirely.

A day is a long time to spend on a train, but the interaction left me feeling more refreshed and connected than I’d been in a while.

Sound advice from President Obama’s mother

I received a lot of encouragement to travel “off-the-beaten path” by following the advice of an academic whose approach to education went far beyond the world’s ivory towers.

It was 1994 and I was happily ensconced in a post-graduate school internship at the United Nations, helping to develop materials about revenue-generating activities for low-income women. Internships can either be monotonous times filing away a supervisor’s paperwork or stepping-stones leading to exciting new opportunities.

As luck would have it, that position brought me in contact with Ann Dunham, a pioneer in microfinance who helped set me on a new direction for my career — and my life.

Ann Dunham with a villager in Lombok, Indonesia

When I met her, Ann was leading a newly formed International Coalition on Women in Credit in preparation for the UN Beijing Women’s Summit in 1995. She and her colleagues at Women’s World Banking understood communications in a way that was pretty rare at the time.

Ann felt that she would have the chance of convincing the international community gathered in Beijing of the benefits of lending small sums to poor women if she could help them to see the results for themselves.

In other words, she wanted her audience to look into the faces of poor women instead of merely hearing economic statistics about successful programs.

Knowing that I had been involved in producing videos, she asked me to edit two pieces for broadcast in Beijing, featuring microcredit programs in Nepal and Bangladesh.

“Make sure it’s about the women,” she instructed.

I admired Ann for her wandering spirit as an American anthropologist whose PhD research led her to Indonesia to examine the role of women in cottage industries. When my video editing project was finished, she encouraged me to follow my dream to travel to rural Bangladesh and study the granddaddy of all microfinance groups, the Grameen Bank. It would help ground my ideals in real life experience, I remember her saying. And while I was there, she wanted me to produce a longer film about a poverty alleviation program in Dhaka to air at the Beijing Conference. I gladly accepted the challenge.

It’s hard to put into words how fortuitous this was for me. Going to Bangladesh and producing films for Ann married my dual loves of international campaigns for justice and communications. Finally I had a tangible way of combining the two.

By the time I made it back to the United States, Ann, only 53 years old, was living out her final days with cancer in Hawaii. She never made it to Beijing.

Now that the world knows Ann as the mother of President Barack Obama, her enormous contributions are being given the recognition she deserves.

And from the perspective of this former intern, I am grateful to Ann for opening my eyes to the imperative of learning directly from the source – from the people themselves, no matter where they may be.

Leaving the world a little better than you found it

In the 1940s, Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell — who was credited with founding the Scout Movement — wrote a letter found in his desk drawer after his death. Within it was his now-famous advice to Scouts around the globe: “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it.”

When we take to the road, there’s no telling what we’ll put into motion

Baden-Powell’s words represent a worthy aspiration for anyone concerned about the fate of the planet and the seemingly intractable issues of our time – including poverty, disease, conflict and climate change.

But when we brush off our passports and take to the road with a few essentials, there’s no telling what change we’ll put into motion. For some, risk-taking may mean trekking in a remote land. For others, risk-taking may be acquiring a new skill set or finding meaningful employment overseas. And for many more, it may mean developing a one-on-one relationship that surmounts language or cultural differences, even right in their own backyard.

An enormous map of the world covers a wall in my children’s bedroom. Many nights since our trip to Turkey, they point to a new area and ask me what it’s like there. Then, as their eyelids grow heavier and their breathing deepens, I imagine that their dreams are carrying them wherever they want to go.

Travel well, little ones. May you see the world not only as it is, but as it could be.

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