I spent last Sunday at the Eleanor Roosevelt home, Val Kill, in Hyde Park, New York. Every year an award is given to several women and men whose work and lives echo Mrs. Roosevelt’s values and legacy. This year one of the recipients was a beloved friend of mine, Loung Ung. Loung is best known for her trilogy of memoirs that recount her childhood in Cambodia during the reign of the infamous Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Two years ago Loung and Angelina Jolie turned the first of Loung’s memoirs—First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers—into an award-winning film. The film, and Loung’s beautiful books (they are so worth reading) recount the murder of her parents and siblings along with 2 million other Cambodians, and how she was forced, at seven years old, to become a child soldier. The books also tell the tale of courage—the courage to survive, to rebuild a life, and mostly, the courage to choose hope over despair, and love over revenge. Loung went on to become a renowned activist who travels the world working for human rights. You might think Loung Ung would be a dour person, with her history and resume, but she’s one of the most exuberant, fun-loving people I know. She worked hard to heal from the wounds of war—she had to reclaim her capacity for forgiveness, trust, love and joy. Being around her and the other winners of the Eleanor Roosevelt award yesterday reminded me that I don’t want to descend into despair about our country and our world. It’s not hard to go there, what with the 24-7 news cycle that fills my heart with sadness about the breakdown of democracy, about racism and sexism and all the other isms, about climate change, about over-population and the diminishing wilderness, and, and, and. But even though I cannot turn away from the state of our country and the world, I do not want to focus only on the negative. It’s bad for me! Its bad for all of us. I think its important to add hope and perspective into the conversations we have every day. If we give in to despair and fear, I don’t know if we’ll survive these times. We certainly won’t thrive. Its been shown in brain experiments that the whole body is affected by a fear-based, gloomy, negative outlook. You can find all sorts of scholarly articles that show how feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can upset the body's hormone balance, deplete the brain chemicals required for happiness, and damage the immune system. I feel that the immune system of our country is getting damaged now by fear and vitriol and despair. Most certainly we must work politically and systemically on the real problems, but at the same time, we can spread stories of hope, historical perspective of times as bad and worse than ours, and humankinds' irrepressible spirit of innovation and resilience. Injecting hope and telling stories about people doing excitingly different things in the world is a way of awakening that spirit in others. That’s why the crowd in the tent at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home at Val Kill yesterday leapt to their feet after Loung Ung told her story of love over hate, and determination over despair. She gave us all an injection of resilience. So maybe today when a conversation goes into the negative zone, you can share something good you saw happen, something noble and wholesome you helped to create or hope to create. Maybe you can counter the repetitive stories of us vs. them, with love stories, or actions stories--perhaps a rallying cry to get out the vote on November 6. Anything that interrupts the stories of small mindedness and fear.
Whenever the world gets too much for me, I take solace in nature, in wildness. But “the world” is encroaching on nature, and this sometimes makes me feel like a cornered, scared animal. Scared animals resort to two tactics for survival—aggression or submission. Neither of those tactics appeals to me. I want to be useful; I want to be a strong advocate for healing and sanity and love. I want to BE the change in order to help create the change. I can’t be that if I am constantly on the attack, or if I am driven by fear into a numb, despairing stupor. So what to do? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but one thing that helps me is to spend a little time each day attending to my inner state so that the work I do in the world is FOR something and not only AGAINT “the other.” Right now as I turn my attention to helping a Congressional candidate in my district win his race, I’m using the following daily practice:
FANNING THE FLAME OF FEARLESSNESS
1. Carve out 5 - 10 minutes when you can be alone.
2. Close the door, sit in a chair or on the floor, close your eyes, and come into silence.
3. Put your hand on the center of your chest—your heart center—and pat gently. Breathe into that space and let whatever is in your heart emerge and come to the surface. Respectfully nod to whatever arises—fear, anxiety, dullness, grief, joy, wonder, gratitude—as if you are greeting visitors.
4. Now, imagine a gentle breeze ushering those visitors out the back door. No judgement, no rush, but a quiet sweeping away of images and feelings, until all that remains is spaciousness—as if your heart is a vast, empty cave.
5. Now, in the center of the cave, imagine a tiny, glowing ember. A little flame. Even if it is the tiniest light, see if you can find it.
