A Little Bit Stuck

I will always remember that the springtime was extravagantly beautiful, the hillsides outrageously yellow, everything in raucous bloom, and I was somehow separate from it all. I missed the cycles of the moon, the push and pull of tides, the blazing of stars, the shifts of light and changes in the sky as days lengthened. Bright yellow orioles came to the honeysuckle, spreading their wings in sumptuous flashes of color.

But I have never been so sick and scared and stuck. It isn’t just the recovery from surgery; it’s debilitating insomnia and crippling anxiety, my own special demons. And I wish I had a more inspiring tale to tell you, but if you’re wondering where I’ve been…so have I. “You’re fading away,” said my husband in dismay.

It’s a long, strange, still-in-progress journey. I was doing better for a while, then went in the wrong direction, then, after four nights of not sleeping, I reached what I was certain was the low point of my life.

And yet somehow, if you get to the low point and survive, you realize that you are more durable than you thought, and you rally a bit to fight back. So much depends on sleep.

If I can just get some rest, I’m ready for whatever is required. I will have to be extremely disciplined and work hard and postpone a lot of good times, but this will be the year I dedicate to saving my life. I almost didn’t know that.

I realize this is all very general, and I’ll add to it later, but I’m too tired at the moment. I just thought I’d check in, because one of my favorite reader-friends was worried that perhaps I’d perished, particularly when my blog went inexplicably offline.

So more to follow. It’s good for me to write. It means I am becoming myself again. And I’ll spare you images of me at my most pitiable, but l have some funny vignettes to offer and some glints of light, and I’ve learned a few things. So I’ll be back. Is anyone still out there?

If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine...that’s what Rilke said.


If the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth. I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.

Yesterday I walked defiantly up the canyon in a howling wind, touched a tree. I’m in here somewhere.


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Here in the Glistening Green

The rain has come. The picture above is not recent, but it does give a sense of the greenness of the world and the way the leaves in the orchard glisten. The current reality, however, is wetter, drippier, and not so bright. The sky has silvery tones at times but mostly it’s just flat and gray. It’s been raining steadily, sometimes straight down, but sometimes sideways when the wind picks up. I’m feeling lethargic today, but I suppose if one is going to spend a day in bed, this is a good kind of day for it.

Rather than blogging regularly, I’ve been sending out email updates to friends, but a lot has happened since my previous post, and it seems like a good idea to check in. Maybe when I feel more ambitious I’ll turn the updates into a post, but for now I’m just sort of saying hello. Yesterday marked three weeks since the surgery.

There are good stretches and difficult ones. My life is about management of discomfort, and pacing myself. I’m trying not to lose perspective. Monte tells me that I am much stronger than I was, and yesterday I walked up the canyon all the way to a neighbor’s house and back. My biggest problem has come out of left field…or rather left eye…the eye is not properly blinking or creating tears, and by the end of the day, it becomes terribly dry and irritated.  I have eye drops, which don’t really provide more than a momentary balm, and friends have suggested patches and other remedies, but I’m still trying to figure it out. I ordered a moisture patch thing from Amazon…who knows when that will arrive? And I have an appointment with an ophthalmologist on Friday if we can get to Santa Barbara. In the meantime, I dread the evening hours when this thing starts to act up.

And yet…I need to remember that my tumor is unequivocally gone, and although I wish the healing would happen faster, there is every reason to believe that eventually I will be back to normal. I realize that there are people who go through far worse than this, battling cancer, for example, and despite all the suffering, they do not get better. I will get better.

It’s just a little harder than I expected.

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Grand Opening

Say the word cell.


Say the word take.


Say the word death.


My silence is a noisy whoosh, a great amorphous inhalation.

We are hurrying, waiting, enveloped by unfamiliar faces and smells, swept into the sprawling unglamorous mosaic of Los Angeles, following instructions, feeling unmoored, and suddenly it’s six a.m. and we have walked through a tunnel to the hospital basement, and a man named Michael with receding red hair is registering me.

“We’re the same age,”  Michael observes. His skin is like a pale clay mask, waxy. He inhabits this indoor space, and his job right now is to turn me into someone other than myself. Sign this. Sign this. Sign this. There are so many forms.

Michael was growing up right here while I was a child in Brooklyn, but he sees us as cohorts, and he wants to talk about Good Humor ice cream–the toasted coconut kind–and Helm’s bakery trucks, and baseball cards, and that powdery pink bubble gum smell that always clung to them. 

Why in God’s name are we talking about these things now? Normally, I would be charmed, but I don’t feel like being nice or nostalgic.

