All the Time in the World

On a late spring day in 1984, I stepped out my front door into the sunshine, proudly hugging my newborn daughter to my chest in a baby carrier we had purchased at a garage sale. Her little legs dangled out oddly, but I supported her neck with deep tenderness. I loved “wearing my infant,” as the La Leche League literature called it. Hadn’t I waited all my life for this perfect, iris-scented morning?

An elderly couple who lived in the square brick house on the corner were out for a stroll. They stopped to coo over my beautiful baby. In her English accent, the woman quoted me an old saying that would ring as true in my life as any Biblical prophesy:  “When they are small, they make your arms ache. When they grow, they make your heart ache.”

Though only thirty-one, I cannot say I was naïve, having endured the stillbirth of our first child, a sudden cataclysm that had destroyed my innocence. Yet still, though both life and death gave me pause, I was blissfully unable that morning to imagine the years to come with any precision at all. Lacking data, it was all a haze of hope. Like most of us, I lived within a fervent and brave wish, that the future would go more smoothly than the past. Isn’t this how children keep being born into the world?

Just recently, now that our once dicey urban neighborhood has become hip, I’ve noticed myself succumbing to a classic old-biddy refrain:  “I don’t feel like I belong here anymore. I hardly recognized anyone at the July 4th parade. It’s all young couples with little kids.” In response, a wise fellow-elder pointed out, “You and Gerry used to be one of those young couples yourselves.”

This should have been obvious to me, but oddly, it wasn’t.  After all, life has happened so fast. While I marvel at the foreign new breed of neighbors, with their microbreweries, fancy strollers, open minds and endless energy, I gaze back as dreamily as I gazed forward on that May morning.

I am distanced from the sweetness of my first blush of motherhood by so many intervening events. How did I get from there to here? Perhaps not in one continous flow, but more in sequential awakening jolts, in between days and weeks of the inevitable nodding off we all do, even when we are determined not to.

The elderly couple drifted out of my consciousness decades ago, like the random phantoms who float through Dorothy’s dreams in The Wizard of Oz.  Mr. Boni, a Vietnamese gentleman, a friendly soul, purchased their home and turned their pretty yard into an auto-repair lot. Oil dripped — how many years was it?– from numerous stored cars onto the lawn under the magnificent magnolia tree — the one that bloomed so profusely again this year. I kept wondering if we should complain to the authorities, stop the desecration of his land, but time kept getting away from me, as it always does, as it is getting away from policy makers, lost in their own fantasy that they have all the time in the world to do their own mindless thing.

Miss Mary used to hold court, cigarette in hand, on the front porch of the house catty-corner to Mr. Boni.  In the early days she wore a white uniform, and we called her Mary-the-Nurse, though she wasn’t really. I know that from interviewing her for a graduate class in mental health counseling back in 2006. I dropped that Masters program because at age fifty-four time was no longer stretching out lazily before me as it had in my proper student days. Time suddenly seemed like a limited commodity. Maybe I regret my decision, or maybe I don’t. How can I look back on a path I never took?

What struck me about Miss Mary’s life story was how flat she sounded in the telling of it. Too many betrayals for one lifetime. Is it because our years are so filled with seeming betrayals that it is so hard to absorb their passage? While you’ve taken your eye off the ball, things happen. But who can possibly keep their eye on the ball? And would it make any difference?

When the elderly couple predicted all the heart-ache of my next thirty-five years, not particularly negating the richness that would pulse through it all, I nodded and smiled and sighed, as young people need to do.  I had no idea that I would eventually lose four more babies in my womb, so the ones we planned were not the ones who came to us. I couldn’t imagine that we would adopt a little boy, and that he would struggle mightily with chronic feelings of being a stranger in a strange land, and we would learn more about chaos and bewilderment and non-egoic love than I would have dreamed. I could not imagine how my boundaries would be stretched with my teenagers and adult children as surely as my womb had been stretched, how their questions and reproaches would haunt me, how self-forgiveness and wonderment would become the saving graces of my advancing years.

It is hard to make out the trajectory, whether we look behind or ahead. Meanwhile, neighbors drop in and out, scenes switch, hope sustains us. And remarkably, without planning much of it at all, we grow wiser before our own eyes.



Treasure Trove

After listening for years to public radio ads for the area’s annual “psychic festival,” I decided this past November to try one out. The prospect of hundreds of booths and workshops featuring spiritual healing intrigued me. Even if I didn’t buy a thing I would enjoy the extraordinary energy! And the event would some day be fertile territory for offering intergenerational trauma workshops.

I will admit I am not a festival enthusiast. I always find them overstimulating, and secretly long to be walking my dog in the woods. It isn’t all that surprising then that at that suburban convention center thronged with consumers of spiritual experiences, modern-day pilgrims with amazingly deep pockets, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. 

What did surprise me were the words that ran through my head as I left after forty-five minutes with nothing to show for it but a small candy wrapper and my paper admission bracelet. “This is not my tribe,” I murmured, as if that settled everything.

Had I thought it would be my tribe?  Yes and no. I hang around with alternative healers and I am one myself. Some time in the distant past, I have visited a shaman (an elderly nun in a tower room), consulted with a psychic, been enthralled by singing bowls, and even received a reading from an “angel lady.”  And I love energy healing of all sorts.

I imagine if a few of the vendors at the festival had been gathered in a friend’s living room, I would have enjoyed our bond. Was my discomfort simply with all the consumerism, or was there another  inner voice I was responding to?

I seldom talk about “tribe,” except in a negative sense. Tribalism is surely at the root of all the troubles in the world, every single one.  Surrounded by our own kind, with our own tribe’s myopic moral code, we as a species have managed to justify every heinous evil ever perpetuated.

