Every Stitch a Prayer

Last week, I  packed my chemo bag for the last time.  I called it my carry-on.  My infusion takes the same amount of time as a transatlantic flight.  At the end of those long days, there was no crackling announcement by a flight attendant to stow laptops and raise tray tables– no welcome to Paris or London or Rome– but there was a sense with each round that I was one step closer to that being possible for us again.

When I packed my “carry-on bag” every 21 days, I did not fly alone. The quilt that kept me warm was made by a dear friend.  Ben, my favorite traveling (through life) companion, was next to me every minute of every hour of every session.  We talked. He read or worked.  Even though my carry-on included a charged Kindle, AirPods, and a good playlist/podcast mix, I  usually used the time to be quiet and reflect.  The time passed– just like it does on a plane.   

The nurses moved in and out like angels.  My doctor and nurse practitioner encouraged me and kept me informed.  The nurse navigator kept me on track.  We were surrounded by people no one could see: the pop-up compassionate community that surrounds Ben and me. 

When I was first diagnosed, a friend said, “You have given a lot; now you are going to learn to receive.”   

In the days, weeks, and months since then, her words have stayed with me.  Now that I am a student of receiving, I have learned more about its reciprocal process: the art of giving. 

I’ve learned that gifts are not weighted.  A generous impulse is just right, and kindness is never wasted.  People act and stone soup grace transforms every action into bounty.  I’ve learned that when we show up, we are not the only ones showing up. We all show up in different ways: a quick game of cards, a meal, a book, a movie recommendation, a conversation, ice cream, flowers, granola, colored pencils, or a link to an article or a song from Spotify.   People show up through their cards, texts, emails, Facebook messages, and prayers across three faith traditions. They show up with tangible gifts of beauty and comfort.  People show up, figuratively and literally, to walk with me.  

The gift is always just right, strengthening a safety net wrought of glorious and shimmering threads of grace.  The fibers are made strong with every generous move, tiny or big. 

 When I went for my first chemo infusion, I heard someone ringing a bell.  “That will be you before you know it,” said the nurse.  She then explained that the bell was rung at the end of the final round of chemo.  The nurse was right.  Suddenly I was done, and it was my turn.  The nurses applauded as I rang the bell; I rang it loud.  I rang it for me. I rang it for Ben. I rang it with gratitude for the doctors and nurses.  I rang it for all the love and support from our family and friends that got us to this point in treatment.  I rang it for the women that entered the trial that became a cure in 2005. This was the first part of the treatment. There are more phases.  But I think this was the worst part. 

I am astonished  when people  say, “I wish I could do more.”  Because now I know the secret. Every stitch and stir, every meal, and every encouraging word is a prayer.  Even the tiniest act of kindness is a pretty big deal. 

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This Way to a Happy Marriage

On Sunday night I sat across the table from my husband at a restaurant with huge windows that opened onto the sidewalk.  It was a moon-drenched night — just as it was in Honolulu the night my parents got married.  

It would have been their 68th wedding anniversary. I recently found the contract for the Luau/reception that was held in the garden at my grandmother’s house in Hawaii: singers, dancers, drummers,  and torches.  There was my mother’s signature: “Miss Barbara Ann Elliott” and then, in parenthesis, “(for the last time).”  Her name would change.  Her life would change.  And so would his.  

Sitting in the restaurant with Ben, I was feeling all of it– how we all step lightly and stomp our way through this transitory life.  As a child, I came across a storage closet that teemed with the surplus favors from my parents’ wedding: white porcelain ashtrays with their nicknames embossed in gold: Sparky and Lefty.  And the date: 1954. I can feel the cool of that round shape in my palm at the moment of that discovery  But they are gone now. 

I looked at my husband across the table. “Let’s play a game,” I said. “Let’s take turns coming up with bits of marriage advice.  It will be fun.”  

“No,” he said.  “And I can tell you are writing something.”