Nothing has begun, and I am hugely uncomfortable. Everything is pending.

Sign this. Sign this.

They need to type my blood. They need to hook up an IV. Just one more little poke. Sign this. I’m wearing a gown and strips of tape and wire. My things are taken away. My glasses have been removed. Sign this.

And the ceiling rushes forward like a train above me, its rhombus cars sliding along, disks and square panels of bright utilitarian glare, interior blues and whites that make me yearn for sky.

Sign this.

Sign this.

Just one more little poke.

I feel too small to be the center of all this fuss and frenzy. I feel exposed and breakable.

In walks the anesthesiologist. His name is Shlomo. Do you want me to make everything go away? he says, or would you like to see the room first? He tells me he’s had brain surgery himself, twice…here and here, he says, pointing vaguely to his forehead. 

That’s good, I murmur. And you’ve done this anesthesiology thing before?

It’s my very first time, he jokes.

And I’ve had enough of the hideous glare, the starship enterprise, the too-much light, the chilling garish brightness bearing down and drowning me. Everything goes away.


I am awake in a tunnel. Someone pokes me periodically. I am bound by cords and wires, peeing through a catheter. There is a nurse named Lizzie looming over me, and another named Sandy, who brings me ice chips and places her hand on my forehead so gently that I start to cry. I am completely and utterly helpless.

There is Robot Nurse, a rotund Asian woman who rides a cart with a computer screen and whose primary role seems to be inputting data on my behalf, and who speaks no English, and with whom I have no human connection at all. There is a traveling nurse named Ricardo, who looks like an Aztec god, and mixes up a pain cocktail to put into my IV, then slides down to the floor and sits in the corner of my room, taking a break. He is forty-seven, he says, but the best part of his life has not yet begun. He tells me to have no regrets. There is a nurse named Rolle, on his second shift, who hates the city and envies my Gaviota life, and wishes he could be hiking outdoors.  A man across the hall is screaming. It’s cold outside, or so I am told, and Los Angeles is a thrum of traffic, a current of diversity, a sloppy kind of energy, restless and chaotic. Everyone is working so hard.

Of course I think of my sister, and how I never really understood what she endured, and my brother, alone in his hospital bed in New York City.  I have never known physical suffering before. I have never had such an awareness of my own frailty. Sometimes my goal is to simply lean back and not hurt.

I must find a way to fight back. I must open myself to light and goodness. I must somehow move from this moment to the next.

Finally, I am allowed to go home. It takes us hours to make this happen, but at last I am in the car, and Monte is driving us back, and soon I will be in the best place on earth.


Little complexities arise. I have thrush. I have a low-grade fever. I must stay hydrated. I must conserve energy but somehow also keep myself engaged.

I’m laughing at my naivety. Somehow I honestly thought that people would want to hear about this journey. Somehow I thought that I would be going through this accompanied in some way, friends looking in, checking in, cheering me on. I am hilariously surprised by my own insignificance. Everyone is busy. And no one can take this struggle away from me.

I am learning so much. Here’s one thing: social media, facebook, instagram…all that stuff…there is no one there. Never mistake it for real.

I don’t even know why I am writing this blog post. Why do I keep telling and sharing? Is anyone really out there? I don’t know anymore if any of this means anything.

The strange procession of images and news clips, sordid, garish, appalling. How did these, among so many other possibilities, become our reality?

If I can get myself together again, I will do it all differently.  I will not waste my time with superficial nonsense. So many self-proclaimed gurus, so much self-promotion, so much noise.

I cherish those who have checked in. My friend Diane came by, smelling of the beautiful outside. She assured me that there will still be lots of work for us to do when I am strong again. Nothing is getting fixed right away. Barb has written to me from snowy Saratoga. There are so many flowers in my room right now, and so many kinds of sweets.

I pray for grace and strength. I  am on a raft on a river, carried by a current.

Are we here for one another? And why do I feel compelled to tell you about this? How much can we contain in silence, and why should we keep it to ourselves?

I love my husband. I love my home, my place. I love and miss my daughter. I am grateful for my broken and complicated family of origin, and I see now that they are still here for me.

I am grateful for my friends and community, but I realize that they are not who or what I had thought them to be, and I know that I am feeling a little bit sorry for myself right now.  I thought my immediate neighbors would seem more real. I overestimated my significance in this little village. But what can anyone do anyway?

