The First Woman to Drive Around the World Was a Teenager in a Model T

I haven’t published a book in the last decade. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing, just that developing cruise lectures and dealing with other life challenges and opportunities took up my time. It was more than that, though. I love to write, but everything else that goes with publishing had worn me to a nub. Plus, in order to commit a year or two to an all-consuming project that often overrides the things I do to maintain my health, sanity, and friendships, I had to feel an overwhelming compulsion to tell a story, and I hadn’t run into anyone who picked me up by the scruff of the neck, deposited me at my desk and said, “write.”

Until I ran into this woman, Aloha Wanderwell.

Aloha Wanderwell, born Idris Hall, walked away from a French finishing school at age sixteen to become the first woman to drive around the world. She drove across Europe, Egypt, India, China, Manchuria, and the United States as part of an expedition led by the charismatic Walter Wanderwell, on roads that ranged from difficult to non-existent in a time when cars were a rarity, and in most of the world dirt paths were the norm. Aloha and Walter eventually married and continued their exploration by driving from Cape Town to Mombasa, and from Buenos Aires to Lima. Her ten years of record-setting adventures came to a sudden and violent end when Walter was murdered in Long Beach, California, aboard a schooner they had purchased to sail around the world. Aloha went on to live into her eighties, but it is her life from childhood on Vancouver Island through the tabloid frenzy over the murder and subsequent trial of a disgruntled fellow traveler that are the focus of my new novel, INVENTING ALOHA, a Spring 2025 release from She Writes Press.

Look her up online and see why I was hooked. And if you can’t wait for my book to learn more, read Christian Fink-Jensen and Randall Eustace-Walden’s fantastic biography, ALOHA WANDERWELL: THE BORDER-SMASHING, RECORD-SETTING LIFE OF THE WORLD’S YOUNGEST EXPLORER. The link to the publisher for ordering information is here https://gooselane.com/products/aloha-wanderwelli. You can use the information to order it through your local bookseller. (Please avoid Amazon, if possible, because by the time they have taken their huge cut on every copy, authors are left with pennies on the dollar.)

I will be updating my website in the next few months, and will let you know when I’ve got more information to share. As always, thanks for your support.


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.



Watching footage of the destruction of Lahaina, I have been thinking about the idea of being spared. We hear about how some people’s houses were spared, how the lives of people who escaped were spared. Elsewhere in the world someone else on the same day might have been spared by a few seconds from a deadly accident.   We might have said “spare me!” when we heard something ridiculous. Maybe we got a flat and dug in the trunk for the spare tire.  Someone on the street might have asked for spare change. Somewhere, someone is getting a spare in bowling. 

The meaning of “spare” is extraordinarily fluid. In one etymological source it means “kept in reserve, not in regular use, provided or held for extra need.”  In another it comes from a root meaning “not plentiful, meagre,” and in a third it means “to refrain from use or injury.”  Quite a versatile language traveler, this little five-letter word.

All that is the purview of dictionaries, but I got to thinking about the emotional weight of the word, the ways in which we are spared from time to time, and by one means or another, from things that would be anywhere from unpleasant to tragic, from sad to downright horrifying.

I have faced some awful losses and it’s easy to focus on the downside, but it’s also important to be grateful for the upside, the things from which my beloved lost ones and I have been spared.  Most notably, as I read about the horrific, incessant heat in Phoenix this summer, I think about what my son would be facing if he were still alive. In Phoenix, it was so bad that people who fell onto asphalt had first degree burns if they were able to get up immediately, and third degree burns if they lay there any length of time. His apartment had less than adequate air conditioning, and to keep it even close to habitable, it had to become a claustrophobic cave with all the blinds shut.  He had not been able to afford  his car payment, so if he had a job to go to, or any need at all to leave the house, he would either have had to walk or wait at a bus stop in 110-plus heat. ( I say “if he had a job” because in addition to poorly controlled bipolar disorder with psychotic features, he had undergone a less than entirely successful shoulder replacement surgery after a fall, and would have what he called a John McCain arm for the rest of his life, both of these making employability an issue.)

He has been spared that. I also have been spared from needing to rescue him, which I most certainly would have done. As a result I would probably not have been able to stay in Victoria, but would need to return to the US. He couldn’t come to Canada for more than a little while, due to visa status and need for medical care. Since he most likely couldn’t support himself and I can’t afford two rents, I would be living somewhere I didn’t want to live, with someone I loved very much, but whose mental condition often made him difficult to be with.