“Close,” I said.  “I want to give my writing friend, Jonathan, some advice. He’s getting married and advice from you would be golden.”

“I knew it was something like that,” he said.  “My advice is going to be very different from yours.”

“Well, it can’t be that different. We are living this beautiful life together.”  

“I don’t know– it won’t have anything to do with yellow checked napkins and fresh blueberries for breakfast.”

We both laughed at this parody of my idea of living a beautiful life together. 

He relented. He leaned back in his chair, “Be attentive. Care.  Love your wife.”

That was it. Simple and profound. Golden. A summation of the true with integrity.  I echo it back:

“Be attentive. Care.  Love your husband”

It is the best advice.  Anything I add is commentary, but here it is… for my friend Jonathan.

  1. Don’t go to bed angry.  And if you do, don’t stay in the same bed.  It is a toxic feeling. But wait… if you do move to the couch, the chance of her foot finding yours or yours finding hers is gone.  Don’t go to bed angry.
  1. The most important thing I can say is this: happiness in a marriage cannot survive contempt… contempt for one another, for one’s self, contempt for one another’s families. 
  1.  Don’t be afraid to be the couple that doesn’t talk in a restaurant– that couple you said you would never be.  It turns out that couple may have learned comfort in companionable silence. 
  1. Walk the dog together– not every day (it is only right you should take turns), but sometimes. 
  1. Being authentic, accepted, and loved does not mean you showcase your worst qualities to put your partner to the test. Don’t.
  1. You are composing a life together with disparate elements: pathos and fear and sadness are balanced with beauty and serendipity and hope.  Be intentional.
  1. It is really tempting to leave it all on the field when trying to get a reaction from your partner.  Things fall apart and things come together.  Be patient.  You can wait for a reaction.
  1. Your story is not the only story in this marriage.  This is an odyssey with two heroes.  Be an appreciative witness to one another’s epic journeys. 
  1. Travel.  Pick apples. Plan stuff. Plan perfection and don’t despair when your plans don’t turn out perfectly.  You have a lifetime to get it right. 
  1. Be very wary of throwing around the “D” word to get a reaction.  Divorce is a hard word to get back in the bag. 
  1. Sharing beauty together is a form of prayer. Share sunsets and moonlight and dawn and music and plays and movies and festivals.   Reach for each other’s hands when you do.
  1. Dance.
  1. Make the bed.  
  1. Set the table.  
  1. Invite each other in.
  1. Save stories from the day for each other.
  1. Create traditions and rituals together that are yours. Honor traditions that make sense. Let go of the ones that no longer do.
  1. When children come, welcome them.

To sum it up:  Be attentive.  Care.  Love your spouse. 

This goes well with yellow checked napkins and fresh blueberries.  

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Camel Saddle Christmas

The year that my sister and I got camel saddles was the Christmas we never stopped talking about.  

In 1966 we lived in a fashionable suburb of Cairo.  Our villa was just a few blocks away from the vast Sahara desert, where we would sometimes walk after dinner with our parents.  That Christmas night we placed the camel saddles we’d received that morning at the end of our beds.  We sat on them and sang.  When we ran out of songs, we made up stories, and when we ran out of stories, we described all that we saw– for now our camel saddles had transported us and we were on a journey that we helped one another see.  We described the infinite number of stars suspended in an ink-black sky, with no water to reflect it.  This was the first of the imaginary desert rides we would take.  There were more. Cross-legged on those saddles, we dreamed futures and told each other’s fortunes. These fortunes involved a mix of TWA, Pan AM, the UN, and Broadway.  Neither of us did any of those things, but symbolically those dreams foretold who we would be. 

My sister is gone now, but the camel saddles remain as my Christmas image in that snow globe that shakes up flurries of memory and longing and gratitude.  Now I travel without her under that vast sky– an epic journey begun together, continuing in stillness in the growing light of Christmas each year. Alone and yet never without her.

