Once Upon a Time

When I was flying to England three weeks ago to begin a research trip before embarking on a cruise assignment, I found myself thinking about the most painful flight I ever took.  I was in Florence finishing a sabbatical in 1999,  when I got the nightmarish phone call that my son Adriano was dead. 

The struggle to get home at the Christmas season was horrendous. There were no flights from Florence so I took an overnight train to Frankfurt, the only airport where I could find a plane going to San Diego, carrying what I could fit in two suitcases and leaving everything else behind. A glitch at the airport  (I’ve forgotten what) resulted in a public meltdown I don’t think I have equaled since.  Then on the plane I spent hours  staring into space and crying quietly. 

I looked over and saw a young couple playing with their baby, who looked a little like Adriano at that age, and it ripped my heart open. Shortly before we landed, I saw they had changed him into a cute outfit, presumably to meet important people on the other end. It was exactly what I would have done. They were clearly besotted with their baby boy, and it brought back memories that even in my grief gave me a moment of recollected joy.  That young mother was me. That baby was my baby. It hurt, but it also gave me a moment to experience something other than the horror of how my story with my son had  ended. 

 I got to thinking about how time passes, remembering  that plane ride so many years later.  That baby would be twenty-five now. That mother is probably having hot flashes and fussing over her graying hair. And what about all the other people I have interacted with in passing?  The mother with the two little girls who was struggling to get through a flight alone, whom I helped by playing with her younger one?  That little girl would be in her thirties now.   The young orthodox Jewish man who was headed with his young children to Israel  is probably a grandfather now. The man with whom I ended up having a year-long love affair was enough older than me that I don’t know if he is even still alive.

And i—well, I am that many years older now too.  

I was thinking about time on a much grander scale when I visited the archaeological site of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands a few days ago. This village was inhabited well over two millennia ago. At the time, every human being there was living in the moment, doing what needed to to be done, taking what pleasure could be had, and persevering through whatever pain life brought. 

It’s funny how relative the passage of time is. We are plopped into this world at a particular point and we go through our lives as if the only time frame that is relevant is our own.  I once heard someone say that for every person the year zero is when he or she was born and everything else is “the past.”  Likewise, I don’t think we can fully comprehend the reality that someday we will simply not be here at all.

That baby on the plane might be a father now, taking his baby to meet his grandparents, once the young couple on the plane. Their whole lives have been, and continue to be lived, while to me their reality is a moment frozen in time.   All the kids I went to school with are in their seventies now, if they have made it that long. I wonder if that’s part of the reason why people feel so ambivalent, or even negative about class reunions.  Perhaps it is too much of a shock to realize that other people have lived all those years too. 

There’s no lesson here.  We all just keep hurtling through space and time and occasionally we bounce off each other. Sometimes we contribute to the meaning that other people make of their lives. Sometimes we are lucky enough to make what feels like a lasting connection, even though in the  larger framework, nothing lasts. I guess we have to settle for that. 


The Judgment of the Birds

A few days ago, my ship stopped in Cabo San Lucas.  I am not a fan of the noisy, characterless places that most big tourist ports in Mexico have become, but I wanted to get off the ship for a while, so I got on a boat going for a few hours to some bays that were at least less crowded. The other guests and I were having fun on a beautiful, sunny afternoon when suddenly we heard commotion from another boat near us. A man was floating, unmoving and face down in the water, and several people had jumped in to drag him back on board. 

On the deck, a woman immediately began furious CPR, which lasted what seemed to be a long time.  Nearby, someone—daughter? wife?— was sobbing in the arms of another. The woman giving CPR stood up.  It was hard to imagine how that could be a good sign, since no one was hovering around in the way they might if the victim had been revived and just needed help sitting up.  Very quickly, a marine rescue boat arrived, and from what we could see, they were getting the victim onboard without any heroic measures.  Then they roared off back to port.  I have no idea what happened after that, except what happened on our own boat. 

We were all quiet for a few minutes as we headed back to the pier, but when the crew of the boat put on some dance music and brought out an open bottle of tequila, the mood changed. By the time we reached port, it had gone from somber to downright rowdy—dancing, swinging around a pole holding up the awning, hugging, laughing.  It was quite a sight to watch, and it got me thinking about something I read years before in one of my all-time favorite books, The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley. I think about his beautiful philosophical musings on nature quite a bit, and I have quoted him more than once in my blog,  but I had forgotten this particular essay, “The Judgment of the Birds.”  