I have worked very hard for many years to create the life I want for myself and I would lose it.  I would also find the healthy boundaries I have set very difficult to maintain living with a son who wouldn’t be able to track my own needs well. It would not be a good situation for either of us. I think he knew this too, and it factored into what I believe was, in addition to his desire to spare himself further pain by taking his life, an extraordinarily loving wish to spare me any further stress and suffering.

It’s hard for mothers to say these things because we have swallowed the myth that good mothers are selfless in their devotion.  We might be okay with saying the lost child is in a better place, or free of suffering, but to say the same applies to us makes us feel as if our love is somehow defective. I think part of moving forward for parents and other grieving caregivers is to acknowledge we are relieved to be spared future difficulties by the loss. It doesn’t make the grief less intense, it just frees us from spending energy battling ourself.

As if it isn’t enough that we beat ourselves up about the adequacy of our love, it’s frightening to imagine people’s reactions if we were to appear to be saying that we are glad our loved ones are gone. I’m not glad Ivan is gone, but I wouldn’t want him back the way he was. I am glad he is not suffering. I can’t imagine anything crueler that to wish he were still down in that apartment in Phoenix in physical and mental pain.

We can’t love someone into good health.  We can’t love catastrophes away.  We don’t love people any less because there are some moments in which we can recognize what we, and they, have been spared.  



My mother used to say I was “so demonstrative,” because I loved to hold hands with my boyfriend, or put my arm around a friend. It was meant as a criticism, because what she really meant was that I was expressing with my body more than was seemly for a girl of good repute.  I never understood why I shouldn’t show through touch how I felt about someone.  I still don’t.

In museums I often stand at a distance and whisper about how great something is. I want to do what seems the most natural thing—to connect physically with what is mesmerizing.. Were artists  really thinking “I hope this is roped off so that people only see it from beyond arm’s length”?  Works of art vibrate with life, telling stories that can’t really be complete without direct contact.

I get it.  Masterpieces would be wrecks if we all could indulge.  But still, the sparks that touch creates are such a part of being alive. I think of movies I’ve seen—ET’s finger for one, and so many others where touch sent a person into another reality, or where it was the precursor to love. It is such a huge part of how we know that anything is real. 

I had such a moment recently. I was on the island of Lewis, off northwestern Scotland, visiting the Calanais Stones,  a Neolithic site known for several groups of deliberately  placed upright monoliths. Unlike Stonehenge, which this site predates, you can still walk around freely among the more than three dozen stones at the main site.  This meant that I could stand close enough to the stones to touch them, but even before I did, I found myself unexpectedly fighting back tears. I was standing in the middle of the story of everyone involved with creating this place—their lives, their beliefs, their needs. They must have had blistered hands and exhausted bodies. They must have stood together and admired their work. They must have hoped it could deliver whatever powers they needed it to have. And here I was, centuries later touching the same sparkling and corrugated shards of volcanic rock and feeling a link to everyone who has ever shared the same emotions I feel, the same hopes, the same uncertainties. 

Whether it’s Neolithic stones, or the thick impasto of Van Gogh or Monet, or the smooth surfaces of Barbara Hepworth and Constantin Brancusi, being able to touch connects us to others far beyond our time and place. People who know me see how I seek out artisan-made jewelry and textiles  because I want to sense the hands that shaped the metal, wove the design, set the stone. But most touch doesn’t reach across time and place. Most of it connects us more intensely to what is happening in the present. I recall one point in my time as a cruise lecturer when I had been away from home for several months, and I felt an almost electrical jolt from the grasp of a deck hand helping me off a tender onto the ship. “I have not been touched in such a long time,“ I thought, and realized how much that mattered, how much my life was not in harmony with that basic need. 

It’s why that extra second or two transforms a hug of greeting into a real connection.  Why snuggling may be more intimate than sex. It’s why it matters so much to me that after being on a ship for a few weeks, some waiters and bar crew put their hand on my shoulder when they are at my table, or give me a high five or a hug when they see me. It tells me we mean something to each other. It’s a way to know that we are real, both to ourselves and to others, some from the Stone Age and some right now. My mother was wrong. Be demonstrative, then be demonstrative some more. Touch as if your life depended on it, because in many ways it does. 


Maybe It’s Not About Iceland at All

Today is my last day of a month in Iceland.  What was supposed to be a shorter assignment was  doubled when the speaker set to replace me canceled suddenly. The lovely thing about the way I am living now is that I can say yes to so many things without encumbrances, including not going home when scheduled. 