In this country we are all currently stuck in a tribal system strong enough to determine which news reports we believe and how we interpret a video on Facebook.  Shouldn’t truly enlightened human beings transcend tribe?

Was I becoming closed and complacent in my elder years? It wasn’t as if I had been smugly coasting along. And no one has ever accused me of complacency.  I had in fact just recently emerged from a tumultuous dark night of the soul where I could not even remember what kind of God I believed in, or why. 

After my wrenching crisis that summer and fall, a profound peace ultimately snuck in unbidden. No props. No intermediaries. Simple and sustained.  A quiet inner spaciousness as I sat in silence from day to day. A melting away of all opposites. It seeped deliciously into the nooks and crannies of my soul, leaving me remarkably satiated. I was in need of nothing more as I wandered that convention center.

In my elder years, both my spirituality and sense of tribe have grown continually sharper and clearer.  My tribe is any group where I find spiritual resonance. It is not determined by gender or race or religion.  It is a gathering of people who are intentionally and authentically seeking communion with one another, and perhaps less explicitly, with the divine. Such a community is marked by heightened energy and a sense of intimacy that all those separate booths could not provide. I know spiritual tribe when I find it. It is unmistakable. 

For all its simplicity, though, it is decidedly quirky. For instance, I was telling some friends recently that I considered myself Catholic. They both laughed, pointing out that Holy Mother Church was unlikely to claim me. It’s true that I feel almost as uncomfortable in most Catholic parishes as I do suburban shopping malls. But I continue to identify with the core mystical energy of Catholicism.

I have always sought out counter-cultural groups that provide a tribal bond of resistance to our materialistic culture. This has sometimes meant surrounding myself with people who embodied what I could not quite embody. For instance, I benefited by osmosis as a young mother by sending our kids to a Waldorf school, where they could be immersed in spirituality without doctrine, and lose themselves dreamily in painting fairies and deeply rooted trees, rather than being sent door to door selling chocolate bars. I was inspired by the earthiness of Waldorf, but was truthfully a little up-tight around dirt and hard labor!

I have found my tribe most consistently in writing circles and the workshops I call “Transforming Inherited Trauma,” and in my tiny Sunday worship community. Sometimes I find it in choral groups or at potluck dinners. But it cannot be taken for granted. In every community I have ever belonged to, I witness with wonderment and frustration the tribal urge to escape into triviality, away from what matters. It’s as if we human beings can never dare get too close to the flame.

After the festival I headed back through two crowded parking lots. Someone had stuck a little card in my car door. “Spirits can be evil,” it said. “Trust the God who created the angels and demons.”

“Hm”…I mused. No, it wasn’t a matter of evil, but of scattered energy. While I could never have felt at home in this fellow Christian’s contracted tribe, I did resonate with his or her single-heartedness. My mother, who was raised Protestant, used to express impatience with Catholic prayers to the Virgin Mary. Why bother with intermediaries when you can go straight to the Source?

When the Source is palpable within a group, whether it is named or not, it is surely among the greatest joys of being human. It saddens me how few people ever seek out this kind of tribe. I am filled with  gratitude for the authentic communities that have nourished me.  I recognize the great gift I have been given in my stubborn, restless seeking out of spiritual tribe. Far from insulating me, these communities lead me into ever-expanding circles of connection.






Creepy Goings-On

One August day in 2004, my husband Gerry and I boarded a train in Chicago for Salt Lake City. We dragged along our eleven-year-old son and his friend, who had suddenly morphed into a teenager. Our plan was to visit my old college roommate Donna, and then to explore the canyons by car.

Besides the grumpy, fast-food addicted kids, the thrills and pitfalls of Amtrak, and the splendors of Utah, what stood out about this journey was my introduction to conspiracy literature. Not the right-wing variety now plaguing our country, but the spooky, oddly spiritual stuff popularized in The Da Vinci Code.  Donna’s husband Juan had filled their home with so many boxes of such findings that we had to stay in a motel.

The first time I’d met Juan, in 1974, Donna and I were graduating from Indiana University.  I was shocked that her boyfriend was a rabid Republican. Now, all these years later,  he still had no use for liberals, but only because he considered us naive. He spent three days indoctrinating Gerry and me about how both political parties (not just Republicans) were simply the puppets of the global elite.

We left Salt Lake with our world turned upside down.  Our entertainment on the highway was deciphering the illuminati symbolism of corporate logos on semis. Back in Cincinnati, we poured through Juan’s recommended tomes. These authors’ version of history was rife with secret societies, dark money, and  assassinations. Yet it all was disturbingly well documented.  I was dismayed by the revelations about historical figures and politicians I’d admired.

I mostly kept this life-altering perspective to myself, though, not wanting people rolling their eyes at me. The idea that we were living out the nefarious agenda of the then-unnamed One Percent was deemed quite crazy. Surely even the super-rich just aren’t that united, the argument went.

The conspiracy theorists’ predictions for the next decade or two were so grim that I eventually turned to Gerry and declared that, true or not,  I refused to live my life with such a depressing world-view. If there was some kind of master plan, I didn’t want to know about it. I would just carry on “as if.”

I certainly didn’t want to believe that even seemingly miraculous breakthroughs were cleverly manipulated by the shadowy elite. I chose to work on Obama’s campaign, and rejoiced with all my friends when he took the helm. For a good eight years, I tried hard to believe an equitable world was on its way, peacefully evolving with quiet inevitability.

But I never really could rid myself of the specter of the ever-tightening global noose. It haunted me with each day’s news.  Wealth was being steadily concentrated in the hands of the few before our very eyes. The middle class was disappearing.  Minimum wage had long ceased to be a living wage. When enlightened municipalities tried to create more just wage structures,  gerrymandered state legislators overrode them.

