Nine Months

Ivan died nine months ago.  Today is his birthday, so the time after Ivan has now been the same length as the time before he was born. In between were forty-three years. This photo was taken forty-one years ago today, when his more birthday-experienced big brother Adriano was showing him how to blow out the two candles on his cake. 

I recently read something to the effect that the body often moves forward too quickly in the aftermath of a great loss. There is, after all, so much that needs to be done. But in this burst of activity to deal with the work a death brings with it and to try to reassert normality, the spirit may get left behind. That is what the last nine months have been like for me. I was on my way to Singapore when I got the awful news, and spent the next month and a half doing my job as a cruise lecturer. I came home and had only a short break before I was gone again to the Canaries and Western Mediterranean in mid-March until early May. A stay for a month in the Comox Valley to explore the north of Vancouver Island filled up the rest of May, and I was gone again to the British Isles and Iceland in mid-June until the beginning of August.  

Since I got home, I have been busy getting ready for my next assignment and editing a book. Despite the work load, my life has been normal and steady enough in the past eight weeks to get back into my routine and take a few deep breaths. It is only in doing so that I have become aware of how much I have let my soul lag behind. ‘I’m fine,” I have said to everyone who asked, but I guess I hadn’t stopped to turn around and acknowledge my spirit calling me to wait for it.

These last few weeks, one health warning after another has slowed me down, and my soul has been catching up.  I am acknowledging that all this busy-ness has been a way to avoid the pain that reintegrating my soul would cause. I have always been intimidated by my own strong emotions, trying to make them smaller, less loud, less insistent, less relevant. This hasn’t worked well, I admit, and has caused some big problems for me in the past, but it’s a pretty entrenched habit by now. I am beginning to understand the imperative to be more honest with myself because I can’t have a healthy rest of my life if I don’t do a better job of knowing my own heart. 

In a blessed confluence of events, the High Holy Days coincided not only with a health reckoning  but also with Ivan’s impending birthday. Central to the period of confession, repentance and atonement is a moral reckoning with one’s shortcomings. For almost the entire period of the Jewish new year, I dealt with other complex relationships in my life, saying “it’s too soon to think about Ivan this way.  I’ll do that next year.”  Except my soul didn’t let me. 

The night before Kol Nidre, the beginning of Yom Kippur, I had a dream I haven’t had since my teaching days.  I am supposed to be giving a final exam, but I am far away, unable to get there on time. I haven’t prepared the exam and I desperately need a shower and shampoo before, very late and with nothing in hand, I have to face my students   My friend Annie, also Jewish, jumped on this dream when I shared it with her. ‘You are not prepared for Yom Kippur. You have left important work undone.  You are not cleansed yet.”  Bam! Every key element of the dream accounted for.

No wonder I woke up feeling sick the next morning and was not able to go to Kol Nidre that evening. I attended on Zoom, which enabled me in complete privacy to focus on both Ivan and Adriano. I didn’t need to hold back big noisy tears. I could talk out loud. I could pace. I ended up sitting down and writing them a letter in which I spelled out all the ways I felt I had missed the mark with them, all the ways I had betrayed the trust they put in me to be the solid foundation on which to build healthy adult lives.  (Don’t argue about being too hard on myself, if that’s what you’re thinking. I needed to be brutal in order to move beyond this.)

Then the most amazing thing happened. I felt a softening towards myself, a realization that I had also been a wonderful mother. I wasn’t perfect and I would like some big do-overs, but given some pretty dire circumstances, I had done the best I could.  Words of kindness flowed onto the computer screen as if my children were writing them.

I am forgiven. That doesn’t mean I am done with the reckoning. It doesn’t mean I can stop trying to understand why I wasn’t stronger, or figuring out how to take confession the rest of the way to atonement. I can’t change the past, so I atone by how I handle the future. After Adriano died, I tried to see his face in any troubled student who stood at my office door. I asked myself, “What do I hope a person in my position would do if it were Adriano standing there?” Then I did it. I can hold that idea front and center again, falling short over and over, but continuing to try.

As I walked yesterday evening along the sea cliffs near my home, I felt Adriano and Ivan fall in step with me, lacing their elbows with mine, one on each side. I felt for a moment as if I were being lifted and carried along, and indeed I was.

‘We’re fine,” I felt Ivan say.


 He’s found his brother and he is fine too, although Adriano is quieter. I think there is some more forgiveness to work on there, but I am not afraid to do that now. I want to do it. I asked them to stay close because I need them beside me to use my remaining time on earth as fully as possible. I can’t do that without revisiting the mess my life was at the time Adriano needed me most, but I know they will be there when I call out for them, to temper my self-criticism with their love.

I looked out over the driftwood-strewn beach at waves splashing white onto dark rocks. The ocean glimmered silver in the moody afternoon light, and I was filled with gratitude that life has offered me so much joy along with the sorrow. I want to revel in this world as long as I can, but when my time comes I will leave it behind with love and gratitude and go with happy heart to be with my boys wherever they are. 


