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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:

Read the rest of this entry »

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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The Good Samaritan in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris

204 days remain

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

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

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

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

And how to do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever joy there is in this world

All comes from desiring others to be happy,

And whatever suffering there is in this world

All comes from desiring myself to be happy.


Have a great week, everyone!

Learn more:

Sitting Quietly, Do Something New York Times, Daniel Goleman

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

Compassion Meditation Changes the Brain, Science Daily


Try this at home:

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

Mindfulness meditation instructions

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

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

Click here for instructions

Facets of Metta, Sharon Salzberg

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Banksy's Beat Up Buddha

211 days remain

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

For me, it was love at first sight.

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

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

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

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

So I plunked down 25 pounds and bought it.

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

And then I waited.

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

“What does it mean?”  I asked.

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

“Great!  Keep going,” I encouraged.

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

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

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

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

Banksy-inspired art

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218 days remain

William Sloane Coffin

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

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

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

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

William Sloane Coffin’s Eulogy for Alex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, in Emily Dickinson’s verse:

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

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

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

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

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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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