spark joy
(and my go-to holiday recipes)

IMG_5882When our sons were young, there was no holding off Christmas. Henry, born December 18, absorbed holiday melodies in the womb, from “Jingle Bells” to the Messiah. His in-utero nickname was Bing, for Crosby, which morphed into Der Bingle after a visiting friend introduced us to the German diminutive. (Of course, we had no way of knowing then that music would turn out to be his “language” of choice but now, looking back, it seems almost pre-ordained; he arrived in a season of shimmer and twinkle, surrounded by love and borne into our arms on a wave of joyful noise.)

That year, in the final weeks of my first pregnancy and with a December due date looming, my husband Steve and I were organized in a way we’ve never been before or since: all our gifts bought and wrapped and shipped weeks in advance, a tree up and decorated the day after Thanksgiving; holiday cards mailed December first and a newly appointed nursery awaiting its tiny occupant. All was in readiness, every diaper and onesie neatly folded and stacked, every holiday ornament shining in its place.

Four days before Christmas we brought our precious newborn home from the hospital, dressed him up in the miniature velveteen Santa suit my brother had given him, and snapped our first family photo in front of the tree. [continue…]

finding goodness

kenesaw walkWhen I was child, my dad’s dental office was attached to our house. On one side of the door was our private, domestic world: home. Pass through the back room with its overflowing bookcases full of dental textbooks and journals, maneuver around the desk piled high with bills and paperwork, step through the small brown door by the laundry room, and you were in the reception area of my parents’ busy practice. Many afternoons I’d forgo the TV reruns my brother was watching in our den and slip into my dad’s quiet waiting room to read magazines. I loved the jokes in the Readers Digest, the photographs in Life, the lavish meals in Gourmet, and, most of all, the hidden pictures in Highlights.

There was a trick to solving those optical illusion puzzles with their lists of random objects hiding in plain sight. At first glance, all you’d see was the scene itself, a complex drawing of animals in the jungle, perhaps, or a crowded playground scene. But squint your eyes just enough to change the focus, and you could begin to discern the outlines of those other things: a slice of bread, a pencil, a teacup, a button. The only way to find the button amidst the tangle of palm fronds and swinging monkeys was to blot out everything else. You had to narrow your gaze and go in search of that one thing you most wanted to see.

My life lately has felt as complex as those multi-layered drawings of my childhood. On the surface, things appear orderly enough. But what I’ve experienced internally is a series of invisible, painful losses — each a challenge to my equanimity, to my sense of the universe as a fair and benign place. Feeling fragile and overwhelmed, I’ve been experimenting with an emotional version of that old eye-squinting thing. I keep thinking I’ll suffer less if I can just look more deeply into the picture. Somewhere, I know, goodness is hiding in plain sight. My task is simply to find it.

And so I repeat these words to myself like a mantra: “Look for the good.” And then I narrow my focus until I begin to see what I’m hunting for: the delicate outline of a blessing, some well-camouflaged scrap of goodness amidst the hurt, something to be grateful for.

“Look for the good,” was the intention I carried with me to Georgia last week, as I flew south to see my son Jack for the first time in six months. Six months! It’s still almost inconceivable to me that I could go so long without seeing one of my children. Since he left New Hampshire in May to change schools and begin working toward a degree in sound engineering in Atlanta, Jack hasn’t slept under this roof for one night. We stay in touch by phone and text, but I’d never seen where he lives, or met his roommates, or ridden in his car. He was about to turn 22. It was time to go. [continue…]

the gift of presence

October mapleLast week I drove through lashing winds and wild rains to a small town in Connecticut, to give a talk to a group of library friends. Afterward, a woman from the audience approached me as I stepped between the podium and the book table. It was clear she had a question, one she preferred not to share with the whole crowd.

We chatted for just a few minutes, barely long enough for her to articulate her thoughts about being lost on the path of midlife, or for me to respond in any way that might be helpful. It was a conversation that really called for a walk, a cup of tea, time — not the rushed reassurance I tried to offer her while people were lining up to buy books.