6. Inhale slowly, and gently exhale, and blow on that ember with your exhalation. Make a quiet blowing sound with your breath, and imagine the ember glowing and getting stronger and brighter. Perhaps it changes from a cool blue color to a golden flame.
7. As you blow on the ember, feel the power of your breath spreading warmth through your whole body/mind/soul, filling you with the light of optimism and fearlessness. Feel the warmth relaxing you, melting away negativity, anxiety, blame, victimhood. Do this with several breaths until you can actually feel a sense of warmth and expansiveness in your chest.
8. You can use this exercise when you are going about your day at work and home. Just one in-breath can clear away fear, and one out-breath can remind you of your natural inner warmth and strength. These qualities of fearlessness and hope are always available, always waiting. They will enhance whatever it is you do to help our hurting world, and strenghten your capacity to spread the seeds of hope.
I have been thinking about how we use the gift of language, how we communicate. It seems we have forgotten how powerful our words can be. Twitter and Facebook, texting and email….we throw words around as if they don’t matter that much. But they do. We can use them to offer praise and ask brave questions, to learn and heal, to dig for the truth and deepen a friendship, or we can use them to reject connection, to lie or harm or destroy. The human capacity to communicate through language is a gift, an evolutionary miracle that we take for granted. I’ve been trying to be more conscious about how I speak and what my intention is before I open my mouth or pound out an email or text. (I’ve been limiting my involvement with other kinds of social media because the blatant misuse of language is making me depressed.) I’ve been asking myself if I want to use my words to smear my ego all over the place, or instead if I want to use them to connect, soul to soul. Whenever I want to remember how lucky we are to be blessed with language, I turn to the story of Helen Keller, as recounted in her famous autobiography. Helen was nineteen months old when she contracted an illness that left her deaf, blind, and mute. In the autobiography, she writes about her life before she met Anne Sullivan, the teacher who would give her the gift of “the word.” Before that, she was a lost and wild child, “preyed upon by anger and bitterness.”
“Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog,” Helen Keller writes, “when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. ‘Light! Give me light!’ was the wordless cry of my soul.”
When Helen was seven years old, her parents searched for a teacher to work with their blind and deaf and wordless child—a difficult job to fill in 1887. Here is how Helen describes the day she met Anne Sullivan:
“On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps…I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand to whom I thought was my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.
"The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word ‘d-o-l-l.’ I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it….I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation.
"One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled ‘d-o-l-l’ and tried to make me understand that ‘d-o-l-l’ applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words ‘m-u-g’ and ‘w-a-t-e-r.’ Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that ‘m-u-g’ is mug and that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment of tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. …
"We walked down the path to the well house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
"I left the well house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
"I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them–words that were to make the world blossom for me. It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my bed at the close of the eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come."
Ever since I was a girl I have believed that the future leaders and healers of the world are women. This doesn’t mean that men will no longer lead and heal—of course they will. But there is something in the heart of women that the world needs now. That’s why the “me too” and “times up” movements have taken off. Are they galloping too fast even as they move the cultural dial toward long-overdue changes? Maybe. Do we need to reign in some of the excesses? I believe we do. Can we be more inclusive and less self-righteous? Sure. But change is always messy and imperfect. Women have a bad habit of expecting perfection of ourselves. This would be a good time to relax that tendency!
When I am confused about being an effective and loving agent of change, I often turn to the words of one of the world’s great change-makers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My favorite speech of his is the one he gave at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1966. It is often called the “Double Victory” speech, because in it he says that when you put love and non-violence into action, in the long run your victory will also be the victory for your opponent, because compassionate action makes everyone rise to the heights of their better angels. In that speech, Dr. King coins a phrase I love. He says that while we should all strive to be relatively happy, secure, and well-adjusted people, there are some things we should never adjust to—things like bigotry, injustice, and violence. Instead he says we should practice “creative maladjustment.”
I read Dr. King’s speeches over and over—his book of collected speeches, A Knock at Midnight—is one of my go-to books when I need one of those wake-up knocks in the midnight of my own fears and confusion. Normally you don’t think of Dr. King as a comic, but actually there are some funny lines in many of his speeches. In the Double Victory speech he says, “Maybe our world is in dire need of a new organization, the International Association for the Advancement for Creative Maladjustment.”
