Thursday, December 10, 2015

Today's Gem of Grace in the Gray Areas

“When we come to understand the paradox that what we most value in our lives was often born out of conflict and struggle, we can begin to get a glimmer that perhaps one day we may begin to embrace our difficulties and find grace in them, even if that day is not today.”

                                                            (Jack Kornfield, from A Lamp Unto Darkness)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

My Son Takes Wing (continued)

I do solemnly swear
That I will support and defend
The Constitution of the United States
against all enemies foreign and domestic,
That I will bear true faith
and allegiance to the same
That I take this obligation freely,
without any mental reservation
or purpose of evasion,
and that I will well and faithfully
discharge the duties of the Office
on which I am about to enter.
So help me God.

So went my son Sammy’s swearing-in as a US Foreign Service Officer.  The occasion was a mix of solemn and exciting both for the new FSOs and their families in the State Department auditorium that day, and phones busily took pictures of beloved children. 

For me it was a lot better than I had expected, because Sammy’s first tour of duty will be to—drum roll please—Brussels, Belgium!  I was weak with relief when I heard, and then quickly filled with pride that he should have garnered such a coveted assignment.  He’ll be a political counselor.

I’ve been kind of blue since the swearing-in, since it makes this imminent departure of my only child very real.  He’ll be leaving the week after Thanksgiving, and I will miss him terribly.  I won’t be privy to the nature of the hard work he’ll be doing (he’s been told that posting involves a lot of late nights and weekends) but I will get to hear what he’s doing in his limited free time.  Brussels is a short two-hour train ride to London and Paris, for example, besides the city itself being beautiful and culture-filled.  (I’ve already hit Wikipedia and the Belgium tourist websites to soak up information about my son’s new home.)

Now he’s busy with additional training and with the logistics of his move, selling his car, deciding what to take with him, and saying goodbye to friends.  We’ll have a wonderful Thanksgiving together to send him off, though I don’t know whether we’ll get to have his birthday party with my mom and I and Sammy’s dad and his family which we usually have Thanksgiving weekend, too. 

I have much more to be thankful for this year than I had ever hoped for, knowing that my son will be as safe as anyone can be in this world of ours.  It will truly be a Thanksgiving, but then I still have to say the hardest goodbye I ever have.  I love you, son.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

My Son Takes Wing

I’ll know in just a few weeks.   This is big, really big.  My 26-year-old son, Sammy, is joining the Foreign Service and in October will get his first tour-of-duty assignment.  He’s shown me the “bid list” of 73 cities where there are openings in the embassy or consulate: he had to rank them in order of preference and just turned that in yesterday. No guarantees he’ll be placed in one of his top or even medium preferences. First-tours are, thank God, not sent to war zones but there are definitely some places less than desirable on the list according to this anxious mom. (And some cities I’ve never even heard of, but that’s another story.)  

This is an ultimate case of giving your children roots and wings.  You have to live with where their wings take them and hope that the roots are strong enough that they will thrive and yes, miss you and stay in touch.

I am so very proud that my son wants to serve his country and that he has a spirit of adventure, and that he has successfully been accepted into a very competitive job. I am thrilled that his dreams are coming true. I am also sad, anxious and fearful. I will miss him terribly; he went to college in Maryland and has been living close to home, in Washington DC, since he graduated from college, a boon for me.  Even if we didn’t see each other every week or anything like that, I knew he was nearby and safe and of course we talked almost every week on the phone.  Now I’ve gotten a web cam and set it up so I can Skype with him wherever he is, but that’s not the same as an in-person conversation and hug.  I fear for his safety in a world full of conflicts and negative sentiment of varying intensities in some quarters towards Americans.  I worry that he might be homesick and isolated, though in reality he is a very social creature and makes and keeps friends easily. 

I want for him all good things—safety, interesting work, new friends from both the expatriate and local communities, a sense of self-worth, recognition for his achievements, a comfortable home sanctuary, a chance to see the world and realize the universality of human experience across borders, and much, much more. 

I wish for myself good Skyping, maybe a good place to visit him (and that my frequent flyer miles will be enough), and most of all the ability to sleep at night.