Some friends check in with an email or a text now and then, and that means so very much to me. Terry, my friend who had this surgery ten months ago, is especially reassuring. Just when I fear there is something gravely wrong in how weak and exhausted I am feeling, she tells me she felt the same way: “What you are experiencing is very normal and exactly how I felt.  Do not push yourself just give into it.  It is going to be awhile before you are even close to your old self.  I think that I mostly slept the first two weeks and I dreaded driving all the way back to L.A. for the suture removal.  Although I was all too happy to have them removed and to see Dr. Slattery.  As I said before, I gave myself one solid month of doing nothing…and I mean nothing! Month two I still took it really easy moving around a little more but still resting a lot…”

Time. Silence. Waiting.

My sister turns out to be one of the most understanding of all correspondents. She knows.

Troy’s print is hanging on the wall in front of me. “Too Much Talk”…one of one, so oddly fitting.

Everything is muted. Half-tones.

It’s a beautiful day, misty and green. I will force myself to get up and step outside.

My thoughts are jumbled, inconclusive, amounting to nothing.

I never felt that I did enough, but maybe I didn’t do nothing.

I cannot imagine that one day this will be behind me. Such slow progress.

What becomes of all those words and thoughts? What deeds will have mattered? Maybe there was something entirely different I needed to understand. Belief becomes imperative.

Cellular changes. My ruby beaded scar. Muted mutations. The brain is wider than the sky.

I think this is the best I can do right now. It’s hard to write. If anyone is out there, thank you.


Here is my email update from the other day:

In case we didn’t already know that we must take nothing for granted, the universe has deemed that we shall have no internet access, denying us the pleasure of little communications to and from friends. Later today, Monte will gather me up, escort me down the long stairway, and drive us to the junction of the 1 and 101 where there is usually a robust surge of wi-fi, and we’ll see if anything new comes in. (It reminds me of the girls at Nojoqui waiting for the Pony Express in the early 1900s.) Then we’ll head back south, pausing to look at the colors of the sea and Santa Rosa Island, and back to my bed-nest, which is where I am right now.

I have no illusions about how much I am suffering. Beloved members of my own family of origin endured the ravages of acute and chronic physical illness far beyond my own ability to imagine it. They were stoic and brave, fighting back as they could, but by and large consigned to the cruel randomness of their allotted fates, while I so casually inhabited my haven of perfect health, free to take it all for granted. What I am feeling today would have been a pretty good day for my sister, probably one of her best.

My father, too, if asked how he was doing, inevitably would have said “Can’t kick.” Tomorrow I will turn 67, the very age he was when he died, and I don’t know why that feels significant, but it does. (Then again, everything seems momentous.) But I’m not one to understate this challenge and say “Can’t kick”, because I sure can! I am a kvetcher and hyper-verbalizer from way back. I tend to tell people how I really feel. And yes, this is hard!

I have so much going for me, and I think each day will get a little better, but right now, it sucks. I hasten to add that I’m not in “pain”. I’m just very tentative, weak, and uncomfortable. My body is confused, and it feels different inside my head; sometimes a stuffiness, but sometimes more of an emptiness, an avenue with no traffic. No whoosh, no tintinittus, thank God, but the mild weather of bewilderment.

Oh, I am so incredibly grateful to know the tumor is unequivocally gone, but I must now acknowledge that stitches feel a little tight and tingly, and everything is half again as quiet, and I never understood how many micro-adjustments are involved in every moment of being alive. I also have a different sense of time. Maybe I thought time was linear, but now it seems more like a web in which we float, each of us separate, but connected as well. Internal, external, depends how you look at it. I open a page of a bedside book at random…Dan Gerber’s Particles: “Is a honey bee one being, or an element of one being?” And I walk through the snowscape of a beautiful book my daughter gave me, Silence in The Age of Noise, by Errling Kagge, and it seems so very fitting for this quiet time when suddenly I can no longer busy myself with this and that, pivoting away from the questions, avoiding confrontation with whoever I am when I am present.

Anyway, you can go ahead and feel a little sorry for me if you want.

I have always had a tendency to look to my history for what is real, and those people and things do matter, but I am beginning to see now that what is also real and meaningful are the kindnesses and messages that arise from more recent and often unexpected sources. The friends who sent us meals and care packages, beautiful words from Jeanne about our post-rain walks in the canyon, notes and socks and promises, books to read and think about, Lindy welcoming me into the fellowship of strong women…so much generosity. I want to talk to each of you individually, and I will, but for now, please know that you have helped. I am grateful too for more esoteric gifts: an arrowhead dislodged by my heel as I walked up the canyon recently, the prayer flags placed for me by friends of friends somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, the wren song in the morning, this little room filled with light. Why should I not accept all this as real, and even personal? I have spent too much time bound by barriers and constructs.