I have not dared to revisit the conspiracy books, but I’m pretty sure even some of their most mind-numbing predictions have come true. Even the word “creepy,” once used to describe my horror at the Skull and Bones initiation rites, now applies to daily reality in Washington and Moscow. And it no longer feels extreme to imagine the manipulators at the top of the “pyramid” saying,  “We let you have your black president: what a perfect ploy for feeding the flames of white supremacy!”

As wildfires rage and flood waters swirl, most everyone I know struggles with a sense of doom every bit as oppressive as that which I tried to ward off all those years. It’s become pretty clear now how interlocking systems have been playing us all for a long time. And our heroes?  I am reeling to learn of the deliberately racist policies of Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration. I had no idea.

It is really hard waking up every morning feeling thoroughly creeped out.   I don’t know what to make of heroes or villains in the past or the future. But surely everything is coming to a head.

Juan’s conspiracy mentors actually offered a surprising vision of hope, once you embraced their gloom.  In progressive circles we haven’t traditionally put much stock in great cosmic battles between good and evil. But these theorists’ insistence on the need for a radically new heaven and a new earth seemed oddly familiar. After all, my Masters thesis at Fordham University, received lukewarmly by my complacent professors,  was entitled “Hope and the Coming of the Kingdom of God.”

We are told the global elite secretly wield sophisticated spiritual tools. You would hardly guess this, witnessing the depravity of those who are supposedly just their underlings. But conspiracy theorists are convinced that to undermine their power, we have to become more spiritually alive.  We need to raise the “vibrational level” of humanity.

A few years after our trip to Salt Lake City I discovered The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault. This Episcopal priest explores how Western Christianity lost it way by the fourth century, cutting itself off from the ancient Wisdom tradition that lies at the “headwaters of all the great sacred paths.” St. Augustine was convinced that human beings were too lost in sin to dare to hope for spiritual wholeness. And surely no one could encounter God without Holy Mother Church.  Christianity became at best anemic, at worst as evil a force as conspiracy theorists claim it to be. Spiritual practices like meditation, so central in the East, are still foreign to most Westerners, who have just sort of blandly plodded along at low levels of consciousness, leaving a dubious trail of compromised institutions.

I couldn’t help but notice Bourgeault’s offhand comments that in Medieval Europe time-honored spiritual tools for “raising our level of being” were co-opted and distorted by secret societies like the Freemasons and Rosicrucians.  Hmm…It seemed the conspiracy theorists were onto something!

Maybe they are. If ever there was a time to find out, this would be it.


All that We Hide

In our death-denying culture many of us dread going to funerals, and attend only out of obligation. But through the years I’ve found myself mysteriously drawn to many where there was no family expectation of my presence.  We had long since lost touch, and I would not be missed. I pay close attention to these impulses. Usually there is a reason for them.

When I came across Janet’s obituary in the newspaper, the pull was unmistakable. I had only met her a handful of times, mostly in those long-ago days when her daughter, whom I loved, lived next door. I knew little of Janet’s eighty-eight years, her marriage, her friendships, her  agonies, her losses, her victories. But she had written my husband and me a condolence note in 1982 after the shattering stillbirth of our first baby.  I still recall her small, neat penmanship and my renewed flow of tears. Ever afterwards, our casual greetings stirred in me a sense of comfort and warmth.

The Catholic parish hosting her funeral was a progressive one, but I was still wary.  Nowhere are the mysteries of life and death lifted up more exquisitely than at Catholic funerals,  yet the Church is always terrified of things getting out of hand. I have known several grieving families who were instructed to swallow their natural human longing for heartfelt eulogies or personal stories with directives like, “Save them for the luncheon.”  They were supposed to be satisfied with the safe, generic words of the priest. Never mind how this left them feeling hurt and empty.

It was a welcome surprise, then, that at Janet’s funeral the priest chose to throw clerical control to the wind and to make space for the family to speak. What a difference it made! Suddenly here we all were, intimately accessing the outpouring of love and heightened spiritual energy of a large family that seemed to have lived life consciously and with heart.

I jumped, every nerve awakened, when the oldest daughter began her opening tribute. Her words rang out like a speech from King Lear. “My mother was tormented by scrupulosity all her life.”

“She’s going to plumb the depths,” I marveled.  And she did, eloquently.  She told her mother’s story.  Not simply the stock narrative of an self-sacrificing woman, nor even the familiar saga of a strong, intelligent matriarch slipping into dementia. No, it was the nuanced, complicated, heart-breaking story of a soul struggling with her own personal demons.

I wept as she quoted a well-loved priest who had spent time with Janet while he himself was dying of cancer.  He’d confided that all his sufferings paled in comparison with the hell of Janet’s entanglement in guilt, her inability to believe in her own worth. Was there anyone in that sanctuary who couldn’t resonate with the sorrow of this human predicament?

One of the sons, who had become a Baptist minister despite his mother’s worries for his soul, evoked in his homily the scene of the “Prodigal Daughter.” Janet could never take in people’s praise for her goodness. Her response was always a muttered, “Well…” Well, if you only knew how unworthy I really am…

I hungrily pictured her finally falling into the arms of the unconditional Lover she could not quite imagine.  Was it possible this would happen to me too some day?

All of us, the family, the community, the long-gone priest, Janet in her new freedom and fullness of life, were immersed together in the ineffable. Even though the complete truth of Janet’s life could never really be known (because children cannot truly understand their parents), still, we were being ushered into new realms of awareness.

What soared in that church was the opposite of Janet’s dismissive “Well…”  It was the raising up not only of the beauty of one particular life, but of the hidden wounds that haunt us all.  In honoring their mother’s core struggle, this family poured the truth of our own lives over us like a glorious oblation.

Interestingly, though, I noticed a familiar voice inside me protesting, wanting to protect Janet from being so intimately exposed in death. I wondered:”Wouldn’t she die of shame…with all this revealing of her innermost secrets?”