My sister, my parents, and my brother were writers.  They wrote letters and journals and stories– leaving a trail of anecdotes and laughter set free by the typewriter ribbon and held in place by the ink on the page. 

In going through my mother’s papers, I found a letter that she had written to her mother.  She was writing about our Christmas in 1966. In it she said that the worst thing had happened: the Christmas presents had not arrived from the States.  By the time the final post came and she realized the presents were not in it, the shops had closed on Christmas Eve.  She made her way to the market at the Mosque in the center of Cairo.  She clearly despaired as she wrote: “All I could really find for the girls were a couple of camel saddles.  If they were disappointed, they didn’t show it.”  

Had she not known?  Had we never told her?  Those camel saddles carried us into our futures as we sang the epic song of a childhood Christmas year after year.

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It Is Not JUST Your Imagination

Twilight on the Nile by Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner

Once I had a student from Egypt who asked me for a word in English.  He took an Arabic word I did not know and created a picture of it in my mind.  “Mrs. Campbell,” he asked, “What is it called when it is no longer day, but not yet night?”

“Twilight,” I answered. 

I was struck by the way he was able to arrange and use the words he knew to seek the word he did not– and that he was able to do it in such a poetic and imaginative way.  The Latin root of imagination was clearly in play: imaginari–“to picture to oneself.”

By its very nature, imagination resists being confined by language. It is easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. Imagination is not the potter or the clay, but it’s the animating force that gives form and shape to inspiration.  It is not the artist or the canvas, but it is the relationship between the two.  It is not the story or the teller, but it is the dreamlike image conjured and brought to life with carefully chosen words.   It is not pedagogy or practice; it is the bridge between the two.  Imagination is the twilight space between the desire to know and knowledge.

Imagination can work with limitations. It understands rules, respects meaningful convention; it can thrive within parameters. It shrinks and shrivels under the inflexible command of conformity.  It has to be honored. It grows with space for play and expression. It shrinks when it is trivialized and dismissed as “make-believe.”  

Without imagination, our ideas calcify and begin to sort themselves into tired creeds of collective group think.  Without imagination, we are unable to tell our story, or worse,  we are unable to imagine a new story for ourselves and for others. Disdain and cynicism mask a lack of imagination and masquerade as sophistication.  

With imagination, we integrate new ideas with old ideas that work.  We begin to organize and reorganize our thoughts and narratives through the creative process.  We shape and reshape elements of our lives and knowledge in new ways.   We begin to adopt an attitude of simplicity, returning again and again to “beginner’s mind” to see ideas with fresh eyes.  We strike word against image and then wait in the space between what we know and what what we seek to learn.  We wait with reverence and patience for the blaze of insight and discovery.   The possible is hope, not failure.  Our work in the in-between places of “not yet” becomes art.

The artist and the intellectual are not mutually exclusive– both  seek to use imagination and creativity to harmonize thought and events in new ways.  

Our imagination enables us to see the universal in the particular–and then to test the particular, through theory and hypothesis, for universal truth.  

No academic discipline should exclude imagination and storytelling. When we teach imagining possibilities we teach human beings to play heroic roles in their own narratives, and to identify and embrace the narratives that are not their own with heroes that do not look or think like them. Imagination plays a vital role in connection, compassion, and renewal. In her beautiful essay, When I was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson wrote: “Story is an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” 

When imagination is honored, it shows up.  Because imagination is born through image, it often shows up as metaphor– an image that can reveal ideas and deepen thinking. Metaphors contain insight waiting to be uncovered by language– knowledge waiting for words to catch up.  Metaphors take us deeper than our words can go and invite us into a communal practice of respect for emerging words and ideas.

Our imagination works with metaphor to take us beyond the places we have known. It ferries us through the twilight spaces between places– from the desire to know more to the not yet discovered.  It is a renewing and amplifying gift that makes teaching and learning an art. 