Forgiving Better, Part 2

Note: I posted the first part of my Rosh HaShanah talk yesterday. If you didn’t see that, you might want to scroll down to the bottom of this post and open the link to that one first

A very smart friend of mine once suggested that the first task in forgiving is to ask yourself the question, “am I willing to forgive?”  That’s a game ender unless you can answer truthfully that you are.  

To forgive you have to be willing to level the playing field. You have to be comfortable with the idea that they’re only a fallible human just as you are. Maybe they behaved as best they could under the circumstances.  Or maybe they were ignorant and hopefully have learned their lesson, but at any rate, to truly forgive them, whether they have asked for it or not, requires feeling you can stand beside them compassionately again, in friendship or love, not above them in a righteous glower of indignation. This can be very, very hard because when you have been betrayed you so, so deserve that glower!

And there’s another big issue.  How many times do we kick ourself for being a fool, a sucker, with a vehemence far stronger than we feel for the person who actually hurt us?  The “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” syndrome gets me every time. 

Our emotions are so tangled that forgiving ourselves for the enabling role we played, or the trust we should have known better than to give, might have to be the first step before we can even think about really forgiving another. 

Other problems come when we start building our identity around our victimization.  There’s a  difference between thinking “what happened to me was wrong,” and “I am a person who has been wronged.”  The second one says I have let it seep into my view of myself.  When I tell my story, this is an indelible part of it, chapters that can’t be skipped. “I am a person who was fleeced, betrayed, cheated on, lied to, robbed. It isn’t my memoir without those stories!” 

We start to identify ourselves with what we haven’t forgiven. 

Leaving things unforgiven is a continuing statement about what you are against.  Against moving on.  Against feeling as positively about that person as you otherwise might.  Against letting something be relegated to the past. And most important, against figuring out how to have the next chapter be healthier.

What do we get out of not forgiving?  You have to answer this your own way, but you are getting something out of it. If you weren’t, you would just do it. Maybe it distracts you from something else you should be paying attention to. Maybe the role of victim is comfortable. Maybe you just like drama. Maybe there’s some ethical line that has been violated and you simply can’t cross it without losing a sense of who you are. But you are getting something out of not forgiving, and figuring that out is probably the best place to start getting out of the emotional hole this situation has put you in.

 In my own personal inventory, I think the answer might be that not forgiving gives me the moral high ground,  which I like! And this gives me power over the person who wronged me.  Which I also like! Am I ready to give that up?  I haven’t been yet.  I don’t want a level playing field.  I want the ball firmly where I can score.

When my mind goes to the negative people in my life, I try to stop thinking about them by asking myself, “why am I inviting that person into my life again?  If I am thinking about them while driving, they’re sitting in the passenger seat. If I’m thinking about them at a movie, they’re talking to me while I’m trying to watch.  And worst, if I’m thinking about them when I can’t sleep, they just crawled into bed with me.  That’s what we do when we don’t forgive.  We can never, ever, get rid of that person, or at the very least, our bad narrative about them.  

The better way to frame what we need, not just about forgiveness but about anything, is to ask not what we are against, but what we are for.

I am for peace of mind

I am for generosity of spirit

I am for the feelings of optimism that healing brings

I am for letting go of what saps me

I am for using my energy wisely 

I  am for moving forward

I am for keeping negative things from shaping what I do or how I see the world

I am for anything that makes me bigger as a person

And then my friend’s  hard, preliminary question again:  “am I willing to forgive in order to have all these good things?”  For me, apparently not yet. But I have had a breakthrough already this season.  In the past few months I have been able to put photos of my two sons, both now of blessed memory, on my electronic photo frame without it breaking my heart to see them young, happy and unaware of what lay in the future.  But I have never put a photo of their father with them because it made the air too heavy for me.  I am still far from being able to forgive, but I’m wondering if that is the only meaningful goal. A few days ago, I put some photos of him with them on the frame because just as I remind myself when I see them as children that there were so many good times too, I can now add that it wasn’t all bad with him either. It’s a step towards forgiveness. I hope maybe this has helped you to take steps too.


Forgiving Better, Part 1

The High Holy Days are an immensely helpful and mercilessly focused guide for the process of self-inventory, seeking forgiveness, and atonement, and they can serve as a template for non-Jews as well. But though we hear a lot about the importance of asking for forgiveness, there’s one aspect about which we get much less guidance : how to be an effective and honest forgiver.

I confess, I am not very good at it. I’ve been carting around a couple of injuries inflicted long ago upon me.  I am sure I am not alone in that. Has anyone reading this been spared?

 I will also confess that over the years,  I have made more intellectual progress than taken practical steps towards successful forgiveness.

Here are a few of my problems with being on the forgiving end.  

First, it’s different whether someone asks for forgiveness, or if they realistically are never, ever going to.  Forgiveness when someones asks you for it involves dialogue, a meeting of the minds about what that person did that makes them want forgiveness and what atonement might look like.  But you have to know what you are forgiving for it to have any meaning.“Please forgive me for being a bad friend” may be sincerely felt, but when you don’t know what the other meant by “bad friend” it’s hard to believe anything really got resolved or that the dynamic has changed in any meaningful way. 