“But wait,” I realized with an odd jolt. “She is already dead!”

How hard it is for human beings to remember that our shame does not survive the grave! We carry shame all our lives, though it is often poorly recognized and unacknowledged, a millstone that subtly dictates our every move, blocks us from knowing each other’s inner grandeur, and keeps us from expressing fully our likeness to the Divine. We assume our shame is virtuous, preventing us from making fools of ourselves. We are thus convinced that when we guard secrets in death, we honor the person to whom they belonged.

But at that funeral, this illusion fell away. With her great tragic flaw  transformed, we saw Janet with the eyes of God.

And I grasped that when our shame is finally laid aside, in life or in death, we can see that it is merely a flimsy memento of our smaller self.  What a pity it is that a wider perspective on each other’s lives so often has to await death, or perhaps, even worse, is guarded in secret forever. For when shame is removed, what inevitably remains is love. How can we not be in love, when we see  each other face to face, in all our noble fragility?

At Janet’s funeral, I was able to take in the translucent beauty of our flawed humanity. This vision that  I struggle to hold onto as a mother, a spouse, a friend, a writer, and a leader of authentic ritual, flooded the sanctuary that morning.  I knew exactly why I had been drawn there.





Nemo and the Law of the Land

Nemo has been weighing on me lately. He spent many a night camped out in our living room during our younger son’s tumultuous teen-age years. We often had to step over several long-legged boy-bodies to get to the kitchen.

I once said to him, “I will always love you, Nemo.” My words served as a warm-up for a gentle confrontation, after a visiting friend of mine discovered he had stolen from her purse.

I do still love Nemo, though he and our son have mostly gone their separate ways. I associate him with the distress of those years, for us, for him.  I recall the gathering in the hospital room after his mother’s sudden death, a death that he’d witnessed while alone at her bedside. My husband and I lingered there with his relatives that evening, hoping to be of service, strangers in a scene awash with horror and old family tensions. A few days later, we were the only white people at the funeral. Nemo hugged us, awkward and restless.

I offered to drive Nemo and his little brother Nick to weekly meetings at Fernside Center for Grieving Children. But their twenty-one-year-old sister, who had been granted custody, declined my offer. By that time we had made the most difficult decision of our lives, sending our own struggling son to a boy’s ranch in Arizona. I found myself missing the thump of the basketball in the backyard, the broad smiles and consistently respectful “Yes, Ma’am” of our son’s African-American friends. Our son, bi-racial and adopted, had always stood with a foot in two worlds. His friends were constantly shocked and mystified by his rantings toward us, his parents, and wondering why we didn’t give him a whupping.

Now, our son, who has indeed followed a convoluted path toward wisdom and maturity,  shakes his head in sorrow for his old friend.  He tells us that Nemo, age twenty-four, is “completely screwed.” He has a felony conviction.

And I wonder if in another, more compassionate society, Nemo would be so hopelessly screwed?  The American Bar Association has listed over 40,000 collateral consequences for those who have been incarcerated. An eternal nightmare of roadblocks.

My heart wanders back toward what might have been. Suppose after his mother’s death Nemo  had been surrounded by a strong, nurturing community? Supposing the courts had placed him in a diversion program, and given him the therapy and wise male mentoring he so needed, instead of throwing him into jail and issuing a death sentence for any hopes he might possibly muster?

But these questions sound to my ears like platitudes. They barely touch my anguish with a hard-ass universe and its most potent symbol, the law.  My distress with the law is old and deep and core to who I am, though I don’t know exactly why, since my own mistakes never warranted its iron hand.

A friend recently reminded me that the law is necessary for human survival, that what’s wrong is that it’s totally corrupted in our country.   But watching how the law routinely destroys young lives in the name of setting them straight,  I can’t help judging that it is just too blunt an instrument to be used on human beings.

It’s not just a matter of rendering our criminal justice system more equitable.  I have two sons, one white, one black. Would I have wanted them to have been treated equally before the law?  No, because if my white son had been slammed with the same zero-tolerance for his foolishness as my black son, he would have suffered just as much, and what purpose does it serve the universe to multiply arbitrary suffering even two-fold?

When I read about people of means getting away with token sentences  because of their clever lawyers, I am not particularly enraged.  Why would I want one more person thrown into our archaic prison system, to waste endless months or years in a soul-numbing echo chamber of loneliness and unproductivity, and then to emerge forever stigmatized?  I cannot think of a single human being  (even politicians) for whom we could not do better.

My husband and I hired lawyers (whether they were clever or not, I can’t say) for both our sons when they got in trouble.  This accorded with my white privilege, inherited from my colonialist ancestors and their slave-holding progeny, who helped shape our “liberty and justice for all.”  Without my sense of entitlement it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind to hire clever lawyers or to rescue my younger son with expensive equine therapy.

No, I don’t begrudge individuals their ability to temper the law.  But what enrages me is the near-inevitability of young black men getting slammed by smug white authority figures, mindlessly, heartlessly, visionlessly invoking the institution of the law, as if it is more absolute than God, as if we should worship at its very feet.

I am not impressed by this primitive institution we all take for granted.  Its favorite form of penance, incarceration, would be laughable for its sheer wastefulness if it weren’t so unspeakably tragic.

In my experience karma is plenty effective in teaching us our painful lessons. “Logical and natural consequences” are built into the order of things. Human law, on the other hand, seems to be filled with contradictions that may well be inherent, and thus unfixable.

We can’t really have it both ways:  law that is fair and just and treats everybody the same, whether they are “one of us” or “other;” and law that allows for human error, family trauma, and young men’s yet-to-be-developed frontal lobes. The first is heartless, the second bound to be inequitable.  Misplaced flexibility leads to bias, good old boys’ clubs, tribal loyalties. Law with no flexibility is just cruel, unless we change the time-honored paradigm itself.