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Remember This

I am at the beach remembering–weaving the past into the present moment and at the same time committing the beauty of now to future memory.  We  memorize the moment and outline it with what has been. Hope realized has its roots in a time before this.  The sigh of relief is that the fear of ‘then’ has been averted by the promise of now.  We walk into beauty’s embrace with the fleeting confidence of a life that won’t stand still. 

I am at the beach, measuring my life in stories and sifting, sifting, telling, feeling, sifting my story like sand.  The hands that write this built sand castles as a toddler; then later joined Coppertone tan teen hands with friends jumping waves; and later still held hands with a husband; held babies in the waves….  And now my hands hold the hands of granddaughters as we stare at the vastness of the sea.  These stories sift and shift and shimmer. They won’t stand still.

“Remember?” We say it over and over, as if our memory is communal. In truth, we hold our own stories and our own stories shape our memory.  Memory shapes our experience. Experience shifts and  reshapes our stories; the way we remember is an ever changing coastline.

Some stories are held in place by the bookends of birth and death.  We, the survivors, when we are ready, edit the material that lies between these bookends.  We edit and refine and restore to life the very essence of that  which wants to live forever.  “Remember?” we ask, only now we can’t get the word out without laughing or choking up or stopping for what comes next (as though we don’t know).  These are the moments that catch the light of eternity.

“I do remember!”  I call into the wind. My voice is swallowed in the crashing predawn waves, in the stillness of the guitar string, in the empty chairs on the deck, in the porch swing that moves with the weightlessness of the gone.  I do remember. I don’t stand here long.  I see the white caps on the waves– a warning to turn around.  The sirens of grief run deep.  I turn from the vastness of looking at it all at once. The sun has come up again and in its coral light,  I walk back to the beach house with deep gratitude for the family that was– and will always be– a cast that populates my life, dreams, and stories.  I turn to the family that is.  We’ll laugh about a game we played.  Otters are already an inside joke– a punchline that no longer needs the story. Fresh. New. Hilarious.  And  beautiful in the shadow of the word “remember.” 

The role of family archivist has come to me. Red and blue bordered airmail envelopes and postcards of ocean liners or TWA jets and brochures from far away beaches, sift through my fingers like sand, ephemeral and evocative. Unfolded blue paper, tissue thin, recounts the experiences that have shaped and reshaped the stories I have known or lived.  The past runs like a current into the present moment, where the sifted sand shimmers and glimmers. 

A two year old granddaughter holds a lemon popsicle and looks out at the ocean– vast and blue and brand new. The past tense flows into the present tense.  It is my  gratitude for the now that allows me to look at the past so unguardedly. The present tense is current.  I remember. I am grateful. Life is Beautiful.

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20 Something Reasons 2020 Doesn’t Suck: A List in Prose and Fragments

I hear this year’s anthem of our collective grief over and over: “2020 sucks.” I find myself dumbly nodding and it feels like a betrayal. It isn’t that I’m blind to the suffering and losses of this year. I’m not. Or that I fully escaped suffering. I didn’t. Or that I don’t feel the heartbreak.  I do.

But I also know that life is too beautiful and finite to write off an entire year. We cannot turn a blind eye to joy and gratitude–not even in a pandemic.   Perhaps we feel we should as an act of solidarity with those in grief’s most terrible grip. Choosing misery on behalf of others is not compassion. Being present and alert is. Attention shows us what we can do and guides us to a deeper presence with and for others.

Attention has another job, too. With alertness we scan for beauty and track it in our lives. We keep the light on for it. We train our alertness into an alacrity for grace–and then we welcome it when it shows up. Yes, even in a pandemic.  Where was the beauty this year? How did grace show up? In what ways does 2020 not suck?  What goes on the list? 

My list includes the opportunity to learn new things that make my world bigger in a time we can’t travel. It includes online groups of thoughtful readers and writers.  Each Zoom window zooms in on one good thing about 2020. This includes my teacher (once upon a time my student) who, through Facebook Video, teaches me stretches that lead to better balance and strength. Then there is the Book Group with readers bundled up, masked, and six feet apart in a park. And friends and porches and fire pits. 