I have been puzzling over why I feel so melancholic about leaving. The scenery is magnificent but I have been seeing much of the same kind of beauty in every port. I can’t say Iceland is my favourite place I’ve ever been, or if it would make “best cruises ever” list except for how much time I had to form a feeling of intimacy with it that I can’t get when ports and countries go rushing by. And I certainly don’t want to move here! Puffer jackets, wool sweaters and even long underwear some days in mid-summer?  I need shorts, sandals, and t-shirts to feel really at home this time of year. 

So why was I tearing up a little today that  this is my last waterfall through tundra-covered rocks, my last chance to pick Icelandic thyme and smell its fragrance, to feel the cold mist on my cheeks, to watch the fog brush the tops of jagged volcanic peaks.  I have been in this port four times, so why was I taking some of the same pictures, like this one from the deck of the ship?  It’s not even as good as some I took on visits one, two, and three. 

It hit me just a few moments ago that it is because goodbyes are so much harder than they used to be. Maybe in our seventies we start to grasp that even if we outlive the actuarial charts, we don’t have forever. We may not even have much time at all. I am not feeling morbid about this, just realistic that probably I am seeing this place for the last time. Lucky me to have seen it at all.  Luckier me to have seen it so abundantly. But still…

I think my mood today may not be about Iceland at all. It’s all the goodbyes life hits us with.  Some are heartbreaking at the time, and others later. We often don’t know we have seen someone for the last time until we learn that we won’t ever be seeing them again.  So far I have been lucky, in that my age-mate friends from high school, college, and various jobs are almost all still here, but I recognize that the time is approaching when I will get sad news a lot, if I am among those who live longer. I imagine I have already seen some of my friends for the last time, but I just don’t know it yet. 

The Dao teaches that everything contains the seed of its opposite.  Maybe that’s part of it too.  I often whisper to myself “I am so happy,” while on a bus taking me on a tour through wonderful countryside, or watching beautiful landscapes go by from the windows and decks of the ship.  All the sensory, soul pleasure of the moment, however, gets more and more tinged with sadness at this point in my life. Often thoughts of my two lost boys are next, as if the joy isn’t real without the loss. One of my favourite words, which I first heard used to describe Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” is “autumnal.”  The bittersweetness of this stage of life can be felt at any time of year, or perhaps more precisely can never not be felt any more. 

I am just leaving Iceland, not losing it. It’s not as complicated as it is with people, because I don’t have an emotional investment. I won’t be leaving a chunk of my heart behind. I think I feel the emotional heaviness today because of all the other times when leaving has become losing.  Particularly one time, seven months ago, when I learned that I had had the last earthly contact I would ever have with my beloved son Ivan.  My goodbye to him continues every day.  A cold, rainy day in Iceland is a good time to grieve all the leavings, all the losses. A good time too to practice gratitude for all the memories and all the time I still have to experience things autumnally. Even if it is for the last, or perhaps the only time, it is good to be here, good to be wherever I am. 

My last photo of Iceland leaving the fjord for open sea.


What I Remember

I am feeling melancholic in a way I didn’t expect, as I come to the last few days in Iceland before the ship turns south for the British Isles.  I’ve been in Iceland a month now, for all or part of four different sailings. There are some ports I have seen four times and none I have seen less than twice. In at least the parts of towns that cruisers see, I know where everything is, what is just a bit off the beaten path, and what is worth seeing or doing a second or even a third time. I feel settled in, as if these familiar cliffs, valleys, rocks, fjords, flowers and birds are at least a little bit mine. 

Today I spent the day in Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands just off the coast of Iceland, and as I came back to the ship on the tender, I thought about how this was the last time we would stop here.  Never say never, of course, but despite the soul soothing I have gotten from Iceland’s clean, clear air and water, its friendly people, and its magnificent scenery, when I think of how many more places I want to go for a first time or return to, I really doubt I will be back.

That got me thinking about what I remember, not just about here, but from all my travels. What sticks? What, on the other hand, is really just one wonderful moment before moving on? I have to admit, I have trouble remembering what I did even yesterday when I am cruising because I live most thoroughly in the present when I am traveling. It seems as if trying to burn a lasting takeaway into my mind is only a distant thought compared to what is registering with my five senses at the moment. Perhaps that’s part, at least, of why I post  here so rarely when I am on the road, or sea in this case.

