our America

UnknownLet us cultivate a culture of kindness. In that moment, we are determining the outcome of the world.
~ Sakyong Mipham

I know I’m not the only one finding it impossible this summer to make sense of world events. I suspect you, too, are mourning the senseless deaths of innocent people at home and abroad, looking in vain after each new round of violence for answers to the seemingly unanswerable question “why?”, and trying to cultivate an informed, thoughtful attitude toward our presidential candidates.

Perhaps, like me, you assign yourself articles to read written by journalists from the left and the right, writers and reporters who do their homework, who think deeply about where we stand as a country and who choose their words with care. Perhaps you, too, are struggling to keep your heart open to all people, to opinions that conflict with your own, to the concerns and worries of friends and family members who see things differently. Sometimes very, very differently.

It’s not easy being a good citizen these days. In the past couple of weeks two of my friends have confessed to blocking or defriending those whose political postings on social media cause them angst. Others have expressed a desire for Facebook to remain a place where we can enjoy browsing photos of our friends’ children and pets and vacations, without being confronted with their opinions, especially when they conflict with our own.

I have recently deleted political comments from my own Facebook page, remarks that were disrespectful, rude, or insulting — not to me, but to others. To do so causes me pain, for I value a free flow of ideas and information as much as anyone. But then, name-calling and personal insults don’t fall into that category.  I believe there’s a difference between conversation, which demands empathy and a willingness to listen with an open mind; and invective, which is about hearts and  minds that have been willfully shut down.

I don’t have to tell you: there are many loud, belligerent voices out there, all straining to be heard. Turn on the TV or radio, scan your news feed, scroll through Twitter, and you will find them. Voices full of accusation and suspicion, hatred and superiority, disdain and incivility. Voices eager to label and vilify. Voices that separate us from one another, that seem bent on dividing souls rather than uniting them. Voices quick to judge, voices meant to instill fear, voices that incite distrust or even violence. There are voices that condone cruelty, voices raised in self-righteous fury, voices that disregard quiet, unassailable truth in favor of suspicion and innuendo and outright lies. There are voices that speak the language of the F-bomb, the bully, the oppressor. And, alas, there seem to be very few voices asking simple questions of the heart, such as, “Tell me why you feel this way?” It’s a bleak and painful chorus, the kind of dysfunctional acting out we would never tolerate in our own homes or in our own families.

And yet somehow we’ve allowed this disgraceful shouting match to become our national dialogue. [continue…]

Mending the world within our reach — and a video to inspire

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-free-heart-image28627969I suspect I’m not the only one feeling a little wary and vulnerable in my skin these days.  A week after the Boston bombings, as people across the nation paused yesterday afternoon to observe a moment of silence at 2:50, I stood alone in my own quiet kitchen, sad and somewhat at a loss for what to do next.

There is so much in my life to be grateful for. No one I know was injured last week.  All my loved ones are fine.  Nothing visible in my world has changed. And yet, I find myself blinking back tears at the slightest provocation or criticism or harsh word.  There is too much violence in the world.  Let us not add to it, not even with one more negative word or gesture.

The headlines in the newspaper are both an accounting and a measure of our collective sorrow: the suffering that spills across the pages in articles and images, the anger and confusion still searching for an outlet, the grief still so fresh and raw.  Looking at the photos of two brothers, one dead and one facing death or life imprisonment, I search in vain for some clue that would explain such calculated, senseless evil.  And then, because I am myself a mother of two boys, I can’t help but think: these boys are also someone’s sons.

At the same time, photos from the funerals remind us of all the other parents who are mourning.  The losses, and the ripples from those losses, are unfathomable. Yet in the midst of loss, there is extraordinary grace, too, and resilience. On TV, a composed young dancer’s face lights up as she tells Anderson Cooper how glad she is to be alive, even as she envisions her new life without her left foot.  She will dance again, she insists, leaning into her husband’s arms and gazing down at the bright pink bandage that wraps her stump.  And then she makes a promise: somehow, though she’s never been a runner herself, she intends to return to the Marathon next year – as a participant, even if it means she walks or crawls across the finish line.

There is more than one path toward healing, no one right way to grieve or to recover.  But after a week of monitoring the unfolding developments in Boston, after listening to this courageous young woman try to articulate why she is choosing not to look back in anger but to move forward with hope, I sense it’s time for a break from the relentless onslaught of news.  Time to find my own still center and embrace the texture of life as it is – not an easy task in the best of times, perhaps even more challenging today.

The sight of my welcoming house at the end of a long car ride Sunday night filled my heart to overflowing.  Hugging my husband and son after a weekend on the road, receiving a sweet text just now from a friend, bending down to the floor to snuggle my aging dog, reading a poem I love, watching the sun slip behind a cloud, just being – alive and aware and fully present in my own ordinary life – feels emotionally demanding, too.  It’s as if everything has become heightened, both the fragility of my own brief presence here, and the exquisite, complicated beauty of our interconnected human existence on this earth.

Maybe, for a time, we are meant to be this raw and tender.  Forced to acknowledge the dark shadow side of human nature and to feel the full brunt of that knowing, we have to face the truth:  People hurt each other.  Violence and suffering are intertwined, one giving rise to the other.  And somehow, it is up to each one of us to do better, to soften our hearts, to sing our songs even in the midst of sorrow, to take better care of ourselves and of one another.