More to come… 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Thinking of My Father

I put my dad back on the train to Cleveland after a wonderful one week visit.  It was a laidback visit, befitting my dad’s nature, mostly just hanging out, talking, reading, and spending time reconnecting. Highlights were a refreshing afternoon at the pool, a walk around Brookside Gardens, and his getting in nine holes of golf and dinner with his grandson. For me it was welcome companionship, a much needed break from being alone all the time.

My father, praise Spirit, is healthy, in his early 80s.  H lives a good seven hour drive away, but I make sure to see him at least once a year—I wish it could be more.  When we’re apart, what reminds me of him, full in the face and all in a rush?

M*A*S*H or any Alan Alda movie, because I think he looks like him—or vice versa!

Anything to do with Johnny Carson.  We watched together; I guess it must have been when I was an older child or young woman.

Likewise, old musicals, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, old westerns—Sunday afternoons, watching with him.

Laughter is a fine inheritance, and a sense of playfulness, too. 

Having a glass of cold milk with a piece of chocolate cake, that juxtaposition of colors, the melding of the two flavors, like heaven; this is Dad, too.

The smell of British Sterling cologne, which he’s worn all my life.

Big brown bedroom slippers.

Peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

Coffee.  Endless cups of coffee.

The slight scratchy feel of his face even after he shaves.

Anything to do with American colonial history, because when I was a teen he was involved in re-enactments as a Minuteman.

Always looking for someone as sturdy and absolutely dependable and loving, I search for my father’s bear hugs.  Phone calls just don't do the trick compared to those hugs goodnight. 

Miss you, Dad!

Saturday, July 18, 2015


I am drawn to metaphors and one of the metaphors I like for life is a tapestry. 

The tapestry of my life is going to be very rich and very vibrant, that I know.  There will be a lot of purple and turquoise and fuchsia joy in it, but lots of black, too, and the depth and magnitude that proclaims.  Dashes of silver and gold light the sky, moons and stars of pure grace and amazement.  If you look more closely, the colorful shapes are all women, hundreds and hundreds of women, all colors, all shapes, all sizes, with one hand clasping one another and the other hand reaching for the stars.  The moon and the sun will co-exist in the sky, as they do in our sight at dawn or dusk sometimes.  They are goddesses, each of them, smiling, cradling us.

The tapestry will speak of peaceful satisfaction and also of angry questions without answers.  It will speak of loves that have endured and loves that have not.  It will include all the friends I have ever treasured and all those I have yet to meet.  Children will dance and laugh at our feet in some scenes, in others we are alone with each other or ourselves. There will be women at the edge of a great trampoline bouncing other women into the sky, as in the Eskimo game. 

Glittering magic wands will fleck the tapestry here and there – they are the pens with which I have written and the magic of my writing circles.

At first the tapestry will appear unblemished, a perfect weaving.  As you look closer, though, you see the places where the thread snapped, or where the thread stayed beneath the surface of the cloth for too long, frayed edges here and there. There will be spots where there are loose ends. But for each broken thread or row of stitches that seem to lead to nowhere, there is a place where the thread is mended, the pattern picked up again, each a place of healing.

Perhaps the cloth will be the pages of my books.

What will the tapestry of your life look like?   

Saturday, June 20, 2015


June is a transition month, like Sunday night is a transition night.  The bridge between spring and summer, between merely warm and truly hot, between merely green and lush green.  June nights, as they progress, become summer nights, crickets clatter and tree frogs burp. Nights that no longer cool as the sun sinks, but stay hot and muggy and wrap themselves around you like a sticky blanket.

For school children, each day in June brings them closer and closer to vacation, to freedom that they appreciate mightily, not knowing how free they really already are just to be in school and not at work.  Attention slides, then sinks, ‘til teachers give up hope, and school days are filled with recognition assemblies and year-end performances.  Goodbye to familiar faces at the desks around you, an element of surprise always around the corner as kids wonder who will sit near them in the autumn.  Fond farewells to teachers, mentors. Moms scurrying around buying teacher appreciation gifts.  For older students, a high pressure time that threatens to explode them, with exams, final papers, hearing from colleges or about summer jobs.