In the me-too era, I would like to start a chapter of that organization for anyone who wants to remain maladjusted to sexism in all of its forms. The meetings will have only three rules. First, no complaining. The opposite of creativity is complaining. We all know what’s wrong; let’s save our energy for cooking up visionary, bold, and creative alternatives. Second rule: Be brave. It takes courage to be openly, vocally, and steadfastly maladjusted. But it also takes the third rule: Be patient. Courage without patience can turn into blind aggression. Before you know it, you become the very type of intolerant person you have been railing against. So if we all want to live in a world where people are not hobbled and harmed because of their gender or race or nationality or beliefs, I think its strategic to keep our eyes on the double victory, and our hearts open even toward those with whom we deeply disagree. Dr. King ends the Double Victory speech with his famous line about the arc of the moral universe being long, and yet it bends toward justice. Creative maladjustment is a long-arc strategy.
A reader sent me an email the other day thanking me for a passage in my book Broken Open. She said it was helping her deal with her confusion and upset and grief about aging. I thought to myself, “Wow! I could use some help with that too.” Recently I’ve been rather shocked when I look in the mirror or feel a new ache in my knees or notice that my grandson is about to turn 9 years old. How did this all happen? So I thought I’d take a look at that passage. I wrote it 14 years ago (back when I thought 50 was old.) It’s called The River of Change, and I still agree with it!
"Life is always changing; you are always changing. You live in a river of change, and a river of change lives within you. Every day you’re given a choice: You can relax and float in the direction that the water flows, or you can swim hard against it. If you go with the river, the energy of a thousand mountain streams will be with you, filling your heart with courage and enthusiasm; if you resist the river, you will feel rankled and tired as you tread water, stuck in the same place."
If you had the patience and a high-powered microscope, you could sit and stare at your hand and watch the river of change flowing through your own body right now. You could watch your cells changing and dying and being replaced, over and over and over. From year to year every one of your cells is replaced. Literally, who you were yesterday is not who are today. Your skin is new every month, your liver every six weeks. When you inhale you breathe in elements from other organisms to create new cells, and when you exhale you send parts of yourself out into the atmosphere—into the living, breathing universe. “All of us,” writes the medical doctor, Deepak Chopra, “are much more like a river than anything frozen in time and space.
“I've known rivers,” writes Langston Hughes. “I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
Am I going to flow with my river nature today, or am I going to swim against it? This is what I ask myself when I get out of bed each morning. And when I go to sleep, I apologize to the river gods for any hard strokes I made against the current, and for splashing about like a drowning person. I pray that tomorrow I may once again know the pleasure of following my soul downstream, because, I’ve known rivers—and once you’ve known rivers—once you’ve stretched out on the dark waters, trusting the river gods, going in the direction of life even if it is headfirst toward the rapids, you want to taste that water again; you want your soul to grow deep like the rivers again."
I keep this image on my meditation altar. Right next to the Buddha and other meditation iconography. All those kindly saints inspire me, but this is the image that wakes me up and reminds me what meditation is all about. Yeah, I know we need to be gentle with ourselves, but sometimes I need more of a push, someone to say "SHHHHHH. Stop thinking! Stop catastrophising! Just calm down, girl. You can't woo your soul if your mind is making so much noise."
I meditate to woo the soul. That kind of language appeals to me more than some of the more detached and dry language of meditation. Here's what I do to woo my soul:
Sit tall and still. Close your eyes, drop your shoulders, soften your belly. Breathe. Now, tell your overwrought mind, shhhhh. Breathe, shhhhh, wait. You may have to wait for quite a while, or it may happen in a flash...There! That quietude you feel, that relaxed presence, that openness, that peace. That is your soul. Even if you sense it for a split second, even if you have to wade through restlessness and boredom for that one taste, even if you barely believe in what you are doing, it is wise to woo the soul. To learn her language. To let him guide you.