I think of how many opportunities I have each day to be brave and vulnerable, to offer a hand, to make love visible – and how many of those opportunities I squander, because I’m too annoyed to be expansive, too scared to reach out, too distracted to notice, or too busy to bother.  And then I’m reminded of words I turn to again and again by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, words that guide me home when I stray away from the person I aspire to be:

Be brave…

“Anything you do from the soulful self will help lighten the burdens of the world. Anything. You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity can cause to be set in motion. Be outrageous in forgiving. Be dramatic in reconciling. Mistakes? Back up and make them as right as you can, then move on. Be off the charts in kindness. In whatever you are called to, strive to be devoted to it in all aspects large and small. Fall short? Try again. Mastery is made in increments, not in leaps. Be brave, be fierce, be visionary. Mend the parts of the world that are within your reach. To strive to live this way is the most dramatic gift you can ever give to the world.”

 Inspiration. . .

I first met Carrie Carriello three years ago, when she attended a reading of The Gift of an Ordinary Day.  She told me she was thinking about writing a book herself, and asked if I would read a few of her essays.  Her humor and  courage were evident in every paragraph.  I couldn’t imagine how this busy young mother could possibly take care of five rambunctious children, including an autistic son, and find time to write a book, too.  And yet I also had a feeling nothing was going to stop her; she was that determined to tell her family’s story and to share her special little boy with the rest of us. Today, What Color is Monday? is published.

It’s my pleasure to share Carrie’s video with you, in which she recalls the moment she knew for certain her special son would find his way in the world, thanks to a stranger’s generosity – a beautiful example of the way one small act of kindness can transform a life. Listening to Carrie, I’m inspired to reach a little higher myself — to love more, to be better, to be braver, to be kinder.  “You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity can cause to be set in motion.”

Click here to watch.




It wasn’t much of a day for celebrating, this rainy Wednesday. In years past we’ve marked my husband’s June birthday with lobster dinners in Maine, or hiking with our boys and our friends on Monhegan Island. There have been poems written, surprise parties thrown, memorable gatherings around our porch table, cards and presents and cakes and people. But yesterday I could offer none of those things.

I’d spent the day before having surgery on my face for a small skin cancer that required excision and some careful reconstruction, and as of yesterday morning I was still loopy from the anesthesia. I had a swollen, bandaged temple, stitches, pain when I smiled or frowned. It was raining. Our kids are both away at their summer jobs. How to create a birthday out of this?

We thought about going out to dinner, but Steve said he’d rather be at home. And so I mustered the energy to shop for food, then stood in the rain in the parking lot at the grocery store, trying in vain to keep my face bandage dry while shoving my key into a car door that wouldn’t open. Of course it wouldn’t — after a few seconds of fruitless key-jamming, it finally dawned on me that I was trying to force my way into someone else’s car. I had no idea where my own might be, so I wandered around for a while till I finally found it, and then I realized I had no memory whatsoever of parking it. No wonder the doctor had told me not to drive for a day!

Home at last, I hauled in the grocery bags, took a couple of extra-strength Tylenol, put the entire Van Morrison play list on the stereo, and spent the afternoon making lasagna, salad, a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. The rain came down. The kitchen filled with good smells. And I found myself surprised by gratitude.

Twenty-five years I’ve written birthday cards to this man, and it suddenly occurred to me that the only thing either of us really wants now is a decent shot at twenty-five or so more. We are at an age, and at a stage in life, where we’re reminded on a daily basis that we would be fools to take any moment of any of this for granted. Life is a gift, not a promise. And for today, anyway, we hold that gift intact in the palms of our hands — our good health, our togetherness, our love, our future.

There is nothing like a day spent in the hospital to remind you just how precious a day NOT spent in the hospital is. Nothing like a minor health scare to make you praise God for every single working body part. Nothing like a little operation, and a few hours lost to the nowhere land of anesthesia, to make you fall to your knees and kiss the solid ground of your own messy, mundane, incredibly lovely life. Nothing like checking out for a day to make you want to shout with joy at the simple fact that you are being allowed, this time, to check right back in.

My husband came into my post-op cubicle on Tuesday afternoon to listen to the going-home instructions just as I was coming to, landing back in my own body after flying through the oblivion of sedation. He smiled when he saw me and kissed my head, never letting on for one single second that he was shocked by what he saw: my sagging face, my paralyzed brow, my eye drooping shut like a stroke victim’s. He had no idea, then, whether or not this new lopsided version of me was permanent, but I’ll forever give him credit for not registering one iota of dismay at the sorry, crooked sight of me.

(It wasn’t until I got a look in a mirror myself, an hour later, that I appreciated what he’d done for me, comprehended the grace and the fortitude of that smile.) This, I venture to say, is what old, seasoned love is all about: being able to produce a heartfelt, adoring expression even when your spouse looks like hell, even when she can’t stand up to put her own pants on, even when you’re asked to push her down the hall in a wheelchair, even when you don’t know for certain if she is destined to look forevermore like a bad Cubist painting.

Darkness fell early last night, despite the fact that it was the second longest day of the year. I lit some candles, opened a bottle of champagne, served up dinner, gave Steve a card. My husband is sixty-two. I remember the year my own dad turned sixty, how very old he seemed to me then. Now, I can’t help but wonder how we ended up here ourselves, with so many years suddenly behind us and not quite so many left ahead. I want to live them well. When I ask myself how to do that, two simple words come to mind: “Be kind.” Such a modest aspiration. Such a formidable challenge. Such an essential instruction.

This morning, I filled the bathtub with hot water, climbed in, and then called my husband to the bathroom to give me a hand. While he held a towel over my bandage, I washed my hair. Another humbling first. What else, I wonder, will we be asked to do for one another as age creeps in and exacts its toll? “Before you know what kindness is,” writes Naomi Shihab Nye, “you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment, like weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.”

This, I suspect, is the territory that lies just ahead and around the curve of today. A place where loss grows familiar, where joy becomes inextricably bound with sorrow, where endings outnumber beginnings, and where, as we make our tender peace with things as they are, “only kindness makes sense any more.”