When I was in the hospital at the nadir of my misery last week, I looked up at one point and saw my husband standing there, and a sense of love and humility and gratitude filled me to the core of my being. But of course being Cynthia-the-haunted, I suddenly flashed back to my poor mother, lying in her bed not long before she died, and the appreciation and love that registered on her face when she looked up to see me, and that memory made me start to cry, because I knew I meant that much to her, and I wasn’t there enough. And then I remembered that we are never there enough, and we can never do enough, but that is not the point. I felt love as a force, not a means but the thing itself, and I saw it as real and powerful and everlasting. It is the animus, the spirit, the eternal, the energy of what we may even choose to call God.

I realize that my recovery process is not something you all need to be updated about daily, but it feels good to “talk” about it, and easier right now to send out this group email. I’ll get things better sorted out soon. Maybe in time we’ll even re-enter modern times and get some reliable service out here. It’s interesting to realize how much I count on that link to the world. I suppose it’s actually infuriating, but I don’t seem able to muster up the anger. I’m more focused on whether I can walk without wobbling and manage a good night of sleep. We may even try a hair wash later. Meanwhile, I know there is a lot I am missing that would only upset me if the barrage of “news” was coming in, and since I’m not ready to get back into the fight, there’s no point in diffusing mental energy.

So tomorrow will be the strangest of birthdays. I loved birthday #10. And #35, in Baja with the bike friends by the campfire, Steve and I refusing to abandon that whipped cream mocha cake. And every birthday ever with the little girl who made us laugh and remember wonder.

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It’s So Personal

It’s my last Sunday with a tumor. Tomorrow morning we’ll be heading down to Los Angeles for a series of pre-op appointments, then we’ll spend what I am sure will be a delightful night in a residence adjacent to the hospital, and I’ll be wheeled in for The Grand Opening early Tuesday morning. This has been a big distraction for some time now, and I look forward to having it behind me and engaging in the world again, in both frivolous and constructive ways.

A couple of years ago, I ran into someone who told me that she had come across my book by chance, and having nothing else to read, picked it up and read it. There was a pause, and I waited, and I finally dared to ask what she thought of it. Her reply: “It’s so personal.”

Well, there you have it. I’m a personal kind of person, and my writing reflects that, and I long ago made the decision that this blog, which no one is required to read anyway, will be as personal as it wants to be. I’m just talking here, maybe mostly to myself, and the wonder of it is that sometimes I connect with others too, and if my experiences, questions, and reflections make somebody else feel a little less alone, I’m happy about that.

And today the topic is acoustic neuroma surgery, because that’s what I’m about to undergo this week, and it’s kind of a big deal to me. Also, I know I’m not the only one who will come upon such a detour on the road of life, so I’m hoping my report might be helpful.

The type of operation I am having is called a translabyrinthine craniotomy, a delicate micro-surgery in which the semicircular canals and vestibule of the inner ear are removed with a surgical drill to get to the tumor, which is located on the vestibular portion of the eighth cranial nerve.  At this point a neurosurgeon steps in to perform the actual task of extricating the tumor. Then the flap around my ear, having been opened like a doorway, will be stitched shut, and I’ll be good to go. Eight hours will have passed, but I’ll wake up thinking it was no time at all.

I’ll be very pleased to have the tumor gone. It’s benign, and it’s not even very large, but it’s in a tricky location, inextricably linked to balance and hearing, and it can cause even more serious problems as it grows. I’ll be completely deaf forever in the affected ear after the operation, but I’ve already lost a lot of hearing on that side anyway, so maybe I won’t really notice, and I am told that the translabyrinthine approach is more likely than other approaches to keep facial nerve functioning intact.  I’m also going to a place which is world-renowned for this type of procedure, with experienced surgeons, and I guess at some point, it’s a matter of faith.

But one reason I want to talk about it freely is because the willingness of others to do so helped me greatly, and being candid and forthcoming is my way of beginning to “pay it forward”. One woman in particular, whose name is Terry, had the same operation  less than a year ago, and she has become my acoustic-neuroma-surgery guide and role model. Terry has been honest about the challenges of the recovery process, but she is also living evidence that I’ll probably be just fine. She is thriving, robust and sunny-natured, and I feel better just looking at her. She even gave me a pretty scarf to wrap around my head. It’s the proverbial kindness of strangers, although she doesn’t seem like a stranger anymore.