What called it to mind was the way in which the people on the boat were able to put aside what we had witnessed and pick up life again so joyously.  Eiseley remarks on this in connection to watching a raven snatch a newly hatched baby bird from its nest, robbing that little creature of its chance at life.

“ T]here on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak , [S]uddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents. […] They cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. […] The black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable. 
     “The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.”

Exactly, I thought. Death is hard.  Grief is devastating.  Recovery seems, at least for a while, impossible. And then, there it is again, the need to feel alive, the desire to be joyous, even while the shadow of death hovers so close. 

Life is indeed sweet. The inevitable bitterness makes it sweeter still, when we can finally look away from the darkness. ‘Therefore choose life,” the Bible says. I hope I always do. I hope you always do too.


Dancing with the Daffodils

It feels odd to be writing about daffodils, an early sign of spring in Victoria,  while I am sweltering in Panama City waiting for my cruise assignment to start tomorrow.  Here the plants change with the season by blossoming and bearing seeds or fruit, and then they move on to the green state they stay in most of the year. 

I spent most of my life in Southern California so my acquaintance with seasons there came only through a home high enough in the mountains to get snow and seasonal flowers in sunny spots.  Even in San Diego, the jacarandas in the spring and the poinsettias in the late fall were reminders that plants know what season it is, even if the weather does not.  It’s so different from what it is like to experience seasons in Canada, although  my friends here, mostly originally from places like Montreal and Winnipeg, would laugh to hear me suggest that in Victoria we have what they think of as winter at all. 

There’s something special to me about the season of cold and dark.  Bare trees reveal their history in the shapes of their trunks and branches. If you hear bird song, the singer is probably visible on a bare twig, its nest revealing where the life it brought into this world began. Winter reveals what has already happened, some of it ancient, some of it as recent as a few months ago.

Most of all, I am moved in winter  by the die-back of the bulbs. When I walk through a soggy field, I know they are there under the ground.  They are resting, waiting for the future, for the right moment to come again. I am reminded of the last scene in Emile Zola’s Germinal, where the protagonist, Etienne Lantier, newly freed from a harrowing life as a coal miner, walks across a field knowing that deep beneath him the miners toil away. He thinks how the seeds of rebellion planted in their minds will someday cause them to rise up, but that day still lies in the future. It’s a heart-twisting image, not at all like the gentle slumber of the bulbs, but the potential power of life stirring beneath our feet is the same.

And then, one day I see the first snow drop, the first crocus and after a week or two the first of the many species of daffodils, then tulips.  (The two photos here are from a spot a few blocks from my home.) After that, trees and plants that aren’t bulbs take center stage—cherry blossoms, camas, and in summer the wild sweet peas that warm my heart with memories of planting them as a child. 

There’s much  to think about in the story of the bulbs.  They persevere by hiding. We often see such acts in humans as cowardly. Daffodils don’t stand and fight against summer. They retreat. Back underground they are equally at home.  Their blossoms show us they are there, but the time when they are gone is equally important in their life. They are storing energy, growing, dividing, resting up for what must be very hard work to push up with tender new leaves through winter-hardened soil. Blooming is just one of the things they do, but unless you are a gardener, that is the only way we humans know them. Just as the only way we know each other is in whatever small part we choose to present to the world

 William Wordsworth wrote a famous poem about coming across a field of daffodils dancing in a field. In the poem he is far from there, lying in bed, thinking about how  that experience gladdened his  soul.  ‘And then my heart with pleasure fills/And dances with the daffodils.” 

Mine too.  But there is poetry in daffodils even when they are not dancing. Their winter solitude reminds us that it is healthy to have our own.  We can’t bloom all the time, but when we do, there is such joy in it. And when we rest, recover, renew, there is peace in that, knowing that another part of us that loves the warmth of the sun will soon come out to take its turn in the ongoing story of our lives. 


You Are a Soul

‘You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

I read this somewhere and it has been rattling around in my head ever since. Like any really good philosophical observation, it sends the mind wandering down many paths

My body’s a good one. It hasn’t let me down overall, though it is showing wear and tear after seven-plus decades of excellent service. It’s a body that hadn’t demanded much attention, and only complains when it’s not getting enough exercise or too much of the wrong kinds of food. 