In a new paradigm, law  would finally lay to rest its archaic fixation on punishment, admitting that it is an ineffectual tool for building safe and healthy societies. It would confess its sin of paying lip-service to rehabilitation. It would stop worshiping at the feet of a blindfolded ideal that it never had any intention of creating.

Anyway, if the law wears a blindfold, it can’t see into the human heart. Then nobody wins, not my white son, not my black son, and certainly not Nemo, who, so far, has never stood a chance.









Writers Conferences and Other Scary Things

I’m sure all adults could make a long list of constructive life experiences they avoid out of fear. When I was growing up, I was often coaxed into doing brave things for my own good. I gradually internalized the habit of pushing through my fears. But as an adult I also claimed the right to give myself plenty of slack, and to develop effective rationalizations. It has always been painful to admit that I am just plain “chicken” when faced with the call to grow.

I have learned to trust, though, that timing is everything. It is an act of maturity to resist the pressure, either internal or external, to do what my soul is not ready to do. When I wait, sometimes eons, for the ever-patient but irresistible nudges of Spirit, I always am greeted by joy.

The idea of attending a writers conference has sparked fear in me for quite a while. Although I started identifying myself as a writer decades ago, and publishing a book was hardly a passing fancy, I shuddered at the idea of schmoozing with other writers, drink in hand, or sitting down with some heartless critic who would tear my vulnerable, deeply personal writings to shreds. I preferred intimate, mutually encouraging women’s writing circles, though sometimes they had to be supplemented by thankless tasks like sending out query letters.

Why I changed my mind last fall was because the BookBaby Independent Authors Conference was to take place in Philadelphia, where I had once lived as a graduate student. I was looking for an excuse to visit a dear friend, and wander old haunts. Besides, the conference promised to be non-threatening.  There was to be no touting of our works to agents, because we were self-publishing and not out to prove anything to the Powers that Be.

I nonetheless so dreaded the opening networking event that I fled that downtown bar within three minutes flat. I suspected we would be swapping business cards more out of a desire to appear interested in others’ writings than out of any genuine excitement. And I approached a larger networking gathering that first evening similarly jaded.  My social anxiety was in full swing.  I eventually found a side room peopled with a few low-key introverts, sitting quietly at little tables. This suited me better, somewhat like tip-toeing down the steps into a cold swimming pool. They actually proved rather friendly.

The next morning I strode down the nine blocks from my little Airbnb studio couch in Chinatown quite determined to learn what there was to learn at this conference. After all, I had paid my money, and flown hundreds of miles.

As it turned out, there was a lot to learn. I hadn’t known this — or had I? I knew my efforts at marketing my book, published three years earlier, had been pathetically inadequate.  And I knew there were things an author was asked to do that were immensely time-consuming, or bordered on bragging (horrors!), or that might suck me up eternally into cyber-space. I also “knew” that publishing a memoir is a disheartening experience, and that typical yearly book sales in the single digits are one of the world’s best-kept secrets, second only (in my mind) to the agonies of childbirth.

I could easily have heard the whole series of presenters through this gloomy filter. Their focus on the endless demands of marketing one’s book properly (it seemed I had done everything wrong) could easily have taken me right down the path into a clinical depression.

Yet instead of being overwhelmed, I was inspired.  The difference lay in the fact that my soul been prepared for this moment. Two weeks prior, I had attended a family constellation workshop. There I had explored the origins of my penchant for self-judgment, which had reached a fever pitch in the publication of my memoir, and was paralyzing my writing.  I came to perceive my fear of “putting myself out there” in a new light, and allowed this new awareness to settle into my nervous system.

I arrived purposely in Philadelphia two days early, and became entranced again with the city where I had lived over forty years ago, in the throes of my first love, a year when my heart had been flung wide open, crushed, and strengthened. I walked for miles, identifying with my younger self, loving her, feeling her energy vibrating through me, surprisingly unafraid even when quite lost on dubious streets.  I also spent a day with a soul-sister from that era, with whom I had shared life and deep suffering. So I was ripe for this writers conference. I just didn’t know it.

What I learned at the conference was that I am not just someone who happens to have written a book, but that my identity as a writer is core to who I am and what I can offer the world. My memoir, Ollie Ollie In Come Free, is the first in a series of such offerings. “I am a string in the concert of God’s joy,” the mystic Jacob Boehme once wrote. This was the message I was ready to receive.

I came to realize that marketing goals such as “defining one’s brand” can either remain hollow, contrived, and commercially driven jargon, or they can help to name what is in fact sacred to me, my unique mission or calling. I could choose to keep myself “pure” instead of wasting my time marketing, or I could enjoy whole-heartedly sharing my passion by noticing what enlivens me, and leaving the rest aside.

These revelations were both fresh and very familiar.  They were entirely in keeping with the way I have always sought to live my life, not tangled up in others’ urgent to-do lists, but listening well to the inspiration of each moment, trusting it.

Mystery at Rehoboth Beach

Wendy Dunning/ WD Design Works

A tiny black-and-white photo showed up shortly after Thanksgiving  among my treasures. On the back of it my mother had jotted, “Rehoboth Beach, Delaware: Aug. 56,” Someone had later taken scissors to the snapshot, cropping out the magical expanses of sand. I entrusted this dreamy image to an artist. She transformed it into a new cover for my 2014 memoir Ollie Ollie In Come Free and for the audiobook I have just lovingly recorded during the sixty-fifth year of my life.

I do keep wondering what is in the metal washtub.  Peggy and Paul are enthralled, and their swishing of its contents is quite purposeful. Paul’s smile speaks of utter delight in the task at hand, and Peggy, her arm casually entwined with his, is intently following his lead. My best guess is that there are some crabs in there:  I have never forgotten being pinched by a crab that week when a friendly stranger let us come close to a similar tub teeming with these irresistibly weird creatures. In a moment of bravery, I’d reached my hand out and before I know it I was wailing.