Happy New Year friends! Here in upstate New York, we just came through some of the coldest temps on record in our area. Now the sun is shining on a very, very bright morning. I am feeling energized and ready for a better new year. 2017 was a hard one in America and around the world. My prayer for 2018 is that each of us (with our diversity of ideas and values and backgrounds) warms our heart toward the other. Albert Einstein famously said that "no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it." So let's work on our own consciousness. Let's extend our consciousness (if that word doesn't work for you, you could substitute it with intelligence+curiosity) far and wide, making sure the news we receive is broad, inclusive, and accurate. Let's make kindness and civility active verbs in our daily lives. We can and must be bigger than our dogma and our fears. We can be fierce and loving, strong and soft, bold and forgiving. We can be all about love without being wimps. Love knows no political party, no gender, no race, no nation. Love has backbone; love has boundaries; love does no harm but takes no shit. Let's try to be loving and bold in 2018. That's my resolution.
You’ve heard of the three wise men, right? Those guys bearing gifts for the little refugee family who delivered their baby in a barn? And you've heard the story of Hanukkah and the miracle of the lights. Well, those gifts and miracles have relevance to us 21st century pilgrims.
All the seasonal parables are about the same thing: awakening joy in times of darkness. They are about hope AND hopelessness; home AND exile; celebration AND grief. They are never just about joy. Joy is the gold we can mine as we walk life’s path, but that path traverses all sorts of uncertain and difficult terrains.
I like to reconnect with the spiritual teachings of Hanukkah, Christmas, winter solstice, and the lesser-known December holidays. You probably didn’t know that December 8 was Rohatsu, which commemorates the day in 566 BC when the Buddha attained enlightenment. Like Mary and Joseph who found no welcome at the inn, and birthed the baby Jesus in a manger, and like the Maccabees who reclaimed the desecrated temple and lit the miraculous light of Hanukkah, the Buddha awakened his joy after a long struggle, under the Bodhi tree, alone and hungry.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Father writes, “Truth and goodness are not always found at the top, but often on the edge and at the bottom . . . Not in the center of empire, but in the backwaters of Bethlehem. Not among the established, but clearly among those who are dis-established.” Hanukkah and Christmas are the ultimate stories of outsiders finding sanctuary, light, and community against all odds.
If you are going through a hard time—or if the despair of the world is weighing heavy in your heart—you need seek no further than the stories of the season to help you find light in the darkest month of the year. Let the season awaken your generosity. Be like the three wise men, bearing gifts for the homeless, the refugees, the forgotten. (And please remember that often the most forgotten person on your list is YOU. Be good to your own heart and you’ll have more to give to others.)
I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Normal is someone you don’t know very well.” This is a good thing to keep in mind always, but especially now, when we assume that the normal people are all having “normal” holidays. You know—festive homes decorated in Martha Stewart splendor; inboxes crowded with party invitations and mailboxes stuffed with Christmas cards; harmonious families primed for weeks of good cheer. Do you know these people? I don't!
Most of the people I know (myself included) will barely pull off a Christmas tree and a chaotic family gathering. Life is busy and the times are stressful, so if you want to experience the real meaning and magic of the holidays, let's start by unburdening ourselves of impossible expectations. The most effective thing you can do to have your own happy holiday is to wipe the word “normal” from your vocabulary.
In my work and travels I have met thousands of people from all walks of life. I have yet to meet a normal one, if normal means consistently sane, contented, and capable. And yet most of us hold ourselves up to an unattainable standard of human perfection. The 12th century poet Rumi called this phenomenon, the “Open Secret.” He said each one of us is trying to hide the same secret from each other—not some racy or evil secret, but rather the mere fact of our flawed humanness. We expend so much energy trying to conceal our ordinary bewilderment at being human, or our loneliness in the crowd, or that nagging sense that everyone else has it more together than we do, that we miss out on the chance to really connect, which is what we ultimately long for—especially during the holidays.
So, here’s something you can do: Open up your Open Secret. Overcome your embarrassment at being human, and tell a friend that you didn’t get one party invitation. Maybe she will reveal the same thing, or she’ll bring you to the one party on her list, or together you’ll go your local homeless shelter and help the kids decorate the tree…..Instead of sweeping family secrets under the rug, tell your sister that you are worried about how much your father drinks at family gatherings; ask her to support you in dealing more honestly with him this year…..Don’t just say “Fine!” when a colleague asks how you are at the office holiday party. Say, “Sometimes all this ho-ho-ho makes me feel socially inept.” You’ll be surprised by the response. Suddenly a mere acquaintance will open up his secrets to you, and soon you’ll feel more connected, not only to him, but to the real meaning of the holidays.