And my relationships have deepened with people who were already not strangers. It’s a funny flip side to the vulnerability and anxiety, a reminder that I have many fine fellow travelers in my life, and I’m so very grateful for the encouragement and love from these dear ones near and far.

I appreciate the prayers too, prayers in all forms, whatever they are. I especially like knowing that prayer flags are fluttering in the wind right now at the foothills of the Himalayas, placed there by a friend of a friend, with me in mind.

I know very well that others are going through struggles far worse, and I don’t want to overestimate my own significance in the universe, but I do feel a little shaky right now. I’m willing to receive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ideas that were discussed during the “On Being” gathering last week, and I still intend to revisit these, but for now it’s just interesting to note how it all comes together. I want to talk about life on the Möbius Strip, and making my inner truth become the plumb line for the choices I make about my life. On the cusp of  my own Grand Opening, I am hoping that my true self will step into the light, and I will awaken into wholeness. And I’ll tell you about it, because telling is what I do.

Seems like a good moment to quote William Stafford:

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
Though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

But I guess I’m about to fall silent for a few days. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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It has become a ritual. We set the alarm, bundle up, go outside, and stand on the deck looking westward and up, sometimes feeling silly. Why are we so drawn to these spectacles in the sky that we rouse ourselves from good sleep and a warm bed to watch? I think of it as an acknowledgment of wonder, and whether it’s a meteor shower, an eclipse, or a rocket launch, I feel compelled to be present, observing.

This morning the show was the launch of the SpaceX Starlink Falcon 9. Vandenberg Air Force base is about fifteen miles from here, just over the mountains, and although these space age launches seem to contrast oddly with Gaviota’s bucolic hills and cattle ranches, proximity to the coast and low population density render the area well-suited for the purpose. The base launched its first ballistic missile in 1958 and soon became the regular site for test firings of strategic missile weapon systems and polar-orbiting satellite launches.

I remember my friend Bob Isaacson’s description of the surreal sight of an Atlas missile launch during a post-branding barbecue he attended at Las Cruces Ranch in the 1960s. Cowboys fell silent as the white column collapsed and spiraled in the winds, and then someone stood up and booed. “We knew things would never be the same,” Bob said.

Decades later, the launches still seem somehow dissonant and incongruous, but there is also something undeniably exciting about them.  It was cold outside this morning, but we were filled with anticipation. We heard the sound of a canyon wren as we opened the door, and the sky was already growing light, and at the precisely scheduled moment, a fiery shape emerged above the hills, soaring into the sky, followed by a long white plume, curling and swirling and shifting shape.

We watched until the exhaust grew pale and dispersed, and all pieces of the rocket faded away above the sea, and the rumbling gradually subsided, but one morning planet-star still glimmered bright. (Jupiter, perhaps?)

Then we lingered as dawn unfolded in rose tones above the hills.

And I actually intended to go back to bed, but there were far too many distractions. Sunlight was streaming into the kitchen, and there was a beautiful grapefruit on the counter, and Monte made me coffee and himself a cup of tea, and I watched the steam rising above his cup as though it were amazing.

Wonders abound.

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Things Hard To Contain

Sometimes I plan and think about a post before I blog. (Oh, that word, “blog”… it’s so ugly and dismissive.) Right now, though, I am typing quickly in a stream-of-consciousness way, maybe because this space has become a touchstone to me, and while I know I am talking out loud to a few people, I’m also talking to myself.

I’ve already posted two entries about the “On Being” gathering from which I just returned, and when I revisit them I see that they focused a lot on my own uncertainty and introvert tendencies. It’s interesting how the process of writing reveals so much about what we are experiencing. It is as Patricia Hampl said, “I don’t write about what I know; I write in order to find out what I know.”

But little by little I hope to talk less about my personal feelings and report a little more about the content of the conversations and presentations. There are so many things to write and think about in this post-gathering reflection time. I have so many pages of notes, diligent student that I am.

Dipping into my notebook, I see that a topic that came up early on and more than once was prayer, described as a form for the amorphous, a container for things that are hard to contain, a rhythm that helps us to make sense out of senselessness. I was particularly drawn to ideas about praying because a few days earlier a dear friend of mine had told me that she and her Bible study sisters are praying for me as I get ready to face my surgery next week. My friend is a believer, a deacon of her church, and a kind and caring fellow traveler, and although my own beliefs have grown shaky over the years, her kindness and certainty are comforting. She reminded me how Anne LaMott had distilled prayer into three basic types–help, thanks, and wow–and I get it. I’m feeling all three to the depths of my being; I may as well utter the words. Sometimes I think I have lost my voice entirely, muted by the onslaught of everything, but maybe I have been praying all along.