Also on the list: I feel creative a lot of the time. I have never felt healthier.  I fall asleep and wake up every morning next to someone I love deeply.  My cooking is off the hook. “Who lives here?” I wonder when I open a refrigerator full of yellow lemons and bright green herbs and mason jars full of homemade soups. 

Add to that: The books. The streaming. The playlists.  Yes, yes, and yes.  Grateful. The phone calls where I have time to actually listen rather than multitask while I act like I’m listening.  And what about the blankets on the porch with low lamps and tiny lights?  Or walking in the woods at sunset every day with Ben and our dog. Add to that: Face Time with grandchildren and family and learning how to play in a different way. 

I am grateful for the blank page where I show up to write every morning like a runner at the mark. I move through paces with words and spaces, the said and the unsaid running side by side. On the page, I live the good moments twice. 

I love the walks and talks and meditation. Zoom coffee hour on Sunday Morning.  The sense of home and place that I have longed for is right here, right now. I take off my shoes and step barefoot into the pools of all I’ve yearned for throughout my nomadic life. I listen to Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans while I cook– as the daughter of a piano player, it sounds like home. I cook soup in my mother’s soup pot and it smells like home. I sit in front of the fire with my husband and our dog and I am home.  

I am grateful for the resolution of the challenges in my own life this year.

I am grateful for the ways that we have found to help each other and protest together and inspire each other and campaign for the things and people we believe in.  I am thankful for Christmas. We were much smaller in number this year, but it was merry and bright. We were able to let our hearts be light. A granddaughter and I set up a jar and strips of paper so family members could write good things about 2020 throughout the day.  We had a farewell dinner for 2020 and passed the jar around. We took turns randomly pulling a strip from the jar and reading it aloud, reliving the moments of happenstance happiness. Each strip of paper was a reminder: “Love Your Life.” Some years are really hard. Every year matters.  Leave the light on for beauty. Roll out the red carpet for grace. My prayer is that a happy and healthy 2021 will be full of both. And that we will notice it everyday. Here is to 2021. And here is to you.

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Are You Okay?

The doorbell rang. This is a tiny detail, but I love tiny domestic details. I love them in Virginia Wolfe and Elizabeth Berg and Anna Quindlen and Ann Patchett. And yes, I love writing them. The doorbell rang. I was cooking and quickly washed my hands. I dried them off and remembered to grab a mask before I answered it. The mask–a contemporary domestic detail that I do not love– tiny, but with a dark dystopian overlay. I put on the mask and opened the door. The delivery van parked in front of my house was from my favorite florist. The delivery person, a welcome stranger, held out fragrant flowers in every shade of blush. I reached out for this beautiful gift. I took the flowers in, and placed them in the center of our dining room table. The flowers were from a dear friend who knows me well. I read the card. Her message was full of the hope she knew I needed. She knew my hope was tired. “Now you can breathe again.” I smiled at her loving generosity and took a great big deep breath.

Life is beautiful even when we think it isn’t. Beauty interrupts as a firm reminder of what we are in danger of forgetting. A doorbell rings, a bird sings, the world’s tilt rights itself. Beauty interrupts fear. Beauty is hope’s calling card.

The accident. The phone call. The late-night drive from the beach. An ambulance. Another. A transfer. A trauma team.

The life that was saved was my youngest son’s. He and his wife and his baby girl were here visiting from Chicago. How many Little League games? How many high school baseball games? “Safe,” called the umpire back in those long-ago games. “Safe,” said the doctors as they made their rounds in the trauma ICU. Safe, but be careful.