Driving to work this morning, I tuned into one of my favorite Sirius XM radio stations only to discover that it was now only playing “holiday music.” Already??? Yes, it’s that time of year again—the modern miracle known as The Holidays, when into the dark little months of November and December, we squeeze Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years Eve, and a myriad of other celebrations, from ancient Solstice rituals to the more contemporary rites of school plays, office parties, and community gatherings. Throw in a generous dose of unrealistic expectations, dysfunctional family feasts complete with political disagreements, airplane flights and long drives, darker days, colder weather, budget-busting shopping, excess eating and drinking, and no wonder that along with “joy to the world” comes seasonal stress for most, and for some, real depression and loneliness.
But I have not given up on the holidays! As long as I commit to staying healthy and sane throughout the season, this time of year still feels magical to me. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll share some ways to focus on the magic and reduce the madness. Of course, another option is just to ignore the holidays completely (good luck with that!) or to knock yourself out trying to live up to all of your expectations (good luck with that too.) Instead, this week, as Thanksgiving looms, here’s a practice to try out right now:
Put down what you’re holding (in your hand or your head)—your work, your to-do lists, your third cup of coffee, your date book, the phone call you should be making—and sit quietly for just 60 seconds. Put your hand on your chest and pat your heart gently. Then take a deep breath into that spot, and flood yourself with warm feelings of kindness toward yourself. Exhale with an audible sigh. Ahhhh. Breathe in and out, focusing on self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. We’re so hard on ourselves, and this time of year that hardness can really take a toll. So, keep your hand on your heart and with each inhalation and exhalation, let your shoulders drop and your jaw relax and that warm feeling of kindness-to-self flood your body. If you only have time to do that, it’s enough. Or, take a few more minutes and add this: Inhale self-kindness, and as you exhale, extend that kindness to others—the people you love, those with whom you disagree, and finally our whole amazing, confounding, hurting, evolving world. (If you’re at work, don’t worry what your colleagues might think—this time of year everyone would love to sigh deeply.)
You can do this practice when you wake up, when things feel stressful, when you go to bed…and during Thanksgiving itself—even if you have to lock yourself in the bathroom for a few minutes.
After you’ve written more than one book, people often ask, “Which one of your books do you think I’d like best?” I always answer, “it depends what you’re going through in your life. Are you looking to develop a spiritual practice or to heal your heart or strengthen your body? My first book—The Seeker’s Guide—is good for that. But maybe you are in some kind of big transition, a change, a loss, a confusing middle-of-the-dark woods period…My memoir Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help You Grow is about my own dark woods experience through divorce, but it also includes stories from people known and unknown going through their own “Phoenix Process,” as I call it—rising from the ashes of a difficult time, wiser and stronger. My most recent book is called Marrow: Love, Loss & What Matters Most, and it just came out in paperback.
Marrow is about being my sister’s bone marrow donor and the experience we shared cleaning up our relationship before having my bone marrow harvested and then transplanted into her body. We wanted to go into the procedures with nothing but love between us, but first we had a lot of unspoken sibling stuff to wade through, to understand, to forgive. We wanted to do this now because it was a life and death situation: if my cells attacked my sister, or if her body rejected my cells, she wouldn’t make it. The book charts our sometimes painful, sometimes funny, always meaningful process of healing (what we came to call our soul marrow transplant), and the year she lived after the transplant, and the courageous choice she made at the end.
So the other day, when someone asked me, “Which one of your books do you think I should start with?” I responded with my usual: “Depends what’s up for you.” And the person said, “I’m going back home for Thanksgiving, and there are several family members who have very different opinions about what’s going on in our country. I’m afraid we’re going to get into a big fight.” So I suggested she read Marrow. You may wonder why a memoir about cancer and sisters and a bone marrow transplant would be applicable for someone going home for the holidays. But Marrow is also about how all of us can let go of opinions and assumptions about each other—whomever the “other” is—show up with an open heart, listen, and have authentic, courageous, and real conversations with the people in our life.