Come to think of it, I felt like I was praying during a lovingkindness meditation session I attended. And sometimes I pray when I walk, with each touch of my foot on good ground. Writing too can be a kind of praying, or am I letting myself off too easily? And love most certainly is…love, which Parker Palmer, one of my favorite of the presenters at the conference, said is a word we must bring back in a more robust and grounded way. Truth, he said, is an eternal conversation conducted with passion and discipline about things that matter, and love is not a quality of God, it is the unleashing of God. We live in what he called the “tragic gap” between harsh realities and what we know is possible. We walk in that gap knowing it will never be closed, but we keep trying.

There was a lot of discussion at the gathering about joining one’s inner life with one’s outer presence in the world, and I’m not at all sure what that means, but I’m pondering. And I don’t expect instant answers. I’m reminded here of something Naomi Shihab Nye said, quoting from one of her poems; it was something like this: “You’re not living the whole thing at once./That’s what a minute said to an hour./Without me, you’re nothing.”

And of course there was a mention of the late and beloved William Stafford, who said, “Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be.”

So that’s what I’m doing, trying to figure it out, still a pilgrim at a point in life when I probably should be a wise elder. I think it was Marilyn Nelson who described a dream she had in which reality was a dark space where the only light that enters comes through those who allow it to come through themselves. Unless we open ourselves up like that and in so doing become the light, we will continue to flounder in the dark. I’m trying to stay open, which is an ironic thing to say when I am about to have my ear opened like a door and my head cut into.

And all of these thoughts have been prompted by just the first  few pages of my “On Being” notebook, but yes, we’re not living the whole thing all at once, and now it’s time for a walk. I need to see what the wind and the trees in the canyon have to say.

In exactly one week, I will be in the ICU recovering from The Grand Opening, which has been so long pending, and it will be so good to have it behind me. But it has yielded unexpected gifts: a renewed appreciation for my circle of loving friends and family near and far, and a startling clarity and intensity in the way I am perceiving the sensations of being alive, as though everything has been amped up into high resolution. It’s a little like what ee cummings said, “be unto love/as rain is unto colour”… my world is saturated.

In the meantime, I think it’s important to remember that everyone is struggling, and we have all lost something dear. Naomi read this poem, “In Transit” at the gathering, and I want to share it here:

I mailed a package to myself, it never arrived.
Months later, wondering what it contained…
the package was oversized, I paid extra.
Mailed it from a place under trees. Surely shade
and sunlight was in the package. Mailed it
from a place compassionate to refugees.
Unopened envelopes inside the package,
poems from kind students hoping for response.
How do we answer without knowing
who they were or what they said?
This is why you must smile at everyone,
living and dead, everywhere you go.
You have no idea what has been lost
in transit.

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She Hums Along

Walking down the hall to the shared bathroom in the morning with my toilet kit in hand, I had a déjà vu sensation that it was 1970, and I was living in a college dorm. When I entered the bathroom, two bright-eyed young women were standing side by side at the sinks washing and grooming and chatting. “Have you always written poetry?” one was saying to the other. “Always,” she replied, with a mouth full of toothpaste. “Even as a kid…I find it very sustaining.”

It was 6 a.m. I needed coffee. I hadn’t slept well. I wanted to be open and friendly, and I sincerely admired the ability to discuss the role of poetry in one’s life at 6 a.m., but I had a vague headache and I was feeling old and irritable, and, as I said, I needed coffee.

It was one of those “What am I doing here?” moments, and in the course of the weekend, I was to experience many. But I heeded the advice of my friend Dan, who told me to remember Rilke: Just keep going. No feeling is final.

And no feeling was. Whenever I felt strange and disconnected, some lifeline would inevitably appear, in the form of an unexpected conversation, a gesture of friendliness, perhaps a memorable fragment of wisdom or poetry, and everything would shift. Or sometimes I simply walked the trails beneath the redwood trees, those reliably awe-inspiring and perspective-restoring ancient beings.

I tuned into gratitude, too…how lucky I was to be there! I understood that I was the recipient of a special opportunity, and I only hoped that I would prove worthy, and that of course led to feeling insecure and misplaced, but…well, no feeling is final.