Parents half look forward, half dread the prospect of less structure to their children’s days.  If they are working outside the home, it’s a rush to be sure the days are filled with camps.  Almost everyone has some kind of vacation to look forward to in the summer ahead, anticipation, even if it’s just a weekend trip to the beach.

Those days from childhood of leaving school and flinging oneself into summer stay with us somehow.   Even in our workaday world, the air seems a little more full of oxygen, the time binds are a little looser.  Summer beckons. 

Summer nights, ah, those are a treat unto themselves.  I thirstily drink of evening in the summer, no longer bound to my living room by cold fingers of winter and spring evenings, by darkness laying its black blanket on me. Suddenly, summer—light graces us with her presence so much longer (and hurrah for the earlier onset of daylight savings time, too!).  Evenings do not look inward, as we huddle together with our closest family indoors, but outward, as extended family and friends join us for barbecues on the deck, as our community shares a concert and fireworks, as all the world comes outdoors to stare into the night sky as darkness finally falls.  Neighbors stroll our sidewalks, children’s bicycles careen across the corner, lanky teenagers glide by on skateboards.  Our eyes follow the path of fireflies flung like stars across the night.

We see each other outside, a spark of recognition, a warm hello, an exchange of news about our day, our kids, the weather.  We admire each other’s gardens and lawns, perhaps bemoaning the state of our own. 

We block off a cul-de-sac to gather together, slapping mosquitoes in the warm night, for a summer block party. We pile the kids into our cars to head for the pool, maybe even, if we’re lucky, one who has been away at college, and loiter long after in the parking lots chatting under the bright moon, no cold sending us rushing into our cars but rather the summer night drying our skin, our suits, our hair into kinky mops.

At the beach, the moon draws us back outside long after we are ready to turn in.  We gaze at the dark blue-black ocean, and dig our toes into the sand where the cool air coming off the water makes them tingle. 

All those extra hours of “up”, of wakefulness, of energy, of light—oh, thank Mother Nature for each long summer night. 

June is also a tipping point into a period of time awaited perhaps more than any of the year, made all the more precious because of its fragile finiteness.  It’s the time to drink in long, long sunlit days, the warmth of the air on skin not burdened by sleeves or jackets, the cool pleasure of gliding through water in a pool or lake warmed by the sun.  June days are as long as days ever will be, and heading back in the other direction: it is, in a sense, the beginning of the end.

We want to hang onto pleasures like this, a season like this, but as it always does, the summer will slip away from us.  Here we should heed the Buddhists and practice nonattachment, for becoming too attached to a season is folly, sure to end in heartache.  And yet even as I soak in the nurturing sun’s rays, I am struck sometimes by a fleeting fragrance of bittersweetness, of an inevitable impending loss.

So stride outdoors I will, and splash and bake at the pool, and I will do the back-float while gazing at a perfect blue sky and white clouds passing by, so that I can more gracefully, when the time comes, let go of summer and face the grayer half of the year with something approaching acceptance.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Preparing to Publish

My book Grace in the Gray Areas is almost ready to print.  Yeah!

There are so many things to do in the course of self-publishing it.  First, pick a subtitle:  Thriving in Life’s Paradoxes.  Next, engage a designer to put the pages into pdfs and design a front and back cover.  I was lucky one of my Writer Mom network buddies referred me to a great designer, Brenda Hawkes.  Thanks for everything, Brenda!

I needed a publishing company name and came up with Lake Tree Press.  A design had to be done for that, too. Whoops! By having checks come to Lake Tree Press for books sold through the distributor, IngramSpark, I realized I needed to open a checking account in that name. A hassle and expense I hadn’t thought of.

 I had to obtain an ISBN number and an LOC (Library of Congress) number.  I had postcards made to hand out to people when I wasn’t carrying around copies of my book, telling them the book will be available on and Barnes and Noble (  Also had new business cards designed and printed.  I’ll be updating my website, 

Thanks to my small focus group of friends and relatives who helped with choosing a subtitle and a publishing company name, and helped select the best from among four covers Brenda designed, any of which would have been terrific. 