What was to be a two-week vacation turned into five days in a hospital and a month’s recovery at our house. We have a big blended family and a quarantine squad of friends; I am so grateful for both. Step-parents and parents and siblings and siblings-in-law gathered with the common bond of love for John and Megan and Sylvia. Matthew stayed by John’s side the night of the accident. Jodie created a playroom for Syl, Susanna and Matthias provided lots of chocolate and love and support. Charles helped to adapt the guest room to support John’s recovery and set up a work station for when he resumed work. We were ready and when John came home, a full house welcomed him.

Syl asked me for the story every day as she worked to understand. “Da-Da?” she would ask. I would tell her: Your daddy got hurt and had an operation, but he is strong and getting better. He can’t pick you up now but he will one day soon. We are strong and beautiful and smart and we can wait. We can do hard things. Everything is going to be better. “Again,” she would say. And I would tell it again. I told the story to her and I told the story to myself. The story was full of hope.

Hope was an ally, but my battle with fear was a curse. Fear is a bully and cornered me when no was looking. Fear had my ear; I was afraid to name it, but my son knew. “Stop asking me if I am okay.” It wasn’t that I didn’t know better…I did. I do. Are you okay? There is an unintended message that jogs beside that benign-sounding question. Are you okay? (You might not be.) Are you okay? (I don’t think you are.) We ask a simple question hoping that a simple yes will vanquish our fear.

“Yes, Mom. I am okay.”

“Ha,” says fear. “See, I am still here.” If I paused for fear, hope would not let me stop for long. But oddly, I also felt that I was increasingly unable to linger for hope. It is fear that makes us afraid to hope. Fear tells us that hope will make fools of us. But hope doesn’t make fools of us. Courage is action in the face of fear. Hope is invisible courage. Hope surrenders the outcome, and at the same time knows that everything is going to be okay.

In no time the walker was moved to the basement. Megan and John’s tentative walks around the block turned into miles. We began the day with omelets and ended it at “Ice Cream O’Clock,” a term cleverly coined by Megan. We settled into a rhythm of family. I know for each of us some days were longer than others. We lived a rhythm of children’s books, bubbles, playdough, and big thick crayons. Syl sat on my lap for Zoom meetings. She joined my Zoom exercise class and did Downward Dog and sang “Happy Baby.”

“Ah-BEN,” said Syl from her highchair at the end of the prayer.  We laughed with delight. Saying grace was her favorite part of the meal and one night we said it three times. Sometimes after dinner, Ben played the guitar and we sang. The Fox Went Out on a Chase One Night…Hush Little Baby Don’t Say a Word…Froggie Went a Courtin’. While Megan put Syl to bed, John dealt the cards.

I couldn’t write, even though I am a habitual write-myself-awake-every-morning writer. I couldn’t write because I was holding my breath. I learned minute by minute how to do the next right thing. John resumed his work as an architect from the guest room. Step-parents and parents came together for a meal on our porch. Megan made a cobbler with Virginia peaches.

The stitches came out. John made pizza. We laughed at Will Ferrell’s Eurovision. We laughed a lot — in this house, even the baby is a comedian. Megan edged and weeded flower beds. The days looked long in the mornings, but by night we wondered where they’d gone.

“Still here,” said fear.  

“But so am I,” insisted hope, my old friend.

I was learning fast what I’d known in my bones my whole life: hope and fear are not either/or propositions. They are traveling companions; but we have to choose which one we want to sit with. Fear fuels irritation in a crisis. Hope fuels joy and laughter and creativity.

We celebrated the last night together with a cookout. The next day we ordered in our favorite sandwiches and had one last lunch together before they left. As they walked toward the car, we blew kisses and waved and I held back the tears. “Fuv,” said Syl (her word for love). “Fuv,” we answered in our grandparental call and response. It was what we’d all hoped for. When they got home, they Facetimed us as John was getting ready to grill dinner. They were embracing the normal and familiar.

I could breathe. We are okay.