But I’ve been thinking about her over the last few days, as I’ve done the mundane tasks of keeping my own life on track: watering the house plants, vacuuming, walking the dog, doing the laundry, paying bills and answering emails, raking leaves, planning dinner and shopping for groceries. Nothing terribly exciting or important, just the ordinary work of being me.

The woman’s children are grown and she’s recently retired from a full-time career that satisfied her for years. She’s neither young nor old, her health is good, her life is good. Her days, she told me, are busy still, taken up with family, volunteer work, seeing friends, and caring for others. She is making a difference in her world, grateful her new freedom means she’s able to be there for those who need her.

And yet, she said, there’s something missing. She’s not quite certain that what she’s doing is “enough.” There’s a nagging guilt, a sense of inadequacy, a suspicion that she’s not being productive enough or successful enough or impressive enough.

“I know that feeling,” I said to her. “I have it, too.” [continue…]

26.2 things to be grateful for on a 26.2 mile walk

IMG_1696On September 21, for the fourth time, the members of Team Diane participated in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk. And then, as always happens, life came rushing right back in, and I didn’t get to write the blog post I’d planned for the next day. But what stands out in my mind even now, two weeks later, is one over-arching feeling: gratitude. And I realize that even as I walked I was making a mental list in my head. Writing it down just now, it was hard to stop at 26. What was I grateful for? Well, among other things:

  1. You! My dear friends, your words of encouragement and support filled my soul and gave wings to my feet. “Thank you” doesn’t begin to express my gratitude!
  1. You, again. Thanks to your generous donations, I exceeded my own fund-raising goal this year. But more importantly, all the money raised by our group – over $30,000 this year alone — goes directly to Dana Farber oncologist Dr. Ursula Matulonis and her team of researchers, dedicated to finding better treatments for women’s cancers. Together, we’re making a real difference, improving the odds for every woman being diagnosed or treated today.
  1. Team Diane! I feel blessed to be a part of this spirited band of women walking arm-in-arm for a cause that’s touched all our lives.finish line
  1. Marching orders. How proud our friend would be to see that we’re carrying on this work she herself began with such passion. This was the legacy Diane hoped for and the instruction she left us with: To live our own lives fully, and to do whatever we can to ensure better futures for all women with ovarian cancer.
  1. Husbands. You know who you are: the ones who willingly got up at four in the morning and caravanned on the Mass Pike out to Hopkinton to deliver the members of Team Diane to the starting line. And my own husband, Steve, who not only took photos from start to finish but trailed along the route as sweep, ready to offer a ride to any one of us who needed to bail out. Hats off to you guys!
  1. The heavens. They opened, the rains poured down for a solid hour and then, as if by magic or grace, the skies cleared at 6 am. We balled up our un-used slickers, tightened our sneakers, and put our hands together for a “Go Team” salute.
  1. My new chiropractor. “No, it’s not a pulled muscle,” she said a few weeks ago, when I first arrived at her office, after limping with a mysterious hip and leg injury for over ten months. “I’m pretty sure it’s referred nerve pain from your L1 vertebrae, and that you’ll feel better after I adjust you.” She was right. I did. (Still mending, but at least I’m walking without wincing.)


a friend, a walk, a cause, a book, a thank you

Diane and KIn two weeks, I’ll turn 56, a birthday my dear friend Diane did not live to see. The photo above, my favorite of the two of us, was taken the year before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

As always in the early fall, Diane, our friend Carol, and I had used my birthday as an excuse for a girls’ getaway at my parents’ house in Maine. For years we celebrated our time together with the same fool-proof menu: old Jackson Browne music on the stereo, lobster risotto (a collaborative culinary effort) and champagne for dinner, Diane’s scones and fresh fruit for breakfast, long walks, and no-holds-barred late-night conversations – the kind that can only happen between the most intimate friends, away from home, with no kids or husbands within earshot.