If ever there was a time for us to learn how to confront our differences in a loving, hopeful, and mindful manner, it’s now. As I write in Marrow, “People have said I was brave to undergo the bone marrow extraction. But I don’t really think so—you’d have to be a miserable, crappy person to refuse the opportunity to save your sibling. But getting emotionally naked with my sister—this felt risky. To dig deep into never-expressed grievances, secret shame, behind-the-back stories, blame, and judgment wasn’t something we had done before. But my sister’s life hung in the balance…What I learned from both transplants—the bone marrow transplant and the soul marrow transplant—is that the marrow of the bones and the marrow of your very own self are quite similar. Deep in the center of the bones are stem cells that can keep another person alive, perhaps not forever, but for a time and, in the case of my sister, for what she called the best year of her life. Deep in the center of the self are the soul cells of who you really are. Dig for them, believe in them, and offer them to another person, and you can heal each other’s hearts and keep love alive forever. Here’s one more thing I learned. You don’t have to wait for a life-and-death situation to offer the marrow of yourself to another person. We can all do it, we can do it now, and there’s a chance that the life of our human family does indeed depend on it.”
So, if you’re dreading confronting all those “others” across the Thanksgiving table or during the ho-ho-ho festivities, you may want to pick up Marrow. It’s a good read, and you’ll also come away inspired to go a little deeper with your family members—past the politics and into the soul.
My sister Maggie (shown here at about age 8 with her violin) loved all things beautiful, musical, natural, fun and lively. She had a lot of trouble with mean people, but mostly she loved everyone and served everyone as a nurse and a friend and a mother. In my book, Marrow, about our journey of healing, I tried to do her spirit proud. When the book came out a year ago, I was glad to share our tale of love and healing. I believed that my experience being my Maggie’s bone marrow donor and the process we went through to heal our relationship—down to the marrow—had relevance to people in any kind of relationship. The book may be about sisters, but it’s also about how all of us kooky human beings long for love and connection, and yet we often act in our own worst interests. Little did I know just how relevant the book would be. Two weeks after Marrow launched, the 2016 presidential election stoked a rift in our country that has continued to deepen. Throw on top of that natural disasters, terrorist events, gun violence, and the quickening pace of daily life, and there has never been more of a need for each one of us to slow down, attend to what really matters, and be agents of love in our own families, workplaces, and communities.
On October 3rd the paperback version of Marrow came out. The cover's changed some, and so did the subtitle. I did this because many readers expressed to me that the original subtitle did not adequately answer the question: What genre is this book? Memoir? Self-Help? Spiritual adventure story? The answer is YES. The book is memoir—mine and my sister’s—but it also is a guide to reaching out to “the other”—whether that other is a sibling, a child, a mate, a parent, a colleague, the neighbor next door who votes differently, worships differently, looks, speaks, or just seems “other.” So I decided to create a subtitle to express the fullness of the book: Love, Loss & What Matters Most
I have received beautiful, grateful emails and letters from people around the world who found inspiration and courage in the pages of Marrow. I have read from the book in bookstores, churches, hospitals and book club living rooms. I just returned from Europe where I did a few readings, and I was touched by the universality of our human struggles and losses, victories and gifts. Despite the heaviness of these times, I feel hopeful. There are way more good people, fueled by love and courage, than those who would tear us apart. It makes me happy that Marrow is part of the love fuel. Sometimes I can even feel my sister patting me on the back, telling me that this human experiment may be taking its time and its toll, but it's all OK, it's all FOR something...so breathe deep, shore up your heart, and live big and give big.
I was on vacation this past week with several families who have traveled together for years. One of my friends’ sons (who I’ve known since he was a little boy) is now in a job that requires him to speak in public. He asked me if I liked public speaking. I told him that after all this time it still didn’t come naturally to me, but I had learned to deal with my nervousness and fear so much so that, yes, I did like it. He wanted to know if there was a moment when it started to turn around for me, if there was some trick I could share with him. So I showed him this bit of writing from a chapter in my book, Marrow:
WHEN I FIRST BEGAN speaking and teaching I was so nervous before each event I could barely think straight. I was in that jittery state of mind one evening, sitting backstage at a conference where I was to give a talk. A well-known psychiatrist was sitting with me; he was slated to present after I spoke.