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A Measured Life

I measure my life at the beach, which is not the same thing as living a measured life. I don’t measure my life in T.S. Eliot’s coffee spoons— those moments are too small and disappear too quickly like teardrops in the sand. No, I am living big moments minute by minute. I measure our life by walks at sunrise, by peach cobblers at sunset, and by the summer corn at this weathered picnic table.

I don’t just measure my life at the beach. I measure life in black dresses that hold too much to be worn again or to be thrown away. I measure my life in childhood ballet teachers who taught me to count the graceful moments measure by measure and not just to feel them. I measure my life in recipes, cup by cup and ounce by ounce and taste by taste: curry and capers; lemon and mint; orange and chocolate.

I measure my life in stories and memories and in their dance that finds its footing in truth.

I measure my life everywhere, but it is here at the beach that I am the most reflective and the most intentional about it. Susanna once said that the beach is like a journal, each year a new page. I have both lost myself in those pages and found myself in them.

Here Ben and I measure our life in anniversaries that are often celebrated here: a glass lifted to our children who helped us blend our families (31 years ago!) and to one another. We have measured our life together in the low cadence of the slow dance. And there is nothing in my life more beautiful than our measured step.

We have welcomed girlfriends and boyfriends who have, in time, joined our family. We have welcomed four granddaughters to this house. I measure my life in welcomes and good byes and in the deep breaths that mirror the tide. Every year is different.

I am writing on the porch with a granddaughter. She is writing in her journal. Earlier this week 20 month old Sylvia dipped her paint brush in water here and pulled it across the page. This is how we start. These are the moments I measure.

It isn’t that these moments only happen here, but it is here I remember to stand on tiptoe to go deep. It is here that I remember to look everywhere. It is here that I learn again and again to mark the sacred moments where grace shines through. And I’ve learned that grace always shines through and in good measure.

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Family Happiness

Family history, like history itself, is never perfect and is shaped by chance, circumstance, and story. Family history, like history itself, is always a little more complicated than it seems. My father did not want to get married and he never wanted children. Then he met my mother. She had a way of getting what she wanted. She wanted him and she wanted children. I noticed early that he was not like other dads. I had friends whose fathers spoiled them and could never say no. And while I wondered what that would be like, that was not the dad I got. My dad made the world bigger in so many ways. Other girls got little gold rings and tiny lockets. I got a passport and a library card with the strong message that those two things would work together. I was unfocused so he introduced me to ping pong to teach me a host of lessons: keep your eye on the ball, stay focused, you can’t hit it if you can’t see it. To give my mother a break when my siblings were babies, he took me to movies. I learned to see and love movies the way I would later read and love books. I still read several books at a time– a habit I learned from him. And I still have a deep love of movies.

First there was me. Then there were two of us and then three of us and then four of us. And he knew how to be the dad we each needed by being authentically himself and seeing each of us clearly. He lived his life by loving the world and by seeing the humor in it. He taught us to do the same by inviting us along for the ride. He had integrity and was absolutely fair. He was unafraid and embraced the complexity of life with his wry eye. He could get to the heart of life with a story and a point. If Aesop played jazz piano, he and my dad would have had a lot in common. He taught me insight is just a placeholder when you are learning something new. Life is not as simple as point of view, because there is always more than one perspective. We followed him around the world and learned those lessons everywhere we went.

When I wanted to be excused from school to protest the Vietnam War in Washington, he said I could go–but he had one condition: I had to articulate the other point of view before the protest. How could I? The other side was wrong! He held his ground and a couple of days later I told him why some one would fight in that war and how they might feel like it was the right thing to do. I went off to the protest and shouted out against the war with passion. But I also saw the quiet girl who sat by the window in my homeroom a little differently. Her father was in Vietnam. I thought about her again when my own son went to Iraq. My father taught us to have empathy with those with whom we disagreed, while taking a stand for what we believed was right. Hate is lazy. Disdain is a cheap way out. He drew a hard line against bigotry. “When you don’t limit your friends to the color of your skin, your world is twice as big.”