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how Diane spent her 55th year. It was she who originally inspired the phrase “the gift of an ordinary day,” for her delight in simple pleasures and time spent with her family and friends only deepened as she bravely faced both her devastating prognosis and a heartbreaking series of “lasts.” Diane negotiated the realities of ovarian cancer with the same determination and clarity she brought to everything she did – continuing with aggressive treatment for her disease while fully embracing the joys of her own everyday life. Under the care of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, she was able to do both for nearly four years.

During that time, she also worked tirelessly to support ovarian cancer research. As her own journey came to and end, Diane made clear her desire that her loved ones might carry on this effort in her memory.

Team Diane was formed in response to that wish.

Team Diane 2013Walking together in the annual Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk over the last three years, our small group has raised over $125,000 for Diane’s cause — money that, by Diane’s design, goes directly to her beloved Dana Farber oncologist Dr. Urusla Matulonis and her dedicated team of researchers. It’s a great achievement, but of course there is much more work to be done.

Next Sunday, on September 21, I will join Team Diane for the fourth time to walk in this event that’s become a touchstone of my life. I’m proud and grateful to be part of this committed group of walkers – some of us who knew and loved Diane, others who have joined because they’ve been moved by her story or touched by cancer themselves.   We are mostly women in our forties and fifties and sixties, and so we walk despite our own individual challenges – sore knees and cranky backs, cancer and Lyme disease, tight hamstrings and tender heels, the usual aches and pains of age. (Although I’ve got my own tricky back and gimpy leg to deal with this year, I didn’t for one moment consider dropping out!)

IMG_3186 - Version 2As always, we’ll begin the day in the dark, eating homemade scones on the pre-dawn ride out to Hopkinton (another Diane tradition, happily continued). We’ll hold hands for a moment at the start and then set out together, joining the more than 8,500 others who will be walking for a cure that day. En route, we’ll share our BlisterGlide, sunscreen, and Ibuprofen. We’ll urge one another on and catch up on one another’s lives. We’ll take plenty of stretching breaks and pit stops and remind each other to drink more water. And late in the afternoon we’ll cross the finish line arm in arm, with cheers and tears, remembering our friend, knowing how proud she’d be to see us carrying on her mission. And knowing, too, that we are making a difference. Collectively, working together, we can improve the odds for every woman who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

1235289_10151642734492304_1068429755_n - Version 2 (1)Once a year, I reach out to you, my dear readers, to join me in this cause that means so much to me and to so many others. For, as we all know, cancer touches each of us. As I write, my dear friend Lisa is being treated by an extraordinary team of doctors at Dana Farber, while another is celebrating her recent recovery from ovarian cancer. And so, it’s little wonder that I’m more committed than ever to doing my part to help conquer this disease. I am deeply grateful for any support you are able to give. Together we’re walking and giving and working to change lives — and perhaps to save them.

Thank you. Your support and your presence in my life means more than I can say.

how to donate – and a special thanks from me

Each year when I invite you to support me and Team Diane’s efforts, I like to choose a book to give away here, one that has some special significance to this cause. I can think of none better than the first volume of Mary Oliver’s collected poems, perhaps my favorite poetry book of all time. Four years ago, Diane borrowed my copy and found deep solace in these poems; later, when the book came back to me, her slips of paper were still in it, marking the ones that spoke most deeply to her. This too was part of her legacy: she wanted to remind us to pay attention, to love life and to live it fully, with gratitude and awareness and wonder.

So, if you do make a donation, make sure to also leave a comment below and let me know.

On Friday, Sept 26, I will choose one winner at random to receive Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems, Volume One. (Needless to say, I wish I could send a copy to each and every one of you.)

Donating is easy.

        Go to my personal fundraising page by clicking here:

Or send me a check: Make your check payable to “Jimmy Fund Walk.” Write DIANE’S FUND on the memo line. Send it directly to me at: 101 Middle Hancock Rd., Peterborough, NH 03458.

Note: You may wish to check with your employer’s Human Resources department to find out if they  will match your gift and double the impact.

Every single contribution is both meaningful and deeply appreciated.  Onward, with gratitude and love!