Still to do—the really hard work—marketing!  Four kind friends have offered to hold book parties for me.  I’m going to try and do a reading at at least one local public library.  Review copies will go out to local media.  I’ll push the book on my social media.  A mass email will go out to my network of contacts.  And on and on.  It’s a lot of work but I’ve been led to understand that these days even if you are being published by a big publisher rather than self-publishing, you are still expected to do your own marketing. 

I’m very excited, of course, and it’s a bit scary.  It’s really putting myself out there, I told my son.  Wise young man, he replied, “But you’ve already been putting yourself out there with the Washington Woman column and your blog.”  Still, there’s something about a book. 

The bottom line is that I’m proud of the book; it’s a selection of the best of my writing and it fulfills my life’s purpose: to share the universality of human experience and to connect people so we know that we are not alone. If it makes you laugh or cry or feel a warm fuzzy feeling, too, well, all the better.

Stay tuned…

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fear in a Flat-Screen

Intellectually I know I watch too much television.  But I’ve always rationalized that it’s okay because I’m a ravenous reader, as though they somehow cancel each other out. 

Now I’m realizing an evil of TV that goes beyond the over-sedentariness of the pursuit and the inaneness of much of the content.  Commercials.  Not just an annoyance and a symbol of the over-consumerism in our society.  No.  They are pits of fear and danger that people like me with free-floating anxiety at the best of times are reactive to.  You may not notice it, but these commercials will have your anxiety meter inching up and up and up.

Yes, I’ve had my flu shot, alright already!  But what is the age I’m supposed to start worrying about a pneumonia shot, and is a regular pneumonia shot enough or do I need that one I think has the number 13 in it that’s extra special?  And what about a shingles shot?  I know a few people who’ve had shingles and they sound horrible, I get prickly and pained just thinking about it.  What if I get shingles, am I the age to get the shot? How do they calculate the odds on what age to give you those things anyway; are there 50 year olds out there getting shingles but they tell you only to get the shot if you’re 60 or older?

And speaking of Big Pharma, what about all those side effects they have to publicize in their drug commercials?  I know you’re supposed to just watch the pretty pictures of people driving down the road together and ignore the fine print at the bottom of the screen and the voice that drones the side effects orally and almost cheerfully, but I can’t ignore them.  What if I got this disease?  How could I take what is clearly the best, most state-of-the-art drug for it when the side effects range from nausea to actual cancer?!

And what if I slip in the tub and I can’t get up! I should have had Bath Fitters come out and install a walk-in shower with bars and should wear a Lifeline necklace with a button to push, right? Scary stuff!

It’s not just health scares that get you on commercials.  What if a tech-savvy malicious hacker gets hold of my identity?  How can I risk identity theft in this day and age? They’re advertising a service to protect my identity, should I pick up the phone and get the service? Do I need the service, should I get the service?!

Car commercials dominate the airwaves, urging consumers to ever shinier, faster, smarter, and more eco-friendly vehicles.  For those of us of limited means with cars whose odometers have pushed north of 100,000 miles, though, even car commercials can be a fear trap.  Should I just drive my Subaru into the ground and expect it to last another 10 years or to 250,000 miles? But then it’ll have no trade-in value. More importantly, where will my income be in another 10 years, will I be able to afford another car then?  Can I afford another car now? Well, my financial adviser says no and I like to listen to her.  But isn’t my income now likely to be higher than in the future as I creep (and believe me, I’m creeping as slow as I can) toward my next milestone birthday?  Each shiny new car advertised (over and over and over again) taunts me; heck, a dull used car ad would taunt me at this point!

Finally, I can’t address the topic of commercials and fear-mongering without pointing a finger at local news.  Their “teasers” for upcoming newscasts all too often are in the vein of “predator stalks area neighborhood tonight—more at 11!”  If they really wanted to help the commercial would tell you what neighborhood then, not wait ‘til 11 o’clock! (Wait; is that a police helicopter circling my community with lights ablaze?)