“Are you OK?” he asked me.
“No,” I said. “I’m terribly nervous.”
“Oh, I used to be nervous before I spoke. But now I’m not.”
“How did that happen?” I asked. “And how can it happen to me? And soon?”
“Well,” the man said, “a couple of years ago, I was sitting backstage, just like you, marinating in my own sweat, and there was a priest or a monk there—a little old guy in a brown robe. He must have noticed how panicky I was. He came over to me and said something I never forgot. It changed everything for me. You wanna hear it?”
“This is what he said: ‘They don’t need you to perform for them so they know how good you are. They need you to love them so they know how good they are.’ You want me to write that down?”
I said yes, and I still have that piece of paper. I keep it in my purse and I come across it at the oddest times. Maybe I’ll be fishing around for my phone, or looking for a pen at work, and I’ll find the scrap of paper and read it. And once again, it will encourage me to connect with my deepest motivation no matter what I am doing. “They don’t need you to perform for them so they know how good you are. They need you to love them so they know how good they are.”
A reader of one of my books wrote me a thank-you email and quoted from her favorite chapter where I describe what prayer means to me:
“Whatever is happening, whatever is changing, whatever is going or not going according to my plans—I release my hold on all of it. I leave behind who I think I am, who I want to be, what I want the world to be. I come home to the great peace of the present moment.” That’s what I wrote several years ago in Broken Open. I re-read the quote today, sitting at my desk, checking my email, typing with one hand because this afternoon, while holding the phone under one ear on a work call, and chopping vegetables for lunch at the same time, I sliced a piece of my thumb off. I am in a particularly busy time right now with work, family, travel, not to mention the general stress in the country. Not a good time to have the use of only one hand. But a good time to be reminded that fighting against what has already happened will only make things worse. And so I breathed in the words, felt my shoulders drop from around my ears, and I came home once again to the great peace of the present moment.
When I write deeply held truths, I am not the one writing—it’s the universal wisdom gracing me with temporary clarity. I turn the grace into words, but that doesn’t mean I live the truth of those words on a daily basis. The greatest compliments I ever get are that my books remind people of what they already know. How wonderful, on this particular day, a reader reminded me of what I already know, of what you already know: “Whatever is happening, whatever is changing, whatever is going or not going according to my plans—I release my hold on all of it. I leave behind who I think I am, who I want to be, what I want the world to be. I come home to the great peace of the present moment.”
My younger sister Maggie was a renaissance woman—a no-nonsense nurse practitioner in a rural Vermont community, an accomplished artist, a mother and farmer and beekeeper and maple syrup producer. And she also was my stem-cell double, something we discovered when her lymphoma roared back into her blood after a long remission and she needed a bone marrow transplant in order to live.
We were thrilled and also dumbstruck when it turned out that among the siblings, I was the one whose cell tissue perfectly matched Maggie’s. There are four of us in my family—all girls, each with a role given during childhood. I was the one with her head in the clouds. Maggie was assigned to the ground. She was the dependable, practical girl and I was the cosmic explorer. “Earth to Liz,” was a common refrain. As we grew, we changed. But the brand stayed put. It didn’t seem to matter that I had cofounded one the nation’s most respected adult education centers, or that I’d published several books, or raised three sons—my sisters always seemed surprised that I had acquired basic skills to navigate human existence. Family roles are hard to shake.
Before having my bone marrow harvested and transplanted into Maggie’s bloodstream, I read up on what Maggie would face after transplant. The gravest dangers were of cell rejection and attack—Maggie’s body might reject my cells, and my cells might attack Maggie. Both reactions could kill her. Rejection and attack: those words had a familiar ring to them. Although we had always loved each other with that fierce sibling kind of devotion, we also had gone through periods of rejection and attack. Close in age, yet far apart in temperament and beliefs and career and lifestyle choices, I wondered if perhaps Maggie and I needed to do something prior to the transplant to teach our cells how to get along once my stem cells took over producing all the blood in Maggie’s body.