But that trauma must have come later.  In this innocent scene I am momentarily distracted by the person holding the camera. My left hand is in much too far;  if there are truly crabs in the tub I should be paying better attention.  Betsy has already lost interest, and is absorbed by the toddler task of mixing her own special potion.

The sun is soaking our skin. The breeze is playing havoc with Betsy’s hair, though mine is confined, maybe in a small, stubby braid. My mother’s attempt to keep my long bangs out of my eyes has proven useless.

We are all radiant. Paul is the oldest now; it has been eight months since Mary-Louise died, a few days after my third birthday, a few days before Christmas.  Who is the grown-up with the camera?  Someone bent on forgetting, no doubt. Probably our sweet dad.

We kids move as one, our touch, our scent, our voices, our body language infinitely familiar. I wonder at our belief in our completeness, and how our cataclysmic family loss seeks no expression.  Like a jelly-fish, we have closed in around our older sister’s absence.  You would never know she haunts us. We don’t know it ourselves.

I, the adult Anne, have been tugged into the photo as if by some Mary Poppins magic. Immersed in its sunny energy, I marvel at the miracle of our resilience, yes, the resilience adults used to count on to minimalize children’s suffering. Yet some strong and unmistakable force is slogging through our happiness:  the yearning of our young bodies for what has been lost.

We are, after all, a wriggly litter of puppies, forever tussling, nipping and nuzzling, and not so long ago one of us has been pried off the heap. Within two-and-a-half years, Paul too will be torn from our midst, taking with him his sparkly wonderment at myriad adventures on this side of the veil.

In our big family babies will continue to be born. The ones not in this photo. The ones who will never sit playing on this beach. Peggy, Betsy and I will completely forget we ever lived this happy day, crouching together around a beat-up washtub.

In our family nowadays we speak of those who remember nothing, and those who remember too much, but we might well ask:  which family is being remembered, and which is being forgotten? The “we” kept shifting through our early years like the sand on the distant dunes.

Peggy would try earnestly after Paul’s death to be the oldest, but she could never succeed. I would wonder all my life why I felt a bit young and useless within the family,  even though I had moved to a prestigious spot near the top of the heap. I would forget that I was  the fifth kid in our family. Before any of us in this photo were born, there was a beautiful blond toddler, Vic, who was our only real oldest.

Those who sat on this beach once upon a time breathed each other’s air… and then we didn’t. But the cells of our small bodies never forgot.  And so it has always been for so many families, the comings and the goings, the births and the deaths. There is a temptation to say it doesn’t matter, since it was ever thus in human history.

But we as a race are all slowly learning that it all matters, every moment when children are torn from one another, children from parents and parents from children. With the explosion of knowledge about trauma and ACE studies, we can no longer wish away the effects on children of our own doing: time-honored institutions like war, incarceration, forced flights from home and country. We know now that children pay a lasting price for the heartless systemic choices we’ve always taken for granted. And they all still scramble valiantly to fill in the empty spaces that can’t be filled.

I originally wrote Ollie Ollie In Come Free:  A Memoir of Swallowed Time, as a way to honor what needed to be honored, in my own childhood, and in other children’s lives as well. In recording my memoir as an audiobook, I further reawakened the sounds of my sisters’ teasing, my parents’ edicts, my teachers’ scoldings, my own youthful musings.  Voices that have either fallen silent in death, or grown old as children’s voices always do when we are granted the privilege of a long life.









Sassiness and Rage

“You know me, Anne,” my neighbor Phyllis confided to me from her porch. “I don’t put up with disrespect.”

Phyllis’s older son, fleeing his hurricane flooded home in Texas, had just come crawling back to her in desperation after being kicked out on his last visit. He brought his mouthy girlfriend and needy young children. Phyllis toiled all day to set him up with social service agencies. But he was mean and unappreciative, and eventually he and his girlfriend couldn’t hold their tongues.  Who could blame Phyllis for throwing them back out on the streets?

Yet even as I murmured my sympathy for her ordeal, immense sorrow filled me. What had this insistence on respect done for her? Her four adult children have turned their backs on her. They do not come to see her for years at a time, and their rare visits inevitably blow up in her face.

I found myself wondering at what point in their development Phyllis first drew the line in the sand with her children?  What made her need for respect so non-negotiable? Isn’t it an occupational hazard of parenthood, to be disrespected sometimes, in the heat of each battle?  I look back through the blur of thirty-some years, to when my two older children were first learning to sass me.  What would it have meant, at any given moment, to “not put up with” their antics?

This question certainly took front and center in my parenting years as our youngest kept flying into foul-mouthed tantrums at a moment’s notice, raging, raging against the hand he had been dealt. Everything that was wrong with his world as an adopted child was our fault.

Many observers, no doubt including his traumatized older siblings, wanted us to just  ”beat the shit out of him.” They believed in this facile solution as thoroughly as I believe that it was our respect for his chronic expressions of resentment that has allowed us to hold on to our relationship.

Of course what the parenting experts advocated was boundary setting, not beatings.  How could I argue with advice that felt so reasonable, so healthy? I am not a masochist. I knew I deserved respect, like all human beings. I longed for words of deference or gratitude from my son, like any other parent.

But the cultural insistence on a child’s respect felt viscerally uncomfortable to me. I did not trust the near-universal adult indignation towards disrespectful kids. When people advised some form of “tough love,” no matter how nuanced, I felt lonely. Perhaps I was worn down by ongoing trauma and over-identification with my child. Yet what I kept sensing in many of these adults was the energy of left-over terror from their own childhood, helplessness turned on its head. The time-honored adult chorus was fundamentally a projection: “This kid is going to get the better of me if I allow him to…I can’t let him manipulate me… I’ve got to let him know who’s boss, in no uncertain terms.”