I’ve got to spend less time watching the scary box, where between shows lurk illness, death, predators, and fear.  Because clearly the main thing for vulnerable saps like me to fear is fear itself.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

Today's Gem of Grace in the Gray Areas

"We cannot insulate ourselves from our own unhealed places and expect to assist others in healing theirs."

                                                                    (Edie Crane)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Between the Dark and Daylight

I’m not embarrassed to say that many of the new (to me) spiritual teachers I find come from watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday on the OWN cable TV network.  Oprah’s interviews with these luminaries send me scurrying to Amazon where I find wonderful books by these authors I would have otherwise missed.

My latest find is Benedictine nun Joan Chittister and her book Between the Dark and Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life, the title of which of course intrigued me with its Grace in the Gray Area connotations.

In short but eloquent essays Chittister tackles life’s paradoxes and contradictions with an expert eye. She takes as her starting point,

The great truth of early monastic spirituality, for instance, lies in the awareness that only when life is lived in the aura of the transcendent, in the commonplaces of life, where the paradoxes lie, can we possibly live life to its fullness, plumb life to its depths.   

Chittister exposes the security and certainty we strive for as shielding us from risks that can take us to being our better selves.  Calamity, upset, change, the crash of a wave against our beach, all can open us up to new possibilities. There are two essays on what she calls “The Poverty of Plenty,” the epidemic of consumerism and marketing and the smothering of our lives with our stuff. Our stuff makes us perpetually insecure, needy, and unable to experience gratitude for what we have, when, as we surely all know, it is what Chittister calls “the things of the soul” that really nourish us and make us rich. We must look inside.

She also tackles failure and success (“Without failure all we have is untried ability.”), energy and exhaustion, rest and rush, guilt and growth, creativity and confusion (the marriage of which “is the beginning of new life.”) Her essay on rationality and irrationality endearingly evolves into an ode to the wonders of having pets and what they can teach us. The masculine and the feminine (each of which must be able to claim the other’s freedoms), the liberation in loss, the loneliness of love, the fullness of separateness and the emptiness of crowds (not to be confused with community) receive thoughtful looks.  

Among the many more examples of life between darkness and daylight are the certitude of doubt (she says life is about possibility, not certainty), the light found in darkness, the challenge of hopelessness (“What breeds hopelessness is the failure to pursue the possible in the imperfect.”) and The Place of Tsunamis in the Ocean of Life (“Life is the way we deal with it as well as the way we look at it.”)  The most insightful quote I found was on The Delusion of Frustration: “Frustration is something that does not exist—except within the self. It translates my world to me through the filter of my own need to control it.”

We cannot avoid the contradictions in our lives but must explore them.” For as Chittister writes, “Confronting the paradoxes of life around us and in us, contemplating the meaning of them for ourselves, eventually and finally, leads to our giving place to the work of the Spirit in our own lives.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Most Selfish Wonderful Thing You Can Do for Yourself

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s latest and, as usual, brilliant, book of essays, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace.  I am always inspired by her writing and it always puts me in a contemplative mode.  One of the themes that keeps coming up in the book is forgiveness, and I remembered I’d been thinking about the very same thing recently.

I harbored anger and resentment to two people in my life for years: one of these people knew it and the other would have been surprised to hear it.  But little by little my anger and resentment have been slipping away, until all of a sudden one day I realized that I had forgiven them both.  Oh! How about that…

Now, for a long time I didn’t want to forgive them, but as I’ve proceeded slowly along my lifelong spiritual journey I have realized the benefits of forgiveness—though yes, I admit I’ve thought about this from a purely selfish, not altruistic perspective.

There’s a great Buddhist parable about two monks walking through the woods; they come across a woman who is unable to make her way across the river in front of them.  They eventually decide to carry her across, then they part and proceed through the woods.  The younger monk agonizes about having broken the rules, for the monks were not supposed to touch women, and he asks the older monk why he isn’t more bothered about this.  The older monk replies, “because I left the woman at the shore but you’re still carrying her.”

