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The amazing baby shower!

Hello, dear readers of Last Year to Live.

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

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

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

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

I look forward to seeing you there!

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

Thank you for reading!

All my best,

Barbara

photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Friends,

Unbelievably, I’ve arrived at the end of the Year to Live project.  While I had originally thought our final class would take place in January 2011 – 364 days from when we started — it will draw to a close this Wednesday evening instead.

(Our teachers harbored no secret agenda in ending the class early.  No not-too-subtle message about the unpredictability of it all.  It was truly just a scheduling issue.)

I’ve learned from others that the “dissolution of the body” meditation which symbolically ends the class is a powerful one.  Frankly, I’m scared of it.  One person I know who experienced it said that this exercise is so visceral that he actually lost control of some, ah, bodily function when he did it.  So – yes – there are many reasons to be resisting all of this!

Someone asked our teacher, a hospice chaplain, about the main regrets people share on their death beds.  Number one, our teacher answered, is that they wish they’d said “I love you” more often.  Number two is that they wish they’d taken more vacation.  That’s it.  We’re pretty simple creatures when it comes right down to it.

In homage to love and appreciation of the journey, I’d like to share a passage I’ve been thinking about over and over again for the past several weeks.  It’s from the book “About Alice” by Calvin Trillin honoring his late wife:

Once, for the program at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp [a camp for children with cancer and blood diseases] gala, some volunteer counselors contributed short passages about their experiences at camp, and Alice wrote about one of the campers, a sunny little girl she called L.

At camp, Alice had a tendency to gravitate toward the child who needed the most help, and L. was one of those.

“Last summer, the camper I got closest to, L., was a magical child who was severely disabled,” Alice wrote.  “She had two genetic diseases, one which kept her from growing and one which kept her from digesting any food.  She had to be fed through a tube at night and she had so much difficulty walking that I drove her around in a golf cart a lot.  We both liked that.”

“One day, when we were playing duck-duck-goose, I was sitting behind her and she asked me to hold her mail for her while she took her turn to be chased around the circle.  It took her a while to make the circuit, and I had time to see that on top of the pile was a note from her mom.  Then I did something truly awful, which I’m reluctant now to reveal.  I decided to read the note.  I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered.”

“I snuck a quick look at the note, and my eyes fell on the sentence: ‘If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, L., we would only have chosen you.'”

“Before L. got back to her place in the circle, I showed the note to Bud, who was sitting next to me. ‘ Quick. Read this,’ I whispered.  ‘It’s the secret of life.'”

Let me thank you all, once again, for sticking with me throughout!

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One of the things that makes Halloween and the Day of the Dead interesting in my family is the skeleton we’ve had in the closet for 3 generations running.

While this may sound sinister or downright peculiar, let me assure you that Felix, as he’s known, holds a cherished position in our household.  For starters, he’s a silent but reliable teacher and a master at imparting lessons of impermanence.

Here’s a short essay I wrote about this, which was published on Salon.com today.

http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2010/10/30/skeleton_in_my_family

Some of the Salon readers suggest we should give him a proper burial.  Others think that as long as he fulfills the role of a teacher, it’s OK to keep him above ground.  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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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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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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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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"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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