I think of my soul as residing in my body, and my musings about the connection between the two haven’t gone much beyond whether Hindus have the right idea, that the soul uses a body for a lifetime, then trades it in for another to continue its journey, much as one does a broken-down car.  But the more I think about the quotation above, the less sufficient that answer to the body-soul connection becomes. Transmigration of souls may or may not turn out to be true, but it doesn’t address the question of the relationship of the soul to the body it is presently in. 

 I remember the last year of my father’s life, as he wasted away with congestive heart failure. His body became skeletal, his skin ashen and his eyes so large and sunken they seemed haunted. I remember thinking “this body can’t support life anymore,” and his soul was struggling to escape. Likewise when my late-husband Jim was in his last days, I felt the same thing. The moment I realized he was dead, I whispered my congratulations. Cancer never wins.  The soul succeeds in escaping it. I knew what hard work his body had undertaken so his soul could have the only thing it needed—to be free. 

Being in good health has kept my body-soul question at bay because so far they are still in sync. But what if I were debilitated by injury or disease?  What happens to my soul then for the duration of this finite lifetime?  What will my soul’s effort to escape be like if diminished capacity lasts for years? Who will I become? Would  I be able to use my remaining time to grow my soul, or would I just get smaller?  Would I have the strength to accept my body if I couldn’t travel, couldn’t write, couldn’t do the things that nourish me now, the things that present to the world the person I think I am

In his poem “The Oven Bird” (full text below), I Robert Frost ponders this predicament when he asks “what to make of a diminished thing.”  I honestly don’t know. I hope I would be as resilient as my friend Marilyn, who after an injury had a lengthy residence in rehab and a painful, slow recovery of her ability to walk.  She used the time to rethink her life purpose under those circumstances and decided it was  to spread light and joy in a place that had precious little of either. Would I have the same strength?  

Sometimes people don’t. Sometimes they decide, as my sons did, that their soul needs to get out early and give life another try in another place and time. I don’t judge anyone’s soul journey, but hope that mine will take me down a different path. The most I can hope for is that any diminishment of body is more than offset by a fresh blooming of soul, to make the rest of my life a different song, but a song nonetheless.

The Oven Bird—Robert Frost

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.


All Love All the Time

One year ago today my son Ivan was in the last hours of his life. Although his body was not found immediately, I know in my bones he chose the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.  Five hours away as I write this.  

Today has been full of enough distractions tied to my departure for a cruise assignment that some of the sharp edges haven’t cut as deep as they might have. I have spent my day trying not to think of what his last hours were like, but what the message of his life is for me, and what the one overarching message was that I gave to him.

It is really quite simple. All love, all the time.

Today on my electronic photo frame a picture showed up of me beaming as I held him on the day he was born. His innocent face, puzzled by light and sound and the feel of air on his skin was heartbreaking, and I said aloud how sorry I was that life hadn’t turned out the way every mother dreams it will.

The strongest consolation I have is that so many years were wonderful.  It isn’t only about “how it worked out in the end,” as we all are so tempted to see as the only important thing. Wow, if that were really true, we would spend our whole lives in a fog, not knowing how to interpret anything.  I haven’t yet found anything really important that has a clear end. 

Many other photos tell such a different story than the one taking place in his apartment last year, a true hellhole from a long bout with pain from a serious injury, on top of the utter horror of uncontrolled bipolar illness. I look at one after another of the  happy boy-faces of my two sons on my photo frame, and I hear their boy-voices making sense of their world in the most meltingly wonderful way children do.  

I was on the other side of the camera experiencing the truest joy of my life. 

I couldn’t protect them from the world, or the toxic mix of genetic heritage and  marital dysfunction that took down my world and made their futures so much harder to navigate.  But I loved them unconditionally. I look at their faces looking back at me behind the camera and know they loved me the same way. 

Would I bring them into the world if I knew how both their lives would end in the way they did?That has got to be the hardest question the mother of a child who took his or her own life ever has to face.  And I have to ask it twice.  More than twice. I ask it all the time, and every time is a new reckoning. The best I can do is remind myself of all the love that wouldn’t have been in this world if I weren’t me and they were not their beautiful selves. 

All love all the time. 

Never hold back.  Love can bring you to your knees, make you breathless with pain, but it  is the very thing that can bring you through the worst darkness into a life that you can keep living abundantly. Love makes whatever happens survivable.  Love is the only thing in the end that makes any sense to me.  

May 2024 bring many opportunities to love more deeply, broadly, and lastingly. Happy New Year!


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.