One evening at dusk, I bravely entered the hot tub-infinity pool already inhabited by nineteen (I counted them) people. They were young and intense, lots of tattooed skin and hipster glasses, little groups engaged in animated conversation about the issues of the day, and the meaning of art, a young African-American man in dreadlocks quoting Reverend William Barber, Maria Popova herself in a black bathing suit and very red lipstick, and the steamy mist rising like their words from the water, drifting upward beyond the tops of the redwood trees, and I could not believe I was in the same pool with these people, a part but apart, perched on my own little section of ledge, but everyone’s glistening bodies so close together, and perhaps our aspirations were aligned, but I cannot say. (And I only wish that I could harness my power of invisibility for the good of humanity!)

Again and again, I found I lacked the energy, skill, and confidence to effectively navigate the social dynamics, meet some of the people I admired, join the community, and become part of the noise. I had come in search of wisdom, inspiration, and tangible ideas to carry forward, but I’m a hard-of-hearing introvert, after all, and I guess I would have had to work harder to connect with other people in real ways, and I discovered I don’t have the ambition.

In fact, when Marilyn Nelson read the following poem, called Bird-Feeder, I thought to myself, “Exactly!”:

Approaching seventy, she learns to live,
at last. She realizes she has not
accomplished half of what she struggled for,
that she surrendered too many battles
and seldom celebrated those she won.
Approaching seventy, she learns to live
without ambition: a calm lake face, not
a train bound for success and glory. For
the first time, she relaxes her hands on the
controls, leans back to watch the coming end.
Asked, she’d tell you her life is made out of
the things she didn’t do, as much as the
things she did do. Did she sing a love song?
Approaching seventy, she learns to live
without wanting much more than the light in
the catbird window seat where, watching the
voracious fist-sized tweets, she hums along.

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Just Beyond Yourself Is Where You Need To Be

We convened among redwood trees, four hundred participants who had come to listen, learn, and be present with one another. It was an experiment. Whoever was there were the right people, and whatever happened would be the only thing that could have happened. Krista Tippett welcomed us, mentioning the tumult and tenderness in the world, and acknowledging that we are living through a time of disarray, despair, and destruction–but reminding us that this is not the whole story. The hopeful and creative story of our time is one less publicized, and we would focus on that…through generous listening, words that matter, patience, hospitality, adventurous civility, and humility. It was a lofty declaration, and a vague one, and a little like a prayer.

People milled about during breaks, some sitting in collegial little groups, and whether old friends or new acquaintances, they were talking and laughing, and I realized I could become less alone if I were more assertive about approaching people, but I stood awkwardly apart. One learns many lessons at such events, and the most significant are unexpected realizations that have nothing to do with topics on the program. I learned (again) that I am unequivocally an introvert. I have a dear circle of friends, but I don’t know how to access or navigate large groups of strangers, and such situations deplete rather than stimulate me. Entering the dining hall for meals was always the hardest, carrying a tray to an empty place, and sitting there alone like the weird friendless girl in the middle school cafeteria. Maybe there’s an awkward middle school child inside each of us, but some conceal it better than others. In any case, I definitely felt the grounding virtue of humility. And eventually, a couple of kind-hearted women joined me, and we chatted and explored the premises a bit, and things improved after that just by sort of knowing someone.

What helped even more was poetry. David Whyte spoke the perfect words (in his beautiful Irish accent). He talked about generosity, about giving and being more than you think you can and are. “Just beyond yourself,” he said. “Is where you need to be.” He talked about friendship, too, and how a friend bears witness, more than anything else, a friend sees you. And he talked about being brave, about doing things right now that will make you the ancestor of future happiness. “Live in this place as you were meant to,” he said, “and then, surprised by your abilities, become the ancestor of it all…”

It had never occurred to me before, but I thought about the young girl I was in 1981, setting out on my journey to California, and how she was the ancestor of the happiness I have known. And of course I wondered if there are things I can still do today that will help to yield better days tomorrow, even when I am gone. It takes persistence, a pact with the world and with oneself, and I silently promised that I would try.

Here is Coleman’s Bed, the poem David Whyte read that carried me off into the night with courage and conviction:

Make a nesting now, a place to which
the birds can come, think of Kevin’s
prayerful palm holding the blackbird’s egg
and be the one, looking out from this place
who warms interior forms into light.
Feel the way the cliff at your back
gives shelter to your outward view
and then bring in from those horizons
all discordant elements that seek a home.

Be taught now, among the trees and rocks,
how the discarded is woven into shelter,
learn the way things hidden and unspoken
slowly proclaim their voice in the world.
Find that far inward symmetry
to all outward appearances, apprentice
yourself to yourself, begin to welcome back
all you sent away, be a new annunciation,
make yourself a door through which
to be hospitable, even to the stranger in you.