So I was sick of carrying around this burden of all the energy I was expending feeling hateful, and also remembered the saying attributed to Nelson Mandela that resentment is like drinking poison and then expecting the other person to die.  I decided to put my money where my mouth is and try some of the compassion I’m always spouting off about.  One thing that happened was I recognized that a lot of the negative emotion I had was based on wrongdoings on the two people’s parts that it’s very possible I was projecting onto them as much as they were actually responsible for.  The other wrongdoings were objectively on them, but I realized they were not done out of malice but rather were just individuals being who they are, doing what they do, oblivious to the deleterious effects on others (in the case of one person, I used to think that they had ruined my life).

Anyway, all this contemplation and these revelations began to mellow me, and I stopped engaging so angrily with these people at first, then deliberately tried to engage with them in positive ways (which admittedly started out as “fake it ‘til you make it”). Until the recent moment that I realized I had forgiven them, and in doing so released myself.

As Lamott puts it in Small Victories, “[T]he choice is whether you want to stay stuck in being right but not being free.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

Beating Those Gray Winter Days

I don’t know about you, but these gray gloomy days of winter are really kicking my butt.  Sun, please come out!

I, like as many as 20% of Americans, have Seasonal Affective Disorder, with the apt acronym SAD.  It’s winter depression caused by the shorter days and lack of sunlight, and according to the American Academy of Family Physicians affects women four times as often as men.  It can cause fatigue, low energy, weight gain, and other symptoms including not wanting to go out as much as usual. 

So what to do besides power through the inevitable yearly darkening?  I beat back my SAD with light therapy.  There are a number of companies selling special full spectrum bright light boxes, everything from standing ones to table ones, from ones that look like iPads to visors you wear on your head. We are lucky to have the original light box company, Sun Box (, right here in our area, in Gaithersburg, Md.  I’ve got two of their boxes, one a kind of utilitarian tubular thing I use at home when I’m eating breakfast, another a clever one that looks like a regular gooseneck desk lamp for the office. You only have to use a light box for a half hour a day. I know light therapy works because of the difference in the way I feel in September if I forget and haven’t started using the light by then. 

My light boxes met their match when I lived in Tianjin, China more than a decade ago.  It was one of the top three most polluted cities in the world at the time, so even when the sun was out, the days were gray and you couldn’t get any sunlight.  My SAD became entrenched and year-round and ultimately it was part of the reason I came home early from our Tianjin stint.  I know I could never live in a part of the US with more gray days than where I live now in the mid-Atlantic.  (I’d probably do well in the southern states, but I like my four-season climate.) 

Now my Sun Boxes keep my energy level up and my spirits, too, in winter, though I won’t lie to you, it’s still not my favorite season. I also toss back some extra vitamin D in the winter.  If you think you suffer from SAD don’t blow it off or just tough it out; you can get help.  You should see your doctor, and definitely consider light therapy. It can make a significant difference.    

Friday, January 2, 2015


I went to see a movie at a theater for the first time in about a year over the holidays.  Wild is based on a book by Cheryl Strayed that was launched to fame by attention from Oprah Winfrey.  The movie, pretty faithful to the book, starred Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, a woman walking the Pacific Crest Trail for three months as a road to redemption from some hard living following the death of her mother.

I liked the movie well enough; it was just ok—the same way I felt about the book.  I have to give Strayed credit for her unflinching exposure of some very bad behavior that among other things led to the dissolution of her marriage.  But, well, I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about with the book’s and now the movie’s popularity.

Until, that is, the middle of the night as I tossed and turned myself to sleep, which is when I do some of my best thinking.  The reason Wild resonates with women is that it’s the classic hero’s journey à la  Joseph Campbell.  Though books and tales with men at the center are many, there are really not all that many books about women’s adventuring in the wild or unknown, facing down various foes and adversity, contemplating their lives, and returning home better for the journey.  This is why Eat, Pray, Love was such a hit, again an Oprah phenom. Now I get it, and can appreciate both books more on that level. (Thanks, Oprah, for keeping an eye out for women’s heroic outward and inward journeys for us.)