A huge, essential drama was playing itself out in our home. Our son had landed mysteriously in a family where he did not belong, biologically or energetically.  To divert the flow of his rage with the trivializing message, “Be good, now. Follow the rules of civil discourse!” would serve as one more abandonment. And when I tried, it felt as if I was following instructions from a manual.

Instead, what I felt called to do was to embrace the full verbal spectrum of his rage, incarnating the unconditional love of God. No one had taught me this spiritual practice. Right or wrong, though, it was all I could trust.

Whenever our son was “out of control,” the greatest challenge my husband and I faced was to stay in our adult selves. We each carried our own wounds and temptations.  I fought the impulse to curl up in a ball. Gerry’s eyes would fill with panic even as the testosterone kicked in, panic that evoked images of a frightened little boy helpless before his powerful father. And his threatening words and truculent body language seemed perfectly, exquisitely designed to escalate our son’s behaviors. His reactivity made no adult sense.

One time we invited a close male friend over during one of these episodes; we thought he would help calm the storm. I watched in dismay as he too was taken over by the war-like instinct for one-upmanship. Soon this struggle escalated as well.

Our son had keen antennae for affronted adults, even well-spoken school counselors, spouting a line they could not live because they had never dared confront their own childhood wounds. He always responded with respect to teachers and counselors who saw through his behaviors straight into his better self. While he struggled in mainstream classrooms, he flourished in specialized schools where the adults laid none of their own insecurities on the kids they served. Even as they set boundaries, the boundary-setting engaged none of their energy. Their love did.

In Cincinnati there is a one particular inner-city high school where the student suspension rate is many times greater than the average. No one can quite figure out why. But I think it’s likely their school culture is preoccupied with the need for respect. Control lest you be controlled.

And so I grew sad listening to Phyllis using her tough language of adult entitlement when I could hear in her voice the chaotic rage of the traumatized child. There was nothing I could say that would open her eyes, and give her back her children.

I have strongly resonated through the years with Alice Miller, author of For Your Own Good, and with Bert Hellinger, founder of Family Constellation Work. Our children owe us nothing, not even respect.  In the natural order of human life, parents give, and their children turn around and give to the next generation. If we are lucky, and maybe a bit wise, respect will spring forth of its own accord.

Second-Guessing God

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. — Marianne Williamson

“Break my heart. Oh, break it again, so I can love more fully.” –Rumi

When I was in high school my friend Bev, from a devout Italian family, suggested I pray a novena for my father to be cured of his MS. I wasn’t quite sure what a novena was, but she wrote the required prayer out and I tucked it carefully in my purse with the thought, “What do I have to lose?”

That nine-day prayer soon stuck in my throat, though, and I abandoned it. Not because I was lazy, or didn’t care to end my dad’s suffering.  No, an urgent question stopped me cold. If it were this simple–just repeating a few words for nine days–to be granted a miracle, wouldn’t I be perpetually guilty for all the prayers I didn’t recite?

If the novena worked, I would be living in an impossibly burdensome universe. The idea that human beings might wield so much power, for good or for ill, left me breathless.

I was susceptible to this line of thinking because I already half-believed in such a universe. As a survivor of early sibling deaths, I could not shake off a pervasive sense of personal guilt. And no doubt it was easier for me to dwell on human power than on my experience of powerlessness.

In any case it saddened me repeatedly through the ensuing decades that human beings in general were doing a lousy job with all their power. It seemed to be so casually exercised in a lifetime of knee-jerk reactions and hopelessly confused choices, many of them just completely wrong-headed.  As for our creator, I resonated with Woody Allen’s line, “God is an under achiever.”

Fifteen years after I refused to recite that novena so that I could steer clear of overwhelming responsibility,  I sat in a doctor’s office with my infant son, weeping.  I could not bring myself to have him vaccinated with a DPT, nor could I not vaccinate him. He had just almost died of a seizure with meningitis (there was no vaccine for that in those days.) What if the DPT killed him?

My daughter, age two, was watching this scene.  Is it coincidence or karma that recently, as a new mother, she has felt moved to research the psychology of parents who choose not to vaccinate? She tells me that apparently the human psyche balks more at making a proactive choice with a slight risk of death, than at doing nothing and possibly taking a much greater risk. While she shakes her head over this lack of logic (she lives in Ecuador, where the choice seems obvious) I secretly recall that examining room, where a kind physician eventually offered to split the vaccine into half-doses. And I remember my feeling that no one should have such power over life and death as I did in that moment.

Recently my daughter was paying us a visit with her eight-month old baby, who had been highly sensitive since birth. I was distressed to see this beautiful grandchild starting her life out tense and overwrought. Her mother and I had both been this way as infants. I had heard that a local chiropractor “worked miracles” with young babies’ nervous systems.  So I was not powerless! I might just nip this family trait in the bud.

My daughter, though doubtful, accepted my offer graciously, in the spirit I would have had with that novena, if I hadn’t been so terrified of its success: “What do I have to lose?”

The treatment worked beautifully.  We watched her baby relax under the gentle manipulations of this healer, as if in one ten-minute session (there would be more) this little one simply surrendered forever the hyper-vigilance she had inherited from generations of ancestors.

We were all filled with exhilaration, gratitude, and delight. Yet I was not surprised when my daughter voiced some bewilderment. How could such a dramatic and infinitely sweet healing not raise questions about how the universe worked? I could only say, “I know, I know, it’s hard to take in,” as my heart welled with love for her.

I understood her puzzlement too well.  If her perfect baby was already in need of an adjustment to her nervous system, what did that mean for all the other babies of the world?  Why should one small choice, one encounter, change the trajectory of a child’s life? It felt too arbitrary, too capricious of the universe to work like this. Who would design a world so seeped in serendipity?