I rarely remember the weather in the places I’ve been unless it is an essential part of the experience. I don’t often remember whether a day was sunny or cloudy, chilly or warm. I don’t remember food. In fact, I am amazed that on my land trip from Croatia to Barcelona, I can only remember eating once or twice.  Obviously I did, but most food just doesn’t leave a lasting impression. As for people, I meet so many, but I only remember a few.  Often I remember vividly the person I was traveling with, how their being illuminated my time in their presence.

I remember some things very well.  Views, for one.  I remember standing overlooking a spectacular river in Montenegro.  I remember being gobsmacked by the Matterhorn.  I remember looking out over the Negev desert.  I remember the hugeness of the Amazon, the power of waterfalls, the outlines of islands. Sunsets, sunrises.  

I remember people whose stories seemed written on their faces.  Little villages where life seems to work despite hardship.   Cities buzzing with people going about their lives every day, not just the one I happen to be there. Children chattering in languages they have no idea how few people understand. 

Sometimes I wish I had noticed more, asked more questions. Stood a little stiller, been a little quieter a little longer . But those chances are gone. Now all I hope for is to expand my capacity for amazement in the moment, because that is the only place we actually are.

Of course Mary Oliver says it far better than I can. Here is one of her poems:

My work is loving the world.

BHere the sunflowers, there the hummingbird — equal seekers of sweetness. Hear the quickening yeast; they’re the blue plums.

Hear the clam deep in the speckled sand.  

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, 

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

The phoebe, the delphinium.

The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever.


Whale Time

I haven’t posted in quite a while. I’m not sure why not, other than it must be a mix of having simultaneously not much and too much to write about. I suspect this is a common state of mind for people returning to what passes for normal while still processing an enormous loss that takes away the feeling that things will ever feel normal again. 

For the “back to normal” part, most days pass now without debilitating emotional surges.  I suspect people I meet for the first time would have no idea that there is a fairly freshly grieving Laurel underneath the cheerful, friendly one.  They can’t know the deflation of energy I feel, the pep talks I sometimes have to give myself to rise to being the person it used to feel so natural to be.  Sometimes I realize that a day or more has passed without a huge rush of overwhelming sadness, but then, there it is again.  Something triggers the enormity of the truth that I will have to go through life without either of my children. No one to call, no one to send a photo to, no one to joke with, no one to do any of the things that require both people still to be in this world.  

But everything else is pretty much as it was. I am currently on a cruise assignment that is going very well. I give and get a lot of affection from the crew. I find guests who are fun, intelligent and entertaining to do things with. I get to talk to audiences about subjects I find interesting—one of the things that is central to my identity and that I know I am good at. 

There have been plenty of triggers, plenty of opportunities to try to find meaning in the experiences I have been having on this remarkable itinerary that has taken me from the west coast of France, through the British Isles and now extended time in Iceland. I have wiped away tears on buses, walks, and boat rides.  I have stared out at dramatic land and seascapes sometimes with my head buzzing and other times empty. I have passed hours, and sometimes days without any sorrow at all, just wonder and gratitude.  It’s not like there hasn’t been plenty to write about.  

I guess what I am trying to say is that it seems important to me now not to try to force anything to have meaning. Archibald MacLeish said a poem should not mean but be, and I guess that’s true of a grieving person finding her way as well. So the simple answer to why I haven’t posted is I haven’t wanted to work as hard as writing demands.

Today I went whale watching.  It was a huge success.  One woman said she counted sixteen surfacings.  I’m not sure how many were different whales but I would guess at least a dozen.  Humpbacks in particular love it here in the north of Iceland.  We would see one surface and the boat would try to get as close as it safely could, but usually by then the back had arched and the fluke had risen and the whale was gone.  Then we would stare out at water that seemed empty but is full of life, waiting the five, eight minutes the whale would stay under before it surfaced again. Occasionally it would break very close to the boat, but often much further away. Or there would be another we would go off to see.  

I struggled with the waiting. I’ve always been like that.  Maybe that’s why I hadn’t gone whale watching before. These days I am trying to talk with myself about patience, since something is telling me it is key to my well being. So I thought about whale time. For the whale, the day was going just as it should.  It came to the surface, breathed a little, then dove again to do the business of its life. It changed direction when that seemed like a good idea. It stayed down for as long as felt right. I was the one out of sync, out of my element floating on the water, feeling stuck in a moment I wished would pass. I need more of my life to be like whale time.  And there it is—a flicker of meaning worth writing about.  A long time coming, but it feels good. It feels like me.