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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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Last month my year to live journey came to an end.

For nearly one year, a small group of us met each month at the Village Zendo in New York to discuss mortality and to think constructively about how we might go about living our lives if we truly had just one year to live.

I documented my thoughts throughout the year in this blog.  What I did not write about was the all-too-real end-of-life journey of my earliest childhood friend Marisa, who was courageously facing metastatic cancer while I went about my hypothetical journey.

On the night of November 17, our class did a “dissolution of the body” meditation — a guided exercise used by Tibetan lamas to prepare people for the journey of death and beyond.   I’d be pretty hard-pressed to tell you what it was like because right at the point when our teacher said, “Resist the temptation to fall asleep,” I fell promptly asleep.

But that’s not the important thing.  Five days later, Marisa passed away.

In my grayest moments, I’ve dismissed my own year to live process as frivolous because I am, as much as any of us can claim, healthy.

Then I remember the last time I visited Marisa.  We laughed about the silly details of our childhoods together, like how we let our brothers con us into racing their dirt bikes off a ramp, flying through the air over us (a la Evel Knievel) while we lay completely flat on the asphalt.  And the great trips our families took together involving rented beach shacks and RV trailers.

“It’s hard to come up with a memory from childhood that doesn’t include you guys,” she smiled.

With a lot of hard-earned wisdom under her belt, Marisa posted on Facebook in June: “9 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I’ve seen my share of ups and downs over the years but I seem to only really remember the ups.  The downs will come and go – no reason to get stuck on them.  But the ups, those are the memories you keep forever.”

Of course, “forever” is a relative term.  Marisa’s ups are now my ups.  And maybe someday my own children will remember parts of the stories and her ups will be theirs.  But eventually it all fades into some ethereal mystery.

Still, I like her view of things — if we can put the things we’re grateful for into some kind of internal treasure box to look back upon sometimes (all things in moderation, of course), we’d probably be doing ourselves a world of good.

I can imagine that burying a child of any age has to be the most painful act of all.  I’ve heard many people question faith and god in these circumstances.  Allow me to share a passage from one of the best books on dying I read all year (and believe me, I read my fair share of them!).

“Here If You Need Me” by Kate Braestrup is the autobiography of the chaplain for the Maine game warden who herself was widowed with four young children when her husband – a state trooper – was killed in a car accident.  I’ve read and re-read this passage many times:

My children asked me, “Why did Dad die?”

I told them, “It was an accident.  There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table.  And there are large accidents, like the one your dad was in.  No one meant it to happen.  It just happened.  And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it anymore, and so he died.

“God does not spill milk.  God did not bash the truck into your father’s car.  Nowhere in the scripture does it say, ‘God is car accident’ or ‘God is death.’  God is justice and kindness, mercy, and always – always – love.  So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love.”

I’ve been looking for love everywhere.  I saw it in my fellow classmates and our teachers at the Zendo this year.  I saw it in heartfelt comments on this blog.   I saw it played out in my own family.  I saw it in the acts of complete strangers on our trip overseas.  I saw it in the hugs and stories shared at Marisa’s funeral.

I’ve got a year’s worth of learnings, sayings and little nuggets I could end with.  I think, though, I’m going to leave it with this.  If you find wisdom in it, please use it to inform your own journey.  And please keep me posted!

Every day in Zen temples around the world, the following verse marks the close of the day’s ceremonies:

Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance.  Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.  Each of us must strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take heed, do not squander your lives.

May our paths cross again soon,

Barbara

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Atul Gawande

Two weeks ago some of my closest friends from college were in New York for our annual gathering, a tradition we began nine years earlier.  The amazing thing about my friends is that they’re game for almost anything, which is how we found ourselves on a beautiful Saturday morning inside a massive auditorium listening to a lecture entitled “How to Live When You Have to Die” by the physician and author Atul Gawande.

Atul Gawande is the new American “Dr. Death.”  I mean that in the most optimistic of ways.  While Jack Kevorkian made headlines for championing a terminal patient’s right to die via physician-assisted suicide, Gawande is “instinctively against” Oregon and Washington’s assisted suicide laws, which he fears may lead to a mistrust of doctors.  Gawande’s focus is on exploring end-of-life care, including ways in which terminally ill and their families come to grips with death .

He opened the lecture by talking about the phone call he received from his wife’s cousin, whose 12-year-old daughter had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease that is 85% treatable.    Unfortunately, the treatments weren’t working for this little girl, who was emaciated and so ill that she hadn’t been able to see friends for over a year.  The cousin wanted to know if they should try the last recourse of treatment — a bone marrow transplant that had a slim margin of success.

Atul Gawande found himself “utterly useless” in this conversation.  Years of medical training had taught him to say that there’s always something more we can do.  But how to weigh one more radical treatment against the suffering of a loved one?

That question lead him on a journey.  If you get the chance you should read his latest piece in the New Yorker:   “Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life?”

The real take-away from Gawande’s latest work is this — patients benefit most by having someone to talk to about death.  In his article he states that “… people who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation, and to spare their family anguish.”

Above all, there are 4 simple questions to talk through with those who are ill:

1)    What do you understand to be your prognosis?

2)    What fears do you have about what’s to come?

3)   What are your goals as time grows shorter?

4)    How much suffering are you willing to go through for the possible trade-off of added time?

One person he talked to said her ailing father thought through these questions and concluded that he’d still want to live if he could eat ice cream and watch football on TV. It was the benchmark she used in deciding upon all medical interventions until the day his condition no longer allowed for these simple pleasures.   Gawande reports that a conversation based on these four questions with his own father was “incredibly hard but completely transformational.”

Of course, the premise of the Year to Live class I’ve been taking is that it’s never too early to have these conversations about death with ourselves and with our loved ones.  Some day we won’t get life’s winning lottery ticket, as Gawande would say.  And having thought about death would hopefully have meant that we used the time we had being as committed to life as possible.

So what happened to the 12-year-old daughter in Gawande’s family?

Her family took her home from the hospital and stopped all but palliative treatments.  Ten days later he got the email sent to close relatives and friends saying that she had passed away.

All is well,” the message read.  “Our home is full of peace.”

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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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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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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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