See with every turning day,
how each season makes a child
of you again, wants you to become
a seeker after rainfall and birdsong,
watch now, how it weathers you
to a testing in the tried and true,
admonishes you with each falling leaf,
to be courageous, to be something
that has come through, to be the last thing
you want to see before you leave the world.

Above all, be alone with it all,
a hiving off, a corner of silence
amidst the noise, refuse to talk,
even to yourself, and stay in this place
until the current of the story
is strong enough to float you out.

Ghost then, to where others
in this place have come before,
under the hazel, by the ruined chapel,
below the cave where Coleman slept,
become the source that makes
the river flow, and then the sea
beyond. Live in this place
as you were meant to and then,
surprised by your abilities,
become the ancestor of it all,
the quiet, robust and blessed Saint
that your future happiness
will always remember.

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Not There

 I live on two levels: here, which is a pretty nice place to be, and there, which is a thick morass of sadness and remorse about things in the past, strewn with jagged rocks of worry about what’s to come.

I was talking about this recently to Dan, my pen pal, poet-friend, and accidental mentor, whom I’ve mentioned more than once in this blog. Dan has often suggested meditation to me, but in his last email, he expounded on this in a way I could relate, meditation in an everyday form, by which he meant “those moments unencumbered by the notion of a substantial self –when I’m walking the dog, reading or writing a poem, or, as I am at this moment, apparently writing to you– as well as the sitting I do in the morning with a cup of coffee after feeding and walking the dogs…”

He went on to say that this everyday kind of meditation “is inseparable from poetry and art of every kind, ‘a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration’, as Elizabeth Bishop defined the conditions necessary for creating or appreciating art.”

And at one point he presented this exquisite thought from Angelus Silesius (c. 1624-1677) a German priest, physician, poet, and mystic of the Catholic church:

“God, whose love is everywhere, can’t come to visit you unless you aren’t there.”

It’s a chilly morning…Monte just handed me a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, like a chalice of sunlight to drink in the present.

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When I was a child, I had trouble choosing books…and it occurs to me I still do. I think then, as now, it was because I felt overwhelmed by the wide array of possibilities. There were just too many titles from which to choose. And it wasn’t a decision to be made casually, because I had discovered early on that books could exert a great deal of power over me, and just as a good one could draw me into its story and transport me to another time and place, the wrong one could infect my mood like a hard-to-shake bad dream.

I remember, for example, reading a book about a family of dolls who were lost on an island, and it was dark and creepy, the dolls far from home and wandering, disoriented, in a shadowy forest. Although I didn’t particularly care for the dolls, who seemed wooden and false, I felt lost and disoriented with them. I plodded through the book anyway, but I hated every moment of it.

In general, I preferred real life to fantasy, and I liked things that were written in a straight-forward style, not too challenging. I was easily distracted, lazy, and frivolous. Some of my happiest reading binges involved comic books and candy. (Twenty cents could buy a comic plus two nickel candy bars. Heaven was cheap in those days.)

But I discovered a fondness for biography, and I came upon a dependable collection in the school library called the Landmark series, which served up children’s versions of the tales of Dolly Madison, Davy Crockett, Betsy Ross, and various others…most of them white and patriotic, of unquestionable virtue, and responsible in some way for founding or expanding our nation. In general, I seem to have preferred stories about women, and I was particularly fascinated by Amelia Earhart and her mysterious disappearance. But I was also enamored of Abraham Lincoln, who is still as dear to me as if I’d known him in real life. I remember crying when I read about his assassination, and hoping maybe I’d meet him in heaven someday. (In my defense, I was only about eight years old.)

And yet, of all the biographies I read during my biography spree, the one I recall most vividly was Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross. I remember it not so much for the details about Clara Barton’s life, but for its telling of her death. It was 1912, and she was in her 90s, bedridden with pneumonia. In her final moments she perhaps imagined herself to be once more on the Civil War battlefields, tending to the wounded, and she struggled to sit up, while “tender hands” restrained her. Nearly sixty years after reading this book, I thought I could still remember the last lines:

“Let me go!”  she cried. “Let me go!” 

And she was gone. 

Now that, I thought, is good writing! It was melodramatic and morbid, and I was deeply moved. It made me sad, but in an inspiring way, and although I had no inclinations toward nursing, I thought maybe someday I could be a writer.

Clearly those lines had significance to me if I could still recite them decades later, but I recently became curious about whether I was remembering them correctly. And because we live in a time when we can do this, I searched online and found a used copy of the book, which was published in 1955. Days later, it was in my hands:

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