He was full of paternal paradox. He had both a sense of foreboding and an ability to throw caution to the wind. He was a devout Episcopalian and wide open to the faith of others. He did not ever take a day off from work, but would leave early once a year to meet the circus train and have a drink with the ringmaster.

It’s been 20 years. He died at an age that would make him a contemporary of mine now. I hear his voice in my brother’s voice. My brother and I do not always agree, but we were trained by the same guy not to be threatened by complexity– to respect and trust other points of view. We were trained by the same guy to argue for what we believe in persuasively and then listen to learn something new.

But I don’t just hear his voice in my brother’s voice. The lessons from my father are lit up right now and catch me by surprise in the voices of others. Chimamanda Adichie is a Nigerian novelist and the author of Amerianah (a wonderful book). Her Ted Talk on The Danger of the Single Story resonated with what I was taught and have come to believe. We all need diversity in literature and in the storytellers. We need to see and learn ourselves, but we also need to see and learn others. Then we can learn to embrace the complexity in which our stories are entwined. The “single story” normalizes the two dimensional into stereotype. This is the history of the Virginia History books of my childhood. These books told a single story and they got it wrong.

I had a historian for a father. Not everybody does. But everyone can have a library card. Everyone can embrace stories from different points of view. Everyone can listen and learn something new. We don’t need monuments to the single story. Nor do we need to rush to trade one single story for another. In stripping history down to truth we can’t, in our hurry, strip the story of hope. We need to ask questions. We need to listen. We need to wait. The answers are going to take time.

I made a donation to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia this week in my father’s honor. The mission of the museum is to preserve stories that inspire. I don’t have little gold rings and tiny lockets from my father. I have the treasure that I carry forward. I have a story waiting to be broadened by perspective and deepened by truth. The truth is our shared story. And that is where the hope is. Thanks, Dad.

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Welcome Happiness

Right now I am happy. And I truly believe that when I feel it, I should say it. It compounds the feeling and makes it twice as strong. Writing it down makes it even stronger. That is why gratitude journals work. If you’re happy and you know it, write it down.

My parents gave this to me. They never, not once, asked asked us if we were happy. But they often, out of nowhere, would say it. “I am happy.” There was a call and response that was uniquely theirs. I am happy, one would say, and the other would answer with one of these interchangeable phrases: It doesn’t get better than this. It’s good to be alive. Life is rich. I am better than I know how. They, each in their own way, lived this to the very last and the legacy runs deep.

They only said it if it was real. They said it in the shadow of the great pyramids, when drinking cider on the Rhine, over cocktails on a rooftop in Rome. But they also said it at the breakfast table when the marmalade was good; when cracking crabs on a screened porch; when the needle dropped on a great song; or when one of us made them laugh.
Fake happiness was for other people and other feelings were not to be discussed. “I’m bored,” I said once and only once. “There is nothing more boring than a bored child,” my mother responded. And she went on to recite Robert Louis Stevenson: “The world is so full of a number of things, I am sure we should all be as happy as kings; .” My parents worried about our well being (sometimes more than others) and curated life in the most amazing way. But finding and identifying happiness was our job.

They were not happy all the time. Misery did not skip our house. While happiness could burst through any veil of gloom, it could not be controlled or put upon to stay for one more cup of this or glass of that. Happiness came and went… and always came back. When it did, no matter how fleetingly, it was greeted and named.

Long ago, I was on a walk with my boys in the woods. One of them looked up at me with an earnest yet joyful smile. ‘Mommy,” he said, “I’m in an ‘I love life’ mood.” Without intending to, I’d passed on one of the most most important gifts that was given to me: the ability to name happiness boldly, unselfconsciously, and without apology.
You don’t lose empathy points for moments of happiness in a crisis and you don’t gain empathy points for being gloomy. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another— all of the feelings. So if happiness shows up at your door during a global pandemic, invite her in. Name her. Greet her. Welcome her. She’s here to help.

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