So I suggested that we do a “soul marrow transplant” along with the bone marrow transplant—that we revisit our childhood and follow the threads of rejection and attack throughout our years of sisterhood. That, in the presence of a therapist, we dig into the marrow of our relationship; that we offer each other honesty and explanation and forgiveness; that we uncover an unconditional kind of love that would penetrate deep into our cells and give the transplant its best chance of working. I fully expected Maggie to reject or attack that idea, since she had a skeptical, bemused attitude about anything that smacked of therapy or spirituality.
But Maggie loved the idea of a soul marrow transplant, especially when I likened the soul to the sap in the center of a maple tree. Maggie was a connoisseur of maple syrup. She revered everything about it—the syrup itself, the process of making it, and the maple tree in all seasons. In summer as the tree spread its green canopy over the yard, in the fall when the leaves turned to fire, in the winter when the dark, twisted limbs scratched against the grey sky, and in the spring when the sap ran beneath the rugged bark. And in the center of the tree’s solid trunk, the sweet liquid—the sap that when boiled down becomes maple syrup.
And so two years ago my sister and I visited a therapist and tapped the veins of truth within us. We got down to the marrow—past the old hurts, and childhood myths and roles, and the scars left by rejections and attacks. We used the heat of that session to turn the whole story of our sisterhood into something pure, something sweet. And by the time I had my marrow harvested, and then when it was transplanted into my sister’s body, there was nothing left between us but love.
My sister lived for a year after the transplant. She said it was the best year of her life. The act of digging deep to heal our relationship gave Maggie a newfound courage to live from her most unapologetically authentic self. It confirmed for me something I had always suspected: The best way to live is to get down to the marrow of who we are, to refine it in the heat of daily life, and to turn it into a gift for others. I think we can do that even when we’re scared or sick. Even when we are dying. You don’t have to wait for a life-and-death situation to offer your marrow to another person. We can all do it, and we can do it now. There’s a chance that by cleaning up your story with one person the healing will ripple out and make a difference in a world hungry for acceptance, understanding, and love.
I have never been very good at being unprepared. I am an over-preparer, which has its upside, especially at work. And it also has a downside: it can get in the way of spontaneity. But, whatever, it's gotten me this far and I have other nagging personality traits more worth working on! I did have a wildly unexpected and unprepared-for experience recently. And it DID bring me joy. My book, Marrow, was nominated months ago for a coveted book award--the Books for A Better Life Award. This annual award recognizes authors and publishers of self-improvement books. The concept was born 21 years ago with the intention of giving credit to the group of authors whose work impacts millions of readers around the world. For someone writing in the "self-improvement" genre, this award is important, because for some reason, most literary critics, awards, reviewers, etc. turn their noses up at self-help, or spirituality, or healing, or even psychology titles. Which is a shame because a) many of these books are beautifully written and well-crafted, and b) many are best-sellers that are deeply appreciated by their readers and deserve to be considered part of the literary world. So I applaud the founders of this award and also of the sponsoring organization, the National MS Society. At the award ceremony in NYC, I never for a moment thought my book would win. I was up against two of my favorite memoirs of 2016--When Breath Becomes Air and Love Warrior. Since I never entertained that my book would be selected, I didn't prepare an acceptance speech. When my name was called, I stumbled to the stage and started to speak about the book and to thank folks, especially my sister Maggie, and then I choked up, and so I quickly ended the speech and headed off the stage. It was a quick little mess of a speech, but it did the trick, and I loved the unpreparedness, the gut emotions, the joy! I think I will try this more often...being unprepared, and leaving room for spontaneous joy.
This evening the sky was amazing--soft and silvery. As the sun set and the moon rose, I heard the first sounds of peepers in the woods announcing another spring. After winter's cold, and the ugly-spirited election debates and tweets and attack ads, and the unfathomable hate crimes in Belgium and Paris and Turkey and Syria and Iraq and our own city streets, I felt my body uncoil in the beauty of nature's rebirth.Read More
My new book, Marrow: A Love Story will be published by HarperCollins in September. It's the story of how my sister and I uncovered our deep love for one another through her final illness.Read More
My nephew—my sister Maggie’s son—posted this photo of his mom on Facebook this morning. I have been looking at it, on and off, all day, waiting for a moment to stop, and let it speak it to me. Now, as the sun goes down and a light snow is falling, I look into my sister’s eyes and I see the whole story of her life in them.Read More