Jewish tradition says confession has to be specific and spoken aloud, and this is the first can of worms. If for example my first husband should out of the blue utterly shock me by wanting my forgiveness, I would have a real problem  because I would need to understand what he feels guilty about. I probably don’t know half the things he did that betrayed me and our marriage, and I certainly don’t want it dumped on me now. So that’s the first hard part of being a Jewish forgiver.

Moving on to the process of repentance and atonement, I have been mulling the situation of a deathbed plea for forgiveness. There might be a lot of psychological release for both parties. But one might rightfully ask, did they on their deathbed just realize for the first time that they had hurt you? Or have they always known but didn’t want the pain of dealing with it?

How many years, or even decades might they have had to show in a concrete way that they are sorry?  How many chances did they have to demonstrate how their atonement has made them a better person? And yet they didn’t. They waited until it was too late for anything but the confessing part. 

It’s a tough call.  They might die in greater peace, but you have been robbed of what you should have gotten out of the process. Maybe that lack of ability to see your needs was the core problem all along, and you have once again agreed to let them be the only one who matters. 

And then, I stand in awe again of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition.  All we really have to do is listen, and maybe not even that. Confession, repentance, and atonement is between a person and God.  We don’t have to forgive just because someone wants us to. Our consent is irrelevant when repentance is sincere, and we should not feel guilty or diminished when we just aren’t there yet. 

Forgiveness is different when people haven’t asked. You can rise to the challenge, but you’ll have to put in all the effort yourself.  But blog posts can get too long, and I hope there’s enough to think about here. I will save the rest for part two, as well as some thoughts about how we might start getting unstuck.




Choosing Life

Moses tells his people in Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live!”

Jesus, ever the good rabbi, speaks according to the Gospel of John, about thieves that jump over walls into sheep pens in order to rob, kill, and destroy.  He says to his human flock that he has come so that this thievery may not happen to them, but rather they might, “ have life…and have it more abundantly.”  

In the Torah, it is a dichotomy of death and life. To Jesus it is a dichotomy of thievery and abundance. I think they are one and the same. 

I have been thinking about this as the Jewish HIgh Holy Days approach. I am not conventionally “religious,” let me make clear. I think the biblical God is one of many ways that humans try to “bring God into the compass of a shopkeeper’s understanding,” as Loren Eiseley so brilliantly put it in The Immense Journey (for decades one of my favourite books). I try, when the biblical God is invoked to envision Ultimate Wisdom, even though I am as incapable of grasping this as I am the size of the universe.   If there is a “heaven,” it is a warm bath in that Ultimate Wisdom, and to me that is the most awesome outcome of the stark fact that we are mere mortals stumbling through life with insufficient information, and ultimately falling down for good. 

So what is going on here? How can we choose between life and death? How do we keep thieves from stealing and destroying the abundant life we are capable of having?  I think Moses and Jesus put the answer right there in front of us. 

Every day, there are contrary forces, one pulling toward poverty and one toward abundance.  Put another way, there are contrary forces competing for whether we will live the fullest lives we can, or whether we choose not death, but deadness,  settling for existing in a half-light as we pass through our days toward the inevitable one where the option of life is no longer available. 

Well then, if it’s up to us, how do we choose life?  How do we keep the thieves of abundance at bay?  

The start of a new year, whenever one celebrates it, is a time to initiate change. We see what is stealing our best life from us and we earnestly want to do something about it. The problem is, we focus on specific behaviours without understanding the gravity of the underlying problem.  If we say we want to lose weight, or give up alcohol, or do more volunteer work, unless we can grasp the imperative to choose life over deadness, to stop being the robber of our own abundance, resolutions are unlikely to stick because they won’t matter enough. Only if we see this choice as the most important one we will ever make, will we feel its importance all the way to our core.

I can think of a few ways I can live more abundantly.  Rather than make new rules I probably won’t keep, I can try to change the way I see my everyday actions. If I appreciate food as a sustainer of life I will eat more mindfully (and as a side effect, I probably will lose more weight than with any “diet”). I can choose abundance by treasuring the people in my life more fully, by acting in some fashion when I think of them, even if just by an email or setting up a coffee date. I can choose abundance by treating new people I meet as intrinsically worthy of knowing—whether it’s a server in a restaurant, a cabbie, a clerk, or the friend of a friend— by looking in their faces and calling them by name. I can choose life by keeping my body strong through exercise and following medical advice. I can choose life by resting more fully and letting myself just be, without thinking I need some electronic distraction .

Choose life and abundance will follow. 

Sometimes choosing life isn’t possible. Sometimes abundance is beyond one’s reach.  I think of my two sons dead from suicide and my beloved husband losing to cancer the life he was living so fully. In the end everything is stripped away. That’s reality, but it it’s not happening at the moment, at least for me. When I make choices—and we all make choices every minute— perhaps I can remember to ask, “how do I choose a more abundant life right here, right now?” And when I don’t, when I let deadness back in, I can always try again with the next tick of the clock. 

Choosing life in Iceland recently.