What if I hadn’t known about, or believed in, this chiropractor? What if we, like most of the world, could not afford to pay her? “As the twig is bent, so shall the tree grow,” says an old proverb. If we could unbend the twig of any human life so easily, how much more readily could we just leave it bent forever? We have too much power.

What good did it do to do everything “right,” as my daughter had in her pregnancy, in her labor, in her mothering, if some uncontrollable forces of family predisposition or accident trumped her wisdom and endless care? Too little power.

The same bewilderment has flooded me sometimes as I look back on all my own choices as a mother, and see that the heart-breaking messiness of our family’s life left its mark. For all my attempts, there were so many wrongs I could never heal. There were some I didn’t even see.

I still remember sitting in a Twelve-Step meeting decades ago, listening to an older woman speak with utter humility and acceptance about how her addictions had done great harm to her children. So tied in knots by my own young-mother perfectionism, I was awe-struck by her total lack of guilt. How could she be so peaceful about screwing up her children’s lives?

Perhaps at age sixty-four, I too am finally learning to live the Twelve Steps. After years of running from my life’s heart-breaking imperfection: the untimely deaths, unresolved hurts, mysterious tensions, endless anxiety, I feel a softening of the questions. And there is great joy in that.


You will find these themes explored in my memoir, Ollie, Ollie In Come Free, 

History Lessons


© Vasilis Ververidis |

At some early age I glimpsed that my entire universe was as miniscule in the grand scheme of things as the gnats I batted away on sultry summer days.  It dawned on me that countless other children like me had come and gone, century after century.  I’d discovered history.

The bravery of people in bygone eras entranced me. Would I ever dare embrace such trials and tribulations? I painstakingly mastered the johnny-cake recipe in my third grade workbook, sealing my bond with kids who had traveled up-river on rafts and through prairie grass on covered wagons, once-upon-a-time.

But it wasn’t long before I realized that history was mostly about a million incarnations of suffering, brought on often enough by natural disasters, but most consistently by human beings. Children no different from me had endured unimaginable cruelty, wrought by the larger-than-life kings and generals who clearly ran history. The king’s selfish whims, announced in his far-away palace, controlled children’s lives while the children had no control over the king’s.  It seemed capricious to me, as indeed it is.

Another great irony eventually struck me. Looking back at history, you knew what was coming. You knew when the tidal wave was going to arrive. But living forward, you never knew the next moment, so you just cluelessly carried on with your all-consuming routines. No matter if the monster waited stealthily on the sidelines, ready to pounce and destroy, and carry you into an entirely new reality.

Anything might create the upheaval. Historical crises seemed to arrive in grand, random spurts:  Viking raids on peaceful villages, slave traders carrying off your neighbors, forced marches of the Cherokee, blood baths of the Civil War. Could my own all-absorbing life be similarly disrupted? It seemed as improbable as a fairy-tale, yet history was not reassuring.

Like many young girls, I was haunted by Anne Frank’s diary.  The ordinariness of her routine, the complete absorption in her relationships. I knew what was coming. She did not.

But would it have made any difference? Don’t we all just carry on because that’s all we know how to do?

After giving birth to my daughter I gazed out the window of my hospital room at the thick smog, and wondered whether I’d had the right to bring a baby into this toxic environment we’d managed to create for ourselves. But then I was swept into the daily acts of changing diapers and sweet walks to the park.

Pregnant with my son when Chernobyl leaked its poisons, I was overrun by terror for a few moments. I asked myself as I watched my daughter rolling down a grassy hillside: was life as we knew it going to finally wind to a halt? Then I returned home to cook supper.

At my son’s christening I suddenly choked up as I prayed for the end of the arms race.  But then I forgot to care.  I threw a wonderful party.

How much does it matter that in all those centuries before radio or television or internet, wars and witch hunts and pillagings and massacres usually arrived out of the blue? Did people behave any differently when the dead body was actually hanging from the scaffold right in the town square, or soldiers were going door to door, as long as it wasn’t their own?

What is this disturbing yet oddly endearing survival strategy human beings have always had, to be convinced in the midst of creeping disaster that what really matters is whether there is enough salt in the soup, the baby has been burped, or a stitch has been dropped?

These kinds of questions have been much on my mind lately because I have observed how so many of us are managing to live our daily lives while we sense cataclysm welling up all around us and among us, unseen, and eerily reminding us of history we had relegated to textbooks.

Already in our neighborhoods, immigrant mothers hole themselves up with their anxious children, afraid to venture out to the grocery store. Epic cataclysm has already arrived for Syrians and millions of others, as they flee murderous violence, only to find themselves tossed about by edicts and the brutal whimsy of powerful strangers. It seems as if half the world is on the move, and the other half is terrified of being robbed of their own sense of normalcy.  Are these normal times for some but not others? For the lucky, but not the unlucky?

Meanwhile, what have I been doing, besides re-learning the drop-in-the-bucket skills of political activism?  I’ve carried on, as we all do when the calamity has not yet marked the portal of our own house. I’ve welcomed a new grandchild into the world.  I’ve invited old friends over for home-made pizza. At the learning center where I spend half-days, I’ve hunkered down at my computer to write reports, and coaxed a sixth grader to put together a coherent paragraph. I’ve Skyped with my daughter and her baby, who is beginning to smile at me from three thousand miles away.

But I am as baffled as ever.  How is it that all normal activities do not grind to a halt while we engage with the dragon breathing fire at the city gates?  What amazing adaptability human beings are graced with!  Is this how we have survived history’s sweeps, and will survive them yet again? Or is there something new that is called for, a lesson we are finally able to learn?

You might enjoy reading my book exploring childhood experiences and insights, Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time.Visit or